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The shadow of lockdown hangs over the election

None of our leaders is prepared to talk about the real cause of Britain’s troubles.

Ross Clark

Topics Covid-19 Politics Science & Tech UK

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There is a large shadow hanging over the UK General Election, but it is one that hardly anyone dares mention: the pandemic.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has occasionally made reference to the furlough scheme, in a doomed effort to regain just a little of the popularity he enjoyed when he first came up with the idea. Other party leaders have mentioned Partygate once or twice. Otherwise, one of the most seismic events in national and global history this century has vanished without trace.

This is astonishing, not least as we can’t get two minutes through a TV debate, hustings or interview without the NHS cropping up. Healthcare seems to be central to Britain’s political life – but the biggest health crisis of our times doesn’t feature in the discussion. Shouldn’t policies to tackle a future pandemic be an important part of political debate? Don’t we have a right to know what candidates would do in that circumstance – whether they would send us into lockdown, close schools or introduce compulsory vaccinations? No less important, it would be good to know what they plan to do now, over the next five years, to prepare scientifically for the emergence of another pathogen.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Keir Starmer and Labour are reluctant to mention Covid. If they did, they would remind people of the backstory behind the UK’s sluggish economic growth and high inflation, which they’d rather just blame on the Tories. Yet it is quite plain that so much of what is going wrong in Britain at the moment can be traced back to the fallout from Covid, and in particular the decision to impose lockdowns on the population for months at a time.

Until the early months of 2020, the economy was growing steadily. Aside from the immediate bounceback after lockdown, we have hardly had any meaningful growth since. Similarly, the numbers of people on out-of-work benefits had been falling gradually ever since Iain Duncan Smith started on his welfare reforms in 2010. Now, the numbers of people apparently too sick to work have rebounded to record levels.

What about NHS waiting lists? It is absurd to discuss them without mentioning the context. For months on end during the lockdowns, people who needed to seek medical attention were dissuaded from doing so. The NHS suspended all kinds of treatment in order to focus on Covid. As a result, we now have a massive backlog of people who should have been treated but weren’t, and whose medical conditions have now advanced to a point where the treatment required is more complex than it would have been had they received timely attention.

The election campaign has bypassed all these important issues. We have heard nothing on the link between civil servants working from home and abysmal productivity in the public sector. No one seems to want to discuss whether long weeks away from work in 2020 and 2021 have contributed to a growing work-shy attitude among some employees – which, in turn, may be feeding through to high migration figures, as employers are forced to look overseas for competent staff. As far as Labour is concerned, it all comes down to one thing: the Tories ‘crashing’ the economy as a result of their incompetence.

There is another way in which the pandemic has played into Labour’s hands, even if the party would never admit it. Lockdowns helped to fundamentally change the relationship between the individual and the state.

There are large numbers of people who were fooled into thinking that the only thing standing between them and certain death was heavy-handed intervention by the state. Day after day, people were conditioned into behaving in the manner that government scientists told them to. They were made to believe that failure to do so would lead to an explosion in Covid deaths, as per the scary graphs that were presented to us at the daily Downing Street press conferences. Large numbers of people acted on every last word. They disregarded obvious evidence that government scientists were themselves fishing around in the dark, swinging wildly between a herd-immunity strategy and lockdowns, between telling us mask-wearing was unnecessary and counterproductive to ordering us not to venture into public without one.

The fallout from this was that liberal values ended up being pushed to the margins of society, while big-state intervention came back into fashion with a vengeance. This did not merely apply to healthcare matters. Many people also picked up the idea that we need government to be pulling the strings of the economy, all the time. Emergency Covid grants and loans promoted dependence on state cash.

Clearly, this suits a Labour Party whose existence is rooted in command economics. Sadly, we will now have to re-learn what we end up learning every time aggressive state intervention in the economy is tried: that it is hugely injurious to economic incentive and personal responsibility. Keir Starmer might go on about making economic growth a priority, but everything he proposes seems to point in the other direction: to greater, enterprise-destroying red tape.

The long shadow of Covid will be cast over us for a long time yet.

Ross Clark is a journalist and author of Not Zero: How an Irrational Target Will Impoverish You, Help China (and Won’t Even Save the Planet).

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Covid-19 Politics Science & Tech UK

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