Last week Wes Streeting, the Shadow Health Secretary, said that the mission for this year needed to be “learning to live well with the virus”.
By this, he meant focusing the state’s efforts at combating Covid-19 on “key public health mitigations that” — and here’s the crucial bit — “don’t impact on our lives, our livelihoods, and our liberties”.
This welcome change in tone by Labour reflects what seems to be a real shift in the balance of opinion in the House of Commons. After two bleak years of the ‘new normal’, the old normal seems to finally be in view.
Boris Johnson, for all his current difficulties, must get a share of the credit. It was ultimately his decision to allow Christmas and New Year’s Eve to go ahead without restrictions in England, whilst both Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon imposed fresh controls.
If it was a gamble, it has paid off. Just a week ago, the Welsh First Minister was piously denouncing England as the “one country that stands out as not taking action to protect its population”. Now he’s complaining that it’s unfair to compare English and Welsh pandemic outcomes, something he’s not been shy about doing himself in the past.
The Scottish Government seems, if anything, even more committed to restrictions. The First Minister has faced a mounting backlash over suggestions that Scotland might not relax rules on large events until April, if not later.
Now she’s offered up her own definition of what learning to ‘live with Covid’ means — and it’s clear that the spirit of the ‘new normal’ still haunts Bute House.
According to Sturgeon, living with the virus does not mean that the state will “not have to do anything to try to contain and control it”. Instead, Scots face the prospect of having to wear face masks, and presumably endure other similarly intrusive measures, for years.
This is just the latest example of the extraordinary mission creep that has taken place over the past couple of years. Interventions have gone from a specific and extraordinary response to a very dangerous virus that threatened to collapse the health service to an increasingly normal part of the state’s public health arsenal.
In the face of such a mild variant, such policies will get increasingly difficult to justify as Covid-specific. But instead of asking “Why do this for Omicron when we don’t do it for flu?”, the danger is that politicians will start thinking “Well…why not do it for flu?”
The pattern is familiar enough to anybody who pays attention to the evolution of public health policy. Restrictions on our freedoms are almost always first proposed as an extraordinary response to a particularly acute danger.
But once the architecture of enforcement has been set up, those drawing salaries and status from the system are understandably reluctant to ever risk their jobs by declaring a problem solved. So instead, they cast around for new dragons to slay.
Hence advertising restrictions and punitive taxes that were once exclusively targeted at tobacco are now directed towards alcohol and sugar. There will always be a ‘new tobacco’. Given that Scotland tends to be at the forefront of every puritan trend in government, perhaps it is not surprising that a similar attitude should prevail in pandemic theatre.
A perpetual mask mandate is also perhaps a logical product of the reflex to “protect the NHS”; to some, it apparently seems completely natural that the state should try to reform the public rather than reform public services.
But the SNP’s opponents ought to be clear: these extraordinary measures were introduced to avoid the Health Service getting overwhelmed. If Sturgeon thinks Scotland will need them for years, whilst England returns to the old normal, what does that say about the state of the NHS after 15 years of Nationalist rule?