You can tell when Boris Johnson is telling a whopper. He waves his arms and rolls his eyes. When he sits tight and mutters, “Um, er, well, y’know”, we see truth struggling to escape the ectoplasm of his ego.
This week the prime minister ummed and err-ed his way through an answer to the Commons liaison committee on the question of pub vaccination passports, which he has long opposed. Now he has changed his mind and is unsure. He could see the case. They might be necessary.
Vaccinations in Britain will soon have been offered to 90% of over-50s and at-risk groups, which covers 99% of UK mortalities to date. The rise in infections has been halted, but with Covid variants lurking like the rats of the Black Death, the case for caution remains powerful.
Johnson is committed, whatever that means, to releasing England from pandemic bondage in stages – on 29 March, 12 April, 17 May and 21 June. It is understandable that he should want to protect those signposts – which he has long declared “irreversible” – and his backbenchers are fanatical to hold him to his word as the cost of lockdown continues to soar. However, it is not clear if vaccine passports, and particularly their restriction on pubs, would breach his deadline of a June release. It is merely to be “reviewed” in April. Once again, nothing is certain.
The reality of pandemic life in Britain remains exceptional. Indoor pubs involve crowded spaces and are thus regarded as vectors of infection. They are not essential, as are food shops, chemists and border crossings. Making customers drink outside unless they can prove immunity is hardly a crippling curb on liberty. Whatever libertarianism may say, there cannot be a big deal with pub Covid checks, as long as they are temporary. But there is the rub. Can Johnson be trusted to withdraw powers once assumed?
British aversion to identity cards is instinctive. “Show me your papers” has been the motto of Hollywood police states down the ages. Traceable mobile phones have diminished that horror, as has the documentation now required for driving, travelling, health and other entitlements. But as the pub entrepreneur Jonathan Neame told the BBC on Thursday, entry checks would be a practical nightmare. Half of all pub staff and many customers are under 25, with no hope of an early jab. Testing and passporting would involve extra staff, which small pubs cannot afford. Johnson may think it easy to apply discretion over whom to admit, but that would mean inevitable judgments of who someone is, rather than what they may be suffering.
The licensed trade has long suspected the Sage advisers of having a prejudice against pubs, the quintessential working-class – and middle-class – community institutions. All other shops, gyms, hairdressers and libraries will reopen fully before pubs, none of them apparently subject to “Covid status checks”. To look at Johnson flanked by his intellectual bodyguards, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, we might wonder if any of them would be seen dead in what they clearly regard as dens of disease and sin.
Pubs are the beating hearts of most village and town high streets. They are the custodians of good neighbourliness. Johnson provides no factual evidence as to why they have been singled out for more savage restriction than other retail outlets. There is no sign they were responsible for the second Covid wave. Public Health England reports 5% of outbreaks due to hospitality, against 26% to schools and colleges and 20% to workplaces. Yet of the 47,000 pubs in Britain, it is thought that as many as 20% may not reopen. In the social wreckage of lockdown this would be a heartbreaking casualty.
Johnson’s decision is indeed hard, but a sensible balance must be to see through this final stage into May and June. Pubs must be trusted to manage the risks, as many did with test and trace during reopening last summer. These judgments cannot be centralised. Otherwise, as we have seen with public demonstrations, enforcement collapses or becomes intolerable.
Meanwhile, the public must rely on parliament to safeguard its freedoms, a task it has yet adequately to perform. This week’s easy passage – thanks to Labour – of a further batch of regulatory powers in the Commons is not a good omen. Thousand-pound fines are not suitable for those falling foul of the pain of lockdown.
The test of a state that withdraws elementary freedoms in an emergency lies first in its justification and then in the swiftness of freedom’s restoration. The quality of Johnson’s justification has been miserable. The more critical is freedom’s return by June.