Recovery reinvigorated: restrictions will return unless we help the UK learn 

TODAY marks a new chapter in the Recovery campaign – a campaign that still has an important job to complete.

We’re launching a newsletter and regular articles under the able stewardship of Brian Monteith to ensure that the lessons of the past two years are learned properly. 

It’s vital because challenges like Covid-19 will return – perhaps in the near future with a new variant – and now that a precedent for lockdowns has been set we’re certain to hear demands for similar methods to manage other issues, like climate change. 

Unless the huge damage that restrictions brought us is exposed, those who made mistakes are held to account, and the controls that still persist are highlighted and dismantled, it will be all too easy to turn to them once again.   

It may not be easy. Lockdowns, restrictions and the pain of the last two years are now, for many, receding in the rear-view mirror. The terrible events in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis here have replaced Covid-19 in the headlines. 

We have been proven right

There is a growing consensus that Recovery’s scepticism around lockdowns, our broader concerns about the damaging effect of restrictions, and the issues we raised around the freedom to criticise them were right and justified, whatever our many past opponents may have said at the time. 

It would be easy to move on, thinking that the issues are closed and the debate is won. That is far from the reality, however. Even now, some of the most worrying measures remain in place and may even get tougher. 

During Covid-19 we saw accurate information and expert opinions labelled ‘misinformation’ and censored, marginalised and attacked in the broadcast media simply because they questioned the official line. We now know that many of the questions they raised were sound and they should have been debated. 

It was hugely damaging that critical comment was stifled. Not only did this allow bad policies to go ahead without proper scrutiny, it also saw a large group of intelligent sceptics become alienated from much of society as they lost trust in government and media. 

Government, regulators and broadcasters were all complicit in unprecedented measures to constrain freedom of speech and action. Government chose to use so-called ‘nudge’ techniques – psychological manipulation – to control mass behaviour. Ofcom bluntly told broadcasters not to broadcast facts and opinion that might undermine compliance with the official guidance, unless to attack it: and this from a regulator which has a statutory duty is to uphold freedom of speech. 

Worse, along with broadcasters like the BBC, Ofcom handed the power to decide what was and was not misinformation to so-called ‘fact checkers’ – self-appointed censors primarily funded from the profits of the online digital giants. Their work did much to stifle criticisms of lockdowns, from which their funders made billions as commerce moved online.  No-one thought to question this glaring conflict of interest. 

Shockingly, little has changed. Instead, the ‘Online Harms’ Bill is set to give even more power to such organisations. 

Recovery achieved important goals which helped to protect the UK from the worst excesses of Covid restrictions. Had the proposed rules in the Online Harms Bill been in place, critical comment like ours would likely have been stifled. It would have taken longer for the truth to emerge and the damage done to the UK would have been worse.   

Open debate is vital

Many at Westminster quite like the idea that freedom to criticise their policies can be curtailed: Ofcom’s actions have gone largely without comment or scrutiny. Do not expect freedom of speech to be restored or ‘nudge’ policies to be reined back unless we continue to fight. Yet this must happen: open debate is our best defence against bad government, the bedrock of any democracy, and the key to better decision-making.   

As more and more of those who once championed lockdowns seek to distance themselves from the policy, it’s easy to think that the arguments have been won. The mistakes made have not been properly scrutinised, however, and no attempt has been made to learn from them. 

Instead, the people who got it wrong remain in post. In place of critical questions, they receive knighthoods and awards. 

Meanwhile, the brave voices who dared to question lockdown policies have marginalised and smeared. Who has apologised to figures like Professor Sunetra Gupta and Lord Sumption for the appalling treatment they received for daring to dissent from the official line? We still often see the contents of Great Barrington Declaration twisted out of all recognition in the media: those who poured vitriol on its authors now misrepresent its contents rather than admit that they were wrong. 

Learning the lessons

We can learn important lessons from the past two years. We should, for example, never have introduced such unprecedented measures without first assessing whether the benefits would outweigh their damage.  

Yet you can only learn if you debate the issues and acknowledge your mistakes. Many of those who made them still hold powerful positions on SAGE, in the media, in the civil service and, of course, in government. They will exert huge influence over the coming inquiry into how Covid was handled and they share an interest in ensuring that its conclusions find no fault.

We cannot afford to let this happen. Today, we are only at the start of understanding how much damage has been done to this country and the world over the past two years. 

It’s everywhere you look, from the massive NHS waiting lists, to the cost-of-living crisis (triggered in large part by the huge burden of tax and public spending arising from Covid measures) to the education of our children, to the many closed shops and restaurants on our high streets, to problems of loneliness and mental health. Some actions were cruel beyond any possible imagining before the pandemic – such as when children in Wales were banned from attending the bedside of dying parents.  

If we allow all this simply to be forgotten as events move on, then there will be worse to come. We will allow it all to happen again. 

Recovery is determined to prevent that. Thank you for reading, sharing and supporting our newsletters and articles that will appear here regularly.

If you appreciated this article please subscribe to our daily newsletter here, share and follow us on Twitter here – and like and comment on facebook here. Time for Recovery is a ‘not for profit’ campaign (we make a loss!) and need your financial support to survive – if you can spare some of your hard-earned pounds you can donate here.

Jon Dobinson is a co-founder of Recovery and a former Secretary-General of the International Society for Human Rights (UK). Now CEO of Other Creative Ltd, the London-based creative business, his companies have raised millions for charities and causes including Freedom FromTorture, Amnesty International, Greenpeace and 38 Degrees.

Park benches taped off during lockdown by thomathzac23 from Adobe Stock