Politicians are paying the price for their own absurd Covid rules
In May 2020, I met a woman who was taking her 21 month old son to the park. We chatted – from an awkward distance of two meters – and she told me how worried she was for him. Before the confinement, he went to the nursery every day and had many friends. Now, thanks to Covid rules, he hadn’t spoken to another child in two months – hadn’t spoken to anyone except his mum, in fact, because his dad wasn’t there. She worried about his speech development and social skills, but also just about his obvious loneliness. I nodded sympathetically as the twins who would later become my daughters-in-law played together nearby, and realized how lucky we were to be together. The idea of doing this to a child, shutting down their world overnight, seemed horribly cruel to me, even if it was to save lives.
By December, the rules had changed too many times to count – tiers, rules of six, fire locks, it’s all a blur. I remember the requirement that anyone wishing to be served alcohol in a pub must order a ‘substantial meal’. This particular Covid decree is seared into my brain not just for the argument it started over whether or not a scotch egg did the trick, but because of the pub (Edinboro Castle in Camden , since you ask) who, after serving my partner and I two normal sized burgers and an order of fries, refused to let us have another pint unless we also ordered a pudding each. Who knew the government’s anti-obesity strategy could backfire so completely. We gave up the pudding – and the pint – and left.
Then came the endless lockdown of 2021, the cold, dark days when I barely left the apartment in broad daylight, hoping to eventually get the vaccine, the only light at the end of a tunnel. I read about the two women fined by Derbyshire Police for walking around with takeaway coffees and marveled at the overreach of the Covid app. It was then that my friend told me she had been “moved” by the police from sitting on an empty bench in the middle of a race. The experience – and the officers’ brutal attitude – had been disturbing, but at least she hadn’t been fined. A week later I walked across Putney Bridge to see police stopping cars to check passenger numbers. They didn’t stop me, but my heartbeat quickened as I found myself repeating an explanation of where I was going and why.
There are other examples that I remember. The friend who wouldn’t let her parents wave to her from the garden, even though she had a new baby and was struggling, because it wasn’t ‘essential’ and could have been seen as breaking the rules. The two hours I spent shivering in sub-zero temperatures outside a restaurant in the winter because the girl I was with was down and needed someone to talk to but we weren’t allowed to meet us inside.
Then there are the stories of those who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. The 66-year-old was fined £100 for visiting his housing estate despite it complying with the rules. The teenager was fined £400: first for breaking the lockdown, then for not returning home immediately as she was driven by her boyfriend who refused to return she did not therefore had no way to return other than to walk 13 miles alone in the dark. The woman (and this should be of interest to anyone in Downing Street ‘ambushed’ with a cake) was fined £250 for dropping off a birthday card to someone she was in a social bubble with only only to come across a gathering of which she had no knowledge. the students a fine £10,000 each – a devastating amount – for hosting parties of the type we now know were held regularly in Downing Street.
I don’t mean there was no point in locking down. Reducing social contact in the midst of a highly contagious pandemic was key to saving lives. But just as it is illusory to assert that there should never have been a lockdown, it is equally absurd to argue that all the rules put in place, relaxed and reimposed during the first 18 months of the pandemic were fair and consistent. They obviously weren’t. They were poorly written, riddled with gaps and haphazardly applied. For those who followed them to the letter, there were real and heartbreaking consequences – like the lonely child or all the people who couldn’t say goodbye to loved ones who died alone, as Dominic Cummings rode in Durham with impunity. Those who got it wrong – sometimes unknowingly – were handed over to police forces who, by their own admission, did not fully understand the laws they enforced. This is a pretty damning situation for a country that believes in equality before the law.
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This is the conversation I wish I had in the wake of partygate and the Labor leader’s beer revelations. I wish we could talk about how Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer have both spent months backing bizarre yet cruel legislation. Not a single extra person would have caught Covid if the mother I met had been allowed to let her son run with another child in the park, or if my friend had sat on that bench, or if I Had a pint without sticky toffee pudding in Edinboro Castle. In any other circumstance, we would instinctively understand that £10,000 is far too high a price for a stupid student mistake, especially when politicians are making the exact same mistake themselves. And who benefits from a company that fines retirees who go to the housing estate?
Instead, it became a tit-for-tat political feud. Johnson claims there’s nothing wrong with karaoke parties and suitcases of booze while people die alone, and Starmer sinks into the quagmire of his own hypocrisy – or maybe plays a blinder and backs the Prime Minister into a corner, depending on your point of view. But I really don’t care if he resigns because of beergate or not, just like I don’t think a birthday cake is a reason to oust a prime minister. How does this help someone?
If only they could zoom out and see what the rules they fully supported, the rules they both claimed were clear, fair and unambiguous, were doing to people. Perhaps Johnson and Starmer could reunite, acknowledge that they both inadvertently made mistakes, and issue a joint apology. Perhaps they could even announce a barely fixed amnesty and reverse any fines given to others who were unsure if a curry with co-workers was within the rules or who broke the lockdown out of sheer desperation. Maybe they could have some compassion.
Alas, it seems much more likely that Starmer will fall on the sword of his principles and Johnson will come out on top, as he always has. There will be howls of rage against the double standard – but the darkest rift is not that between the two party leaders. It’s more between the way politicians have treated and have been treated by the lockdown rules, and the rest of the people who just tried to do their best.