It was in September that Boris Johnson gave one of his more notorious answers during this pandemic. Challenged on how it was that Germany and Italy had lower rates of the disease, he told the Commons: “There is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world: our country is a freedom-loving country.”
We now know (thanks to The Sunday Times) that he said this two days after a meeting which was attended by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and two scientists in the anti-lockdown minority. This seems to have dissuaded him from enacting the two-week “circuit breaker” that he had previously intended on the basis of the majority of scientific advice – just as last week he refused to rescind his decision to lift restrictions on Christmas celebrations, until on Saturday he did exactly that.
Johnson finally did the right thing. But why, as so often before, did he leave it so late? OK, he may not have yet been told that the mutated virus was 70 per cent more transmissible than the original. By Tuesday, however, he had been urged to backtrack by two leading medical journals, several top epidemiologists, and the British Medical Association, which baldly warned that his Christmas lifting of the restrictions would “cost lives”.
He refused to do so because he feared what he assumes to be the “freedom-loving” instincts of the British public. Has that assumption really held water this year, though – let alone for the 300 years of “peace and democracy” in which Johnson implied those supposed instincts are rooted, given his remark in the Commons in September?
The many privations suffered by Britain’s civilian population during the Second World War, and one privation in particular, suggest otherwise. The draconian blackout – originally devised by Neville Chamberlain’s government as a means of confusing the Luftwaffe’s bombers, and continued through the premiership of Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill – was hardly popular. Indeed, it regularly topped Mass Observation lists of civilian grumbles.
Britain is indeed ‘freedom loving’, but it knows better than its current leaders that occasionally a little of that freedom has to be temporarily suspended to preserve human life
Yet for five long years, that same public bore it. While they complained about the blackout, they also regularly complained about the minority who ignored it. Moreover, they accepted that miscreants should be punished – as indeed they were; in 1940 alone, there were 300,000 prosecutions for such violations without provoking protests that national liberty was being undermined.
At first glance, this comparison may look eccentric. It’s less so when you consider that between 1939 and 1945, 61,000 British civilians were killed in Nazi air attacks – 6,000 fewer than have died from Covid-19 so far. Moreover, the blackout – as well as the devastating German bombing itself – changed lives. People were reluctant to venture out at night, unsurprisingly, since many were injured in the unaccustomed darkness when they did.
Britons put up with it, though – just as they put up with not one but six successive Christmases with many families separated because of people being away on war work, military or civilian, or because their children had been evacuated for their safety.
There is little sign that the attitudes of the British majority have changed since then. The YouGov poll last week showing that 57 per cent favoured keeping the restrictions over Christmas, compared with 31 per cent who didn’t, was consistent with previous surveys.
This suggests that a majority will abide by the new tier 4, preventing 16.4 million people in London, the southeast and parts of eastern England from mixing indoors – however grudgingly, given how much energy and money they have spent finalising their plans in line with the much more relaxed regulations handed down only five days ago.
For it was only on Wednesday that Johnson accused his opponents of wanting, Scrooge-like, to “cancel Christmas” (blithely ignoring his own “cancellation” of the Jewish Passover, the Hindu/Sikh Diwali, and – at one day’s notice – the Muslim Eid). In fact, they were seeking a regulatory underpinning of what Johnson was trying to persuade hopelessly confused families to do of their own accord. Nor were his opponents neglecting the social and economic impact of a lockdown. There was – and is – a strong case for humanitarian exemptions for those, for example, with disabled children in care homes, or dying relatives who are alone; and for far more aid to the stricken hospitality sector, among others, until vaccination truly kicks in. But even less ideological Tory MPs now recognise that control of the virus also helps the economy.
By Wednesday, Johnson already knew he had made a bad mistake. That he refused to acknowledge his error by reversing it until Saturday is a sign of weakness in the face of a clamour from a pseudo-“libertarian” rump of his own MPs in the laughably ill-named Covid Recovery Group and from self-serving elements of the press who were urging him not to cancel Christmas.
Britain is indeed “freedom loving”, but it knows better than its current leaders that occasionally a little of that freedom has to be temporarily suspended to preserve human life. Provided, of course, that such a suspension is demanded, as in the Second World War, by a competent and consistent government it trusts.