Parliament debated and voted on the latest set of coronavirus restrictions on Tuesday, but only after they had come into force. The country now faces at least three weeks of masks in shops and on buses and new self-isolation requirements that could go on for months. Perhaps most costly, those flying into Britain will now have to take a PCR test, rather than the much cheaper lateral flow tests. This latter development, it must be said, has been exposed to the least scrutiny in Parliament.
Each of these measures can be debated on the basis of whether they are likely to be useful tools in slowing the spread of a new variant of coronavirus. They should also be tested as to whether the loss of freedom for British citizens is proportionate to any benefit they might bring. But for me, they pose a bigger question: what do they say about the kind of society we have become?
Let us take a step back and survey the wreckage of the last couple of years. In March 2020, we were told that we would all be locked down for three weeks while NHS capacity was increased to cope with coronavirus. Three months later the lockdown was still in place. We then went through a hokey-cokey of restrictions for another year until we were told that the vaccines were riding to the rescue.
At every turn of this story, we as a nation move away from our centuries-old traditions of liberty and respect for the rights of people to make decisions over our own lives. An authoritarian habit of imposing binding restrictions doesn’t just take away our freedom to do as we please but also takes away our responsibility towards other people. In essence, it makes us all lose some humanity.
The restrictions have also knocked hell out of some of our most important industries, with our world-leading aviation sector possibly suffering the most.
Even when the Soviet-style ban on leaving the country was scrapped, a complex, expensive and ever-changing list of other requirements was put in place to deter people from travelling. Thousands of jobs have been destroyed, families have been kept apart and less affluent people have been largely excluded from international travel. Meanwhile the evidence has mounted that closing borders has not stopped variants of coronavirus from spreading around the world.
When Australia and New Zealand exercised a policy of almost entirely shutting their borders, the delta variant still became the predominant variant there too. The only benefit of the millions of PCR tests taken by Brits returning from green and amber list countries in the summer was to prove that they were actually less likely to have coronavirus than people who had stayed at home.
In September, it looked as if there was light at the end of the tunnel when cheaper, easier to take lateral flow tests replaced the pricey rigmarole that had gone before. Passenger numbers started to creep back up but nonetheless remained a fraction of what we saw pre-pandemic. And now, instead of building on that progress, the Government has returned to expensive tests (and self-isolation pending the result), extended the number of countries on the red list and moved back to quarantine hotels for people flying from them.
Flying has once again become a rich man’s game — too tricky a venture for the millions hoping to visit family or take a break in the sun. In the interests of fairness and to help sustain the recovery of a fragile sector, the Government must take urgent action to make sure that testing is affordable (or free) and that results are rapid.
Sir Graham Brady is the Member of Parliament for Altrincham and Sale West.