The Conservatives are paying a terrible price for Britain’s lockdown amnesia

On Tuesday, the BBC began a report on nearly £1.5 billion worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) that was left unused, rotting in warehouses, we were told in shocked tones.

Opposition parties were invited to comment. Labor primitively called the surplus a ‘mind-boggling waste’. The Lib Dems agreed, vowing to “take steps to ensure such a colossal misuse of public funds never happens again”.

But wait a minute. Hasn’t the BBC, along with the opposition parties, spent the lockdown shouting about the need for more PPE? Didn’t it tell us that NHS staff were being treated like “cannon fodder”? Didn’t it end every report with a quote from some public sector union that ministers were not doing enough? Didn’t it have headlines like “Covid PPE: How healthcare workers came to feel ‘replaceable'”?

Have we forgotten the demented atmosphere of that time? The pretense that every failure of our procurement wallahs, be it PPE, ventilators or testing, was Boris Johnson’s fault? The scramble for equipment, where reporters were sent to follow a single shipment from Turkey?

I think we have that. And I think our amnesia, not just about PPE, but about the lockdown in general, helps explain what’s going to happen on Thursday.

We do not want to think about those phantasmagoric months. We do not want to remember the enormous cruelties, humiliations and absurdities we endured. And we certainly do not want to admit that a policy we ourselves demanded could be at the root of Britain’s problems.

It’s hard, four years later, to think about what we’ve been through. The taped-off playgrounds. The brutal police. The bankruptcies. The schoolchildren who never got a chance to perform their solos, lead their teams, or say a proper goodbye. The pensioners suffering in solitary confinement. The mounting national debt. The mental health problems that develop in silence. The snitching. The furlough scams. The money printing. The canceled weddings. The missed cancer screenings. The police drones stalking walkers.

God, it was awful. But the worst part was how popular these restrictions were. Ninety-three percent of people supported the first lockdown, 85 percent the second, and a significant majority opposed lifting restrictions in 2021.

Those numbers already feel ridiculous, don’t they? Many people have edited their memories and now complain about restrictions that they wanted stricter at the time. Psychologists call this “hindsight bias”.

Having opposed the lockdown from day one, I cannot forget the abuse hurled at the small number of skeptics. Those who have done the hurling naturally find it easier to forget.

Thus Labour, which railed against ministers being “slow to get PPE”, now has the audacity to complain that it bought too much of it.

The Lib Dems, who attacked the Tories for their “inability to ensure sufficient supplies of protective equipment reached frontline workers”, are now punishing them for ordering too much.

They get away with it because the country as a whole has done the same. It’s as if we’ve woken up with a terrible hangover, uncomfortably aware that we behaved foolishly the night before, but unwilling to think about it.

When Rishi Sunak was challenged about NHS waiting lists during the first leaders’ debate, he responded that Britain had experienced a pandemic, but Conservative-led England had shorter waiting times than Labour-led Wales. The audience groaned. If you don’t want to be reminded of the lockdown, any reference to it by a politician comes across as whiny.

Yet the lockdown cannot be wished away. It squats like a poisonous toad in the middle of every policy discussion. We walk around it carefully. We influence not to see it. Yet there it is, wart-covered and evil, looking at us with cold, bulging eyes.

Take any subject you like. Education? The number of children who are “persistently absent” from school has increased dramatically since before the lockdown.

The economy? Growth remains slow because people haven’t returned to work. It makes life harder in many small ways. Suitcases are slow to arrive at the airport baggage carousel because there are fewer baggage handlers. Trains are less punctual because there are fewer railway staff. A secondary market has developed in driving test data.

Figures from the ONS suggest that while the private sector has more or less recovered its pre-lockdown productivity levels, the public sector is years behind. It turns out that government employees who insist on working from home are less efficient. Who would have thought that?

What applies to education and public services applies to everything.

Tax? We dropped the better part of half a trillion pounds during the lockdown.

The NHS? Lockdown created waiting lists.

Human rights? There has been no more serious violation than the confinement of the population to house arrest; yet our activist human rights lawyers welcomed it.

The cost of living? To pay for the lockdown, we printed money at speed, like Robert Mugabe. The increase in claims for sickness benefits? Once people got used to… oh, you get the idea.

We talk as if our problems were deliberately inflicted on us by evil ministers. But one of the reasons that taxes have gone up without a commensurate improvement in public services is that we have paid people to stay at home for the best part of two years, borrowed money to do so, and still won’t go back to work.

Tolstoy wrote that “everyone thinks of changing humanity, and no one thinks of changing himself.” He was right. Ask people if they want change, and every hand in the room will go up. Ask if they want Unpleasant change and the arms shoot down again. That’s what makes the slogan “Britain needs Reform” so clever.

The months I was paid to stay at home changed the relationship between state and citizen. We have become more demanding, less willing to acknowledge compromise, and willing to blame every annoyance on the perceived meanness of the government.

One politician who recognises the costs of the lockdown is Nigel Farage, who told a crowd in Sunderland on Thursday that the second and third lockdowns were the worst mistakes a British government had made in peacetime.

It’s to his credit that he says that. But what about the first lockdown, which was more severe and economically damaging? Why doesn’t Farage count it? Does he generously allow that decisions made during those heated weeks will necessarily look different in retrospect?

Or did he want the first lockdown? The memory of the whole episode means we rarely remember Farage calling the original controlled-spread strategy “immoral” and demanding Tony Blair lead a vaccine taskforce. We forget to see him, in a plum jumper and mustard ropes, banging his pan for the NHS.

Not that I blame him. Most of the country followed the same path, first demanding a crackdown and then complaining about its consequences. Farage came about much quicker than most and was indeed a critic of the later lockdowns. But governments, unlike commentators, are not allowed such inconsistencies.

The paradox of the current election is that both Johnson and Sunak were more sceptical of the lockdown than most of those who now blame them. Remember that Keir Starmer was against easing restrictions and even wanted them reintroduced in late 2021.

Except no one remembers. Our anger, directly about the lockdown or, more often, indirectly about its costs, is directed at the politicians who stood firm against the pressure to go further. Funny old world.

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