After weeks of softening up the population for the inevitable, the government has delayed “freedom day” for the end of lockdown restrictions – previously 21 June – by at least two weeks, ostensibly due to concerns about the Indian variant. This is despite COVID-19 deaths being at the lowest level since before the first lockdown and a highly successful vaccine rollout programme, suggesting that the precautionary principle would always override “the data”.
There is a certain depressing familiarity about this apparent delay to the moment when our political representatives will have to assume responsibility for a “return to normal”. The Brexit process was characterised by, among other things, a pattern of delays, extensions, and can-kicking. We now see the recurrence of this display in the government’s response to the latest variation of COVID, just as we saw Brexit delays and prevarications in response to the latest news item in the EU negotiations or parliamentary contestations over the process. What links both is an elite both fearful and unwilling to take responsibility for the consequences of its political decisions.
Previously on the Full Brexit we argued that the first lockdown, back in March 2020, revealed a hollow core at the centre of political life. All of the actors that might have been expected to have competed for control – parliamentarians, the Prime Minister, the experts, and the citizenry – were not willing or able to exert that control over a failed and hollowed-out British state. We also contended that the second lockdown was a colossal political failure (with a set of arguments that equally could have applied to the third lockdown), suggesting a void where any relationships of trust and authority between government and citizens, or between citizens themselves, could have been. Lockdowns, far from being a sign of a strong state actor, are in fact an artefact of the lack of public capacity, the flipside of the void at the heart of representative politics. Deepened by the political demobilisations of COVID, we can now perhaps call that void today the “Covoid”.
The logic of these arguments does not easily point to an exit route from what feels like the eternal recurrence of lockdowns and their various extensions, modifications, and revisions. The future has not so much been slowly cancelled as slowly but endlessly postponed. Indeed, COVID-19 – even as we approach the 15-month mark since the first lockdown – is still understood as a public health and an economic crisis, but not a political one. But the central feature of the COVID period remains that no political actor is willing and able to take control of society, mobilise its resources and citizenry, and enact a positive political project that extends beyond a highly precautionary response to COVID. Instead, the response has been one that demobilises the citizenry (albeit in a highly differentiated way when it comes to work). Most “oppositional” forces, in this context, have not sought to take control, but rather argued for stricter lockdown measures even despite a groundswell of volunteering energy. Lockdowns risk becoming like the war on terror, with an even changing enemy, repressive consequences at home, and no end in sight.
Given everything invested in them, there is an incentive for the danger of new variants and strains to be exaggerated in order retrospectively to justify lockdowns as a political strategy that will have had serious human and economic costs, particularly in the long term. Indeed, any analysis of the political logic behind the lockdown extension past 21 June raises a possibility at least equally as frightening as the virus itself: the blunt tool of the lockdown measures, seemingly a sign of a government able to control the physical movement of its citizenry hides the reality that politically no-one is in control of our COVID response. More fundamentally, our representative political structures are so degraded that there is no political force in British society today able to solve the problems of the citizenry. If no-one is in control, it is only fear that comes to fill this void, and to assume a semblance of control.