The public sector is still living in a lockdown fantasy

The ghost of lockdowns past still haunts Britain, despite the Government ending free mass coronavirus testing this week.

Covid prevalence is still high, with the official figures showing that 15,632 people in England were in hospital with the virus as of Wednesday, up 18 per cent week-on-week and the highest since January 19. Some people are still dying of the virus, although vastly fewer than used to be the case.

Yet the great majority of people are just getting on with it. If the state is no longer willing to fund mass testing, then why test at all?

The fact that outgoing deputy chief medical officer Sir Jonathan Van-Tam is having “sleepless nights” over the uptake of the spring booster among the over-75s is, strangely, quite reassuring. It means that, thanks to the vaccine, we have finally reached the point where we are prioritising the protection of the vulnerable and over-75s, and letting everyone else get on with their lives. It is surely something like the “focused protection” approach that those who signed the Great Barrington Declaration were pilloried for, but which Sweden’s experiences have shown probably wasn’t quite such a bad idea, after all.

Since the Government launched its “Living with Covid-19” plan, which ended the final restrictions on February 24, most people in England have rightly moved on. I rarely see people in masks outside of the Tube anymore. But a number of attitudes took hold during the pandemic that are themselves now becoming endemic.

First, there’s what I would call “institutional risk aversion”, as evidenced by Imperial College London still requiring graduation ceremonies to be watched online. Parents have been banned from witnessing this huge moment in their children’s lives in person because of “safety first” social distancing – despite all measures having been scrapped (and most students spending their free time nightclubbing and becoming romantically involved with each other).

Universities in general have spectacularly failed to move on from 2020, with many still reluctant to bring back 100 per cent face-to-face learning despite Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi saying there was “no excuse” for online lectures.

Other public bodies like the Passport Office also appear to be clinging onto mask diktats. A colleague went to its office in Victoria, London, this week and was told masks were mandatory inside, even though they are no longer required by law.

Seemingly oblivious to the sheer “covidiocy” of requiring people to cover their faces in one place but not in another, these publicly funded organisations, in which many staff still appear to be largely working from home, remain stuck in a quasi-lockdown.

Covid rules in hospitals are still disproportionate, too. My father underwent a quadruple heart bypass just over a fortnight ago. Told we would not be able to settle him into his room “because of Covid”, we were forced to wave goodbye from the other end of reception, frankly not knowing if we would ever see him again.

While we understood the need for no visitors while he was recovering in intensive care, we couldn’t quite fathom why only one person was allowed on the cardiac ward per day – and for one hour only – not least when we were all able to show daily negative lateral flow tests. I felt very sorry for the nurses, who were no doubt spending a considerable proportion of their day navigating the strict visiting rules on behalf of patients’ families.

Councils are another example of taxpayer-funded bodies that cannot seem to move on from the dizzy heights of daily Downing Street press conferences. I was collecting some clothes from a dry cleaner in Rickmansworth the other day to find the owner genuinely distressed that Three Rivers, the local district council, is reluctant to reopen the high street to cars – two years on from the first lockdown.

With tears in her eyes, she told me the business had been pushed to the brink because customers were not able to access the shop as easily as they did before.

In the nearby market town of St Albans, where I went to school, retailers are facing the same problem. In its infinite wisdom, St Albans City & District Council closed a main thoroughfare during lockdown – causing traffic chaos and blocking ambulances from easily accessing a secondary school and a nursing home.

It finally lifted the blockade earlier this year – only to inform residents that it would be carrying out a “consultation exercise” to decide whether the closure should be put back in place on a permanent basis.

Notwithstanding the fact that it has already carried out a two year non-consultation exercise, which proved an abject failure, you would be forgiven for wondering whether these councils are actively trying to put the shops that pay their rates out of business.

It is all very well for them. As with a lot of the public sector, these civic servants are still working from home.

They appear completely unaware that there remains a huge amount of economic damage caused by lockdown that nobody has got anywhere near fixing – let alone the hospital waiting lists, slipping educational standards and the toll all these measures have taken on the nation’s mental health. Why on earth are they so willingly prolonging the agony?

The other thing that troubles me about all this is the negative effect lockdown continues to have on public attitudes. The lesson many took from the pandemic was that the Government was there to save us, that it would extend its long arm around our shoulders and protect us from hard reality. But that cannot carry on forever, as Rishi Sunak is finding to the detriment of his own personal poll ratings.

Of course, it is right that the state should be doing more to bear down on energy bills, by exploiting our own oil and gas reserves, exploring new nuclear capacity and most crucially: cutting taxes. (If only, Conservatives).

But it’s absolutely ridiculous, at a time like this, for civil servants and their ilk to demand ever higher wages, as if there is a bottomless pit of money right now.

Unions are flexing their muscles across the board, threatening industrial action if they don’t get what they want. They would be far better off lobbying the Chancellor to unfreeze income tax bands to stop workers getting fiscally dragged into economic dire straits. The idea of inflation-busting public sector pay rises, when inflation is fast approaching 8 per cent, is for the birds, I’m afraid.

Meanwhile, as Britain is facing the worst cost of living crisis since the Second World War, we are also witnessing the ill-timed entrenchment of a pandemic-induced fixation on “well-being” and work-life balance among professionals.

Seemingly unconcerned by what the Office for Budget Responsibility has described as the biggest squeeze on household finances since records began, these self-indulgent Prince Harry types are banging on about how their working lives should be structured around their personal lives, rather than the other way round.

It’s as if they are blind to the economic calamity that is about to hit the UK like a freight train – or they simply don’t care. Perhaps, like the Duke of Sussex, they can afford not to. That was another unfortunate feature of the lockdown: middle-class people in supposedly secure work cutting themselves off from the real world, with little thought for how it would affect the people who used to sell them their morning newspaper, their mid morning coffee and their lunch.

If mass testing is over, then the pandemic is over for the masses. Those still clinging on to lockdown need to finally set us all free.

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