Don't Be Afraid to Say the Regulations Were Ridiculous
The disgraceful antics of the booze-addled hypocrites of 10 Downing Street are being rightly condemned on all sides. Of course, it should hardly stun us the government under the leadership of Boris Johnson, for whom betrayal comes as naturally as eating, could have been so arrogant and irresponsible but the scale of the decadence, with stories of a DJ and a suitcase filled with alcohol, are still eye-opening.
It is truly scandalous that the people who were crafting and promoting restrictions were so blatantly defying them. They deserve nothing but blame when it comes to questions of personal and professional morality. For once, I agree with Owen Jones, who argues that common people who were fined for breaking lockdown rules should be given amnesty, and that their fines should be withdrawn.
Still, I have been interested by the tone of some of the responses. There is a kind of embarrassment mingled with the bitterness. There is the sense of having been taken for fools. But if the regulations made sense that would be silly. People could be angry with politicians for breaking the rules but they could not be angry for having had to follow them. I suspect that many people are but are afraid to say it. The grunt of I followed the rules is haunted by the implication of a “stupid” between the last two words.
Because the biggest problem with Johnson and his colleagues is not that they broke the laws but that they told everyone else to keep them. In May 2020, for example, they held a wine and pizza party in the gardens of 10 Downing Street while public gatherings were still prohibited.
It was common knowledge in May 2020 that outdoor transmission was improbable. The Iron Economist points out on Twitter that significant research was showing that COVID circulated in the air in closed spaces as early as March. Even the fiercest COVID hawks among progressives would implicitly admit that outdoor spread was not a major risk when they cheered on the massive, dense crowds that marched in protest against the killing of George Floyd later that month. So, the question is not so much why the party took place as why the law existed.
On the eve of Prince Phillip’s funeral, meanwhile, at which the Queen would sit alone, without as much as a family member to comfort her, Downing Street staff were boozing in the basement. But again, disgraceful as it was for them to have defied the rules they wrote, implemented and promoted, why were the rules so stringent at a point where most vulnerable people had acquired their first if not their second jabs, natural immunity was widespread, and the NHS was under no significant pressure? I am sure we could debate this or that restriction, and I know that hindsight is an opinion columnist’s best friend, but does anyone think it was at all justifiable to treat the organisation of funerals as if they were as dangerous as clearing a minefield with a stick?
To some people, of course, there were never enough restrictions. Real lockdowns have never been tried, one can hear them grunt. Well, there is a cold consistency to it I guess but it does not make much sense to me.
Perhaps, and this is a big perhaps, if the authorities had recognised the looming threat of COVID-19 in the earliest months of 2020, large-scale death outside of China could have been avoided. (Back then, as has been widely forgotten, the head of the World Health Organisation was insisting that the stigma was worse than the virus. Unbelievably, that man is still in his position.) Once international travel had planted the seeds of the pandemic, though, I think that it was all but unavoidable.
I leave the “all but” because China did contain it after it spread. But what did that take? Not just the closure of schools, shops, offices, restaurants, bars, churches et cetera and a prohibition of socialising, as we Westerners endured. It took welding doors shut. It took separating families. It took sending drones onto the streets to berate citizens. It still means that an outbreak can lead to tens of millions of people being thrust into such an intense lockdown that they cannot leave home for any reason, even to buy food. I can appreciate people who have lost a loved one wishing European nations had taken that route but it seems like a stiflingly oppressive, frighteningly insecure way to live – and without the Chinese experience of SARS or technocratic authoritarianism I am not sure Western nations could have pulled it off even if they had wanted to.
I don’t want to pose as if I know exactly what restrictions should and should not have been imposed. That would be a silly sort of back-seat driving. But we should not be afraid to say that many of them were stupid and should have been (where they were not) known to be stupid. That raises more uncomfortable questions than the drinking.