Covid is not over

The UK’s response to Covid has been, and still is, characterised by delay and indifference. This is largely but not wholly because Boris Johnson was Prime Minister when it struck. Johnson made being irresponsible fun, and we all paid the price for it, as the Covid inquiry is now slowly and painstakingly beginning to make clear. The British electorate was shallow enough to fall for it, and resistant enough to taking responsibility seriously to make it very risky for a political party to advocate it. But sometimes it is right for political parties to say unpopular things.

A liberal response to Covid would start from the basic principle: we should be free to do everything we want, provided we do not infringe other people’s freedom. Conrad Russell noted that that proviso is far more of a limitation than most people realise.

During the crisis we did all the things we were asked to do (unlike Johnson et al). Once it was over, most of us embraced our “freedom”, and stopped counting the cost to other people. More than a million clinically extremely vulnerable people remain effectively trapped in their own homes because they cannot count on the rest of us to keep them safe. The population at large (including, unfortunately, a lot of medical practitioners) embraces the fictions that it’s over (while the aptly named FU.1 variant is spreading globally 50% faster than previous variants) and that it’s just like flu. But currently 200+ people die every week with Covid on the death certificate (this is known to be significant underreporting). Flu doesn’t kill people in the summer. Flu doesn’t cause the long term sequelae that Covid does. People don’t get Long Flu, whereas currently in the UK alone two million are suffering from Long Covid (ONS figures).

80% of Japanese people still mask in public. The instant reaction will be they’re different, they’re more conformist, we believe in freedom.

But it doesn’t have to be about ideology or culture. It can and should be about common sense. I am free to not wear a mask; but my not wearing a mask increases the risk of you getting Covid. And that is a much worse fate than the tiny inconvenience of a mask. Back to the key principle that we are free to do whatever we want provided it does not impact on other people’s freedom. This principle says that we must take responsibility for the effect we have on other people. Going about unmasked and not taking other sensible and barely inconvenient precautions puts other people at risk. To be liberal, we should take account of that and act responsibly.

It is time for the Liberal Democrats to say, “Hey, this is our core principle. It’s time to be sensible about this. People are suffering dire long term consequences, or even dying, because we refuse to take responsibility for the effect we have on others.  People are suffering dire long term consequences, or even dying, because we won’t press the government to do sensible things like allocating meaningful budgets for air filtration in schools and public buildings. ‘Living with’ Covid actually means dying with it.”

It seems to me that this would be the liberal way, despite the public’s impatience with it.

* Rob Parsons is a Lib Dem member in Lewes. He blogs at http://acomfortableplace.blogspot.co.uk. He curates Liberal Quotes on Facebook

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40 Comments

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Jun '23 - 5:01pm

    I agree with this. I was a regular contributor here as elsewhere saying it for weeks and months and those years of the height of Covid. I was and am one of those who thought and think, we ought to have fully beaten it and not let it become endemic, unlike few of the previous pandemic incidents, that do eventually get beaten fully covid didn’t. The reason this did not was how easy to catch it is, and that the so called vaccine, is considered one, fully, but it is not, in the sense we understood the word for a century. It does not give full or any high immunity for long and it does not stop transmission to much an extent.

    Big companies and the government and opposition and most people, liked to think none of this was the case. Similarly the way the NHS was considered to have done wonders, as if that meant it was beaten. It wasn’t and isn’t.

    The practice of social distancing, not hand shaking, was and is better than mask wearing. The end of mass events had a similar effect, and did and does much. As the more who get the vaccine and more who get the virus, has not given the immunity to stop the spread, two things are possible. A real drive to get a cure, ie a vaccine that properly does its job, and an acceptance that if you have any germs, any sign of a cold, you distance at home should be the way.

  • Martin Gray 22nd Jun '23 - 7:25pm

    Ultimately, the lockdowns will be proven to be infinitely worse than the disease ….Millions of missed GP & Hospital appointments, hundreds of school days missed , the effect on mental health etc.
    These will impact for years to come .

  • George Thomas 22nd Jun '23 - 7:37pm

    I would be wary of focusing too much on Boris regarding covid. Firstly, because health is devolved – though living next to Boris run England does have some impact – and secondly because so many things went wrong on basis of having such an unequal society where public health and infrastructure had taken a 10 year beating. George Osbourne performs well but if Boris was partying while Rome burned, then Osbourne was the one who lit the match.

    But I do respect your article focuses on what is happening now and what will happen next. Am I right to say that Japanese people didn’t always wear masks and it became more widespread after an earlier disease wildfire? It’s interesting that we’ve not acted in the same way. I suppose cost, strong right-wing media promoting individualism and fear of going back to those times could be the explanation.

    “Meaningful budgets for air filtration in schools and public buildings” is probably more likely on basis that it won’t be so obviously seen.

  • Chris Moore 22nd Jun '23 - 7:58pm

    Rob, I’d just like to make one correction to your interesting article.

    In fact, there have been many sufferers from “long flu”. Their illness has gone under various names: Post-Viral fatigue Syndrome, M.E., Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and so forth.

    The reaction of the medical establishment to sufferers from the long-term sequels to an initial viral illness has been grossly inadequate, intellectually and ethically. And has led to serious long-term suffering to a group of vulnerable individuals (estimated prevalence 100,000 current sufferers in the UK).

    It’s to be hoped that the many sufferers from the above mentioned illnesses receive more rational treatment, given the wide acceptance of the reality of Long Covid.

  • Rob Parsons 22nd Jun '23 - 9:09pm

    Chris Moore 7.58 pm that’s a very valid point, Chris, and a correction I am happy to accept. Though I’m afraid Long Covid is getting much the same treatment as ME etc, with snake oil salespeople determined to have us think it’s all in the mind and a bit of exercise and CBT will cure our unhelpful thoughts. I fear those with Long Covid will be consigned to the dustbin even as the country grapples with the immense social and financial cost of dealing with millions rather than hundreds of thousands who a) can’t work and b) need care.

  • Steve Trevethan 22nd Jun '23 - 9:09pm

    Might it be wiser and kinder for us, individually and collectively, to keep firmly in mind that there are at least four types of freedom:
    * Freedom to
    * Freedom from
    * Freedom under the law
    *Freedom within our society

    Might freedom from death and debilitating disease be of more use and validity than freedom not to wear a mask?
    Might fewer have died or been damaged if we had had national leadership which showed and promoted freedom under the law and freedom within the safety needs of our society?

  • Rob Parsons 22nd Jun '23 - 9:13pm

    @George 7.27 pm I wanted to make the point that Johnson has been the lightning conductor for careless, selfish attitudes among the general public, but I agree that the genesis of our awful approach to the pandemic is way back before him. Both the general attitude of self centred welfare and the running down of public services (which the inquiry is clearly highlighting) go back – in my opinion (others are available) – to the deathly stranglehold Thatcherism has had on both our society and our economy for more than a generation.

  • Tristan Ward 22nd Jun '23 - 9:32pm

    I’m sorry. Politically this idea is a massive vote loser.

  • Tristan Ward 22nd Jun '23 - 9:35pm

    This is a difficult subject far more worth talking about: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/jun/22/leave-voters-brexit-success-poll

  • Mel Borthwaite 22nd Jun '23 - 10:42pm

    A thought-provoking article though I disagree with your conclusion. Restrictions were acceptable to buy time to allow a vaccine to be developed but now that vaccines are available the onus returns to individuals to be responsible for their own safety. For most people, getting vaccinated is the best way to protect themselves. For others who reject vaccines or are unable to take them for some reason, the onus in on them to take other steps to reduce the risks they face. This could involved them wearing masks and washing hands regularly but in extreme cases may involve them choosing to remain at home rather than risking mingling with others.

  • Simon McGrath 23rd Jun '23 - 6:39am

    Its not at all clear if masks make any difference. Here is the latest Cochrane review https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD006207.pub6/full?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email

  • ” A liberal response to Covid would start from the basic principle: we should be free to do everything we want, provided we do not infringe other people’s freedom.”
    Is it liberal? This seems to be basically a “Me, me, me, sorry (I stepped on your toes)” philosophy. Is a slightly modified form of Conservative thinking (ie. “Me me me, tough luck”) really the best we can come up with?

    A good question to ask is whether the UK’s muddled lockdown approach meant we as a civil society better rode out CoViD and thus emerged less damaged than those societies that did nothing (yes there is documented evidence of communities that simply let CoViD rip through them) and those who implemented draconian lockdowns (of which there are also documented examples).
    To me it is obvious, if the national lockdown had actually been a national lockdown, so that people living in say Birmingham couldn’t commute into central London and thus mingle with “colleagues” from Kent, the Kent variant would not have gone national as quickly as it did.

  • @Tristan part of the point was to consider the issue of when we should do the right thing even if it is a vote loser. Are political parties just vote garnering machines or should principle play a part in our decision making. Principle eventually becomes a vote winner because it makes it difficult for voters to say you’re all the same.

    Also, I’d question how many votes we’d lose. We’d give another reason to those who’d never vote for us. The floating population might pause and think – at last, somebody is saying something sensible.

    And finally I agree on Brexit and have said so here: https://www.libdemvoice.org/embrace-the-elephant-73254.html. We can do both at once.

  • @Mel what you’re saying is what we are doing at the moment. We take responsibility only for ourselves and not for the effect we have on other people. I respect that viewpoint, but it is not liberal. Liberalism comprises the two arms – I am free, but I am not free to do things that compromise your freedom. That does not mean that I must not do them, it means that we then have to start negotiating where the boundaries lie and how we can best achieve the most freedom for both of us. To refuse to take any action, no matter how minor, that would help other people to live better lives is very self centred. The kind of things I am suggesting here are tiny, tiny inconveniences that ought to be no problem to most of us but for the fact that our media have fetishised “freedom” and we have followed along.

  • @Simon Cochrane is obsessed with randomised controlled trials, which don’t provide very good evidence with things like mask wearing. The review notes over and over again “low quality” “low quality”. What low quality means is that the evidence produced by the research is too weak to justify any conclusion.

    There is plenty of real world evidence to show that mask wearing does work in reducing transmission. it doesn’t eliminate it, but it does reduce it significantly. For instance, I read the other day – I can’t find the reference now – that when Addenbrookes hospital re-introduced mask wearing – and wearing them properly – they all but eliminated hospital acquired infection, which had been running at a significant level beforehand.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Jun '23 - 11:35am

    ” A liberal response….would start from the basic principle: we should be free to do everything we want, provided we do not infringe other people’s freedom.”

    It all sounds very nice but does this mean that Liberals don’t, for example, drive their cars along country lanes because this interferes with other people’s freedom to safely cycle or ride their horses. I do the former, although many won’t, but I certainly wouldn’t want to ride a horse on a public road.

    We have a problem in cities too. We know, when we drive, that our exhaust fumes are adversely affecting the health of others but we’ve nearly all done that.

    If we switch on the central heating we are contributing to climate change. So we’re compromising everyone’s freedom in exchange for keeping ourselves warm. We might feel guilty but we still do it.

    So maybe there is a bit more to it than liberals acknowledge.

  • Not really Peter, certainly not as it applies to the modern Lib Dems.

    As times moved on, Liberalism steadily evolved from a main focus on individual liberty to where it is now as Liberal Democracy where as it says “we seek to *balance* the three fundamental values of liberty, equality and community.” This came about from the initial view of ‘provided we do not infringe other people’s freedom’ which Roland rather abruptly summarises as “Me, me, me, sorry (I stepped on your toes),” to a more rounded understanding that individuals can only achieve close to their full potential within a community, which also needs to be sustained and protected.

    I think that is what Rob was implying with his “Conrad Russell noted that that proviso is far more of a limitation than most people realise.”

    That is often what differentiates Lib Dems from ‘self styled’ progressives who quite often propose what we might describe as simplistic ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ solutions to problems that are much more complex than just “This is bad. Stop it.”

  • Mel Borthwaite 23rd Jun '23 - 1:01pm

    @ Rob Parsons
    It seems to me that you are arguing that Liberals are people who would object to the State restricting our freedoms in ways we believe are excessive or unjustified, but also that Liberals are people who should be willing to place restrictions on themselves even when they do not believe they are proportionate or necessary. Sorry, but I don’t see the world that way.

  • Rob Parsons 23rd Jun '23 - 1:06pm

    @Roland. “Me, me, me, sorry” is not liberalism. That is – you’re quite right – Conservative thinking using politeness to cover selfishness. Liberalism is caring for our own freedom while at the same time caring for others’ freedom. It means taking responsibility not to step on their toes in the first place, in fact to step well back so that we do not create anxiety in them that we might step on their toes. This recognition of our place in communities is a long way from “me, me, me, sorry”.

  • Rob Parsons 23rd Jun '23 - 1:12pm

    @Peter I agree with @David. We have a right to drive along a country road. Other people have a right to ride their horse along it. When the car and the horse meet, the two rights need to be negotiated. This would usually involve the more destructive beast, the car, moving aside or stopping to let the less destructive beast through unharmed and unperturbed.

  • Rob Parsons 23rd Jun '23 - 1:13pm

    @David – in my view Roland doesn’t summarise the proviso – he misunderstands it. I’ve responded to him in another comment.

  • Chris Moore 23rd Jun '23 - 2:42pm

    Liberal theory is replete with thinking about how rights conflict and how to negotiate such situations.

    I’m glad to see an open acknowledgement of that in many contributions here.

    Let’s hope we can go on recognising that even in controversial areas.

  • @Rob – Yes its a fine line…

    “we should be free to do everything we want”
    So if I want to drive down that country road at whatever speed I want, assume too fast for the road. All seems good until someone else comes along and that caveat:
    “provided we do not infringe other people’s freedom.”
    comes into play and we can debate the extent to which the decisions I make infringe their freedom, which is where my comment about Conservativism arises…

    I suggest a considerate person would be mindful of others before they set off down that country road and drive accordingly, resulting in a different outcome when they encounter someone else. The question is who is the better liberal? With climate change and the increased population density, I suggest it is more liberal to be more considerate of others and thus set off down that country road with a slightly different mindset.

    I appreciate this is detailed point picking, but I think we do need to be mindful of the emotions and mental imagery key statements may give rise to.

  • Rob Parsons 23rd Jun '23 - 3:02pm

    @Roland One way of looking at it might be to say that the two halves are inseparable. You don’t start with “we should be free to do everything we want” and then add on “provided we do not infringe other people’s freedom.” That way our responsibility to others is always an afterthought. They go together – my freedom is always inextricably bound up with yours.

    I agree with you that consideration and respect are key components of the liberal approach.

  • Peter Chambers 23rd Jun '23 - 4:31pm

    > Ultimately, the lockdowns will be proven to be infinitely worse than the disease

    This is simply wrong. Skipping over the word “infinitely” which confuses things, we should contrast the failure cascade of the missed GP appointments, etc from lack-down with the failure cascade avoided by the government mandated lockdowns that would result from hospitals being overloaded with Covid patients. The latter would have been worse.

    We can criticise the lockdowns for being too late, so larger and longer than needed. We can also criticise the heavy-handed centralism that lost trust and caused them to be more “leaky” than they might have been. We can criticise the weakness of NHS provision that made them more fragile, so needing the type of lockdown we had.

    A key question, perhaps, is “do you accept the existence of public health AUTHORITIES” or do you want to take the libertarian consequences?

  • When do our freedoms start to impinge on the freedoms of others ? Any social act (as opposed to an entirely solitary one) has the potential to affect another person in a way which could, potentially, be to their detriment. Money, influence, power are all finite (in the short term) and if we hold and exercise any of the above for our own benefit, someone else is harmed. We have to accept therefore that freedom inevitably contains a selfish element but the alternative is far worse.
    Lets say a political activist held a seat on a borough/county/unitary council. They also held a seat on a first tier town/parish council. Maybe two. They were also involved as trustees for a couple of local charities and sat on party committees. Are these people restricting the freedom of others to contribute to their communities and the broader political debate ? Or do we give them OBEs for services to the community ? Discuss !

  • Tristan Ward 23rd Jun '23 - 8:39pm

    @ Rob Parsons

    Thanks for your response Rob

    I think your original article is based on a false premise. You say (rightly) that the Liberal principle is that one can do what one wants unless it harms someone else.

    However (if I understand understand it correctly) your proposal is based on the different idea that the state is entitled to force people to do something they would not otherwise do (wear masks, behave in a certain way) because of the harm that does or may do to others.

    That may or may not be justified, but I do think Liberals should be very cautious about forcing forms of behaviour on others or allowing the state to do so. I find it telling that we do not force people to accept vaccines for example (though I think people who refuse proper tested vaccines are foolish to do so)

  • Tristan Ward 23rd Jun '23 - 8:56pm

    @ Rob Parsons

    Turning to the politics…..

    I don’t agree we can do both at once. The public has limited band width and attention span. There is alimotwd number of policies to promote, especially unpopular ones.

    We’re not a vote gathering machine. We are an organisation directed at getting power and then exercising it in line with our principles and with the consent of the people (who are sovereign according to the preamble to the party’s constitution). It is perfectly legitimate to disregard ideas that we think will not be popular if that gets in the way of obtaining power especially if it is doubtful as to whether they are liberal at all – see precious post. (*) Losing power relegated us to the level of a pressure group in 2015. I want to see Lib Dems back in government.

    (*) what is NOT legitimate is to have policies that conflict with Liberal Democrat principles and not to oppose things that do conflict with those principles.. And there must be a sufficient number of policies that work and enthuse people to vote for us.

  • Rob Parsons 23rd Jun '23 - 9:36pm

    @Tristan 23rd 8.39 pm. Liberalism does have a place for state action where it is warranted, but that is not what I was talking about here. I was talking about the liberal response of any citizen to the issue of needing to protect other people from the effect I might have on them. I don’t want to force anybody to wear a mask; I do want people to recognise that it is their responsibility to others to do so, and to take other mitigating actions, a lot more than we are now doing.

  • Rob Parsons 23rd Jun '23 - 9:40pm

    @Tristan 23rd 8.56 I agree there’s a limited attention span. But OTOH we are campaigning at the moment on a number of fronts – cost of living, NHS crisis, sewage – so we obviously think people can take it.

    And I accept that it is legitimate to exclude ideas because of their unpopularity. But if we refuse to go anywhere near anything that is unpopular, we cease to be a party of principle, and that is one of the reasons people vote for us. And also, as I’ve said before, I’m not convinced that it’s a vote loser. The floating voters – the ones we want to attract – might well warm to a party that strikes a different note.

  • Peter Martin 24th Jun '23 - 6:37am

    ” I don’t want to force anybody to wear a mask; I do want people to recognise that it is their responsibility…..

    I doubt it will ever work like this. If we are told to wear masks by making it a legal requirement then we will. We are quite good at following the rules. If we are told it is optional then we won’t. This is an observation what our collective behaviour actually is rather than what I might think it should be.

    For example, when spectators were first allowed back into football grounds, I saw no-one wearing a mask and I mean no-one. This was in England. I’d be interested to know if it was any different in Scotland or Wales where the rules were set by either the SNP or Labour controlled devolved governments. I doubt it would have been.

    Other examples would be rules on driving. We wear seat belts, don’t drive too fast, don’t drink etc because this is what we are told we have to do rather than because we think this is what we should do.

  • Peter Martin 24th Jun '23 - 10:54am

    @ Chris,

    I would think it was terribly sad if I felt everyone was totally selfish. We’re nearly all altruistic at times even if not always. For example if an elderly person falls in the street there’ll be plenty of help, we rely on voluntary blood donors to help the NHS, if a child needs some medical assistance that may not be available on the NHS can be relied on to pitch in to help etc.

    We are also influenced by what others are doing. At the football match mentioned earlier I did have a mask in my pocket but didn’t wear it because no-one else was! Possibly I would have received a few odd looks and adverse comments and I didn’t particularly want that, so that’s where it stayed.

    I would say it’s a question of being realistic about what to expect of everyone. I’m not sure that liberals are. IMO you have a tendency to expect everyone to always do the right thing. Even if most will there are many that won’t so you’ll end up being disappointed. So we have to have laws against fly-tipping, for example. This doesn’t mean that we’d all fly-tip if there were no laws but enough would to make these laws necessary in the first place.

  • @Peter 24th 10:54 I agree that we must start by being realistic about public behaviour. But I also think a) (like you) that in general people are very capable of doing sensible things*, and b) we all work and live within a context.

    The public was doing sensible things like distancing and not making unnecessary journeys for quite a while before the government mandated it.

    Lack of concerted action was as much as anything because people did not know what to do. This is where government should step in (as Chris suggests, public service broadcasts): clear messaging about behaving responsibly would have had a considerable effect.

    Instead we got Johnson’s lethally misguided messaging about “freedom” – in other words let’s all be free not to wear masks, but no messaging about let’s all be free not to get covid. Just about everything Johnson did was destructive and was widely publicised so it’s not surprising that many people followed his lead.

    *”Altruism” is often used in this context, but I think it is not the right frame in this context. Adopting sensible mitigations like wearing masks protects the adopter as well as everybody else.

  • Martin Gray 24th Jun '23 - 6:12pm

    Into the second lockdown the public had had more than enough of the restrictions – to the point where it would be very difficult to reintroduce such measures.
    They were routinely flouted & virtually impossible to police ….No amount of what Charlie says public information films will convince people to go back to mask wearing & social distancing…

  • Rob Parsons 24th Jun '23 - 8:46pm

    @Martin you’re conflating lockdowns and mitigations, which is a common mistake. Avoiding lockdown is part of the point of mitigation, among others, like avoiding people dying. The reason this discourse confusing lockdown and mitigation has arisen is to do with Johnson and others flailing around to try to find justifications to prevent further loss of profits regardless of the cost in lives and sickness. This idea that the public won’t take it any more is so much hot air; the public at large is capable of making sensible decisions if they’re shown the reasons for it, and if their “leaders” are seen to be capable of exercising responsibility as well rather than acting like two year olds on a sugar rush.

  • Peter Davies 25th Jun '23 - 10:32am

    Mitigations are clearly preferable to lock down but useful ones are very difficult to enforce.

    We need to get a comprehensive who is inhaling whose exhalations and where. Different airborn infections have different characteristics in terms of how long they survive in aerosols and different temperatures and humidities but that data could be captured early in any pandemic. What needs to be in place is a realistic model of the occupations and public spaces that contribute most to transmission into which we can feed the the infection’s characteristics. That way we can introduce mitigations that have the maximum impact on transmission for the minimum economic and personal impact.

    We might also be able to introduce structural mitigations that make specific spaces safer. The advice given to business was at best useless.

  • Rather than focusing on mask use, we should have invested properly in good ventilation for public buildings (including offices, pubs and theatres etc) as well as public transport. IMO that is likely to be far more effective than mask wearing to keep the incidence of COVID and other airborne infections lower all year round.

    Unless it is mandatory, not enough people will wear masks, and of those that were wearing masks, too many weren’t wearing them properly. If we couldn’t manage it at the height of the pandemic, it’s not going to happen now.

    That said, I think most people would be on board with targeting requirements for masks in certain spaces, such as hospitals and possibly congested higher risk pinch points, such as the queue for security at airports.

    Good surveillance would help us better understand what is effective, but it isn’t consistent with this government’s head in sand approach.

  • @Fiona – good ventilation of buildings among other things should be a lesson learnt…
    However, I suspect not. Looking at the plans for the redevelopment of my local hospital, it is obvious these pre-CoViD plans haven’t been updated. I expect this will be the same for all the other new hospitals being developed under the governments new hospitals programme.

  • @Fiona I think we should have done both. And it’s not too late, we should be doing both now. No chance of that happening with this unscrupulous bunch in charge.

    What I was thinking about mostly was how to apply the principle of liberalism in daily life – hence what people can do themselves rather than necessarily what they should campaign for government to do – but both are essential.

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