Small victories, but the fight against ‘pandemic restrictions’ is not over

THE OVERLONG ballot of Conservative Party members for its leadership and eventual confirmation of the new Prime Minister has been quite revealing. With both candidates claiming they would not reintroduce lockdowns in the face of a future pandemic it is fair to say that they are signing-up to a perceived consensus that the bans on movement, social gathering and mandating of non-medical interventions such as mask wearing were not as successful as originally claimed.

Research papers, statistical analysis and emerging evidence provides credence to the rhetorical case for this consensus.

Neither Sunak nor Truss have yet gone as far as to say the lockdowns should never have happened, but both are now accepting there were seriously damaging downsides to the lockdowns in the economy, children’s health and education, the availability of physical health treatments and the damage to mental health – and these admissions appear to have convinced the two candidates that future lockdowns would be untenable.

It may be that Truss and Sunak are simply playing to their audience, the large group of voting party members who have in the main shown contempt for the state-imposed restrictions even though they abided by the rule of law. If so, it could mean that were there a pandemic either of the two potential PMs could take a more pliable position once in power – but they are at least now on record and to go back on their words would surely risk a further erosion of credibility for the Conservative Party in the run up to a general election. This shows the value of repeated questioning.

A similar trait can be seen with the leader of the opposition, Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer, who has gone from criticising Boris Johnson for not introducing lockdowns soon enough, for long enough and not often enough – to suggesting he too would not turn to lockdowns in future.

In the light of these statements I believe it is reasonable to suggest those who oppose lockdowns and their associated restrictions have won the argument for now; namely, that they were an inappropriate response whose level of protection to those vulnerable to Covid in all its forms was never tested against the likely costs to, for instance, those waiting upon cancer treatment, running their businesses, working in marginal employment or simply getting through the challenge of modern life.

Campaign groups such as this one, Recovery, as well as others, deserve to take some credit for persevering in the face of open hostility, patronising ridicule, censorship, a lack of funds, and the might and repetitiveness of the state machine – for what was believed from the start: there was a better way. Our work with MPs and the media has been especially important and delivered results.

This does not, however, mean that this new consensus – if it does pertain – will continue to be dominant. 

More importantly it does not mean that there is yet a consensus that the accompanying mini-lockdowns, regional or localised lockdowns, social restrictions and non-medical mandates, that were also damaging across many measurements of health, wellbeing, economic activity and freedom of expression, have been rejected as inappropriate too. 

It would not be surprising to yet find that Sunak, Truss and Starmer – while rejecting lockdowns – might yet concede the reintroduction of some restrictions so as to placate the very influential and loud lobby from public health officials, trade union bosses, media opinion formers and political agitators inside and outside parliament. Holding a line against adverse criticism for a sustained period of time in a democracy, especially as elections approach, is one of the most difficult tasks any government faces. There may not be a general election for a good year or more, but the local election next May cannot be avoided.

This means there is still a great deal to do for Recovery. 

There is far more work to be done on refuting the effectiveness of restrictions which had no scientific or evidential basis but were nothing more than ingredients in a recipe for instilling fear in the general population.

There is the threat of an international treaty designed by WHO that will take control of decision making on pandemic restrictions away from our national parliament in favour of an unaccountable body of technocrats. We need to ensure decisions remain the responsibility of our own elected and accountable politicians.

There is also the question of monitoring, reporting on and submitting evidence to the Public Inquiry that will run and run – which, in the absence of hearing evidence about the damage from lockdowns and restrictions – has the potential to re-ignite demands for fresh restrictive interventions from the Government. And it need not be because of Covid. 

The potential for restrictions now comes as much from flu or a collapse in NHS performance due to mounting Autumn and Winter demand on what is already an overstretched health service as it does from any new strain of Covid. “Saving the NHS” by introducing the enforced rationing of personal movement on top of the rationing of medical treatment is now seen as a legitimate answer by many health administrators and politicians. 

To prevent this scenario developing requires Recovery to redouble its efforts over the coming months and to focus its activity on those who can be persuaded to resist the temptation for restrictions returning.

So yes, let us be encouraged by our small victories in persuasion thus far, but Recovery cannot go away, it will not go away. There is still much work to be done.