Genuinely disturbing findings in the latest Ipsos MORI survey. It found that many Brits support anti-covid restrictions permanently. Thirty-five per cent support indefinitely maintaining the 10-day quarantine when returning from abroad. The same number want contact-tracing check-in at a restaurant to last forever. Twenty-six per cent want nightclubs and casinos to stay closed forever. And 19% want night-time curfews at 10pm.
Lockdown has been such a big universal event that we’re all still processing it. And you can now start to see some ways in which it threatens to be with us forever. That includes often discussed elements like educational outcomes. But it will also include harder-to-track changes in our political attitudes and forms of governance.
Clearly the lockdowns have made an authoritarian minority in Britain more confident and enthusiastic. You can’t imagine a quarter of the population saying that nightclubs should be closed in the Before Times. Now apparently it is socially acceptable to express an opinion that wouldn’t be out of place in a totalitarian state.
The same applies on a more basic level to the functioning of politics. For decades now governments have attempted to sideline parliament. This reached a crescendo in the Brexit period, with Theresa May trying to deny it any say at all in the process and Boris Johnson eventually suspending it unlawfully against its will. But one of the more subtle ways it took place was with statutory instruments – little bits of law which turn ministers into mini-parliaments able to operate with hardly any scrutiny from MPs.
Since the start of the crisis, the government has laid 463 coronavirus-related statutory instruments before the UK Parliament, averaging seven a week. MPs were often asked to retrospectively approve coronavirus restrictions without a debate.
Covid is an emergency, of course, and you would expect things to be done quickly. But that alone does not justify the decisions which have been taken. On several occasions, it would have been possible to offer parliamentary scrutiny and yet it was avoided.
The requirement on face masks on public transport, for instance, was announced in a Downing Street press conference on June 4th 2020 and came into force 11 days later, but it wasn’t debated in the Commons until July 6th. Regulations on self-isolation were published with just seven hours before they came into effect – but a full eight days after the first media briefings about them.
And we can see a similar process with policing. The fact that protests were arguably illegal during the lockdown certainly helped Priti Patel move to silence them altogether with the policing bill. Just as people would have been wary of proposing a nighttime curfew in 2019, it would have been harder to suggest silencing demonstrations. But once something becomes the default, it does not seem so extreme to suggest it should continue.
Of course, this will all be music to the lockdown sceptics’ ears. It provides a perfect opportunity for them to say ‘I told you so’. But in the real world, of grown-up politics, we have to engage in much more difficult calculations. We often have to do things which are dangerous, or which we do not want to do, because they prevent something which is even worse.
That was the case with lockdown. It crushed our lives, personally and politically. It robbed us of joy and family contact. It handed the state terrible powers. And it encouraged authoritarian instincts in some while authorising authoritarian governance in others. We always knew that we would need to keep it in check, that we would have to be vigilant about the consequences of it. And we knew that this process would never be more important than when we were starting to emerge from it.
Far from being an argument against firm and fast anti-covid action, it was the opposite. Early lockdowns mean they do not need to be in place for so long. Stringent anti-covid measures now make future lockdowns less likely.
But regardless, we are now, for the summer at least, outside of lockdown, and we can start to see some of the dangers which result from it, in the style of government and the people’s political instincts. They don’t bode well. If we’re not careful, they’ll be with us forever. It will take sustained work to resist them.