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Leader comment: Lessons of Covid must not be overlooked

25 February 2022

THE ending of Covid restrictions in England yesterday is an opportunity to say goodbye to many absurdities, not to say crimes, that have been associated with the UK response to the virus during the past two years. It is both easy and painful to remember the residents ejected from hospitals to carry Covid into care homes; the running-down of PPE stockpiles and the consequent scramble to secure more, often from dubious sources; the modelling mistakes; the £40 billion in loans which is unlikely to be recovered; the unwillingness to adapt furlough schemes to many workers’ situations; the advice about masks which appeared to be dictated by, first, availability, then psychology; education policies that disadvantaged pupils from the poorest families — and, of course, the government decisions that were either delayed or premature and almost invariably unreliable. To these and many others, of course, must be added the decision to close churches even to the clergy.

Unfortunately, the Government appears to have carried absurdity into the next phase of public life. Chief of these is the incompatibility between the assurance that people will, of their own volition, stay at home if they discover that they have contracted Covid . . . and the imminent dismantling of the testing regime, so that people will not be able to find out whether they have the virus unless they pay commercial prices. The Queen, for example, was this week talked of as having “mild, cold-like symptoms”. After 1 April, she will still have access to a free Covid test because of her age. For many younger people with whom she will come into contact, however, even the price of £5.99 is unattainable, especially if the old advice to test multiple times is followed. From April, then, people who experience similar symptoms will be tempted to assume that they simply have a mild cold. Those on low pay will have no other option, however severe their symptoms, however infectious they might be.

It was troubling to hear the cynicism with which the Prime Minister’s announcement was met. If the law has been treated so cavalierly by the lawmakers, it bodes ill for compliance with future guidelines. Scientific advisers, cowed by the recent barrage of criticism from libertarians and sceptics, have expressed in muted tones their wish for caution. The fear is that Downing Street’s motivation is chiefly to consign its past lapses to history: those parties might have been technically illegal at the time, but nobody believes that the law should be enforced now, do they? But if politicians are not held to account for their errors, and if lessons are not learnt, the infection of irresponsibility and on-the-hoof decision-making which has characterised this Government will spread throughout the body politic. No vaccine has yet been discovered to combat that.

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