Ben Lowry: Lockdown is now dead, as a result of the weakness of the authorities

Lockdown is dead, it is toast, it is finished.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 6th June 2020, 10:53 am
Updated Saturday, 6th June 2020, 9:33 pm
The Black Lives Matter protestors in London and Belfast, above on Wednesday, decided they could tear up everything we were told about proximity of people and crowds. The goodwill that sustained lockdown had been hanging by a thread after the Dominic Cummings saga. The flagrant breaches of these protests were the final straw. Photo: David Young/PA Wire
The Black Lives Matter protestors in London and Belfast, above on Wednesday, decided they could tear up everything we were told about proximity of people and crowds. The goodwill that sustained lockdown had been hanging by a thread after the Dominic Cummings saga. The flagrant breaches of these protests were the final straw. Photo: David Young/PA Wire

Not because that is the legal position — it isn’t, and businesses and individuals will still face ruin until MLAs decide what can and can’t happen in their snail-like exit plan.

No, lockdown is over in spirit.

The essence of social distancing has been blown to smithereens.

As ever, only the well behaved will suffer. Swathes of the rest of society have discarded lockdown, and the authorities have responded weakly to such self regulation.

The first breaches, back in March, were minor but persistent and irritating to observe: republican funerals decided lockdown did not apply to them. While other bereaved people endured the agony of missing the funeral of a relative, paramilitary funerals (mostly republican, despite the PSNI depicting it as both sides) did their own thing — as they have been allowed to do their own thing for years.

Some of these breaches were not on BBC news. You would expect the national broadcaster to have seized on it given that some of its correspondents were allowed repeatedly to state ‘lockdown works’.

(The clear majority scientific view is that lockdown does work but there is a minority view that it came in too late in most nations, and made little difference and so was not needed. As long as there is that minority view then no reporter with an impartial broadcaster should take a position either way).

Then there was the Dominic Cummings saga, and the tribal way that many supporters of Brexit insisted he had done no wrong.

Well if he didn’t breach the rules then there were caveats to them that should have been emphasised by ministers. It would have led to a slacker understanding of the limits.

Of course Mr Cummings could not find childcare, given that the government in which he is so influential closed schools and childcare. Neither could other parents infected with Covid get care, such as my sister, a London doctor with a son aged three.

Such closures seem increasingly to have been an over-reaction given what we now know about the tiny risk to children and the way they seem not to spread Covid easily.

But it is easy to make such assessments with hindsight, and lockdown was sustained by the goodwill of people who knew it was an emerging crisis. That goodwill was hanging by a thread after the Cummings breach.

Then latterly many young people have begun to ignore lockdown. There have been teen social gatherings all over the UK. Nights ago I heard a loud party near where I live.

Perhaps it is surprising that young people abided by lockdown for so long. While the UK government got many Covid tactics wrong, it has been vindicated in its early concern – rooted in behavioural science – that people would not accept lockdown forever. It is no surprise that when the rebellion came, young people were in its vanguard.

But the Black Lives Matter protests in London and Belfast, and the pitiable official response to them, were the last straw with lockdown.

It is hard to see why a business should continue to accept the ruin of their enterprise, or why a group that feels strongly about a political issue should not protest publicly about it, or why a parent should accept that their offspring at school or university should be deprived face-to-face tutoring.

The protestors tore up everything we were told about proximity of people and crowds — the reasons we all sacrificed key elements of our lives for two and a half months.

The UK has (fairly) been criticised for letting large gatherings such as the Cheltenham festival go ahead back in March, given the risk that crowds spread the virus.

There is a theory that Louisiana is higher than its neighbours up the list of US states worst hit by Covid because of Mardi Gras, in which thousands of people take to the streets of New Orleans, in late February.

Yet those events took place when Covid was less understood. The anti racist rallies were months later.

The footage of George Floyd being held down was so horrifying as to be unwatchable. That Donald Trump’s response to a pandemic or racial crisis has been lamentable should not surprise anyone who watched five minutes of him speaking in the first presidential race debates of 2015, let alone after five further years of daily evidence of his ill suitedness to high office.

To feel dismay, even fury, about these things is natural. But the protests were patently illegal.

It is not the role of UK police officers to get down on one knee in sympathy with protests, or even to comment on a US killing, however repugnant.

That duty to enforce the law evenly takes on immense weight when often well-meaning people have been fined (hundreds of them in Northern Ireland) for breaking lockdown.

That duty of equal treatment does not just extend to offenders but to the millions of others who resisted temptation to bend rules because it was wrong by the law and by the communal spirit of the hour.

It would have been almost impossible for police to break up the City Hall rally but they could have come out of the traps just afterwards and made clear they were investigating it and that organisers of any repeat would be prosecuted.

Instead, they gave the impression that it is a matter for discussion and so protestors feel emboldened to gather again today.

BBC TV did an interesting interview which challenged one organiser about the breaches, in which she relayed her dismay at racism. But if feelings are the criteria for observance then a ruined, emotional business owner should be allowed to open at once.

The initial BBC TV reports on the London and Belfast rallies led national and local news yet failed to examine the breach. The NI report interviewed protestors who also expounded on their feelings, yet were not asked about their law breaking (it did include a clip from Diane Dodds expressing concern about the breach of social distancing by the crowds, but I believe that the breach was so serious that it should have been at the top of the bulletin).

I know enough about the pressures of news to be hesitant to criticise other journalism, but the BBC’s large editorial teams should not let substandard reports lead bulletins.

For weeks I have written with mounting concern that lockdown is causing such vast and lasting damage to millions of people and businesses that it might even do more harm than good.

I believe we should exit faster. But until we do, then those who set the rules, and police who enforce them, must make crystal clear that lockdown applies to us all.

And the national broadcaster should chase major breaches as assiduously as it did Cummings.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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