Coronavirus

How Britain Lost the Lockdown Battle

Even though COVID-19 spread is low, Brits love their lockdown.

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March 23 marks the anniversary of Britain's lockdown. It's not that memorable a milestone, admittedly, as it's hardly the only country in that position. But the U.K. has one big difference from most countries, not least the United States: We're still in a strict lockdown.

This often goes underappreciated on the American side of the pond. Many point to indoor dining bans and the like in the U.S. as evidence that lockdowns endure on both sides of the Atlantic. But as irritating as those laws might be, they're not the same as the U.K. lockdown.

Since the beginning of January, the U.K. has had the real deal (just as we did for all of last spring and winter): an indefinite stay-at-home order coupled with on-the-spot fines for anyone going outdoors without good reason or visiting a family member. Bars, gyms, churches, and "non-essential" retailers (the majority of which were already shut thanks to the "local" lockdowns that engulfed much of England last winter) have all been closed for months.

Eleven weeks in and we've seen only the most minor relaxations. Since March 8, it's been permitted for two people to meet outside for a coffee—provided it's in a public space. From March 29, this limit will be extended to six people, and to private gardens. Meeting indoors will remain illegal until the middle of May.

The enduring lockdown is quite surprising. Goodness knows that if you'd said this time last year the U.K. would still be in lockdown—and all under "freedom-loving" Prime Minister Boris Johnson—you'd have been laughed out of town. That's before you factor in the vaccines, of which some 50 percent of U.K. adults (and virtually all seniors) have now received at least one dose.

Yet here we are: 12 months into restrictions and our once-cherished approach to liberty has been totally inverted. Lockdown, once a temporary aberration, has instead become the default. The burden of proof is placed on those arguing for freedom, rather than those wanting to remain in lockdown.

What went wrong? One ongoing, and unexpected, factor has been the astounding popularity of lockdowns. Ever since spring 2020, opinion polling has shown previously unthinkable majorities in favor of restrictions. Last month, for example, 72 percent of those asked backed the idea of a 10-day hotel quarantine for all international arrivals. Meanwhile, 59 percent of Brits want a ban on all protests and demonstrations during the pandemic.

It's no secret that the Boris Johnson administration is even more preoccupied with polling than its predecessors. Sometimes he appears reluctant to speak on an issue before consulting the polls. Witness his slowness last summer, for example, to speak out on the issue of whether anti-racism protesters were right to target a statue of Winston Churchill, a question that should have been an open goal for any Conservative Party prime minister.

But why do Brits back lockdown in the first place? The U.K.'s heightened fear of the virus plays a big role, as does the affinity for our National Health Service (which did, it's true, come under serious strain in January). That some of our doom-mongering modelers are already catastrophizing about a deadly "third wave" this summer doesn't help either.

Much of the country remains scarred by what many regard as a botched opening up last summer, when the government finally decided to reopen hospitality (albeit with strict physical distancing) after three and a half months of total closure. It was a decision that, at the time, was largely cheered by the British press. But nine months on from what the papers dubbed "super Saturday" and the reopening is being held up as the moment at which Britain began its headfirst march into a deadly second wave. 

It's an argument that ignores the fact that, at the time of reopening, COVID-19 cases had plunged to miniscule levels in Britain; a level at which they remained all summer. Never mind, too, that the U.K.'s services-led economy had slumped by a record 20 percent at this point, and that human vaccine trials were still in their earliest stages. What was the alternative? Staying shut indefinitely?

None of this, unfortunately, has stopped this argument from catching on with a public whose approach to reopening now resembles that old Chinese proverb about the man bitten by a snake being scared of rope. In fact, more than a quarter of Britons say the current reopening plan—stores in April; bars with masks in May; freedom in June—is too quick, even with mass vaccination having driven down our case levels to the second lowest in Europe.

It's all a far cry from January, when our health secretary promised to "cry freedom" once the over-50s were vaccinated and, by extension, 95 percent of deaths eliminated. Instead, the goal posts have shifted, with the new line being that even a small rise in cases might lead to a rogue vaccine-resistant strain.

In some ways, the U.K. has been a victim of its own vaccine success. The expedited timeline of the rollout, well beyond original expectations, now means that we should have jabbed all willing adults by June. But rather than enabling the reopening of society, our vaccine success has crystallized a different proposition: What's another few weeks of house arrest if it removes that final scintilla of risk?

Like many lockdown critics, I have dozens of answers to that question. But it's too late: The battle is lost, and thanks largely to a half-truth. They told us vaccines would be our ticket to freedom—they didn't tell us we'd be taking the slow train.

NEXT: Brickbat: Sorry, Wrong Number

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  1. I won’t know what to think about all of this till Piers Morgan chimes in.

    1. And then you should think the opposite of whatever he sais.

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  2. Politicians lie. That is what they do.

    Here in the US, lying is an art form. And completely bipartisan.

  3. Ha, ha, ha, ha! Fuck every last one of you. You traded liberty for security long ago. Enjoy your safery good and hard. Cherished freedoms your arse.

  4. Loving the nanny state? That’s what you get when women (or people who like to dress like women) are in charge. Want to predict the future of UK policy? Ask any 70 year old grandmother scold.

  5. Britain still loves the story of the Blitz, when they all pulled together to face the Nazi menace alone. Shoulder to shoulder, facing the red dawn.
    In the US mask wearing is a symbol of the same sort of proletarian unity – a visible statement of an individual’s willingness to go along.

  6. Anti-libertarian moment!

  7. The enduring lockdown is quite surprising.

    If you have never picked up a history book and forgot the 20th century happened — then yea, sure, it’s suprising. What’s surprising to me is that there still exist people naive enough to believe that their government isn’t lying to them 24/7.

    1. For me at least it’s not the lying that is so surprising but the fact that people are so eager to go along with it.

      1. I think there are three types of people. One, the people that genuinely believe the government lies. This is usually the result of youth and naivety. Two, the people that know or have reason to suspect the government is lying but are afraid to say anything because of the legal and social ramifications of speaking up. I think most people fall into this category. Three, there are the people that know or have reason to suspect that the government is lying but think they have something to gain by perpetuating the lie. And I think, in most cases, it is the first group and the third group that exert the most pressure upon the people in the second group to keep their mouths shut.

        1. There’s at least four types of people then – because there’s also the type that thinks all people must be slotted into the proper typology. Usually of course they are stuck with thinking that there are only two types of people

          1. You are actually forgetting the fifth type of person — that is, the perennial literalist. The literalists spring up with regularity and pretend to be idiots, before promptly losing track of the distinction between what they really are, and what they are pretending to be.

            1. There are six types of people … you forgot to mention the people who forget to mention the seven types of people.

              1. LOL

    2. There are two types of people.

      Morning people and those of us who want to shoot morning people.

  8. The goalposts will continue to move as things improve. I expect the final “goal” in the US to be zero infections for 90 consecutive days, which will not happen for many years to come if ever (See: Measles). Fauci has been setting the table for this for months with his speculative concerns about mutations. After all, those Sunday morning talk show gigs are not going to book themselves.

    1. “The goalposts will continue to move as things improve.”

      It is not new goalposts they need, but viral variants. They already have the trajectories mapped out for how long they can stretch the crackdowns before the cocktail of novelty, uncertainty, and fear starts to become impossible to swallow. And, to be sure, there will be new viral variants and, as each one is released discovered, the process will be repeated. There will be as many variants as it takes, and just as many crackdowns, to sweep away what little remains of our already shattered liberties.

      Twenty years of international terrorism conditioned us to accept spying, secret courts, torture, and the paradigm of the infinite war; twenty years of viruses will condition us to accept all these things at home. The twenty years after that, I suspect, will leave the country in a dystopia that even Orwell couldn’t dream of.

  9. Never have so many done so little to achieve nothing.

    1. Can’t help but think how things would’ve played out much differently 80 years ago with the present attitude. You know who else was hoping the Brits would be a bunch of namby-pamby scared-of-their-own shadow rule-followers?

      1. The Romans?

      2. The Jews?

        1. Well, it seems they were the winners.

  10. Isn’t this the country famous for orderly “queuing”? The country that invented the term “jobsworth”? Were you expecting anything OTHER than petty authoritarianism?

    Just go rewatch “Brazil”.

    1. Or read anything by C. Northcote Parkinson. They’re also famous for thinking the NHS is a beacon to the world, and waxing nostalgic about World War II because it fostered such a sense of ‘community’…which translates into ‘groupthink that made thinking for oneself unnecessary’.
      Still, this is the country that has given us Freddy Laker, Charlie Mullins, Richard Branson, Alan Sugar, etc.

  11. England is doomed.
    You make no mention of how these lockdowns and quarantines were observed in the Muslim immigrant no go zones.
    My guess is they weren’t

  12. I’ve been reading UK papers and comments for a while now and it looks just like the US. No amount of data will actually change the direction of the boat, therefore it’s logical to conclude this isn’t about science and data at all.

  13. Right around the time of the first case in Wuhan, there was a report ranking pandemic preparedness around the world

    Interesting takeaways from the details of the report, but the headline info/ranking couldn’t have been more wrong.

    The ‘top-10’ prepared for a pandemic were: US, UK, Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Thailand, Sweden, Denmark, South Korea, Finland.

    The ones in Asia did well – but so did other places in Asia. So maybe it was less about the experts and more about regular people understanding the difference between reality/bullshit.

    Outside Asia – US UK in particular – the results are appallingly worse than expectable and generally worse than their neighbors too. Arrogance and incompetence by public health experts. And utter stupidity and complacency by regular people in making sure no new information about anything could be processed.

  14. “The ‘top-10’ prepared for a pandemic were: US, UK, Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Thailand, Sweden, Denmark, South Korea, Finland.”

    LOL

    Sweden.

  15. I also think most people kind of get used to it after a while. They develop ways to cope. Learning to cook instead of restaurants, getting more things delivered, work changes like working from home if you can, changing social pattern to smaller more tightly knit circles, and so on.

    Some people have made more drastic changes. I read how some younger couples have left the cities to move into a kibbutz where it is a more open simpler life. We made a move this year to be closer to family. We had been talking about it for a while but the Covid life really prompted the decision to go now.

    I don’t think that normal will be what it was exactly.

    I know it is nerdy but it makes me think of the beginning of LOTR

    The world is changed…

    Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.

    Galadriel

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