Fri. Jul 23rd, 2021

We have just entered a new phase of the Covid era. The nightclubs are heaving, social distancing signs that once nudged our every movement have been scrubbed away, and maskless rebels wear a slightly less furtive air on the Tube.

In the end, though, Freedom Day went off with a ping rather than a bang – beckoning not a break for liberty but an unsettling “new normal”. Amid test-and-trace chaos and gloomy third wave warnings, this week’s relaxations feel like a snatched reprieve rather than a decisive restoration of our old lives. The PM has been humbled – forced to hold a Zoom press conference as he self-isolates on the day he had planned to channel his hero Winston Churchill with a speech declaring “victory” over Covid.

As things stand, the libertarian cause has not simply been defeated, but routed. Instead of “learning to live with Covid”, society looks set to learn to live with restrictions.

This new period of mass adjustment threatens to be not only farcically chaotic but deeply sinister. With everyone from Sadiq Khan to Marks & Spencer continuing to mandate masks, the stage has been set for a summer of Covid culture wars.

A bizarre decision to impose tougher travel restrictions France seems like the start of an attempt to foment travel chaos for reasons of cynical politics rather than science. Then there is the chilling extension of dystopian vaccine passports, which looks set to be a matter of time. The prospect of seasonal winter lockdowns to protect the NHS also depressingly looms.

It is worth pausing to reflect on why the dream of a final end to the Covid nightmare has collapsed so spectacularly. The first reason is the rise of the delta variant. Since he reluctantly imposed the first lockdown in March 2020, the PM has pinned his hopes on achieving herd immunity through a vaccine – and then gloriously declaring the comprehensive “defeat” of Covid. This strategy has been significantly derailed by the new, highly contagious variant.

The second reason is shirking leadership. Boris Johnson has proved reluctant to scrap his triumphalist Plan A and soberly level with the public about the risks in a world where Covid is endemic.

A coddled and frightened public that is reluctant to leave the lockdown rabbit hole has badly needed to hear harsh home truths. That while the vaccination campaign has proved tremendously successful, and Covid for now no longer threatens to overwhelm the NHS, more people will die. That it is as good as inevitable that new variants will emerge. That Long Covid will continue to affect a minority of people. But that, with children’s education being trashed, the nation’s mental health on a precipice and disastrous inflation possibly rearing its head, the risks of not reopening have become too great.

In the spirit of living with risk, perhaps he could also have brought forward the date when the double-jabbed no longer need to self-isolate from mid-August. Instead, he has allowed a “pingdemic” to undermine faith in the vaccines; the more we are told that rules are not dependent on jab status, the greater the danger of the belief taking hold that they are not good enough.

It isn’t too late for the PM to take back control and start being honest. Instead, I suspect No 10 will simply slug on with a bid to drive down cases by vaccinating the young. We are unlikely to have heard the end of plans to vaccinate all children over 12.

In the meantime, with jab uptake plummeting as the rollout focuses on those in their twenties and thirties, the PM said last night that, from the end of September, vaccine passports to enter nightclubs and large spectator events will be obligatory and a negative test will no longer be a substitute for two jabs. Such a development, if true, makes a mockery of any so-called commitment to precautionary principle.

Think about it for a moment: the state is poised to introduce a system akin to mandatory vaccination. Citizens will be compelled to give up potentially vast quantities of personal data as a basic condition for access to everyday services.

It is a dark turning point for the West. As it was with lockdowns, the only major country already experimenting in this unchartered territory is authoritarian China, with its notorious social credit system, which bars blacklisted non-compliant citizens from basic goods like train tickets and loans.

Worse, it is still far from clear that constructing a new biosurveillance state would even prevent us falling back into lockdowns to protect the NHS.

Instead of transparently assessing the inevitable pressures that endemic Covid will put on our ailing health service and making urgent reforms, the evasive Tories are allowing us to drift into another winter full of anxious speculation about whether the health service is about to fall over. Even more so as the precise moment when it might do so remains ambiguous. Staff shortages and a huge non-Covid backlog may have squeezed the health service’s normal ICU capacity. Given that Covid hospitalisations have a tendency to explode once they get going, a tipping point could be reached with little notice. It is not difficult to envisage how a run of scary modelling and panic at severely stretched hospitals might spook the whole country back into lockdown.

The PM’s unwillingness to make the country face up to risk could deliver an even stranger curve ball. Major experts now warn that we face lockdown this winter – not due to Covid, but flu. The Academy of Medical Sciences has projected that the NHS could be in trouble if a bad flu season overlaps with high Covid cases.

Some evolutionary biologists even argue that we cannot risk any flu whatsoever: its wide circulation would put selection competition on Covid, they suggest, making new variants more likely. Should we get into the habit of locking down seasonally, of course, there may be no going back.

Perhaps then the biggest irony of Boris Johnson’s attempt to dodge the problem of risk is that the risks are now accumulating exponentially. His only way out is to start being honest with the country.

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Wizadclick | WAC MAG 2021