We desperately need a SAGE-like group of advisors to assess the impact of the lockdowns on the economy and the mental health of citizens forced to endure social isolation, working from home and endless hours in front of screens. While concerns about vaccine-resistant variants are understandable, there is no evidence yet that these variants lead to more hospitalisations and deaths. Neither has the case been made by SAGE that a two-week delay to the country’s unlocking planned for June 21st is really needed. Unfortunately, Government panjandrums whose livelihoods do not depend on the service economy will want to keep the country in stasis for much longer than a fortnight.
The fully inoculated Prime Minister is now under growing pressure to delay the lifting England’s remaining Covid restrictions on June 21st. By maintaining a tiered system with varying lockdown levels in different regions, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, is likely to have created a template to be adopted by the whole of the United Kingdom (only the Orkney, Shetland and Western Isles have moved to Level 0). Throughout the pandemic, The First Minister has repeatedly made cautious decisions which Downing Street has slavishly followed.
Now that 75% of adults in the U.K. have received their first jab and more than half the adult population has been fully vaccinated against Covid, the Prime Minister should act independently from Scotland and trust his libertarian instincts. Boris Johnson should ignore Sturgeon’s scheming North of the Border and challenge the Cassandras of SAGE who assert that the U.K. is still at risk from a third wave. Instead, the Government must now do what is right for the economy and prioritise the wellbeing and mental health of the population of England. The willingness to comply may be stretched to breaking point if the Government continues to take on the role of U.K. super-nanny by limiting our freedoms after June 21st.
For most, a delay in the unlocking roadmap would be an inconvenience, but for hospitality, travel and entertainment, the decision could be terminal. I can understand the anguish felt by those working in sectors not yet viable due to Covid restrictions. My brother is a musician and has not been able to play a gig for over 15 months. Worse still, is the feeling of lassitude, torpor and obsolescence which comes with being furloughed as ‘economically unproductive’ during a global pandemic.
The Government must consider the economic damage which would be caused by further periods of delay and uncertainty. The cost of Covid to the taxpayer has reached eye-watering levels after autumn and winter lockdowns put yet more pressure on the U.K.’s public finances. Vast sums have been spent on funding Government support schemes in the most ambitious deficit financing programme since World War Two.
The economy has proved remarkably resilient and it is increasingly likely that GDP could return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year. We need to ride the economic tiger which has seen hiring rates reach a 23-year high as service industries come back to life after Covid-hibernation.
The Government should capitalise on falling furlough rates and the high number of vacancies in IT, hospitality, hotels and catering by making all workplaces fully accessible, including theatres, cinemas, nightclubs and music venues. Unnecessarily prolonging social distancing measures will inflict permanent damage on the economy. Treasury officials urging the removal of all restrictions from June 21st should not be silenced by scientists whose jobs are not on the line.
The moment of truth comes when the Government withdraws its subsidies and the private sector resumes its role as the engine of economic growth. We have already seen the effects of the coronavirus on benighted high streets with their boarded up and shuttered shops. Lockdown-lite, a twilight world of confusing restrictions more honoured in the breach than the observance, will ensure that many businesses are unable to truly prosper.
Ms Sturgeon’s recent announcement will embolden lockdown fanatics elsewhere in the U.K. But the only way that we can eliminate COVID-19 would be to create an island fortress with the drawbridge permanently pulled up. Inside the U.K. we would still need to continue to adopt the draconian measures introduced by the Coronavirus Act in March 2020. It is time our political leaders planned for a post-pandemic world in which citizens are entrusted to manage their own risks instead of being permanently infantilised and bamboozled by cod science which is not rooted in data, dates or economic reality.
Bella Wallersteiner is a Senior Parliamentary Assistant.