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10 May 2022

Politicians are paying the price for their own absurd Covid rules

The grimmest discrepancy isn’t between Johnson and Starmer, it’s between them and us.

By Rachel Cunliffe

In May 2020 I met a woman taking her 21-month-old son to the park. We got chatting — from an awkward distance of two metres — and she told me how worried she was about him. Pre-lockdown he’d gone to nursery every day and had lots of friends. Now, thanks to Covid rules, he hadn’t spoken to another child in two months — hadn’t spoken to anyone except his mother, in fact, as his father wasn’t around. She was worried about his speech development and social skills, but also simply about how lonely he evidently was. I nodded sympathetically while the twin girls who would later become my stepdaughters played together nearby, and realised how lucky we all were that there were two of them. The thought of doing that to a child, of closing off their world overnight, just felt horrendously cruel to me, even if it was for the purpose of saving lives.

By December the rules had changed too many times to count — tiers, rules of six, firebreak lockdowns, it all blurs. I remember the requirement that anyone wanting to be served alcohol in a pub must order a “substantial meal”. This particular Covid decree is etched in my brain not just for the argument it started about whether or not a scotch egg fit the bill, but because of the pub (the Edinboro Castle in Camden, since you’re asking) that, having served my partner and me two full-sized burgers and a side order of chips, refused to let us have another pint unless we ordered a pudding each too. Who knew the government’s anti-obesity strategy could backfire so completely. We forwent the pudding — and the pint — and left.

Then came the never-ending lockdown of 2021, the cold dark days when I barely left the flat in daylight, with the hope of eventually getting the vaccine the only glimmer at the end of a tunnel. I read about the two women fined by Derbyshire Police for going on a walk together with takeaway coffees and marvelled at the overreach of Covid enforcement. That was when my friend told me she’d been “moved on” by police from sitting on an empty bench midway through a run. The experience — and the heavy-handed attitude of the officers — had been unsettling, but at least she hadn’t been fined. A week later I drove over Putney Bridge to see police pulling over cars to check the number of passengers. They didn’t stop me, but my heart rate spiked as I found myself rehearsing an explanation of where I was going and why.

There are other examples I remember. The friend who wouldn’t let her parents wave at her from the garden, even though she had a new baby and was struggling, because it wasn’t “essential” and might have been considered rule-breaking. The two hours I spent shivering in sub-zero temperatures outside a restaurant in winter because the girl I was with was having a breakdown and needed someone to talk to but we weren’t allowed to meet inside.

Then there are the stories of those who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. The 66-year-old man fined £100 for visiting his allotment when doing so was within the rules. The teenager fined £400: first for breaking lockdown and then for not going home immediately, because she had been driven by her boyfriend who refused to return so she had no way of getting back other than walking 13 miles alone in the dark. The woman (and this should be of interest to anyone in Downing Street “ambushed” with cake) fined £250 for dropping off a birthday card to someone she was in a social bubble with only to stumble upon a gathering she had no knowledge of. The students fined £10,000 each — a life-ruining amount — for organising parties of the type we now know were going on regularly in Downing Street.

I don’t mean to suggest there was no point to lockdown. Reducing social contact in the midst of a highly infectious pandemic was vital to saving lives. But just as it is delusional to argue that there should never have been a lockdown at all, it is equally absurd to maintain that all the rules implemented, relaxed and re-imposed over the first 18 months of the pandemic were fair and consistent. They evidently were not. They were poorly drafted, full of loopholes and haphazardly applied. For those who followed them to the letter, there were real, heart-breaking consequences — like the lonely child or all the people who were unable to say goodbye to loved ones who died alone, while Dominic Cummings was driving around Durham with impunity. Those who messed up — sometimes without knowing it — were handed over to police forces who, by their own admission, didn’t fully understand the laws they were enforcing. That’s a pretty damning state of affairs for a country that believes in equality under the law.

This is the conversation I wish we were having in the wake of partygate and revelations of the Labour leader’s beer. I wish we could talk about how Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer both spent months backing legislation that was both bizarre and cruel. Not one extra person would have caught Covid if the mother I met had been allowed to let her son run around with another kid in the park, or if my friend had sat on that bench, or if I’d been allowed a pint without a sticky toffee pudding in the Edinboro Castle. In any other circumstance we’d understand instinctively that £10,000 is far too high a price for a stupid student mistake, especially when politicians were making the exact same mistake themselves. And who benefits from a society that fines pensioners for going to the allotment?

Instead, it’s become a tit-for-tat political squabble. Johnson is pretending there was nothing wrong with karaoke parties and suitcases of booze while people died alone, and Starmer is sinking in a mire of his own hypocrisy — or possibly playing a blinder and backing the PM into a corner, depending on your perspective. But I genuinely do not care if he resigns over beergate or not, just as I don’t think a birthday cake is a reason to oust a prime minister. How does that help anyone?

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If only they could zoom out and see what the rules they full-throatedly supported, the rules they both claimed were clear and fair and devoid of ambiguity, did to people. Maybe Johnson and Starmer could come together, acknowledge they both made inadvertent errors and issue a joint apology. Maybe they could even announce a fixed-penalty amnesty and rescind all the fines handed out to other people who got confused over whether a curry with colleagues was within the rules, or who broke lockdown out of pure desperation. Maybe they could have some compassion.

Alas, it seems far more likely that Starmer will fall on the sword of his principles and Johnson will muddle through, as he always has done. There will be howls of rage at the double standard — but the grimmest discrepancy isn’t the one between the two party leaders. Rather, it’s between how politicians treated and were treated by lockdown rules, and the rest of the people that simply tried to do their best.

[See also: Did the UK perform better than we thought on Covid-19?]

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