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23 July 2021

What did we do to deserve a “freedom week” this bad?

We wanted a nice summer break. What we got instead were empty shelves, a “pingdemic” and the awful, smug face of Dominic Cummings.

By Jonn Elledge

Once upon a time, back in those halcyon days before unexplained back pain and the whole world looking like that cartoon with the “this is fine” dog, the upcoming weekend would have marked the start of silly season. Parliament is in recess, the country is winding down for the summer: normally, the news would have gone to the beach. 

Silly season has not been what it once was for some years now. At the height of the Brexit crisis, it felt as if politics never stopped, no matter how much everyone involved may have wanted it to. Then Boris Johnson took over, and the sort of nonsense stories that would once have only been rolled out during August began to form a central plank of the government comms strategy. This year, while there are many adjectives it’s tempting to attach to the stories currently emanating from Westminster in a sort of viral aerosol of news, “silly” isn’t among them.

The biggest worry this week, of course, is the government’s decision to keep to its timetable for the end of lockdown, despite the arrival of yet another wave of the virus. Monday’s “Freedom Day” should have been a moment of national celebration: lives have been put on hold, education disrupted, love affairs never begun, because we all agreed to lock ourselves indoors to protect each other for the duration of this thing. So the sight of people dancing as nightclubs reopened made me genuinely emotional. 

The only fly in the ointment was the news that the UK once again had the highest daily rate of Covid-19 cases in the world. We shouldn’t be too alarmist about this. Although case numbers are as high as they were in the depths of winter, the death rate is a tiny fraction of what it was: the vaccination programme is visibly working. Nonetheless, fewer restrictions on social contact means more cases, which will mean more hospitalisations, which will mean more deaths. The US is worried enough that it’s now advising its citizens not to visit the UK. Meanwhile, the film industry is again cancelling releases, which is the sort of thing that started happening last spring and suggests a distinct lack of faith that any cinemas will be open to show anything.

In the middle of all this, the Prime Minister said he was very worried about the “continuing risk posed by nightclubs”. He will, presumably, be furious when he finds out who reopened them.

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All this would be bad enough, but on the literal day that England finished reopening for business, the government was cheerfully telling people that it had run out of lateral flow tests and that they should try again tomorrow. This seems, thankfully, to have been a short-term issue, although the government is reported to be thinking of charging people for such tests in future. This will definitely help to manage demand. It will not help to manage the virus.

Other things are in short supply, too: the internet has been awash with pictures of empty supermarket shelves, as retailers and distributors alike report staffing shortages. In part, this appears a consequence of the number of people forced to spend their first week of freedom in their own, personal lockdown after getting pinged by the NHS Covid app. But both the Brexit-fuelled shortage of HGV drivers, and the increased difficulty of getting fresh veg from the EU single market are in the mix too.  As Shane Brennan, the chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation (which turns out to be a real trade body, not the bad guys from Star Trek), and who is clearly a man who knows how to get summer started with a bang, released a statement beginning: “The real crisis for food supplies starts now.”

And through it all, there on the sidelines sits Dominic Cummings, explaining why the Brexit he helped deliver and the government he helped elect should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. It’s like having a Greek chorus whose only role is to constantly whine about how the play you’re watching is shit. 

Nobody wanted any of this. We don’t deserve it. We’ve all had a tough time, with an economic collapse, months of home-schooling, and being locked up away from our friends and family for so long we can no longer remember how they smell.

All any of us wanted was a nice summer break so that we could arrive rested, recharged and ready to resume the crisis in the autumn. What we get instead are empty shelves, a pingdemic and the awful, smug face of Dominic sodding Cummings. What I wouldn’t give right now for a good old-fashioned silly season story about a dog that can predict the weather.