Opinion | Britain Is ‘Free.’ And in Total Chaos.
Britain, we are told, is free. On Monday the government lifted the country’s remaining Covid restrictions — on social distancing, face masks, limits on numbers for gatherings, the lot — effectively leaving protection from the coronavirus to vaccinations and, er, the goddess of chance. (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the devolved nations, have sensibly chosen to retain some restrictions.)
The timing was immaculate: Over the previous week, 332,170 people tested positive for the coronavirus — the most since January — as the Delta variant courses around the country. New Covid-19 cases are expected to rise, perhaps reaching the dizzying figure of 100,000 a day later in the summer. The number hospitalized, much lower than in previous waves of infections because of the vaccination program, is steadily increasing. Deaths are creeping up.
Details, details. This was Freedom Day, as the government and the right-wing press insistently reminded us. The time when Britons, after more than a year of sacrifices, could let it all out — drink in a crowded room, go clubbing, have everyone over. No need for masks. But really, it was Confusion Day, a monument to chaos, anxiety and the unknown. We have no plan.
Fittingly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, lover of liberty (especially his own) and architect of the “plan,” couldn’t celebrate; he was self-isolating. He had been in contact with Sajid Javid, the health minister, who was double-vaccinated and tested positive for the coronavirus on Saturday. (Britons are discovering, to their alarm, that vaccines are not invincible.) Mr. Javid is new to the job: He was installed last month after the previous health minister, Matt Hancock, was photographed kissing an adviser in his office. He had to resign for breaking social distancing guidelines with his tongue.
Confined to his countryside residence, Mr. Johnson emitted the cracked bonhomie, the halting obfuscation, that is his trademark. The act, successful for a season, is wearing thin. In the first week of July, more than 500,000 people were contacted by the country’s tracking service and told to self-isolate for 10 days, creating chaos for businesses and individuals alike. (The situation has been called a pingdemic, for the sound the alert makes on people’s phones.) Mr. Johnson’s response was to airily excuse some key workers from self-isolating. Nevertheless, he said, “we do need to stick to the system as is” — ignoring the fact that the day before, he himself tried to avoid self-isolation. In Mr. Johnson’s Britain, after all, yesterday is a lifetime ago.
Perhaps this is a strategy to achieve hybrid immunity, in which the great majority of the population is vaccinated or was recently infected by the coronavirus (or both), by winter — a more up-to-date version of what seemed to be the government’s initial, much-maligned approach to the pandemic. But the government denies it. Instead, ministers insist a third wave of cases is inevitable, so why not have some sunshine along the way?
Or perhaps this is what happens when you elect a charismatic performer with interesting hair and no thought beyond winning the highest office. I used to think the hair fluctuated according to the stock market. Now I think it responds to polling. It is currently big hair to match big polling, with the Conservative lead, against the backdrop of a successful vaccination campaign and an ineffective opposition, stretching to nine percentage points. Whatever the hair means — and it’s terrifying to think we still do not know — we’re likely to have a few more years to scrutinize it.
No matter what Mr. Johnson says, nothing can dispel the sense that we are a country in decline, segueing to crisis. This is clear not just from obvious markers of malaise — like the fact that 30 percent of British children, in the fifth-largest economy in the world, live in poverty — but also from small things. Last week, for example, London filled quite suddenly with water during a rainstorm; some people swam in it happily, despite its possibly being filled with sewage. In Cornwall in southwestern Britain, a man, the heat perhaps having gone to his head, allegedly beat a sea gull to death with a plastic spade. If you love metaphor, Britain used to be the spade. Now it is the sea gull.
The omens are all bad. We almost won, but then crushingly lost, the European football championship, a fable about the British national character we cannot yet bear to untangle for what it might mean. And this loss was not even the gaudiest fact of the day. That was a man who told a newspaper he woke up, did three grams of cocaine — who says we can’t trade globally? — drank 20 ciders, lit a flare in his bottom and then invaded Wembley Stadium without a ticket, like D-Day in reverse. “There were no rules that day,” he said. “I was off my face, and I loved every minute.”
“Bum flare man,” as he is inevitably known, is interesting because he is an archetype: a typical subject of Mr. Johnson’s experiment with freedom. What happens next, we can’t know. But it’s sure to be gruesome.
Tanya Gold (@TanyaGold1) is a British journalist who writes for Harper’s Magazine, The Spectator and UnHerd.
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