When the British government revealed the existence of a new strain of COVID-19 just before Christmas, it proved an effective way for the prime minister to enforce strict Tier 4 lockdown measures on much of the south of England with minimal fuss.
It also very quickly isolated the United Kingdom from the rest of the world, with European nations imposing strict travel bans on the U.K., flights grounded and Twitter branding the country “Plague Island.” That probably wasn’t what Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hoping for when he gave a televised press conference warning that the new strain was more infectious than the first.
The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group informed the prime minister of the new variant in mid-December, though it offered a less pessimistic view of the situation than Johnson ultimately communicated to the public. Nonetheless, he jumped at an opportunity to justify the widespread lockdowns that came just in time for Christmas – despite implementing a month-long nationwide lockdown in November to “save” the festive season.
Politicians played game after game, and yet ultimately still failed to save Christmas, still put most of the nation under cruel and strict lockdown rules into the new year, and inadvertently cut an entire country off from much of the rest of the world.
In the United States, Democratic governors and mayors waited until a few days after the Nov. 3 federal election to institute fresh lockdowns, having held off for as long as they could to avoid a backlash from potential voters. Newly-elected Democratic President Joe Biden promised to “shut down the virus, not the economy,” but ultimately stood by and watched as California, Michigan and the city of Chicago forced businesses to close their doors and residents to stay at home for weeks from mid-November.
Game playing by politicians and public health officials is now well documented. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the U.S. Coronavirus Task Force and the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently admitted that his opposition to mask-wearing in the early days of the pandemic was part of an effort to stop regular citizens from buying masks when medical professionals needed them most. Instead of levelling with the public, he, along with others, chose to lie.
Fauci also told CNBC in December that he was deliberately moving the goalposts on how many people needed to receive the vaccine to achieve herd immunity, hoping that by slowly increasing the number he could encourage more to get the shot.
We should be asking ourselves whether politicians are following the data or their pride. With public health officials treating private citizens like children and politicians implementing last-minute slapdash lockdown measures, it seems like no amount of evidence will ever convince these leaders to change tack.
Johnson’s pre-Christmas lockdown didn’t save Christmas. Shutting down restaurants hasn’t stopped the virus. And even mask-wearing hasn’t proven enough.
It turns out that controlling the spread of a highly infectious novel virus is virtually impossible – but the politicians are still committed to trying, and at all costs.
And even if a politician wanted to admit the lockdown policies had proven a bad idea so far, nobody wants to be the first to admit they were wrong and face the backlash of the lockdown-loving press and celebrity class. I say that as someone who supported the first lockdown.
As we enter 2021 with at least three effective COVID-19 vaccines rolling out, politicians still oppose the concept of shielding the vulnerable in the months it takes to roll out the vaccines to the majority of the population. Meanwhile, many small businesses remain closed, others open in limited capacities, and big businesses stay open and suck unemployed people of their last few pennies.
If that doesn’t prove the politicians’ unwillingness to change tack when they know they’ve made a mistake, then I don’t know what will.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that no matter how damaging a policy is, politicians won’t reverse course so long as they remain vulnerable to the wrath of social media and the tabloid press.
Jack Buckby is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.