15 June 2021

Claire Fox, director of the Academy of Ideas, comments on the delay to the Step 4 of the government’s Covid roadmap and how it makes the findings of the People’s Lockdown Inquiry even more relevant.

For many of us today, we wake up with a sense of despondency about the month-long delay to fully opening up society in England. Some may be relieved at the caution, and feel it is better to be safe than sorry. But for many, this delay threatens to ruin livelihoods, much-cherished plans for family gatherings lie in tatters. This stop-start atmosphere just adds to a feeling of inevitability and powerlessness. But it is important that we don’t succumb to fatalism. Here at the Academy of Ideas, we will ensure our key LIVE Battle of Ideas day-long festival at University of Buckingham goes ahead on Saturday 17 July even with restrictions, because we must not allow ourselves to be shunted out of public life.

One of the disputes about opening up is an over-reliance on data confined to Covid only, and not broader cost-benefit analysis about the damage caused in non-Covid areas of people’s health and lives. Even harder to assess are those costs that cannot be quantified. The need to reflect on these qualitative costs was why, when the Academy of Ideas was approached by the Reclaim Party to curate this project of Lockdown stories, we thought the idea prescient and inspired. The past 15 months will have left long-lasting scars. Some will be dealing with the grief of losing loved ones to Covid-19 or battling illness from this potentially lethal virus. Everyone, sick or well, has been affected by policy decisions taken to tackle the pandemic and the resulting climate of fear.

We aimed to publish this inquiry on 14 June in advance of so-called ‘Freedom Day’ to make the point that we need to record properly what has happened before restrictions were lifted. But the hopes that were placed in a full lifting of restrictions have now been dashed, at least for four weeks. Many will despair at this news and worry that restrictions may linger in some form for a long time yet. Nonetheless, we hope people will resume normality with a renewed zest for life once the restrictions finally go.

But we should never forget what was done to society, and the huge costs it has extracted. More importantly, we need to debate what lessons we might learn from the experience of the pandemic. This collection of testimonies and insights is a contribution to our collective memory and a means of trying to understand what happened.
The editorial decisions, commissioning and framing of the printed edition of the Inquiry are the sole responsibility of the Academy of Ideas, warts and all. Contributors were given free rein to respond, resulting in a mix of styles. We asked them to consider any positive lessons learned, as well as costs, rather than indulging in listing grievances or playing the blame game. Most completed their contributions during April, in the early stages of the prime minister’s ‘roadmap for easing lockdown’. While there are also insightful additional testimonies on film, inevitably not all stories or sectors are represented. However, we hope to give a flavour of what issues need to be considered. We want this to constitute a foundation for a more expansive archive that can be developed in months to come.

There’s always a lot more to say. We know that there are influential figures who want to make ‘temporary’ and ‘emergency’ measures a permanent ‘new normal’. The institutional embrace of the precautionary principle means that, despite reassuring data and the success of the vaccine roll-out, everywhere from GP surgeries to university campuses continue to delay resuming normal, face-to-face service. Any enthusiasm for the medical wonder of the vaccine is dampened by unethical arguments for coercive measures, and the demonisation of those who do not consent. The prospect of domestic vaccine passports or ubiquitous testing regimes to guarantee access to all areas of society does not bode well.

But the long-lasting outcome of the Lockdown is a script not yet written. It will not be determined by those in authority, but by the millions of citizens in the UK. To do this, we all need to reflect on the collateral damage of any further extreme measures brought in under the guise of public health. The Academy of Ideas hopes this initial Inquiry will help inform a full and frank debate on what happens next.

Claire Fox