Boris, don’t give in to the neurotic middle classes

Let's be real: some people want to live in lockdown forever because they fear and loathe ordinary people.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Covid-19 Politics UK

At least now we know how to trigger the chattering classes. Just utter the phrase ‘personal responsibility’. Judging by yesterday’s mad, spittle-flying meltdown in response to Boris Johnson’s announcement that Covid restrictions will end on 19 July, no two words horrify the Smart Set more. ‘What do you mean trust people to decide for themselves how to negotiate risk and organise their lives?!’, they were essentially crying. It was a salutary and, let’s be frank, unwittingly hilarious reminder that the self-styled expert classes are in the grip of a fretful, fearful illiberalism that views the masses as vectors of disease rather than as sensible individuals capable of behaving rationally. We may have tamed Covid-19; the next big task is to tame, and ideally defeat, this virus of misanthropy that has been allowed to let rip for too long in the ranks of the new elites.

You could be forgiven for thinking Boris had passed a law making it mandatory for every citizen to snog someone infected with Covid. The response was that mad. Lifting restrictions while the Delta variant is spreading is not unlike doing away with ‘all traffic lights, road markings, speed limits and seat belts’, said one-time comic turned Remoaning madman David Schneider. Social media was awash with predictions of doom and death. Lockdown leftists – who used to call Boris a fascist but who now view him as some kind of daddy figure who should have the right to put us under house arrest whenever he damn well pleases – said ‘personal responsibility’ is a mad idea in a pandemic. The Guardian’s frontpage splash this morning says Boris is taking a ‘gamble’ with people’s lives. He’s making England ‘the most unrestricted society in Europe’. The horror! You can picture Guardian readers up and down the land: ‘Freedom? I knew we should have stayed in the EU.’

The masks discussion was the maddest of all – and the most revealing. Serious commentators fumed at Boris’s confirmation that even masks will no longer be legally mandated come 19 July. ‘Well, I’m going to continue wearing mine!’, some cried. All this ‘whimpering about liberty’ is nauseating, said a writer for the Independent – masks are a ‘small imposition’ with huge benefits, he claimed. We’re heading for the great mask divide, aren’t we? Masks are going to become the latest tool of moral distancing, a way for the right-thinking sections of the bourgeoisie to distinguish themselves from the coughing, snorting throng. It used to be AIDS ribbons or cancer bracelets and more recently a Pride flag dangling from your living-room window – now it’ll be a bit of cloth over your gob, material proof that, unlike Them, you care.

The mask meltdown in particular captured what is really going on here. Sections of the elite are bristling against the lifting of restrictions not because the stats suggest we are heading for another wave as deadly as the first and second – they suggest no such thing – but because they fear other people. Our faces, our breath, the noises we make. Masks will ‘provide an extra layer of defence from the person an inch from your face on the Northern line who hasn’t cleaned their teeth’, said that Indie columnist. In the future we will ‘look back in disbelief at the way we once breathed and snorted and coughed over each other, letting germs and bugs run riot’, he argued. A masked society, in which we all enjoy a modicum of protection from other people’s germ-ridden expressions, is ‘heaven’, he says. Translation: Hell is other people.

This view of the crowd as a potentially diseased menace is not limited to opinion writers. Experts proffer such anti-social, anti-human thinking, too. Professor Susan Michie of SAGE said letting people get back to normal right now is like ‘building new “variant factories”‘. Prophet of doom Deepti Gurdasani agreed: ‘The UK is creating these factories, knowing the risks.’ It seems that to some people this is what freedom is, this is what society is – little more than cauldrons of infection, a messy, breathy, flesh-pressing means for sicknesses to mutate and get worse and worse. That experts can openly talk about freely associating individuals as ‘variant factories’ confirms the extent of their Covid obsessiveness, the fact that they now view everything – freedom, human interaction, society itself – in the narrow, technocratic terms of whether it will create more space for Covid to spread. To paraphrase Wilde, these people know the R-number of everything and the value of nothing.

Some calm, objective reality needs to be marshalled against these Covid obsessives who now trade more in dread than science. As Nick Triggle of the BBC says, it really is time for us all to ‘think differently about Covid’. The hugely successful vaccine rollout has changed everything. And those who implicitly deny this fact – the scientists, celebs and op-ed types who warn of great future horrors if we open up now – are essentially doing down the vaccine miracle. They’re anti-vaxxers in all but name. Triggle points out that in January one in 10 infections led to a hospital admission; now it’s somewhere between one in 40 and one in 50. In January one in 60 infections led to someone dying; now it’s less than one in 1,000. Hospitalisations and deaths are not rising, even though the Delta variant is spreading and we are now in a third wave. And those who are being hospitalised tend to be a lot less sick than those who were hospitalised during the first and second waves. Many don’t need intensive treatment.

This is good, no? It’s great, in fact. We have deployed our scientific knowledge and medical know-how to break the link between Covid infection and serious illness. So why the fear? The gloom? The horror at the prospect of a restoration of liberty? Because this isn’t actually about Covid. Not entirely, anyway. As spiked has argued from the very beginning of the pandemic, Covid-19 is a very serious virus that requires strong interventions from society, but the cultural rendering of Covid as a sickly apocalypse, a pox mankind brought upon himself with all his modernity and whatnot, a disease that will require the creation of a New Normal that just happens to conform to the anti-social, anti-masses outlook of the new elites – all of that was underpinned by a culture of fear that predated the emergence of Covid-19.

What we have in the meltdown over the return of liberty is the clearest illustration yet that it is politics and prejudice that are motoring the middle classes’ attachment to lockdown, not data. The desire to stay socially distanced from the variant-creating throng for as long as possible is in many ways the nadir of the misanthropic ideologies that pass for ‘progressive thought’ among the new elites. From their conviction that the vote for Brexit confirms we live in a nation of pig-ignorant people to their environmentalist belief that humanity is pretty much a plague on the planet, from their nanny-state panic about the follies and fatness of Joe Average and his kids to their obsession with creating Safe Spaces so that they can hide away from the gruff un-PC thoughts of the rest of us, the new elites have been morally distancing themselves from the plebs for a very long time. Now they want to make their separation physical, too – social distancing to complement their moral distancing.

Enough is enough. Boris needs to stand firm against the tsunami of lockdown fanaticism that is going to come his way from the media between now and 19 July, against all the shrill voices demanding that we keep restrictions until September or winter or forever. We cannot allow society to be organised according to the whims and fears of the neurotic middle classes. Of the kind of people who think everything gives you cancer and feeding your children fruit loops will drive them mad with E-numbers and driving to the supermarket once a week literally contributes to the death of a polar bear. Reason needs to make a comeback. It won’t come from the jaundiced elites who flat-out no longer trust ordinary people. Orwell knew. If there is hope, we know where it lies.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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