It appears that after his life-threatening hospitalisation with coronavirus earlier in the pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's thinking changed considerably. Gone was the bumbling whimsey of the tousle-haired old Etonian. The reigning doctrine was one of 'safety first', cemented as he announced the effective closure of the British economy in March and a national lockdown, to be enforced by heavy-handed policing.
Declaring the easing of the lockdown this week, Johnson has gone further than many expected. Pubs, cafes, cinemas, museums, resturants, holidays, haircuts, and more are all due a triumphant return from July 4th. The business-inhibiting 'two-metre rule' has been relaxed to a more liberal 'one-metre plus'; a move which hands responsibility to businesses to assess the specific risks in their premises and take appropriate measures. Even the 5pm coronavirus press briefings have come to an end. The British public are at last trusted to determine risk for themselves. Johnson told MPs;
Our principle is to trust the British public to use their common sense in the full knowledge of the risks, remembering that the more we open up, the more vigilant we will need to be.
Guidance, rather than instruction, is now the principle. The Prime Minister's step-change could not have come soon enough. The instant sense of ease on the Tory benches was palpable, although remaining elements of the lockdown remain a source of discontentment. With the UK having experienced the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe, such decisions are understandably difficult. Having said that, the evidence of the value nationwide lockdown, especially when weighed against the long-term economic impact, is questionable.
The understandable concern now is that infections may rise. Johnson declared there would be localised lockdowns to clamp down on specific outbreaks, and though he claims he would not hesitate to reimpose the national lockdown if the rate of infection rose alarmingly, it seems unlikely. The Prime Minister clearly feels more comfortable announcing freedoms rather than restrictions. This approach is more true to his natural political instincts; a laissez faire philosophy around social issues and antipathy towards bureaucracy. He's talked of the "freeborn people of the United Kingdom", who "live in a land of liberty" and have "freedom-loving instincts". These aren't the words of an authoritarian. This Prime Minister was always reluctant to institute the lockdown in the first place, and it will take a major setback to change his mindset once more.
The truth is that coronavirus, much like the annual flu season, is now an unavoidable part of our lives. Liberty prevails, measured by the common sense of individuals to determine the amount of risk they are willing to take for themselves. Naturally, people will be responsible for their own mistakes. The Tories will undoubtedly be blamed for those mistakes, but then again, they are chastised as evil, heartless, and probably racist for one reason or another, whatever they do. People have always had to take risks with their lives on a daily basis, be it when crossing the road or hurrying down a flight of stairs. Infectious disease isn't going anywhere, and a new pandemic could just as easily be around the corner next year. For all but the most elderly and vulnerable, life must go on.