As you put up your Christmas lights, write your holiday cards and find the perfect sparkly outfit for the work Christmas do, I hope you also remembered to prepare for the annual Christmas lockdown. Following Boris Johnson’s announcement on Wednesday 8 December of a new work-from-home order and restrictions, such as vaccine passports for certain events and venues, from 13 December, we know far too well how easily things could slide into a second Christmas lockdown. But under no circumstances can we allow this to happen. The stakes are far too high.
When the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, the public were happy to comply. We didn’t know anything about Covid, people were dying, the virus was spreading fast and the situation was scary; there was a genuine concern that the health service could be overwhelmed.
But we are in a far different situation today. We know a great deal about this virus now and, most importantly, we have more than one highly effective vaccine. We are fortunate too in the UK to have a very high take-up of the vaccine. Covid deaths are currently falling. And, of course, from this week, patients at the most risk from Covid-19 will be offered the chance to receive antiviral drugs (data suggests they can reduce the hospitalisation rate among such groups by a third).
It’s true we still don’t have enough data about the Omicron variant of Covid, but for now hospital numbers remain fairly stable with Covid patients taking up only around 5 per cent of beds. Gathering more data is essential, but however we respond – if necessary – to Omicron, the answer can no longer be restrictions and lockdown. Why? Because just as we know more about this virus, we also know far, far more about the collateral damage of lockdowns and of living in a state of government-induced panic.
Since the first lockdown, up to 740,000 cancer referrals have been missed. The National Audit Office estimates that between 240,000 – 740,000 urgent GP referrals are “missing”, a knock-on lockdown effect of people being unable to get a GP appointment or purposefully staying away over fears of overwhelming the NHS or even of contracting Covid in healthcare settings. Sadly, we know this will mean excess cancer deaths in the years to come, including deaths of those who could have been cured, or given more time with loved ones.
Then there is the mystery of more than 9,000 non-Covid related excess deaths since July this year, and the NHS waiting list comprising of around ten per cent of the population: six million people are now awaiting treatment. A new lockdown will merely increase these numbers.
But what feels most pressing – perhaps in the wake of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes’s tragic death at the hands of his caregivers – is the reports that are now emerging of the devastating impact that lockdown and Covid restrictions have had on our children. Ofsted’s annual report was damning. “Loneliness, boredom and misery became endemic among the young”, says the report. Some children have developed mental and physical health problems due to being cut off from education and a lack of activities. In some instances increased anxiety led to self-harm, it said.
The study found that some of the youngest children regressed in basic skills such as language, and school closures made it easier for vulnerable children – out of sight of their teachers – to fall through the net. And then there is the low-lying, constant vigilance, the stringent mask rules in schools and government messaging telling kids that they could “kill granny”. It is not unreasonable to suspect there will be long-term mental health impacts on our children from living in a constant state of anxiety. And it is not unreasonable to think that we have consistently underestimated the significant, unwieldy impacts on our children only because they are the voiceless in our society.
The Prime Minister has called for a “national conversation” about vaccines, hinting that we may be going down the route of mandatory vaccines. The fact that vaccine ID cards were once considered as beyond the pale by politicians, shows that something is shifting in the government’s sentiment. Covid is a forever war, in their eyes, one that we can trade in any number of values to combat. The Prime Minister, however, is mistaken if he thinks that the public are as blinded by Covid tunnel vision as he is; we are not. Now that the costs of trading in our liberty for health security no longer add up.
We cannot let our leaders reconfigure all aspects of our society around a disease. If we want our children to grow up free from fear – or even free, full stop – we must not let lockdown become a yuletide tradition.