The political fallout means an amnesty for lockdown convictions won't happen
A few days ago, a 19-year-old from Bexley was convicted of breaking the Covid lockdown last January. A Co-Op employee (a ‘key worker’ in the national unity parlance) and understandably fed up with the ‘stress and misery’ of his work, he had been found by the local constabulary in a car with three friends in the dastardly act of ‘going for a Nando’s and chilling’.
A grovelling apology (‘filled with shame and apology for my actions’) did not save him from a criminal conviction, which will blight his life’s prospects when it has barely begun.
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His story will never get any airtime, unlike the latest circus in Downing Street. But it should. For more than two years, we have accepted sweeping restrictions on our fundamental freedoms with little complaint. The litany of horrors — thousands dying alone in hospitals, cancers left untreated, socially-distanced funerals, not to mention the wholesale destruction of personal contact, the very basis of human societies — barely bears repetition even now.
With sufficient hindsight, we may be one day able to say with certainty whether all of this was justified. But what cannot be justified is the capricious and cruel way lockdown was enforced in this country. Lockdown regulations were written in high Whitehallese undecipherable even for lawyers; they were enforced by police forces which often had absolutely no idea of what they were doing but who enjoyed the power trip; and breaches were prosecuted by prosecutors who similarly had no clue: at one point, every single person charged in England under the Coronavirus Act 2020 was wrongfully charged because no one understood what the law actually was.
Given the evidence of systematic miscarriage of justice and now that the pandemic has largely abated, the sensible way forward is to draw a line over this episode, to quietly offer a free pardon to all those who were convicted — many of them behind closed doors — under Covid laws, and to remit any unpaid fines. Those penalties, imposed in terrorem, have lost their raison d’être now that we no longer seek to deter people from ordinary human intercourse.
But none of that will happen, because of that stupid Downing Street birthday party cake. Having long insisted that any breach of the Covid regulations was a sign of moral degeneracy, the government cannot now reverse course without looking like self-serving hypocrites, even though through their conduct its leading members clearly knew how nonsensical their own rules were.
Meanwhile, the opposition, which spent the pandemic accusing the government of not locking down hard enough, now have at their disposal a winning electoral issue — the hypocrisy of our governors, and will naturally never give it up, despite the fact those who are hurt the most by the performative tough-on-Covid-crime stance are not Spads who can afford the fine, but the Bexley shelf-stackers who cannot.
As a result, instead of discussing the key issue — should we really be making criminals out of our neighbours, co-workers, friends, because of humans’ natural yearning to not be locked up inside? We are condemned to more political kabuki, involving endless sophistry of the ‘is a Fixed Penalty Notice is morally equivalent or not to a speeding ticket and this is clearly is or is not a crisis for the Rule of Law and but Asquith was forced to resign in the middle of war in 1916’ variety. Just like the Bourbon, we will have remembered everything and learned nothing.