The Execution of Louis XVI in the Place de la Revolution on 21 January 1793, 1790s. Found in the collection of Musée Carnavalet, Paris. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

What kind of government rules by fear?

The spirit of Lockdown has paralysed the country, and the government itself

In 1793, France entered a period of acute crisis as the newly formed French Republic was at war with Britain and its allies, as well as counterrevolutionaries among its own people. On both fronts, the government was in a weak and precarious position. As the crisis escalated, the National Convention delegated increasing authority to the Committee of Public Safety – a government body elected to organise the national defence against both foreign and domestic enemies – until it effectively controlled the country.

Governments that rule by fear are ultimately ruled by fear

On 10 October of that year, the Committee declared they would “make Terror the order of the day”. All would be subject to the authority of “reason”, and “enemies” of the Revolution were guillotined en masse. The Committee assured citizens that this “provisional government shall be revolutionary until peace” – but observers at the time were distraught to find that even when conditions within France and on the front lines had improved, “the bloodshed continued unabated”. Even when the reasons for the use of extreme force slowly disappeared, a programme of fear and oppression continued under the pretence of safety.

What is most striking about the retrospectively named Reign of Terror is the way in which a programme of extreme vigilance effectively terrorised the government itself. The Committee of Public Safety became so engrossed in battling its enemies that it ultimately lost sight of the goals it set for itself and continued to use extraordinary force even when the threats used to justify it had subsided. If there is one thing we can learn from this moment in history, it is that governments that rule by fear are ultimately ruled by fear as well.

There is no doubt that the UK was unprepared to deal with the pandemic. The NHS, already desperately underfunded, was overwhelmed by victims of this new and mysterious disease. The government failed to mobilise the ambitious testing programme it had promised early in 2020; the death toll continued to rise dramatically despite the strict lockdown; and the wildly expensive “Operation Moonshoot,” despite promises to the contrary, did nothing whatsoever to ease the restrictions. All the while, the prime minister insisted he had “great confidence” in the government’s ability to “defeat this disease and move the country forward”.

As the cracks in their strategy began to form, the government dialled up its rhetoric of fear and vigilance in order to appear as though it were taking control of the crisis. The problem now is that these battle-cries have effectively terrified the government itself, which continues to swing its axe wildly against an invisible enemy. The government has become so hyper-vigilant against the threat of Covid-19 that it has lost sight of its own targets and continues to enforce crippling restrictions even when the threat of the disease, both perceived and real, has significantly diminished.

The government has effectively terrified its people, and itself, into inaction

Under the iron law of “the data,” and the unduly weighted authority of epidemiologists who have no experience in running a country, the government has effectively terrified its people, and itself, into inaction. In press conferences, the prime minister and his advisors leverage the numbers of positive cases and deaths as an unquestionable reason to keep people house bound. Even when those numbers drastically improve, the government projects fear into the future, making vague and mostly unsubstantiated predictions that things could always get worse. Boris Johnson calls this “remaining vigilant,” but lockdown is really a means of increasing confidence in a government that has badly mishandled its response to the pandemic, and these oppressive measures have done vastly more harm than good.

Let’s establish the facts. The pandemic is a grave problem that has shortened the lives of tens of thousands of people in the UK who would have lived in an average year. It is important to take this very seriously and do everything we can to limit the spread of this disease; but it must also be remembered that, for the vast majority of people, Covid-19 is an illness of mild to moderate severity. For those under age 50, the fatality rate is below 0.15 per cent; for those under age 70, it is below 3.6 per cent. The number of asymptomatic cases has also been greatly overestimated. Out of more than 10,000 asymptomatic students tested at the University of Cambridge in December, zero tested positive for the disease. A study of 10 million people in Wuhan found no evidence of asymptomatic transmission. Covid is far less deadly and far less widespread than initially predicted.

Most importantly, the people most likely to die of Covid-19 have now been vaccinated. Of all deaths from Covid-19, more than 90 per cent are among people 65 and older. In addition to those over the age of 65, care home residents, health care workers, and those with underlying health conditions make up the four “priority” groups. This sets a parameter for the number of vaccinations needed to safely bring the UK back into normality. The government has now successfully delivered vaccines to all of these priority groups, and the risk of serious illness and hospitalisation has now been reduced by over 80 percent; this spectacular achievement should mark the end of lockdown.

It is very unusual for a government to encourage its people to be afraid during a crisis

The government has met – and surpassed – its conditions for reopening the country. Still, the prime minister is reluctant to make any definitive statement on when the lockdown will end, and continues to justify restrictions on the basis of a need for extreme caution. This is alarming, to say the least. Despite the enormous reduction in the number of serious cases and fatalities, the government’s message is still essentially one of fear: Boris Johnson proudly states that millions have been vaccinated, only to immediately urge people “not to put that success at risk”. The overwhelming success of the vaccination programme is being cited not as a reason to end restrictions, but to continue them.

When even the diminishment of a threat is used to justify the government’s use of extreme force and curtailment of civil liberties, the timeline for “temporary” restrictions is indefinitely extended, and there is no limitation upon the government’s use of its “emergency powers”. In a press conference in January, Boris stated it was an “open question” as to “when and in what way we can start to relax any of the measures” under an abundance of caution. Now he is promising only to do “what we can” with extreme caution based on “data, not dates”. Even his “one-way road to freedom” is patrolled by the spectre of “the numbers,” which retain the power to force the country into reverse. What has hitherto been justified as a necessary response to a crisis has become an unlawful extension of government authority, justified by persistent calls for “vigilance” and “safety,” and enforced by an incitement of fear.

It is very unusual for a government to encourage its people to be afraid during a crisis. Throughout other major crises in Britain in recent history, the government has acknowledged serious threats while promoting a spirit of calm and hope. When terrorists blew up the London underground in 2005, the message was: Do not be afraid. Continue life as normal. “Business as usual” became the popular slogan, and “London can take it”. Even when the UK was hit by twelve more major terrorist attacks between 2005 and 2012, the message stayed the same. Do not change your way of life out of fear.

This defiant response was seen as the continuation of a British tradition stretching back to the Blitz. The Blitz Spirit has certainly been mythologised and idealised in many ways. But it is remarkable that in those hellish days, Winston Churchill issued “a message of good cheer” and courage in the face of unimaginable horror. While people were huddled in bomb shelters, BBC radio broadcasters also had the good sense not to go into detail about devastation of the bombings, but rather to report the facts calmly and objectively, while encouraging its listeners to stay strong.

Hancock has created a self-policing nation by internalising fear and instilling it into every part of our lives

Compare this to the rhetoric of the current government and its news outlets. Matt Hancock warned in a recent interview with the BBC that “every time you try to flex the rules that could be fatal,” and that “people need to not just follow the letter of the rules but follow the spirit as well and play their part”. Failure to do so, he threatens, will result in an extension of the lockdown. Hancock has even encouraged us all to “behave as though we have the virus,” and as though mere proximity to our grandparents will kill them. Hancock has created a self-policing nation by internalising fear and instilling it into every part of our lives.

The BBC has amplified this message of fear by interviewing survivors of Covid-19 who had abnormal experiences with the disease. “Luton Teen speaks of ‘really scary’ time her dad caught virus,” read one absurd headline on 14 February. “I had my funeral planned in my head,” warned another. In both cases, the patients were outliers who had unusually serious side-effects from Covid-19 given the national statistics. But the BBC chose not to mention the fact that these were abnormalities. The effect of these articles is to scare people of every age into believing that if they catch Covid-19, they are at risk of serious illness and death, even when that is statistically improbable.

Surely, you might protest, a healthy dose of fear is beneficial in the fight against Covid-19 and actually helps to prevent the spread of the disease. It is certainly true that any effective response to the pandemic depends upon an honest and sober account of the facts. But I would argue that the government and its national news networks have promoted an excess of fear which has done vastly more harm than good. By fixating upon the rising and falling number of Covid-19 infections, and ignoring every other measure of public health, the government has lost sight of the devastation that lockdown has caused. “The plight of Covid isn’t just with those who are going through Covid,” Laura Lee, the chief executive of the cancer charity Maggie’s, reminded us.

Lockdown has had especially tragic consequences for cancer patients. It is estimated that three million people have missed cancer screenings, and between April and August 2020, cancer referrals were down by 350,000 from the same period in 2019. This is not for a lack of care or effort on the part of the NHS – according to Amanda Pritchard, the NHS England chief operating officer, 95 per cent of those urgently referred for cancer treatment began treatment within 31 days, a remarkable feat given the pressure the government has placed on hospitals to prioritise Covid-19.

The biggest problem seems to be that people have simply not been going to the doctor, even when they are seriously ill, because they are afraid to do so. Professor Sir Sam Everington, chair of the Tower Hamlets Clinical Commissioning Group, believes that the constant barrage of news about Covid deaths has made people “so frightened that they’re just not ringing their GP or going to hospital”. The Lancet gravely predicted that the resulting delays in diagnosis and referral of cancer patients will lead to the loss of more than 60,000 life-years in the next decade. People who would have otherwise survived from cancer will die because they have been too scared to visit their doctors.

The government is holding the country hostage to fluctuating Covid-19 statistics

Like so many other things, Hancock has made the availability of cancer services contingent upon the fluctuating number of Covid-19 infections. In response to questions in Parliament in October regarding the effect of lockdown on cancer treatment, Hancock replied that, “unless we suppress the virus, we cannot keep non-Covid NHS services going.” Perhaps if the government had focused its efforts on improving and maintaining healthcare services, rather than spending billions on asymptomatic testing programmes and furlough schemes, there would have been no such brutal calculation. But the suspension of cancer treatment is a grievous example of how holding the country hostage to fluctuating Covid-19 statistics is not only irresponsible, but deadly.

Children have also suffered acutely from lockdown. The closure of schools has stunted their progress and caused them enormous stress in the most formative years of their lives. Removed from the care of their teachers and friends, children in the UK have been suffering from record levels of anxiety. The rise in domestic violence is also horrifying: according to Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman, lockdown and the resulting rise in poverty and mental illness is responsible for a 20 per cent increase in the number of babies being harmed or killed at home, either accidentally or intentionally.

The predicted rise in poverty-related deaths from lockdown is also staggering. In the UK, one million children (and counting) depend upon free meals at schools which are now closed. Add to this the fact that almost one million businesses – 15 per cent of all UK businesses – will likely be permanently closed by April 2021 thanks to lockdown, and the grim reality emerges that hundreds of thousands of families will lose their sole source of income and be plunged into poverty. Indeed, more and more children report that their families are struggling to afford food.

This is a global problem. The United Nations predicts that far more people will die of hunger around the world than from Covid-19, due to the disruption of food supply chains caused by lockdown. UNICEF also reports that the disruption caused by lockdowns is likely to cause the deaths of 7 million children around the world from hunger and malnutrition. The executive director of UNICEF, Henrietta Fore, said, “It is increasingly clear that the repercussions of the pandemic are causing more harm to children than the disease itself.”

Lockdown is brutally inegalitarian. It was sickening to watch public-service announcements from celebrities on various social media platforms at the beginning of the pandemic urging people to stay home, in which pleas for caution were broadcast from their mansions. It is easy to support lockdown when you have access to acres of land and to private healthcare. As The Lancet reported, “Those near or below the poverty line stand to benefit little from lockdown, but they bear the lion’s share of the cost.”

The events of 1790s France warn us of how an atmosphere of terror can justify the use of extreme force

As if all this weren’t enough cause for concern, the government has made it effectively illegal to protest against lockdown. The exemptions to the ban on social gatherings no longer apply generally to protests, and police are cracking down on protests on the basis that they violate Tier 4 rules. Police dispersed an anti-lockdown protest in Hyde Park and arrested demonstrators “under health protection regulations,” according to a tweet by the Met on 2 January. This should be the final straw; yet our very means of expressing outrage against the government’s extreme use of force has been criminalised.

One of the most disturbing features of the Reign of Terror was the government’s monopolisation of virtue. “Terror is nothing more than an emanation of justice, prompt, severe, inflexible,” declared Maximilien Robespierre, the de facto leader of the Committee of Public Safety. “It is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.” We, too, have moralised fear in response to a crisis. Those who take extreme and even ludicrous precautions are lauded as good citizens, while those who oppose lockdown are deemed a threat to the health and safety of the nation, and silenced.

The events of the 1790s in France warn us of how an atmosphere of terror can justify the use of extreme force indefinitely, and blind a nation to its consequences. The present government’s panicked obsession with vigilance and safety has obscured the fact that the threat which once justified extreme measures has dissipated. The most vulnerable groups in the country, which made up the vast majority of fatalities from the disease, have all been vaccinated. Even if the numbers of Covid-19 infections were still at their highest point, numbers alone cannot justify the devastating effects of full lockdown, which if it persists may end up killing more people than the disease itself. It is time for the government to look around and realise that the enemy it has been fighting blindly has crawled away, while the country groans from its wounds.

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