RICHARD LITTLEJOHN: A year ago Britain went into hiding. So why not use vaccine success to be free
Was it really only a year ago? Some days, it feels like a lifetime. As the sun went down on Monday, March 23, 2020, a sombre Prime Minister addressed the nation.
The Winston Churchill moment he had been rehearsing for all his life had finally arrived. Boris felt the hand of destiny on his shoulder.
Britain was facing mortal danger from an invisible killer advancing across the globe from China. It had reached our shores and we must fight it with every weapon at our disposal.
If not on the beaches and the landing grounds, then most certainly in the streets and in the parks, the offices, the factories, the supermarkets, the restaurants, the pubs, the schools, the gyms and the places of worship. Normal life was being put on hold.
Was it really only a year ago? Some days, it feels like a lifetime. As the sun went down on Monday, March 23, 2020, a sombre Prime Minister addressed the nation
The Winston Churchill moment he had been rehearsing for all his life had finally arrived. Boris felt the hand of destiny on his shoulder. The MailOnline homepage on 23 March 2020
‘From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction — you must stay at home. You should not be meeting friends. You should not be meeting family members who do not live in your home. You should not be going shopping except for essentials like food and medicine.
‘If you don’t follow the rules the police will have the powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings.’
Draconian restrictions on liberty, not even countenanced in wartime, were being imposed to protect the NHS and save lives. Be in no doubt, this was an existential struggle in which we were all enlisted.
‘The way ahead is hard and it is still true that many lives will sadly be lost.’
But don’t worry, folks, it’s only for three weeks while we ‘squash the sombrero’.
That optimistic message proved as accurate as the forecasts in 1939 that World War II would be all over by Christmas. Twelve long months of lockdowns later, who could have imagined the kind of year we have had to endure?
Then Boris himself succumbed to Covid, hovered at death’s door, and the Army started building Nightingale field hospitals (pictured) around the country
The MailOnline homepage on 23 March 2020 after lockdown measures were announced
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At first it seemed like a phoney war, a bit of a lark, even, despite the blood-curdling predictions of 500,000 dead and makeshift morgues in Hyde Park and all our big cities.
Then Boris himself succumbed to Covid, hovered at death’s door, and the Army started building Nightingale field hospitals around the country. The nightmare had begun in earnest.
Opposition to emergency powers was muted. The British people knuckled down, staying indoors, observing social distancing while shopping for essentials and taking their permitted daily exercise. There really was a sense that we were all in it together.
We went along with the shackles on our freedom because, frankly, nobody knew anything. We were happy to put our trust in ‘The Science’. Remember when the daily press conferences given by the Two Ronnies of Doom — ‘Next slide, please’ — were viewed as a welcome reassurance that we were in safe hands?
But as three weeks became three months, scepticism and restlessness began to set in. Turns out we weren’t all in it together after all.
Dominic Cummings, the PM’s Svengali, was exposed for scuttling from high-risk London to rural Durham for the duration, and then driving 60 miles on a day-trip to ‘test his eyesight’. Government adviser Professor Neil Ferguson, who came up with the wild ‘500,000 dead’ forecast, was revealed to have broken his own lockdown rules by smuggling his married lover across London for a little, light extra-curricular legover.
Dominic Cummings, the PM’s Svengali, was exposed for scuttling from high-risk London to rural Durham for the duration, and then driving 60 miles on a day-trip to ‘test his eyesight’
Assorted MPs were also rumbled breaking the ‘stay at home’ orders which applied to the rest of us.
After citing Covid as an excuse to litter London with congestion-creating bike lanes and crazy pavement-widening schemes — allegedly to encourage us peasants to walk or cycle everywhere — Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan was spotted trundling round town in a £300,000 armour-plated police Range Rover provided for his ‘protection’.
These were just a handful of examples of the Great and Good assuming arrogantly that the rules don’t apply to them.
It didn’t take the political class long to exploit the pandemic to further their own agendas, from anti-car fanatics like Khan carpeting the country with Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, to Wee Burney making it all about Scottish independence. Soon, all manner of ridiculous restrictions were enshrined in law. It even became illegal to visit someone from another household for a romantic liaison, Professor Legover-style.
As I remarked at the time, any country which tries to outlaw consensual sex has not so much lost the plot as strapped it to a space rocket and set the controls for the heart of the sun.
If you were fortunate enough to be living under the same roof, you were allowed to sleep with your wife, husband or significant other, but not play tennis with them — thanks to the ludicrous ban on outdoor sports.
Even though there was no evidence that anyone has ever caught Covid in the open air, it didn’t stop the police threatening to arrest sunbathers in parks and on beaches, and fining people sitting on a bench drinking coffee. Pictured: Friends Jessica Allen and Eliza Moore were stopped by police when they met for socially distanced walk
When Boris said on Day One that the police would have the power to strictly enforce the rules, he wasn’t kidding. Give ’em the power and they will always, always abuse it.
Even though there was no evidence that anyone has ever caught Covid in the open air, it didn’t stop the police threatening to arrest sunbathers in parks and on beaches, and fining people sitting on a bench drinking coffee.
Derbyshire Police sent up drones to spy on dog walkers in the Peak District and dyed a pond black to discourage visitors and wild swimmers. Elsewhere, women out for a stroll were fined because their peppermint teas were classed as a ‘picnic’ and were therefore illegal within some perverse interpretation of the act.
The Chief Constable of Manchester sent out officers to measure pizza slices to see if they constituted a ‘substantial meal’ — a fate which led to Scotch eggs being forcibly removed from the menu at a Suffolk pub. Only last week, two Gloucestershire coppers knocked on the door of an 82-year-old woman and threatened to fine her for enjoying a cup of tea with friends in their communal garden.
Derbyshire Constabulary drone unit filmed walkers in the Peak District in March as part of its ‘stay at home’ message
Back in May, I warned you that there would be nothing normal about the New Normal. Even I couldn’t have made up half the rules — for instance, foreseeing that by the end of last year it would permitted to meet six friends outdoors in your garden, but not in a Wendy House. Who the hell came up with that one?
These examples may seem trivial in the grand scheme of things, but they illustrate how ‘temporary’ measures can become both permanent fixtures and deliberately abused.
On the one hand, the Prime Minister promises us that all restrictions will be lifted in July. On the other, the Government will on Thursday put forward a bill extending the emergency powers until October. Where’s the fat lady when you need her?
The loss of civil liberties is but one of the worrying developments over the past year. So, too, is the erosion of Parliamentary debate and democracy, and the ubiquity of repressive laws being imposed by ministerial diktat. Zoom is no substitute for the bear pit of the Commons chamber. Dissenting MPs can easily be put on mute.
We can only hope that all the restrictions will be reversed, but don’t count on it. Ever since his near-death experience, Boris has been in thrall to ‘The Science’, at times apparently scared of his own shadow. The swashbuckling, devil-may-care Boris has been captured by the forces of risk-aversion.
What other explanation can there be for the fact that while Britain has managed to surge ahead and vaccinate all of the most vulnerable more quickly than any other major nation, we still have some of the toughest restrictions?
As the Mail has spelled out in graphic detail, the consequences are devastating — not just in terms of bankruptcies and job losses, but because of the collateral damage to our national health.
While the NHS has been in the grip of Covid monomania, hospital waiting lists have grown to 4.6 million. Cancer tests down 400,000, another 40,000 fewer starting therapy. The list goes on via unnecessary heart disease fatalities, a mental health epidemic, kidney disease going untreated . . .
The enforced closures have felled some of the high street’s best known names including Topshop, Laura Ashley and Debenhams
On the economic front, one in four firms have gone under. High Streets have been eviscerated. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost in travel and hospitality, and we will be lucky if the eventual national unemployment figure scrapes in under five million.
Yet still ministers are reluctant to fully open up the economy, despite the fact that Covid is costing us £521 million a day in lost output. Yes, every day. Spending on Covid has already hit £400 billion. All of which will have to be recouped.
What on earth are they waiting for? Our, for once, genuinely ‘world-beating’ vaccination performance has given us a head start. It’s time to roll the dice.
The vaccine programme has been the one shining light of this Government’s handling of the pandemic. And that’s because, thankfully, caution was thrown to the wind. Like a gambler placing chips all over the roulette table in the hope that one of them comes up trumps, the vaccine task force took a punt.
It bet on seven different manufacturers and, miraculously, every single one of them paid off. Britain was able to place contracts for enough vaccine to inoculate the population several times over, leaving our leaden-footed former EU ‘friends’ trailing in our wake.
The vaccine programme has been the one shining light of this Government’s handling of the pandemic. Pictured: Margaret Keenan, 90, being applauded by staff as she returns to her ward after becoming the first person in the United Kingdom to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech covid-19 vaccine
Even if there’s still some confusion over when foreign travel, especially to Europe, can resume, there’s no excuse for not allowing our domestic economy to return to normal working immediately.
Fortune always favours the brave. Boris is at his best when he defies the odds and the pundits — whether winning the London Mayoralty not once but twice; winning the Brexit referendum, when the entire Establishment was stacked against him; and becoming first Tory leader then Prime Minister with an unassailable 80-seat majority. Boris is one of life’s Lucky Generals.
It’s time he put the Two Ronnies and all his other advisers back in their boxes. Some of these professional Jeremiahs are already droning on about masks and social distancing being mandatory for years to come. The PM has to rediscover and unleash the Inner Boris which has served him so well, and got him out of innumerable scrapes over the years.
The less said about his early, flailing response to Covid the better. The fact that he himself was almost mortally afflicted has undoubtedly affected his subsequent judgment and may explain his reluctance to take calculated risks. We get it.
For 12 seemingly interminable months, the British people have largely endured the privations and restrictions with commendable stoicism, resignation and good humour. But patience is running out. The country can’t take, or afford, another ruinous spring and summer of stop-start lockdowns.
We will forgive the Prime Minister’s early mistakes, but he won’t be forgiven if he dithers any longer, particularly as deaths fell yesterday to just 17. Britain needs to get back to normal — pre-Covid normal — now, before it is too late.
Boris has been handed his get-out-of-jail card. Churchill was floundering until the Spitfire squadrons came to his rescue.
The vaccines are Boris’s Spitfires. He’s already winning the Battle of Britain. It’s time for him to abandon the air raid shelter, sound the all-clear and win the war.