Owen Polley: Northern Ireland is particularly prone to a lockdown mentality, spending public cash and hampering the private sector

When governments first implemented Covid-19 restrictions and ‘lockdowns’ last March, most of us assumed that the measures wouldn’t last long.

Thursday, 25th February 2021, 7:50 pm
Updated Thursday, 25th February 2021, 7:58 pm
First minister Arlene Foster, health minister Robin Swann and deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill at a Covid briefing. A health minister is always likely to put NHS first, but in a normal administration his voice would be balanced by ministers who stand up for the economy, education and other key areas of life

Even while politicians and their scientific advisers set out the case for suspending much of the economy, sport, culture and tourism, they emphasised that, if we were patient and obedient, ‘normal life’ could resume relatively quickly.

Eleven months later, the tone that some of them have assumed has changed dramatically.

Even though Boris Johnson announced a ‘one way road to freedom’ this week, it’s by no means clear that a similar plan will be adopted in Northern Ireland. Som

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etimes we’re told that we can never return to ‘normality’.

The idea that we will have to become accustomed to a world where we travel less, consume less and rarely gather in large numbers is certainly depressing, but it’s also vague enough to dismiss or ignore.

Not so, the warning from Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer (CMO), Michael McBride, that coronavirus restrictions will “certainly” be needed for the rest of 2021 and “probably” into 2022.

“Hopefully,” he told journalists some weeks ago, “we will be able to do some of the things we thought were wonderful to do last summer.”

Then, as autumn and winter looms, the CMO tells us, there will be “enhanced restrictions”.

This was basically a retread of the argument about vaccinations not being a ‘silver’ bullet that we’ve heard from national scientific advisers and politicians.

The difference was that it was explicit about the length of time we can expect to be incarcerated.

According to Dr McBride, the plan was originally to ease restrictions after 70 to 80% of the population were vaccinated, but, thanks to new variants, this may not be possible.

If this bleak assessment reflects how ministers are actually thinking in Northern Ireland, it shows how dramatically the lockdown ideology has strayed from its original goals of relieving pressure on the NHS and driving down infections.

There is scarcely any pretence, any longer, that decision-makers are measuring the threat posed by coronavirus against the damage restrictions do to every aspect of our society; whether it’s the economy, the general health of the populace or the education of our children.

Anybody who asks for data, cost-benefit analyses, or any other rationale, beyond slogans that insist lockdown is necessary, is likely to be cast as a ‘Covid denier’ or at least a ‘Covid sceptic’.

The implication is that questioning the effectiveness of lockdown, its morality, its impact on freedom or its proportionality, is akin to denying that the disease exists, or at least claiming that it is not dangerous.

When the virus raged in China this time last year, ministers believed that they could not replicate the Chinese Communist Party’s response in a democratic country.

Professor Neil Ferguson, one of the key architects of the UK lockdown, told The Times, “we couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought. And then Italy did it. And we realised we could.”

If you look at social media, you’ll see no end of whining about perceived breaches of lockdown and social distancing.

The really extraordinary thing is how readily people have ditched their freedoms and complied with illiberal restrictions.

Governments, the experts who advise them and the behaviouralists who predicted the public’s response, didn’t believe they’d ‘get away with it’, but they soon discovered they were wrong.

There are probably a number of reasons for people’s compliance, including the way that we were already spending more of our time online and the tendency of social media to encourage conformity to a particular way of thinking.

While lockdown made most of our lives more boring, monotonous and lonely, it also did away with certain annoyances and inconveniences.

Whatever the exact reasons, you could say that, as a society, we’ve become institutionalised by the restrictions.

A lockdown mentality has settled on the populace and its leaders, encouraged by public health experts whose instinct is always to eliminate risk - whether it comes from alcohol, burnt toast, contact sport or a potentially lethal virus.

In Northern Ireland, the shape of our economy and the ideas prevalent in our politics have arguably caused this mentality to embed itself particularly deeply.

The size and influence of our bloated public sector means the voices of people whose livelihoods have been ruined or are at risk from lockdown are heard less loudly.

The make-up of our executive is a factor too.

The Ulster Unionist health minister Robin Swann, is always likely to put the health service first, whatever the circumstances. In a normal administration, though, his voice would be balanced by ministers who stand up for the economy, education and other important aspects of life.

In Northern Ireland, it is augmented by parties that are completely at home ideologically with spending copious amounts of public cash from Westminster, while hampering the private sector.

We’re already seeing the risk of death, hospitalisation and serious disease decrease significantly in our society, as older groups get vaccinated.

It should be a moment for optimism and anticipation.

If the plan is not to reopen and stay open, in a similar fashion to England, then we must start to ask how long we intend to allow unelected officials to tell us what we can and cannot do this summer.

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