Our task turns from conquering coronavirus to preserving liberty

Vaccines were supposed to bring an end to the Covid emergency, a rose-tinted finale after a very dark year. But the film has gone into slow motion. More than half of all UK adults have had at least one jab, and hospital admissions have plummeted. But ministers have become strangely addicted to extending curbs on liberty.

As parliament rolls over emergency powers in the Coronavirus Act for another six months — three months longer than the promised end of lockdown — and the government pushes authoritarian plans to crack down on protest and foreign travel, I am left wondering which is worse: the casual alacrity with which ministers now crush democratic freedoms or the lack of reaction. Her Majesty’s Opposition seems to be stuck on mute. The only people trying to hold the government to account are Tory backbenchers of the lapel badge-wearing kind, who aren’t terribly telegenic.

Boris Johnson desperately wants an “irreversible” path out of lockdown. So it’s understandable that he doesn’t want to risk moving too fast. But having been chided a year ago for recklessness, his government has become peculiarly risk averse, just at the wrong moment. Matt Hancock said on Thursday that he cannot predict whether the emergency legislation will actually be retired in six months’ time. But the second wave is over. Hospital admissions are 90 per cent below their peak. You can’t justify unprecedented incursions into freedoms if there is no emergency.

Ministers are worried that the South African variant could wreak havoc and reduce the efficacy of our vaccines. So far, however, the evidence is unclear. Moreover, if the government was really so terrified of the South African variant, it wouldn’t be letting the rich travel to rent property, while forbidding the rest of us to go on holiday.

A year ago, as the world was shutting down, I flew on an eerily empty plane from New York to Heathrow. I expected a grilling or at least a temperature check. All I got was an apologetic leaflet, in English, asking if I’d possibly mind telling someone if I’d been in Wuhan, China. Twelve months on, when we have a vaccine and regular Covid testing, ministers want to levy £5,000 fines for even showing up at an airport, without a “reasonable excuse”. These include competing in elite sports, volunteering and weddings, but not seeing a spouse or parent.

This feels like an attempt to fight the last war, by politicians and their scientific advisers who were burnt by the death toll. And it comes with laughable loopholes. You can travel abroad to sell your second home — the so-called “Stanley Johnson clause”, named after the prime minister’s father. But such is the mania for stoking the housing market that in England and Wales estate agents and prospective buyers are visiting homes in gay abandon. You can pop in to see any old stranger if you fancy taking a peek around their house. You just can’t visit granny.

As the contradictions mount, the justifications for restrictions are wearing thin. The government has urged the public to get the jab, take Covid tests and quarantine. Most people have complied, expecting that normal service will soon resume. And it must, for this third lockdown has brought the country to its knees. Who is speaking for the women suffering domestic abuse, the children who are overwhelming psychiatric waiting lists, the old people crippled with loneliness, the patients who still can’t get a GP to see them in person, despite needing more than a cursory video call? When did we decide to abandon these people? The government talks of pegging its road map out of lockdown to “data, not dates”, but where is the cost-benefit analysis on mental health and economic hardship?

Mothers see what is happening. At the school gate, in the supermarket, on social media, we hear the whispered truths of damage and anguish which will leave scars long after Covid. Those in Westminster, drawing a reliable monthly salary and living in comfort, don’t seem to realise that a nation at breaking point may not have the energy to raise its voice. When polls show support for continued restrictions, thoughtful MPs should ask themselves how exactly a nation became so fearful.

In September, chancellor Rishi Sunak urged the nation to learn to live with coronavirus and “live without fear”. Since then, some terrible things have happened, and the EU’s mishandling of vaccines has increased uncertainty. But we must regain our sense of proportion, buoyed by a vaccine rollout which has gone even better than might have been expected in terms of take-up and efficacy.

None of this is easy. But groupthink seems to have taken hold in the corridors of power and our liberal prime minister has become risk-averse, just when he needs to recover his chutzpah.

He also needs to make sure trigger-happy ministers don’t use Covid to erode democratic freedoms. The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill would give the police draconian powers to stop demonstrations, even protests by a single person, and let the home secretary decide which protests constitute “serious disruption” — a provision more suited to Russia or China. Meanwhile, the period for reviewing restrictions has quietly been increased. In March 2020, the first set of health protection regulations were required to be reviewed every 21 days. Now, it’s every 35.

Despite the tragic loss of life, we are closer to being able to live with the virus and manage it, as Hancock envisages, “more like flu”: with repeated booster shots of annually updated vaccines. We still don’t know everything. But if we don’t restore our sense of proportion, we may find we have lost it forever.

Camila Cavendish, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow

– Financial Times

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