England has now entered the strangest phase to date of its Covid experience. Though the health secretary insisted, in a tweet he eventually deleted, that we must not “cower from” the virus, the contradiction between the lifting of restrictions and most epidemiological wisdom sits in the midst of our national life like a dull headache. The same prime minister who promised his ideological soulmates a new dawn of liberty is now embracing vaccine passports, and reportedly facing the prospect of defeat in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, references to “personal responsibility” have brought a new unease to everyday life, as the government reverts to type and does what Tory administrations usually do, transferring risk from the state to individuals.
Wearing a mask now feels a bit like putting on a badge. On what the rightwing press rather laughably called “freedom day”, I did some shopping at my local Asda, observed a masked-to-umasked ratio of about 70:30, and sensed – or thought I sensed – the crackle of judgment and mistrust, passing between those who were sticking with face coverings and those who had decided to go without. Two days later, I was in Stoke-on-Trent, where the ratio in a huge Tesco was more like 60:40 in favour of masking up. Despite announcements over the PA advising people to behave as if restrictions were still in place, the fact that some were sticking to the old rules while others were not felt like a matter of dull normality.
Only when I spoke to people did something more uneasy reveal itself: an apparent belief that things were now so messed up that whether individuals were taking precautions or not was really not that significant. One woman I met worked in a care home, and said that she was going to carry on wearing a mask in enclosed spaces. But she had no faith that her behaviour, in tandem with vaccinations, was going to play a part in returning us to our pre-Covid state of innocence: “I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to normal,” she said, with a shrug.
Meanwhile, the versions of reality presented by the old and new media continue to explode with polarised fury. On the right, a loathing of the state has fused with hostility to vaccines, and everything is tied together by the belief that those who want restrictions to endure are not just killjoys but enemies of freedom. Some on the left, by contrast, have seemed to want restrictions to go on for as long as possible: not just, perhaps, to keep the virus under control but also because life in such conditions has ticked so many of their political and philosophical boxes: a huge expansion of the state, the primacy of “the science”, clear benefits for the environment, and an insistence on collective sacrifice. With all this has come often swingeing judgment of “Covidiots”, and the assumption that going maskless or being sceptical about getting jabbed puts you in the same category as irate callers to talk radio stations and the dreaded Laurence Fox.
Somewhere in between these two ideological camps are millions who are too easily forgotten: those for whom lockdowns and stringent restrictions have not been the subject of a gleeful ideological war but a byword for misery and strife. Many of these people have had to leave home every day to work in dangerous circumstances. Some live in overcrowded conditions, and as part of dysfunctional and abusive families. Small business owners have either had their livelihoods shredded or live with the fear they are about to go under; for millions of young people, some of the most basic necessities of life have been put in hold for unbearably long stretches of time, with no sign of concern from the people at the top. In that context, even if some people are simply being irresponsible, I understand why others have quietly delighted in binning their masks, and greeted the end of most restrictions in England with a sigh of relief.
A couple of months ago, I was in the Alum Rock area of Birmingham, where I met a twentysomething British-Asian man who talked about his life and the shared experiences of his community before and during the pandemic. He emphasised the state’s neglect of local needs, and his awful experiences at the hands of the police – and went from there to his antipathy to getting jabbed, even though the local Covid death toll had been grim.
He was, it seemed, a perfect example of another overlooked part of the population: those who have been sceptical about both restrictions and vaccination, not out of ideological zeal, but because they have an understandably cynical and fearful view of the state and its edicts, and making oneself known to the authorities. Thinking of government as essentially benign and well-intentioned is, perhaps, the preserve of a certain section of the middle class. If you have had any experience of the nastier aspects of policing, the benefits system or this country’s immigration regime, you too might balk at the idea of downloading the official Covid app, dutifully turning up for your injection or registering Covid tests.
In large part, this country’s dire experience of Covid-19 is a result of awful government incompetence. But the past 16 months have also shown that societies ridden with inequality and institutional prejudice cannot cope with any convulsive crisis. The basic point is almost banal, but it seems to elude far too many people: if too many are insecure and isolated, and successive governments have made a point of kicking them around, they will either not be able to do what they are told, or treat edicts from the top and disapproval from those living more privileged lives with the utmost cynicism. Given that the worst effects of Covid have been visited on our most marginalised communities, such behaviour may look irrational, but that tension is hardly surprising.
There is a very persuasive school of thought that claims Covid will turn out to have been a dress rehearsal for the imminent worsening of the climate emergency. Both crises, after all, require us to follow instructions from the top, move in lockstep and engage in difficult acts of self-sacrifice. As things stand, some people can do those things, but others cannot. The danger is that, as one crisis follows another, amid the individualistic noise generated by social media and politicians happy to speak the language of blame, the noise of swingeing personal judgment will be much louder than any voices pointing out that our social model is now broken beyond repair. Dysfunctional societies usually produce deeply dysfunctional outcomes: until we start to address that basic modern truth, sneering and finger-pointing will only make things immeasurably worse.
John Harris is a Guardian columnist
This article was originally published on The Guardian. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.