Boris Johnson’s sunshiny “one more heave, chaps, the cavalry are coming” Covid message doesn’t seem to be landing very well. Perhaps he presumed that, with all that good news on the vaccine front, everyone would simply accept the logic of pretty much staying locked down until it arrives.
But this sense of an ending doesn’t seem to have done much to shore up discipline. If anything, it seems to be going the other way: anti-lockdown protests this weekend led to over 150 arrests, people are moving around much more in lockdown 2 than lockdown 1, and the political rebellion among Conservative MPs has gathered, rather than lost, momentum since the vaccine news. It looks like keeping up restrictions is going to become more difficult, not easier, as the end comes into view.
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You can see why Tory MPs are worried. The map of areas still stuck in ‘tier 3’ lockdown restrictions, with pubs and restaurants shut, has echoes of the most Brexit-voting parts of the country: a new ‘red wall’ stretching from Lancashire in the North West across to Lincolnshire and the Wash, with a separate pocket of red in the Thames estuary and Kent. These are the voters most precious to the Government — fear of getting on the wrong side of them runs deep.
Sir Graham Brady: I can't vote for another lockdown
What’s more, the latest polls are not offering much reassurance. We’ve become used to surveys showing overwhelming support for more restrictions, leading to the general assumption that ‘lockdown sceptics’ are little more than a small but vocal group on social media; Nigel Farage’s attempt to launch a new political party on the back of that passion has so far fallen flat.
But on the post-lockdown tier system, opinion is more divided — of four options offered by YouGov, the most popular at 33% is the view that too many areas are now being held in top tiers. More disconcertingly for the Tories, the dissenting group rises to 37% of Brexit voters (compared to 28% of Remainers) and 44% of voters in the all-important Midlands (compared to just 21% of Londoners). The voters who propelled them into office are the least happy.
What Tory MPs know (and not only the 70-odd rebels lined up by Steven Baker and Sir Graham Brady) is that there’s something about this whole approach that goes directly against what they were elected to do. As Editor of the Sheffield Star, Nancy Fielder, told Andrew Marr on Sunday, Tory MPs in the North “were elected around Brexit, which was all about freedom — we want to be able to do what we want to do ourselves without being dictated to — and look where we are now.” Brexit was a rebellion against control from the centre, against remote regulations set by faraway people in Whitehall or Brussels who aren’t interested in the details of your area — the Covid tiers have an unhappy whiff of the same hauteur.
The aggravation doesn’t stem from people being selfish or from behavioural fatigue so much as from the bluntness of the regulation. Even among those who are concerned about the virus and keen to be responsible, rules that are arbitrary and insensitive to local conditions quickly start feeling pointless and sinister; from there it is a short step to them feeling tyrannical.
Notes of absurdity are even more potent at destroying support. Think of how much energy the Brexit movement got from reports of EU regulations on “bendy bananas” — today’s elaborate one-way systems around half-empty garden centres and tiny designer Perspex vizers covering only the chins of waiters in restaurants are surely the new equivalents. You can imagine the mixture of hilarity and fury in the Kent village that has been divided down the middle between two tiers, so one of its pubs has to close but the other can remain open.
At heart, the flaw in the system is the continued adherence to a one-size-fits-all approach. A “traffic light” system of regional tiers may sound targeted and human at a No 10 press conference, but it doesn’t feel that way to the millions of people lumped together in Manchester or Kent, or to the 99% of the population still forbidden from seeing anybody inside during an English winter. As each MP knows, within each constituency, let alone county, there is a variety of urban and rural areas, and a range of different demographics — it’s a whole world, not a dot on a map. This is the central shortcoming of the lockdown movement — that you can force everyone in a hugely varied society to behave in the same way, by diktat.
This was never true, and particularly not for a threat like Covid that is so unusually targeted at a certain subset of the population: we all know people who are more- or less- cautious about Covid and have been all along for perfectly good reasons. Wise regulation would acknowledge this reality, and provide principles that people can apply to their unique circumstances. The Government will win their vote in parliament, but the anger will start to subside only when we move beyond universal life-rules controlled by the centre. The principle of different advice for different groups is already established: the proposal to ‘protect the vulnerable’ in the Great Barrington Declaration may have been rejected on the grounds of practical difficulty, but different ‘shielding’ advice was given early on to the particularly vulnerable and ministers insist that as soon as the most vulnerable are vaccinated, restrictions can begin to ease.
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So as we move through this difficult winter, with the new promise of a sunset clause on the Tiers system, perhaps the Government needs to switch up its metaphors: instead of traffic lights, which are notoriously frustrating and treat everyone the same, it might be better to start thinking about traffic lanes, which when functioning well on a motorway are a remarkably effective way for society to move safely along together.
A nationwide traffic lane system would allow people to choose at an individual or household level how to live: amber means you carry on as now, respecting regulations to a normal degree, red means you are additionally cautious because either you or your regular contacts are highly vulnerable, and green means either you have decided that the risk of contracting Covid is acceptable to you and you are personally not worried, or that you are now immune via prior infection or vaccination. Information about local virus levels and your own risk profile can help you choose your lane, and you can quarantine between lanes (which is already what the Government recommends to students coming home for Christmas). As long as you aren’t a threat to others, everyone can decide for themselves.
Rather than attempting to micro-manage the entire public square as a single space, which is the source of so much unhappiness, individual venues and events could be allowed to cater to different risk levels. Care homes and hospitals will obviously continue to operate on ‘red lane’ principles with the highest care, but supermarkets and shops could return to the excellent system where the first hour of the day is reserved for ‘red lane’ customers. Which system would you prefer, as a vulnerable elderly person — to be forced in, as now, among the noisy young people being cavalier about masks and bumping into you, or to be able to know that the newly-cleaned shop was open at limited capacity only to people taking proper care?
Pubs and restaurants could start to operate similarly — red lane on one day, amber for most of the week and green on Fridays and Saturdays when young people and the increasing number of immune and vaccinated can do as they please without being accused of being selfish. Transport could work on similar rush-hour principles, and even schools would be safer than they are now with a class or stream reserved for students who had genuinely vulnerable people at home, rather than pretending all schoolchildren obey distancing guidelines when quite obviously they don’t. If a venue or service cannot be modified safely in this way, it can remain in the amber lane — no change.
A post-lockdown regime along these lines could provide a route for the whole UK to offer better protection to the vulnerable as discipline starts to collapse, while providing safe outlets for the people who will break the rules anyway to live their lives without censure. Most of all it would reacquaint people with the ability to make decisions for themselves, and move beyond the local colouring-in exercise that is causing so much political tension.
Thinking along these lines will become only more important as vaccines start to be administered: if people are frustrated now, imagine how they will feel if they or their loved ones have had the vaccine and are still being asked to lead a half-life of distancing and not seeing anyone for months afterwards. There must eventually be a mechanism to release the vaccinated and the less vulnerable, while providing proper support for people who need to continue avoiding exposure. The sooner it gets moving, the better.