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The pandemic

Liberty could be Covid’s main victim

The Tramlines festival in Sheffield last month. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“Freedom is losing the battle in Britain,” says Sherelle Jacobs in The Daily Telegraph. Cases are falling and we may well be approaching herd immunity. Even Professor Lockdown, Neil Ferguson, says the pandemic should largely be over by autumn. Yet hope of a decisive return to normal “seems dead”. Boris Johnson has missed his moment to “rally the country around the cause of freedom”. Instead, the coming months are set to be a misery of “border restrictions, variant angst and creeping biosurveillance”.

In the West, only the US and France offer hopeful “counters to the trend against liberty”. President Biden insists there are no plans for vaccine passports, and several states have proactively introduced laws against them. American freedom is not an abstract principle, it’s a “visceral lifestyle”. Across the Channel, Macron is doubling down on his hardline “health pass”, barring the unvaccinated from cafés. But he’s being rounded on by left and right: socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon decries his “presidential monarchy” and Marine Le Pen denounces his “indecent brutality”. In France, liberty is “ideological”. In Britain, we’re taking it for granted.

It’s “hard to fathom now”, says Melinda Mills in the Guardian, but there was a backlash just like this over wearing seat belts, and it took years to ban smoking on public transport. Then, as now, the concern was state interference with personal rights. But in matters of public health, libertarians are “naive” to say the “government should stay out of people’s private lives”. As with second-hand smoking, the government has a moral duty to stop Covid and protect the health of its citizens.

The UK has stumbled into a “dangerous realm”, says New Scientist. Although deaths remain low, high infection numbers give the virus ample opportunity for “evolutionary experimentation”. Our “high but not yet high enough” vaccination rate could encourage new “escape variants” that can get around the body’s immune responses – even in those who have been vaccinated or have had the virus before. After the hope generated by the invention of multiple effective vaccines, this prospect is “too dreadful to contemplate”. The speediest possible end to the pandemic means taking “whatever measures necessary” to keep cases down.

The pandemic has been a “frightening time”, says Laura Dodsworth in The Spectator, and naturally we “crave security” during chaos. But the virus is being used to justify a “biosecurity state”. Healthy people are being detained, rule-breakers shamed and vaccine passports pushed through by emergency laws, enabled by a “narrative of dehumanisation”. In the new piety, “the unsafe, unclean and dangerous” threaten the “virtuous vaccinated”. These attitudes arise from the natural fear of an epidemic, but are upheld by the continuing manipulation of those fears. Crises can be a catalyst for exciting and positive change, but we’re in danger of creating a new moral code “forged in fear”.