Pledges against lockdowns are good – but can we take them to the bank?

THE VOTING PAPERS for the Conservative Party leadership election are now arriving and members are having to choose between former Chancellor Rishi Sunak and current Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

In recent weeks both have taken positions on their attitude towards lockdowns and Covid-related restrictions – is this significant and have we reason to be pleased or disheartened?

Rishi Sunak was the first to get out a comment with a claim made in an interview with Andrew Marr on LBC that he had flown back early from a Government trip to the US to “save Christmas” in December 2021, saying:

…I came back and fought very hard against the system because I believed that would be the wrong thing for this country, with all the damage it would have done to businesses, to children’s education, to people’s lives.”

The report subsequently carried by the BBC pointed out it is known he was only one of a number of Ministers who intervened to ensure there was no Christmas lockdown. My own contacts in Government tell me that over the two years of Covid Rishi Sunak was less than reliable on the issue of preventing lockdowns and restrictions, not being especially hostile to them and failing to attend key meetings when his intervention could have helped. The reliability of Mr Sunak’s opposition to their return in future is, in my opinion, highly questionable.

Liz Truss has taken a different approach and instead chose to answer a question on lockdowns at a party hustings (reported and broadcast here) by stating she would not support their reintroduction in future. When pressed about her past support for the three lockdowns in Cabinet, she said:

“I wasn’t really a core part of that Covid decision-making, and often frankly it was presented as a fait accompli, as the French would say, to the wider Cabinet.

“Every single time I was given the chance to express a view I was on the side of doing less.”

We are left then with the suggestion that both candidates are sceptical of the value of lockdowns to varying degrees – but no real detail.

What we really need to hear from the candidates is: 1) that they believe restrictions do not work; 2) a specific commitment to keep schools and businesses open; 3) they will ensure freedom of speech is restored and maintained (by rescinding and condemning the Ofcom instructions to broadcasters (that they cannot allow any criticism of Government restrictions to be made without attacking it)); and, 4) they acknowledge the campaign of fear was counter-productive, hugely damaging, and must not be used again.

A statement to that effect has not yet been given by either candidate – but there is still time for it to happen. To establish if either leadership candidate comes anywhere close will probably require teasing-out of what is said at hustings or via the media. To assist this process Recovery has submitted a number of questions to each candidate based on the above points and will report back any response we might get.

The problem the public faces lies in the low value of pledges made by politicians in the past about resisting lockdowns or opposing restrictions. As Toby Young, a founder of Free Speech Union and The Daily Scepticput when interviewed it on GB News “it’s a massive win and I’ll take it” but also warned “I don’t think we can take this to the bank”.

The question we all must ask is simple enough, if Ministers were not motivated to fight restrictions between 2020-21, how confident can we be that they would fight them when the mood changes this autumn?

The difficulty politicians have is that they concede ever-tightening restrictions, like tiers and curfews, which themselves create a ratchet towards lockdown. There are plenty of very damaging restrictions aside from lockdowns for children and the economy and these mount up. All it takes then is a new variant and climbing cases for the pressures on the NHS to become the focus of the media and the public health establishment – with no counterbalance for those suffering other illnesses, the educational harms, the mental health harms and the economic harms.

There will definitely be a crisis in the NHS this autumn when the already creaking, and overstretched hospitals are hit by the normal seasonal viruses – only it will likely be worse, as people have lost some of their normal natural immunity from all the measures of the Covid years. The pressures felt by the NHS will be blamed on Covid and a new variant will likely come along to help that. Unless the candidates foresee that and plan for it now, restrictions are inevitable.

Add to this that hospitals may also be hit by strikes, midwives for example are balloting members on strike action, and we can see that the pressure on the NHS will mount and to ease that pressure – to save the NHS – new restrictions on our liberty will become an option that a new prime minister will have to resist. When faced by a clamour from a hostile media testing the new PM’s resolve, the demands of an opposition who will revert to demanding interventions and controls, and the public health blob claiming the previous lockdowns worked and restrictions are again necessary – will any pledges from the leadership candidates be redeemable?

This lingering doubt persists that we may simply be hearing what currently seems fashionable to say so as to win votes from Conservative Party members – and it tells us we cannot accept everything said by either Sunak or Truss on face value without further interrogation.

The way the covid inquiry has twisted the terms of reference agreed with Boris Johnson into a series of modules which will see key issues side-lined and kicked far into the future is also highly questionable. A new PM with a genuine desire to learn the lessons of the Covid years will want to scrutinise the unsatisfactory and partial way the Inquiry has set about its work and seek change in its order of priorities so balance is restored.

We can be neither pleased nor disheartened with the candidates positions thus far – the right sentiments are being expressed – in part – but their willingness to resist future restrictions in the face of overwhelming pressure remains questionable. We can only resolve to try and establish more detail about what they really believe so we are better informed and know if we might yet have an ally in No.10 Downing Street.

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Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and managing editor of the Recovery blog. 

Photo of a Conservative party hustings courtesy of The Conservative Party.