Painting yourself into a yellow corner? The future Liberal response to Covid

The Lib Dems have a knack of swinging wildly on the side of public opinion (e.g., Iraq War) and back to the fringes (e.g., Revoke Policy). The latter is often buoyed by coming off the back successful elections, giving the party a false sense of confidence that such policies are far more popular than they are and indeed we can be the party of governance. Though such fringe policies have a lasting and damaging impact. Easy to make accusations that the party is neither “Liberal” or “Democratic” is easy to make when such positions are taken and particularly when the public doesn’t see it as justified.

And so, we come off the back of an incredible victory, in a by-Election, over the floundering Tories, in a pandemic. Emboldened by this and the quiet, lack lustre opposition; the Lib Dems are vibrant in their opposition to this government. They see the current state and utter incompetence of the Tories and they see an open goal.

Where the Tories have been cautious about further restrictions, the Dems feel this is dilly-dallying. Restrictions are needed and the country needs strong leadership (which they offer) to put these in place.

This puts the Dems in a precarious position. By being on the side of illiberal restrictions (protections also, but still illiberal), they expose themselves to those allegations. However there has always been a liberal justification for such restrictions. Even the most libertarian of libertarians, Ayn Rand would have seen the justification for lockdowns; in light of no vaccine. And the Lib Dem position has been in line with the public mood, for most of the pandemic.

But this Xmas 2021, not Xmas 2020. Only a very small percentage of adults aren’t vaccinated at least twice and a large proportion are boosted. No variant, Omicron or otherwise is going to cause a surge of hospitalisations and deaths anywhere near what we saw in 2020. This is a nation well-protected. The public have kept their part of the social contract of “15 million jabs to freedom” and there’s an expectation that contract is met. Polling is starting to show that appetite for most restrictions is limited best. Fatigue for such measures, which behavioural scientists always said would happen; is happening.  The Lib Dems may inadvertently end up advocating for illiberal measures, that are unpopular with the public.

There is also the argument that calls for restrictions paper over the cracks, when there are fundamental, more progressive arguments to be made. For example, if the NHS is suffering because of a wave of Covid, is it not better to consider what funding is needed to support the NHS, which was always under immense pressure in winter times, pre-Covid? There is a far more liberal, progressive route through this. For the Lib Dems, I don’t think restrictions is it.

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  • “Painting yourself into a yellow corner”.

    With great regret, and as someone who joined the Liberal Party as long ago as 1961, I suggest Mr Stafford-Smith takes the opportunity to read up on the ‘Harm’ principle of John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ over the Christmas break before he rushes into the arms of the more primitive Conservative backbenchers..

  • “Where the Tories have been cautious about further restrictions, the Dems feel this is dilly-dallying. Restrictions are needed and the country needs strong leadership (which they offer) to put these in place”

    Could the author please explain what restrictions Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party have actually endorsed or suggested themselves, because as far as I am aware they have only supported mask use and the only policies I have seen suggested are for increases in statutory sick pay and other financial support measures, but absolutely nothing in substance in controlling the spread, on this we have been no better than Labour.

    “No variant, Omicron or otherwise is going to cause a surge of hospitalisations and deaths anywhere near what we saw in 2020.”
    That is a pretty bold statement to say the least. Nobody can say for certainty what future variants will do or indeed omicron in a couple of weeks time, thus far it has not found itself into the older and more vulnerable population, that could all change over the next few days and we will have to wait till mid January to see what the effect is.

  • >if the NHS is suffering because of a wave of Covid, is it not better to consider what funding is needed to support the NHS,
    The two are not mutually exclusive!
    The key issue is a shortage of staff. Long-term, yes, that means investing money in training. In the immediate, now, it means trying to reduce the pressures on those we have today.

  • Steve Trevethan 23rd Dec '21 - 7:29pm

    What is illiberal about making as clear as possible the essential concept and practices of “freedom from”?
    Migh causing avoidable illness and death seem rather illiberal to some?

  • Jason Connor 23rd Dec '21 - 8:08pm

    I really don’t see what the problem with restrictions is, they are only temporary if needed and I believe it’s far more socially liberal to act for the common good than on the basis of selfish I do what I want individualism and could not care less about consequences to anyone else. Mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing in order to control the spread are currently needed but other measures should be under review. I don’t think mandatory vaccination is likely to happen but there is much debate on radio phone-ins of the consequences for non vaccinated people in hospital settings. The problem with the government is they are doing this to a certain extent but in muddled confusing way, I think Labour has actually been clearer. There is a great deal of libertarian scaremongering about civil liberties and temporary restrictions when the government should be guided by scientists and NHS staff. Or are the libertarians on here now arguing we should ignore what the experts think which was their attitude to brexit and leaving the EU in the first place.

  • >Only a very small percentage of adults aren’t vaccinated at least twice
    Irrelevant. What matter is coverage of the total population ie. adults and children; Sars-Cov-2 doesn’t differentiate…
    So I would say the UK government vaccination link given is painting a false picture.

  • This article is long on assertions, but short on analysis.

    “No variant, Omicron or otherwise is going to cause a surge of hospitalisations and deaths anywhere near what we saw in 2020.”

    Our policies should be based on the best scientific views available, and that is what I see Ed Davey espousing.

  • There has to be a recognition that in order to exercise a freedom to do, or not to do, things there needs to be a freedom from things. I have in mind the need for a freedom from poverty.
    In order to have a healthy immune system people need the resources to feed themselves, and their families, properly. And properly means with nutritious food. We have the ability to define this They also of course need the resources to have adequate housing and many other things in our society.
    We know we have reached the point where we are clearly damaging our environment. We need to start addressing the real crisis we are part of rather than playing with words,

  • Nonconformistradical 24th Dec '21 - 7:38am

    “No variant, Omicron or otherwise is going to cause a surge of hospitalisations and deaths anywhere near what we saw in 2020.”

    Christopher Stafford-Smith – could you please tell us what qualifications you have for making such a sweeping statement?

  • Congratulations to the author on raising a difficult issue. The fact is that the Government makes its decisions backed up by a lot of analysis from top scientists. Judging how much to lock down in the face of an unknown variant is very difficult and calls on leaders to exercise considerable judgement across the public health, economic and political risks involved. Since the appalling start to the pandemic in Feb/March 2020, the Government seems to have got the big calls largely correct. Advice relating to the latest variant has led to changes in behaviours and reduced the pressure on the NHS. Knee jerk reactions of “to little, too late” variety loved by the progressive opposition began to sound hollow – Keir Starmer’s relatively low profile suggests that he gets this. To differentiate ourselves from the right wing of the Government, we could be signalling louder support for the passport scheme – asking people to test before going to an event or a club during a dangerous pandemic should not be considered remotely illiberal.

  • The decision on possible restrictions must be based on multiple considerations, not just epidemiology, for example, mental health, social needs, the survival of the hospitality and entertainment sector, the impact on the general economy, etc.

    I regard it as unfortunate that these decisions are further complicated because different political groups support or condemn a given decision according to their ideological prejudices.

    In the current situation, inadequate data means that models are effectively useless. Human intuition can sometimes produce a more informed, educated guess. My own assessment is that the government is right to delay action at present.

  • Christopher Stafford-Smith, You start off by calling restrictions ‘illiberal’ and your whole article is spent trying to justify that premise…Rather llike the “Fungi are poisonous; mushrooms are fungi, etc” your article is without foundation..
    To function at all society needs to impose restraints on our behavior..smoking, drink driving, etc.; covid is no different..
    Yesterday, in Liverpool ICU’s, 4 out of 5 patients were unvaccinated; any science based restriction that reduces the spread among the general public and frees up limited resources for those who really need it gets my vote..

  • James Fowler 24th Dec '21 - 3:20pm

    I’d echo Jim Webber’s praise of the author here for venturing in where angels fear to tread. Most commentators here espouse ‘freedom from’ and see the state as an essentially benign enabler. Hence lockdown has been a desirable state of affairs allowing more government intervention in the best of all possible causes.

    Personally, it’s less the lockdown per se but the enthusiasm for it that has really worried me. It’s a policy which, like any other, needs to judged on its merits as objectively as possible. But it’s quite clear that it’s genuflected to as desirable in itself or as a signal of personal virtue by a significant number of people. This revivalist moral self certainty about what has happened and what should be done is what the LDs need to distance themselves from.

  • George Thomas 26th Dec '21 - 11:02am

    “Fatigue for such measures, which behavioural scientists always said would happen; is happening.”

    I would agree with this – is there any point to bringing in restrictions if high percentage aren’t going to follow? – and would argue if restrictions were needed (on the 16th SAGE said they were, now it seems less clear with some more optimistic early findings since) that bringing them in closer and closer to 2022 minimizes their effectiveness.

    If we remove the outcome bias from whatever is next to happen, backbench Tory MP’s decided against restrictions for unscientific reasons, have made their bed for England and are now crossing their fingers but so are we.

    Of course if it does go wrong then in not pushing for restrictions to come much sooner than New Year’s LD’s have waited to see which way the crowd was running, ran ahead and screamed “follow us”. Early studies demonstrate that Omicron is less likely to be lethal than other variants but other early studies demonstrate that the older generations and more vulnerable who had their booster from start in October had probably reached the 10 week waning of protection just in time for intergenerational mixing at Christmas, that if it does indeed take 7 days for protection to build to it’s peak level then it was less than 50% who had been boosted by the 18th of December everywhere but Scotland, and it does still seem that there will be at least a fortnight of 1,000-2,000 hospital admissions per day in England regardless so any more punishment on top of that (given the past 20 months) will be a massive betrayal.

  • Peter Davies 27th Dec '21 - 7:46pm

    Good to see Guardian coverage today of the Lib Dems suggesting a useful measure that would not restrict any freedoms and would actually have benefits beyond Covid.

  • I think that this is a bit harsh:
    “This article is long on assertions, but short on analysis. Our policies should be based on the best scientific views available, and that is what I see Ed Davey espousing.”

    Healthcare recommendations should be made using evidence-to-decision frameworks, such as that in the WHO Guideline Development Manual

    They incorporate all sorts of things in addition to what most people would consider “scientific views”; including effects on equity, feasibility, acceptability….

    Also, science and scientists are not independent. There are many vested interests at play. Fabulous careers and wealth will be made by some, and we are not just talking dodgy PPE manufacturers.

  • Peter Martin 28th Dec '21 - 12:48pm

    The view, rightly or wrongly, of most of the electorate, is that vaccination will prevent the worst of the consequences of Covid. Nearly everyone has either tested positive themselves or knows someone who has, and has recovered without too many serious consequences. The disease doesn’t have the same scare factor that it did this time last year and before the vaccine program had started to have an effect. Consequently, for those who are mainly are up to date with their jabs, they don’t see why they should be asked to make sacrifices to protect those who are silly enough to refuse them.

    This does raise a difficult ethical issue. Although, most people don’t see it that way. Just how far should Government go in forcing or encouraging everyone to get protected? I wouldn’t go as far as to force everyone to have a vaccine as we’ve seen in some EU countries but I would say it should be a requirement to use public transport and other public spaces. We should have vaccine passports with strict enforcement.

    I would think I am in a minority in taking this view. From what I can make out, by just talking to people, the view is that those who choose to remain unvaccinated should be on their own. This means that they would have to forfeit free NHS treatment if they were unvaccinated without reasonable excuse or reason. The argument would be that this would protect the NHS for those of us who have done the right thing.

    The typical voter isn’t at all ‘liberal’ or even ‘authoritarian’ in the way that many of us might understand the terms. There’s much less support for lockdown than there was last year. The Govt is taking a big risk in not bringing in tougher regulations but at the moment they aren’t out of step with public opinion.

  • Simon Banks 3rd Apr '22 - 8:03pm

    Just seen this remarkable post. Just one point: The Liberal Democrats did not “swing wildly on the side of public opinion” over the Iraq war. I assume Mr Stafford-Smith means the second gulf war, not the first. On the first, we joined a huge majority in parliament and the people to reverse Iraqi aggression in Kuwait. On the second, the instincts and rational calculation of most Liberal Democrats were against the war for moral and practical reasons and events proved us right. But when Charles Kennedy commited us, he was opposing the views of both the Labour government and the Tory opposition and it was not clear which way public opinion would go. In fact, except for a few days from the actual start of fighting on, it was against the war, but generally by quite small margins, and had Charles not spoken out, that might not have been so.

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