“We want this lockdown to be the last,” says Boris Johnson as he readies himself to unveil his masterplan for pulling the UK out of its own induced coma. We’ve been told that schools will reopen on 8 March. Will he also give the green light to pubs, restaurants and clubs at this time? Will I be able to go get my hair done? Will clothing stores reopen? Can we start to book our summer vacations? All will be revealed on Monday but my guess is that anyone who expects the doors to be imminently flung wide open is going to be sorely disappointed. With death rates still high (738 yesterday) and the virus still running rampant, Boris Johnson will, if the penny has finally dropped, wait until after Easter before he starts to loosen the grip. He can’t afford to be wrong again. As he says, “there’s no going back”. True on so many levels.
It’s been a litany of failure for Johnson from the get-go, a keen PM but reluctant leader. No doubt it’s been the toughest year for any leader in the modern, post-war era but nonetheless, obsessed with enhancing his own popularity and an utter slave to the vote bank, he has made the wrong decision at every twist and turn of this crisis (a cynic might believe this was intentional, to create money-making opportunities for cronies; I’m not sure I would give this government even that much credit). Indeed, we pretty much lost the battlefield advantage to Covid when Boris Johnson became our commander in chief.
If only the UK government had taken the threat of Covid seriously from the outset, way back in January 2020, it’s highly probable that many could have been saved from perishing and a year-long state of paralysis, economic and otherwise, could have been avoided. Indeed, as an island, much like New Zealand or Australia, we could’ve put a substantive lid on the virus by restricting travel in and out. Instead, we were one of the few countries that left our borders wide open and unchecked. Even now, one year on, our borders are completely porous.
Instead, the PM and Matt Hancock, the Health Minister, bounced around shaking hands with all and sundry and told us not to worry about a thing. I guess in their minds, such pandemics only afflict the third world. Unsurprisingly, both contracted Covid soon after.
Even after the government realized the full extent of the threat, a series of weak and leaky lockdowns (with near to no enforcement), chaotic policies on school and college closures, a botched track and trace system and confused messaging on social distancing (the government still refuses to mandate mask-wearing in public) has left the UK with one of the highest Covid death tolls in the world.
Indeed, we are only in lockdown currently because Johnson’s cabinet colleagues lobbied him to shut everything down in the face of rising fatalities – he still reopened temporarily for Christmas though (with disastrous consequences). He wants to be loved so much that he happily sacrifices his own authority and credibility.
The UK is not alone, however. Liberal western democracies in general seem to have tripped up at a most crucial moment in history. Like Johnson, most western leaders (in Europe and the US) are unwilling to make tough decisions that may incur the ire of the electorate, such as temporarily suspending our freedoms. In a crisis though, that’s exactly what the people need; a tough parent who is going to tell us what to do for our own well-being (with the number of children Johnson has purportedly fathered, you’d think he’d be a natural at this by now). Unfortunately, a combination of weak leadership, largely self-entitled (and frankly selfish) populations and government corruption has been a perfect cocktail for disaster. The very freedoms we so cherish, that “two world wars were fought over”, are killing us.
In comparison, countries like India, South Korea and China (with a combined population of several billion people) were quick to implement border checks and controls. Hard, comprehensive lockdowns were enforced with the help of police and the armed forces. Guess what? Those countries are by and large up and running with basic distancing measures in place. Infection rates are plummeting and their economies are beginning to fire on all cylinders again.
Back in the UK, if all goes well with the vaccine rollout – pretty much the only thing the government has gotten right is its entire Covid strategy – everything should hopefully reopen by the end of May (by which time most of the adult population will have received at least the first dose of either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine) and we will be able to get back to some form of normalcy with masks and social distancing still in situ.
A gradual release should be coupled with tighter border controls though, otherwise we could find ourselves back at square one. Firstly, all leisure travel should be curtailed with the use of “travel corridors” until the virus is well and truly under control. Any travel corridors should exist with only those other countries who have also by and large vaccinated their populations.
Those who need to travel to non-corridor countries for business should provide notarized invitations from the clients/ counterparties they are visiting at their destinations, explaining why a physical trip is unavoidable. This would thwart any people dressing up vacations as business trips. Returning citizens from non-corridor countries should be ordered to automatically quarantine in government provided facilities.
A refundable “travel bond” may also be a good idea in the short term. Anyone wishing to travel should deposit £5,000 ($7,500 per traveler) with the airport authorities to cover potential inward bound quarantine costs. Frankly, I think 2021 we will be the year of the staycation.
No democratically elected leader wants to be the one to suspend people’s liberties; to tell families and friends that they can’t meet each other; to stop children from going to school; to stop loved ones from attending funerals. However, with all age groups showing infection levels dropping despite only older people (60 years old and above) having been inoculated for the most part, it’s clear that it’s lockdown and not the vaccine that’s slowing down the rate of spread. Take the unpopular, tough decisions now Mr Johnson. Afterall, you have still have almost four years to make it up to the people and memories tend to be short anyway.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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