What was once the land of “keep calm and carry on” could now be the “most frightened nation in the world.” So says Laura Dodsworth, author of A State of Fear: How the UK Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic. Data seem to bear her impression out. According to an Ipsos MORI poll conducted in July, an impressive 27 percent of Britons want to impose a government-mandated nationwide curfew of 10 PM—not then in force—“until the pandemic was under control worldwide,” which might be years from now. A not-inconsiderable 19 percent would impose such a curfew “permanently, regardless of the risk from Covid-19.” Presumably, these are people who don’t get out much. While 64 percent want Britain’s mask mandate in shops and on public transport to remain a legal requirement for the duration of the global pandemic, an astounding 51 percent want to be masked by law, forever.
There’s more: some 35 percent want to confine any Briton who returns from a foreign country, vaccinated or not, to a ten-day home quarantine—permanently, Covid or no Covid. A full 46 percent would require a vaccine passport in order to travel abroad—permanently, Covid or no Covid. So young people today would still be flashing that QR code on whatever passes for smartphones in 2095, though they might have trouble displaying the device to a flight attendant while bracing on their walkers. Likewise, the 36 percent who want to be required to check in at pubs and restaurants with a National Health Service contact-tracing app forever. A goodly 34 percent want social distancing in “theatres, pubs and sports grounds,” regardless of any risk of Covid, forever. A truly astonishing 26 percent of Britons would summarily close all casinos and nightclubs forever. Are these just a bunch of fogies who don’t go clubbing anyway? No. In the 16-to-24 age bracket, the proportion of Brits who want to convert Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London’s Soho into a community lending library, even after Covid is a distant memory, soars to a staggering 40 percent.
Far from yearning for their historic liberties as “free-born Englishmen,” eight out of ten of the British, according to a Southbank/Kingston University survey, were “anxious” about lifting any of their benevolent government’s copious pandemic restrictions. I’m not sure that you can call it Stockholm syndrome when captives don’t fall in love with their captors but with the state of captivity itself.
A U.K. resident for over three decades, I now discover that before March 2020 I didn’t really know the British. Though the U.K. has imposed some of the most stringent and long-lasting pandemic constraints in Europe, the vast majority of Brits throughout have complained only when they haven’t been controlled enough. The prospect of a return to managing their own health risks is anathema. When preparing his wards for “stage four” of the sedulous pandemic-exit “road map” arriving on July 19—an ominous juncture, already mercifully delayed a month, at which legal edicts would convert to official “expectations”—Prime Minister Boris Johnson dared to suggest that the citizenry should act in accordance with “personal responsibility.” In concert, the media, the scientific community, and the populace recoiled in horror.
We’ve all been through our own Covid hell, so I thought I’d share with my fellow Americans what it’s been like across the pond. As I’m a writer, my daily routine in London hasn’t been all that crimped by lockdowns. Instead, the most painful aspect of the pandemic for me has been having my opinion of my adoptive country radically transformed for the worse. It’s tempting to reach for my mother’s most lacerating verdict when I was a kid: “I’m so disappointed in you.”
I’m loath to pile on to the New York Times’s long-standing hate campaign against Boris Johnson, whom the left-wing American media have conflated with Donald Trump, if only because of a similarly disheveled hairstyle. I’m one of those freaks who don’t see Brexit as the end of the world, and Boris may have been a suitably inspirational choice for shepherding his country out of the European Union. But such a chronically indecisive and easily influenced politician has proved a far less competent national custodian through Covid. For 18 months, the British press has alluded incessantly to the PM’s “libertarian instincts.” What’s dominated his policies, however, are authoritarian instincts.
Granted, at the end of March 2020, Johnson found himself stricken with Covid and spent several precarious days in intensive care. That he almost died must have scared the bejesus out of the guy, obviously helping move him to embrace the precautionary principle that has guided his administration ever since (though no receding trauma excuses political panic indefinitely). While the PM’s survival was still touch-and-go, I was on tenterhooks, and not because I was so personally fond of the man. Losing the country’s recently elected leader to this new plague would have jacked up the national coronavirus narrative to a mythic plane, and the lockdown levied only the week before would never have been lifted in my lifetime. Even with Boris pulling through, it’s been bad enough.
Mind, with no written constitution and no bill of rights, Britain has been drifting in an illiberal direction for years. Elaborate hate-speech statutes apply to “protected” groups, such as sexual and racial minorities, the list of which grows ever longer, in defiance of the democratic principle of equality under the law. A mere claim is sufficient to make something hate speech, so guilt depends only on some touchy member of the public pointing a finger. Even posting a droll limerick on Twitter to which trans activists take exception has qualified as a hate crime, as has bannering the dictionary definition of “woman.” Police also lodge the oxymoronic-sounding (or straight-up moronic-sounding) “non-crime hate incidents” in citizens’ criminal records. Now numbering 120,000 over the past five years, non-crime hate incidents have included whistling the theme tune of Bob the Builder at a neighbor and leaving a hamburger bun in a Portuguese national’s driveway “due to their ethnicity.” Britain has imported wholesale the poisonous critical race theory / cancel culture package from the U.S., and its universities are as corrupted with this stuff as America’s. “Health and safety gone mad” is a British tabloid cliché. Thus, the U.K. was already primed for social control when Covid hit.
Public-health authorities have subjected England to three full-scale lockdowns. (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, with independent authorities, have, on average, been even more restrictive.) Meant initially to last three weeks to “flatten the curve” of hospitalizations and keep the health service from being overwhelmed, the first lockdown, beginning in March 2020, lasted three months instead. Some regions continued to be subject to repressive measures throughout the summer. In the autumn, a complex “tier system” attempted to link local infection rates to levels of restriction, but this fluster of different strokes for different folks gave way to another monthlong national lockdown in November. More regional suppression followed, until Britons were allowed a single day to celebrate Christmas. The government urged that families insisting on marking the holiday gather outside in the chill of winter, or at least seat elderly grandparents beside an open window.
In early January—wham!—the party was over altogether, and this lockdown only began to moderate incrementally almost four months in. Since July 19, originally a watershed of liberty that was steadily diluted to a trickle of “Mother, May I,” a bevy of “expectations” have continued to apply. The government and its stern, killjoy scientific advisors, who never suffer any loss of credibility when their repeatedly extremist forecasts hit absurdly wide of the mark, are already preparing the way for more severe restrictions or even restored lockdowns this autumn. You’d never infer from this record of serial social imprisonment that the U.K. has had one of the earliest, fastest, and most universally subscribed Covid vaccination programs in the world. (See “A Cure for Government Incompetence,” Summer 2021.) Nor, from this extended antidemocratic hysteria, would you imagine that it was in reaction to a disease with an infection fatality rate of about 0.23 percent, according to the CDC. (For context, Ebola’s IFR is 50 percent; the Black Plague took out about a third of Europe’s population.)
In styling their propaganda, health authorities have relied on the sledgehammer subtlety of World War II posters. Indeed, political rhetoric has consistently portrayed the pandemic as a war, called upon Britons’ “Blitz spirit,” and anthropomorphized the virus into an enemy with devious intentions to evade the country’s defenses. The most heavy-handed of the government’s several advertising campaigns—which together have constituted the real “blitz”—was “Look them in the eyes . . . and tell them you’re doing all you can to stop the spread of Covid-19.” Posters showed rheumy patients staring into the camera looking soulfully woeful while muzzled by oxygen masks. These images alternated with exhausted nurses in full PPE regalia. (Their dark, resentful expressions could perhaps explain why, for over a year, so few Britons have sought even urgent non-Covid health care from a service they fund.) This happy company greeted riders at nearly every bus shelter.
The numbingly repeated “Stay Home/ Protect the NHS/ Save Lives” tagline chevroned each podium during the government’s televised Covid briefings. (At every point, officials have mercilessly leveraged Britons’ peculiarly sentimental relationship with “our NHS.”) It took a surprisingly long while for media wags to observe that the purpose of the NHS is to protect the people, not the other way around. The government might as well have warned the populace to avoid expressing bellicose sentiments about foreigners so as to “protect the Army.”
Further into the pandemic, that monotonous coronavirus motto morphed to the catchily asonant “Hands/Face/Space”—a slogan that would be right at home in a nursery school and parallels the efficacy of “duck and cover.” By this point, viral transmission from surfaces allegedly accounted for only about one in 10,000 cases; real-world evidence that masks make any substantial contribution to the curtailment of infection remained conspicuously scant; and the virus was known to be communicated by fine aerosols that can circulate aloft for hours, making the government’s two-meter social distancing requirement arbitrary and unscientific.
The “Act Like You’ve Got It” campaign promoted the idea that the one in three Covid carriers who were asymptomatic were primary drivers of the pandemic. This popular and, for propaganda purposes, highly useful claim was based at that time on only “a handful of questionable instances”—like, six of them, according to the experienced pathologist Clare Craig—and relied on dubious data from China. Research remains inconclusive (CDC-affiliated researchers have estimated that 24 percent of transmission is from the asymptomatic), but widespread asymptomatic transmission was not then an established fact. Public-health officials concerned about Covid “misinformation” might start by addressing their own.
Often conflating law with merely advisory “guidance” (a confusion that the U.K. government encourages in the population at large), British police have vigorously enforced edicts from Westminster—the pettier the better. During the first lockdown, Derbyshire police drones photographed a couple hiking in the wilderness with their golden Labrador with no one else in sight, and then published the shot on Twitter with the strapline “WALKING YOUR DOG IN THE PEAK DISTRICT / NOT ESSENTIAL.” (I’ll give the British this much: the chiding was roundly mocked.) In further overreach, police rustled through shoppers’ baskets in supermarkets, again rooting out any items that might be deemed “not essential.” All over the country for months, yellow police tape bound park benches—because it was all right to exercise outdoors but forbidden to rest. In January, two women who had driven five miles to go for a socially distanced walk were surrounded by so many police that one of them “thought someone had been murdered.” The women were fined £200 each because driving out of your local area for exercise was “not in the spirit of the lockdown” and the hot drinks they were carrying were not allowed because they were classed as “a picnic.”
Snitching on your neighbors for violating lockdown measures has been actively encouraged. The majority of English police forces established online forms to report lockdown breaches. Only three days into the first lockdown, the Northamptonshire force alone had received “dozens and dozens” of public reports about, for instance, neighbors who had been out for a second run in one day (more “guidance,” not law). By early April 2020, a full 11 percent of Derbyshire’s 2,300 daily calls were to rat out lockdown flouters. Last autumn, Johnson encouraged local councils to hire citizen “Covid marshals” to bully and harass the noncompliant. (One of Google’s “related searches” when I input “reports on lockdown breaches U.K.” runs “do you get a reward for reporting Covid breaches.”) In a January 2021 YouGov poll, 91 percent of Britons claimed that they would keep following the rules, but 56 percent did not believe that other people would. Sanctimony plus faultfinding equals a formula for “curtain twitchers” on a scale that would make the Stasi proud.
The truth is that the British love rules. (God forbid that you should ever find yourself at the mercy of a British accountant.) Worse, they revere rules for their own sake. Few of the niggling, micromanaging regulations during this era have had any serious basis in epidemiology. Last autumn’s “rule of six,” which sounds straight out of Harry Potter, was pulled out of thin air; no scientific research substantiates that social gatherings of half a dozen are safe, while those of seven or more are potentially lethal. After the government allowed pubs and restaurants to open in mid-May, one was hard-pressed to discern the medical justification for sharing a meal unencumbered for hours but then having to wear a mask on the way out the door. Office workers typing side by side while only partially separated by Plexiglas would have been better protected from free-floating Covid aerosols by being issued hand-painted Japanese fans. Amid the bramble of invented thou-shalt-nots during the “tier system” last October, we had a serious governmental debate over whether a Scotch egg counted as a “substantial meal,” without noticeable media questioning of whether ordering food of whatever caloric value with your pint has anything to do with communicating a respiratory virus. As a consequence of this pointless condition on ordering a drink, British pubs last year were obliged to chuck mountains of food.
During the whole Covid period in Britain, the only instances of widespread public consternation have been occasioned by stories about ministers or government advisors hypocritically breaking their own rules. The public never goes the extra step to reason that, if the people who make the rules are breaking them, maybe there’s something wrong with the rules.
Fines for violations have often been confiscatory, and on the willfully terrifying scale that officialdom employs only when a law is secretly unenforceable. Organizing a protest? That’ll be £10,000 (about $13,550), especially if you’ve assembled a protest against lockdowns—but not for organizing Black Lives Matter marches. What if you’ve neglected to fill out a form at the airport or filled it out incorrectly? That’ll be another £10,000, thank you. A ten-grand fine is more than enough to destroy the average Briton. Fortunately, the courts, the last bastion of sanity and due process, have voided convictions for violating Covid restrictions wholesale.
By this past spring, even heading to the airport without a “reasonable excuse” became punishable with a £5,000 fine. For with no fanfare, a few days before Christmas 2020—and allowing for only four exceptions—the administration had enacted a truly extraordinary ban on Britons leaving their own country at all. (Though initially planned to last only until New Year’s Day, the ban was not lifted until May 17.) One can’t help but recall that during the Cold War, it was Communists’ imprisonment of their own people behind the Iron Curtain that made these roach-motel countries seem especially invidious to Westerners. Britons with family or property abroad were out of luck for at least five months.
“Yellow police tape bound park benches—because it was all right to exercise outdoors but forbidden to rest.”
As for the confusing “traffic light system” that now governs international travel, constant last-minute changes to the scheme make booking trips abroad perilous. (One of the islands included among the tiny number of the original “green list” countries doesn’t even have an airport.) Thanks to extravagantly priced Covid tests required on return, travel for most ordinary families has become unaffordable. And to journey to a “red-list” country, requiring hotel quarantine once back in the U.K.—ten days with awful food in a tiny room that costs £2,285 per person—you’d have to be out of your mind.
Predictably, as with most issues, Covid has cleaved Americans into mutually hostile camps. Yet in our polarized, reactive polity, it’s surely worth asking: Had Trump gone whole hog for restrictions rather than playing the pandemic down, would Democrats have accused this “authoritarian” president of using the coronavirus as a thin pretext to impose martial law and seize total control? If Trump had vehemently advocated shutting down the economy and forcing Americans to cower in their homes, perhaps progressives, alarmed since 2016 by the threat he posed to democracy, would have opposed lockdowns and instead have insisted on a light touch, with judicious protections for those most at risk. I guess we’ll never know.
By contrast, in Britain, Covid has tyrannized the country with consensus. The media regulator Ofcom advised from the get-go that it would frown upon media coverage contrary to government dogma, and mainstream broadcasters fell eagerly into line. Unless tuning in to the tiny outlier TalkRadio or doing private research online (which Big Tech soon began to censor for Covid heresy), Britons have received little exposure to reporting that questions government policy.
In the main, the only criticisms that brave broadcast journalists have ventured are that lockdowns have not been imposed early enough, long enough, or strenuously enough. “Experts” have been systematically cherrypicked to be as alarmist as possible. Cheerful statistics—hospital discharges of Covid patients exceeding admissions or all-cause death rates dipping below the five-year average for months on end in 2021—never seem to make the news. This spring, when health-care professionals finally received instructions to stop tallying as Covid fatalities patients who tested positive for the virus but really died of something else, media reports were small and quiet. No one asked why moribund cancer patients who simply happened to carry the virus when they died (and who had often been infected in a hospital) were ever counted as Covid fatalities to begin with. It’s perverse, but from the start it’s been hard to resist the impression that, once committed to the narrative of full-blown calamity, the media and the government have both wanted to make the death toll appear as high as possible.
When daily deaths and hospitalizations fell so low this spring that they no longer served to petrify the public, the media abandoned these metrics and switched to reporting “cases” or positive tests instead. More tests, of course, mean more “cases.” (In the last year, U.K. Covid testing has multiplied by a factor of ten.) By custom, reporters never clarify how many of these new cases represent people who are actually sick.
By and large, the British media have neglected to cover the frequency of false positives or rampant cross-contamination in labs. Broadcast journalists have made little effort to question the effectiveness of masks, to interrogate the evidence for asymptomatic transmission, or to reassure the public about the unlikelihood of getting Covid from surfaces—so Britons have never been advised to stop washing their hands dozens of times a day while singing the Happy Birthday song to themselves twice. Most of all, the media have blithely ignored more than 40 international studies demonstrating that lockdowns and stringent government restrictions in general have no correlation with Covid death rates in real-world data. The information that U.S. states that have opened up or remained open have fared as well as—and often better than—those that enforced draconian shelter-in-place orders is readily available in The Daily Sceptic (originally Lockdown Sceptics) newsletter, but you will never encounter that fact on Radio 4 or the BBC News.
Consensus has been the order of the day in Parliament as well. Johnson’s government initially relied on a 1984 public-health act as the basis for imposing its lockdown because conveniently, this law did not specify further parliamentary approval. The Coronavirus Act 2020, which granted the government virtually unlimited emergency powers, passed into law with no parliamentary scrutiny, debate, or even a vote. Parliament rubber-stamped its extension through this September. For while a growing rump of rebellious Tory MPs have resisted the ongoing curtailment of civil liberties, their votes are made moot by the fact that the “opposition” Labour Party has criticized the government only for being insufficiently oppressive. Otherwise, on Covid, Labour has consistently voted with the government, whose emergency powers it seems content to renew for the indefinite future. The result is government by diktat. Worse, Johnson’s administration is now dedicated to heeding the very paranoid, ultracautious public opinions that its own propaganda manifested, like a snake chasing its tail. You create a monster, and then you take the monster’s advice.
In contrast with the blue/red divide in the U.S., most Britons, regardless of party affiliation, have supported restrictions. But dig down, and you’ll find that the most zealous lockdown fans are also Brexit Remainers—ostensibly on the left but more than happy after the 2016 referendum to contravene the democratic will of the majority by any means possible. The “Left” in both the U.S. and U.K. now embraces coercion. Though historically, liberals have been portrayed as having faith in the natural goodness of mankind—naïve faith, from a conventionally conservative perspective—the new Left is under no such illusion. Not only do leftists characterize the proles as compulsively, even genetically, racist; they also portray them as selfish and stupid, and therefore unworthy of being trusted to act in the interest of their own or their community’s health. They must be forced.
While Britain’s vaccination drive has been stellar, neither politicians nor the government’s medical advisors act as if vaccines actually work. Now that the bulk of the population has been offered vaccines, refuseniks are voluntarily taking their chances—but the unvaccinated, soon to constitute no more than 10 percent of Britons, should pose little threat to the fully immunized (if the vaccines work). Even if the vaccinated can still become infected, their response to the virus should be mild enough that it hardly justifies government intervention of any sort. Yet after vowing repeatedly to forswear it, Johnson and Co. continue to entertain the imposition of a domestic vaccine-passport system.
Not the pandemic itself, but the state’s response to it, has been a catastrophe for Britain. The waiting list for non-Covid medical treatment may soon approach 13 million people (out of a total population of only 67 million). Children have lost nearly a year of education. Mental health has decayed; domestic abuse has accelerated. Sovereign debt has soared; small business has been ravaged.
But the most enduring damage to the home of Magna Carta may be political. The transformation of the United Kingdom is permanent. Its citizens can never again characterize lockdowns and other previously unthinkable government edicts, such as “you’re forbidden to leave the country,” as unprecedented. The state has established precedents galore. The public is already being softened up for the return of repressive measures in some form this autumn, even if only to control a surge of flu.
It’s official: British civil liberties are provisional. They can be rescinded at a moment’s notice on the government’s whim. They are privileges, not rights. The anything-but-inalienable “rights” to free expression, to protest, to assembly, to association, to worship, to travel, to work: all require permission slips. What Britons might have regarded not long ago as inconceivable, even comical, overreach—such as the government’s instructing you whether you’re allowed to hold your grandmother’s hand; whether, and even in what manner, you may embrace another human being; whether, with whom, and how you have sex—now lies within the British state’s remit. And that’s exactly where these intimate personal matters are destined to remain.
Top Photo: The media, the scientific community, and the public recoiled when Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested that, in confronting the virus, people should act in accordance with “personal responsibility.” (PA IMAGES/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)