Social life has picked up. For the past week, six people or groups of any size from two households have been permitted to meet up outdoors in England. In Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales the rules vary, but small groups and some sports are now allowed across the UK. But while the lifting of restrictions makes the coming months a more enjoyable prospect, it also creates new complications.
Vaccine passports look set to be angrily contested in coming days, with an announcement about how they are to work due on Monday and a cross-party group of more than 70 MPs strongly opposed. While there is a case for measures to support businesses and institutions such as museums to reopen as soon as possible, there is every reason to doubt ministers’ ability to deliver such a system in a way that does not simply serve to heighten divisions, given their abysmal record on test and trace and open disdain for civil liberties. Concerns about intergenerational unfairness are already running high, with a legal challenge underway regarding rules banning over-65s from leaving care homes, and the announcement that under-50s will have to wait longer than expected for their first dose. New rules that exclude unvaccinated people from spaces or services, or increase antagonism between groups, could seriously undermine social cohesion when it is already seriously frayed.
Looming over these differences of view about the best way forward is the shadow of grief and suffering cast by the events of the past year. With the UK’s death toll of 127,000 the highest in Europe, the case for opening a public inquiry as soon as possible is undeniable. The government’s resistance to this course of action is disgraceful when an independent examination of what went wrong is the least that hundreds of thousands of bereaved people deserve. It also indicates a shameful lack of curiosity and unwillingness to learn from mistakes, and, just as important, to do so transparently.
The third wave of Covid now hitting Europe shows that the UK government is far from alone in its missteps. On acquiring and administering vaccinations, it and the National Health Service have done better than most. But ministers must resist the temptation to hold out false hope. In particular, political calculations about upcoming elections in May must not be allowed to colour decision-making, for example with regard to foreign travel. Any loosening of restrictions must be accompanied by strict hotel quarantine, as called for by Labour.
Further waves of illness remain a real danger. The prime minister’s recent encouragement to people to make “a passing stab at getting back into the office” was offensive and unwise. With only half of people familiar with the main Covid symptoms, and a similar number failing to self-isolate after developing symptoms, clear messaging from government remains absolutely essential. Both information and resources are needed: if infection levels are to be kept down, workers who are sick must be paid properly and the government must ensure that companies keep their workforces safe.
Much depends on how the virus mutates, and when and how new variants enter the UK. The extremely slow progress of the global vaccination effort requires urgent attention at the highest level. And while many people, having been vaccinated, are understandably keen to get back to normal, it is incumbent upon ministers to counter wishful thinking with expert advice.
The unevenly distributed effects of the pandemic have exacerbated inequalities of all kinds, in a country that was already divided. Yet despite their commanding parliamentary majority, the Tories seem more inclined to inflame tensions than cool them. What would be dangerous politics at any time is unconscionable in the middle of a pandemic. As rules relax and we are once again allowed to get together, ministers must stop pushing us apart.