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The public has turned against the excesses of the lockdown fanatics (Telegraph)

12 December 2021


The Telegraph title: The public has turned against the excesses of the lockdown fanatics
The Telegraph subtitle: Scepticism about the tightening ratchet of restrictions has quietly begun to go mainstream
Author: Liam Halligan
Date: 5 December 2021

“This time last year, Professor Neil Ferguson observed how China’s draconian anti-Covid restrictions had influenced the response to the virus across the Western world – not least the UK. “We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought,” said the epidemiologist, dubbed Professor Lockdown. But after Italy shut down “we realised we could”.

When Covid-19 first emerged as a global pandemic in early 2020, Prof Ferguson had assumed, like the vast majority of government advisers, that severely restricting freedoms would be deemed unacceptable by the British public. Controlling where people go and who they meet was seen as a non-starter in a liberal democracy. How wrong that turned out to be. Not only did people accept the lockdowns, but there was a level of enthusiasm for them – and a level of derision for those who questioned them – that astonished those of us who had thought that the UK was a nation committed to liberty.

It is not clear, yet, that we are heading back to the dark days of truly draconian anti-Covid measures. But the early signs aren’t good. In response to the new omicron variant, the ratchet has slowly been tightened. Ministers have re-introduced compulsory masks on public transport and in shops. Travel controls are back, with compulsory PCR tests plus quarantine when returning from “red list” countries. And, from tomorrow, there are mandatory pre-departure tests for everyone aged 12 and above.

So far, the public has been willing to accept these measures. Many of them are, wrongly, deemed to be minor; and most people just want to do their bit. But if ministers decide to go much further in the coming weeks, can they assume that the public will offer their unquestioning support once again? This time, I’m not so sure. Something has changed in Britain. Having stoically endured three separate lockdowns, there are clear signs that the public’s support for harsh anti-Covid restrictions is fast diminishing.

Take the results of YouGov polling from last week. Over two thirds of voters in England oppose the closure of pubs and restaurants, with roughly the same share against anti-Covid restrictions on leaving home. Three in five, meanwhile, reject controls on the number of indoor home visitors. It is true that attitudes towards closing nightclubs remain borderline totalitarian, but if you had asked these same questions in January, you would have found overwhelming majorities in support of any and all restrictive measures. Previously seen as eccentric, lockdown scepticism has quietly become mainstream.

There are several reasons for this. The first is an obvious one. After almost two years of disruption and a mass vaccination programme that has covered the vast majority of the population, many people quite rightly wonder what else can be done to protect the vulnerable against severe illness and death. At the moment, the omicron variant does not appear to be the terrifying new threat that some have made it out to be, either. While more infectious than previous variants, the early signs are that it causes only mild symptoms. Proving that, while determining if existing vaccines work against it, could take weeks. But the World Health Organisation said over the weekend there have been no omicron-related deaths, despite the variant being detected in at least 38 countries.

Meanwhile, the costs of lockdowns have become far harder to ignore. The fact that GPs made hundreds of thousands fewer suspected cancer referrals during the pandemic, in part due to fewer face-to-face consultations, was last week highlighted in a National Audit Office report. The impact has been “devastating”, says Macmillan Cancer Support, given related delays in the treatment of life-threatening conditions, including among the young. The relentless focus on Covid, the NAO concluded, means that by March 2025, some 12 million people – around a fifth of the UK population – could be on an NHS waiting list, caught in the lockdown-related treatment backlog.

The “lives versus livelihoods” debate which characterised previous lockdowns – in which those who opposed restrictions were damned as selfishly concerned solely with the health of the economy – is therefore being exposed as the nonsense it always was. The damage done to children’s mental health and education when schools close is now undeniable – which is why Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza yesterday pleaded with ministers to keep schools open. The tragedy of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, murdered by his stepmother, has also highlighted the pressure lockdown puts on vulnerable households.

And now we have enjoyed a real taste of freedom. Until last week, England had faced no legal Covid restrictions since Freedom Day in July. And while a fourth wave of existing variants had sent European nations back into full or partial lockdowns, the UK’s gamble seemed to have worked. Covid-related hospitalisations and deaths are still a fraction of where they were this time last year.

It might be convenient for some politicians for the Covid emergency to continue indefinitely. Certainly, for No 10, omicron has crowded out sleaze allegations. Yet, while some voters remain clearly frightened of Covid, broader support for harsh lockdown measures appears to be melting away.

People know that two years of restrictions have left the UK in a perilous economic situation. Many are wise enough to realise that tightening them would again crush the UK’s recovery, playing havoc with fiscal balances. It would also further stoke inflation, deepening the emerging cost of living crisis, while doing further damage to pandemic-stricken sectors such as aviation and hospitality.

They also know that some of the people who have been keenest on restrictions have got it wrong, again and again. Back in July, as Freedom Day beckoned, Ferguson declared it was “almost inevitable” daily infection rates would hit a record 100,000 and could peak at more than 200,000 after restrictions were relaxed. In the event, daily cases barely topped 30,000 – and have remained steady since.

So something has changed. If the Government thinks it can take the UK back into lockdown without a very clear and demonstrable reason, then it needs to think again.”



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