Thursday 22 June 2023

Covid is not over

 First published on LibDemVoice.

The UK’s response to Covid has been, and still is, characterised by delay and indifference. This is largely but not wholly because Boris Johnson was Prime Minister when it struck. Johnson made being irresponsible fun, and we all paid the price for it, as the Covid inquiry is now slowly and painstakingly beginning to make clear. The British electorate was shallow enough to fall for it, and resistant enough to taking responsibility seriously to make it very risky for a political party to advocate it. But sometimes it is right for political parties to say unpopular things.

A liberal response to Covid would start from the basic principle: we should be free to do everything we want, provided we do not infringe other people’s freedom. Conrad Russell noted that that proviso is far more of a limitation than most people realise.

During the crisis we did all the things we were asked to do (unlike Johnson et al). Once it was over, most of us embraced our “freedom”, and stopped counting the cost to other people. More than a million clinically extremely vulnerable people remain effectively trapped in their own homes because they cannot count on the rest of us to keep them safe. The population at large (including, unfortunately, a lot of medical practitioners) embraces the fictions that it’s over (while the aptly named FU.1 variant is spreading globally 50% faster than previous variants) and that it’s just like flu. But currently 200+ people die every week with Covid on the death certificate (this is known to be significant underreporting). Flu doesn’t kill people in the summer. Flu doesn’t cause the long term sequelae that Covid does. People don’t get Long Flu, whereas currently in the UK alone two million are suffering from Long Covid (ONS figures).

80% of Japanese people still mask in public. The instant reaction will be they’re different, they’re more conformist, we believe in freedom. But it doesn’t have to be about ideology or culture. It can and should be about common sense. I am free to not wear a mask; but my not wearing a mask increases the risk of you getting Covid. And that is a much worse fate than the tiny inconvenience of a mask. Back to the key principle that we are free to do whatever we want provided it does not impact on other people’s freedom. This principle says that we must take responsibility for the effect we have on other people. Going about unmasked and not taking other sensible and barely inconvenient precautions puts other people at risk. To be liberal, we should take account of that and act responsibly.

It is time for the Liberal Democrats to say, “Hey, this is our core principle. It’s time to be sensible about this. People are suffering dire long term consequences, or even dying, because we refuse to take responsibility for the effect we have on others.  People are suffering dire long term consequences, or even dying, because we won’t press the government to do sensible things like allocating meaningful budgets for air filtration in schools and public buildings. ‘Living with’ Covid actually means dying with it.”

It seems to me that this would be the liberal way, despite the public’s impatience with it.