I am back living in England, and I'll probably catch Covid. There's a sense of inevitability to it. While the British government would never admit to pursuing herd immunity, the reality on the ground is fairly unambiguous.
Too many of my friends and comedy colleagues have become infected since Freedom Day, in July, and have reported varying levels of illness. I spoke to a comic in Hull who suffered from brain fog for months after his diagnosis. He told me how he found himself standing on stage in front of packed audiences, blanking on his own punchlines. I’d really rather not catch it.
Ireland was a comforting spot to retreat to when the pandemic was at its zenith, but as the world opened back up I had a frustrating feeling that home had been too strict for too long. England has undoubtedly been at the other end of the spectrum. My first weekend back in London felt like an alternative reality, one where masks were optional and venues were heaving. There’s been a sense that the pandemic is over, that everyone has moved on.
A virulent strain of libertarianism influences all aspects of life here. Its fetishisation of liberty at the expense of other values played itself out again during the pandemic, with tragic consequences
England’s race towards easing restrictions has got as much to do with its national character as with its early vaccine triumph. The English are rogues in a way we Irish only imagine ourselves to be. A virulent strain of libertarianism influences all aspects of life here. As we discovered with Brexit, the notional idea of “freedom” is often prized as an end in itself, even if it has negative consequences.
This fetishisation of liberty at the expense of other values has played itself out again during the pandemic, with tragic consequences. When asked last year why Britain's infection rates were higher than those in the rest of Europe, Britain's prime minister, Boris Johnson, explained that his was a "freedom-loving country".
He might have had a point. A Eurobarometer survey in 2017 found that Irish and British people were the most individualistic in Europe: most respondents in both countries said they would prefer that society be based more on “individualism” than “solidarity”. Despite this, the two nations have largely responded to the pandemic very differently, with Ireland applying a longer and harsher lockdown than anywhere else in Europe.
A preoccupation with personal liberty isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course. I've always found the English to be largely laid back and open-minded. Irish people have migrated to the UK for generations in search of both economic and personal opportunities. Even Tánaiste Leo Varadkar flew to London and attended a festival in September. Similar events were banned at home, and he obviously needed to blow off some steam. The English, broadly speaking, will let you get on with things.
England's decision to lift all restrictions while the Delta variant was still surging is a little more explicable in this context. But it is also worth considering the terrible example set by its most senior politicians. Most countries have had examples of government officials breaking their own rules, but the UK has been a world beater.
Wearing a mask is not a political statement. Using a condom does not make you a communist. The benefits of mask wearing, social distancing and vaccine certificates should still be obvious
The hypocrisy reached its nadir when it emerged that Matt Hancock, the former secretary of state for health who effectively imposed a sex ban on the nation's single people, had breached guidelines to conduct an extramarital affair. Public morale reached a new low, and continued Covid regulations became untenable. There was a sense of people having just given up.
Ultimate responsibility for the UK's coronavirus debacle lies with its prime minister. No public figure better embodies the country's jolly libertarianism than him. With the dark days of 2020 now behind him, Johnson seems to be having a bit of a laugh again. He even joked to party colleagues that the early success of his government's vaccine rollout was "because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends". There's truth in jest.
While the Gordon Gecko school of public service may have endeared him to pharmaceutical companies, the broader public-health outcomes for the UK have been more mixed. Britain has reported the highest death rate from Covid-19 anywhere in Europe, and with hospital numbers surging again there is concern that an October “firebreak” lockdown could be on the cards.
Johnson’s government should certainly take credit for its vaccine triumph at the beginning of the year, but it must also take the blame for its failure to capitalise on its head start and for the Delta variant to spread as easily as it has.
Wearing a mask is not a political statement. Using a condom does not make you a communist. The benefits of mask wearing, social distancing and vaccine certificates while a highly transmissible airborne virus is still in circulation should be obvious. Coronavirus deaths in the UK are now hitting about 1,000 a week, and it’s not even winter.
If all of this leads to another lockdown, then dropping all restrictions will have made Britain less free, not more so. The British government would have you believe that all responsibility lies with the individual. The reality is that we are being governed by a cabal of ageing frat boys, and their decisions are making people sick.
Peter Flanagan left Ireland in 2016 to perform stand-up comedy in London. He has worked as a writer and comedian in Britain and Europe
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