Like most, I relish life opening up. But this libertarian dash for the Covid exit is reckless

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Like most, I relish life opening up. But this libertarian dash for the Covid exit is reckless” was written by Will Hutton, for The Observer on Sunday 13th February 2022 09.00 UTC

It was an extraordinary way to end nearly two years of restrictions and lockdowns. With no explanatory briefings from either the chief medical officer or chief scientific adviser, no input from Sage and no consultation with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the prime minister told a surprised House of Commons he would unilaterally lift all Covid restrictions a month ahead of time on 24 February.

How public health could be sustained thereafter was plainly an afterthought, of little consequence to be unveiled after the recess in a document pointedly called Living with Covid. Nobody expects other than the scantest of strategies, with even the Office for National Statistics’s (ONS) highly regarded surveillance survey, which allows the UK to pick up the emergence of high-risk variants, likely to be scaled back or even scrapped after April.

Any continuing requirement to self-isolate? Wear masks? Any social distancing? Working from home? Covid passports? All over. Even, it seems under Treasury pressure, free PCR testing is to be stopped for all but the most at risk. With a confidence born of Omicron proving to be much less dangerous than feared in December (helped perhaps by Britons behaving in a guarded way), the gamble not to lock down has been validated; Britain is to be the “first in the world” to be free of restrictions. But this was not a decision driven by public health considerations; it was rather buying the prime minister crucial political support.

Allow me to let you in on a dream I have. I’m living in a country in which, after months of sacrifice, hardship and dislocation, the leaders are pulling the country together to create a new normal. Flanked by experts and supported by the encouraging data that hospital admissions are falling, with death rates falling even further for the vaccinated, we are told that, after consultation with the three nations and the leaders of the opposition parties, the entire country is going to enjoy an immediate, phased, watchful relaxation of restrictions as fast as possible. Of course, surveillance through surveys would continue as we guard against new dangerous variants and, to make it worthwhile, testing would not be scrapped but become more sparing so that those with symptoms could know whether they had Covid. The expectation would remain that people with Covid would legitimately stay at home rather than infect others, while nightclubs and sporting venues could and should ask for proof of vaccination. Masks would continue to be worn on public transport.

In this imagined country, we had come through the pandemic together and, while the new normal could never be the normal of pre-pandemic, it was still normal enough. Recognising that Covid is global, we would be actively mobilising our now surplus public health capacity to help others.

This dream is where the vast majority would love us to be. Personally, I delight in the escalating return to normality – dinners, lunches with colleagues, getting out and about much more freely – but I am watchful. On buses, trains and tubes, I take care to wear a mask and make sure, if I can, that I sit with others wearing them. I willingly wear a mask in shops, cinema, theatre or going around galleries. I keep my social distance. I enjoy the possibilities of Zoom, a working life organised around online slots, but saving time on travelling. If asked to take a lateral flow test before a large gathering, I happily comply. I live a life as normally as possible – but remain vigilant about the danger of contracting Covid. It’s how I expect to continue.

Instead, Living with Covid will be an enforced imposition of a particular conception of liberty by the dominant faction of a discredited party – a fundamental misreading of public opinion and the dynamics of pandemic management.

I am like the vast majority. The modellers who warned about the potential explosive impact of Omicron were not exponents of big state socialism. Rather, they were surprised and their models caught out by the degree to which the majority of us constrained our own liberty, were watchful about contact and social interaction, partly as a result of the models’ alarming projected scenarios, and lived by the rules.

It was our new behaviour, as much as state rules, which drove the better-than-expected outcome. We were, in philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s famous formulation, practitioners of positive liberty – taking control of our individual destinies through acting together. By contrast, Tory libertarians are really Big Brother imposers of Berlin’s negative liberty, defining liberty not in terms of individuals trying to control their life in concert with others but wholly in terms of removing what they describe as coercive state restrictions and obstacles.

Concerns about coercion might make arguable sense in some second-order walks of economic and social life – objecting, say, to councils’ over-zealous imposition of swingeing parking fines – but in public health issues negative liberty is bonkers. Big Brother removal of safeguards to my good health in the name of individual liberty so that I am free to be made seriously ill by others is as dangerous as any socialist Big Brother.

As I have argued in an earlier column, the good society fuses the claims of the “we” with the needs of the “I”. Be sure Living with Covid, informed by the bossy negative libertarians of the Tory Covid Recovery Group, will neglect the “we” almost entirely.

Nor is any of this made easier by chancellor Rishi Sunak’s obsession with Treasury orthodoxy. The purpose of the state is the creation of public goods for which we readily pay – of which the Office for National Statistics surveys of the incidence of Covid and testing are prime examples. This short-sighted, mad-dash exit from the pandemic mirrors its beginning – a painful refusal to accept that human beings benefit from the group acting together, especially in matters of public health. Libertarianism is the new political virus. Immunisation from its baleful effects cannot come too soon.

• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist

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