A sign about social distancing in Primrose Hill. Picture credit: Ollie Millington via Getty Images
Artillery Row

It was absurd we accepted lockdown

It isn’t just the parties that should make us so angry, but the draconian restrictions themselves

What was the most absurd moment of your lockdown? The point at which you stopped and felt the need to break the imaginary fourth wall and look into the camera, just to let the audience know that yes, you too were aware of how silly it’d all become?

“Ah well, we were lucky really, it could have been worse” was repeated as a mantra

I can think of two. The first was in April 2020, when a friend and I went for a — highly illegal — walk through our neighbourhood. Before setting off, we agreed we had to settle on one fictional place of residence, and be able to recite the address by heart if needed. The police could, after all, stop us at any point and question us separately on whether we really did live together.

The second took place about a month later, as the relentlessly sunny weather kept taunting us. Allowed to exercise outside alone but not to stay idle, I took to pouring myself a glass of wine, and, mum on the phone, walking around my neighbourhood park as slowly as I could, pretending to be in a remarkably low budget remake of Keanu Reeves’ Speed (1994).

As the restrictions eased, I looked forward to seeing my friends again and finally getting to discuss the utter ridiculousness of the months we had just lived through. Instead, I was greeted by the proverbial stiff upper lip, and “ah well, we were lucky really, it could have been worse” repeated as a mantra.

People died alone, those who didn’t live with relatives or housemates went for weeks and months without speaking to another human being face-to-face, pregnant women gave birth alone, but we made it, didn’t we? It was fine, we made banana bread, Zoom quizzes carried us through.

Or did they?

The fine people of Britain lived through one draconian lockdown, then another, then another, and they nearly managed to put it all behind them once restrictions loosened last summer. What broke everything, in the end, was Whitehall’s secret drinking culture.

In fairness to them, the story has it all: vivid details of broken swings and suitcases full of booze, new revelations coming out seemingly every hour, petty anonymous recriminations coming from all sides — it’s a newspaper editor’s dream.

Still, the groundswell of fury coming from every corner of the country has been fascinating to witness. Foreign observers have been gently amused by the unexpected wrath of the great British public, all because of some fizz that probably should have been left undrunk. 

There is no denying that the whole thing reeks; hypocrisy is one of the greatest crimes in politics, there cannot be one rule for us and one rule for them, and so on. It is not unreasonable for people to be angry at the advisers who partied while everyone was locked at home.

What is interesting, however, is what is not being mentioned. The rule breaking did not happen in a vacuum; the context matters. Few people would argue that drastic restrictions were not needed to get COVID cases down at several points over the past two years, but some of those rules were inhumane.

The paranoia of those months was pervasive, and any fudging was only half fun at most

No-one should have had to die alone, without being able to say goodbye to their loved ones. No one should have had to give birth, go through a stillbirth, or receive news of a miscarriage alone. No-one should have had to spend several months without talking to another human being in the flesh.

From the moment science confirmed that outdoor transmission was minimal, people should have been allowed to socialise outside. It is impossible to go back in time and stop these things from happening, but we can and should be able to look back now and say that these things were wrong, and caused untold harm.

It is not simply scandalous that civil servants and advisers had fun while none of us could; it is scandalous that they were the ones who imposed those rules on us and are yet to apologise for them.

You may argue that only a minority of people obeyed all the rules all the time, but it isn’t quite the same. The paranoia of those months was pervasive, and any fudging was only half fun at most, given the constant fear of getting caught and fined.

This is why, in a way, this boozy scandal feels like one giant bout of displacement activity. People are scarred and traumatised by the sacrifices they made for so long and, instead of reckoning with them, they are pouring their rage onto the people whose sacrifices did not match their own.

It is not heresy to say that some of the restrictions did more harm than good, yet somehow it remains one of the great unspoken parts of the COVID conversation. It should not be. Fury at illicit political boozing may be cathartic, but it fails to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Some good can come out of the stupid, selfish behaviour of these officials; we just need to be honest with ourselves about what we had to go through first.

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