The UK’s Pandemic Buyer’s Remorse
You may have noticed that as Vladimir Putin amasses Russian forces on the border of Ukraine—not to mention other significant events happening around the world—the U.K. media and public appear obsessed with the discovery that several supposedly illegal “drinks parties” were held at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street residence during previous lockdowns.
It may, understandably, have confirmed your suspicions that Brits are, well, very British, if not a bit odd—certainly when it comes to priorities. But there is much more going on psychologically and perhaps even spiritually here, in this general outcry, which has relevance to the U.S. experience with Covid-19 restrictions.
Various commentators—typically not inhabiting the flow of mainstream journalism—have suggested the anger over the Downing Street “parties” might actually have more to with people—politicians, media, and the public all included—projecting their inner conflicts as the coronavirus-industrial complex collapses under the weight of its internal inconsistencies.
The U.K. is now pulling ahead of many nations, especially those in Europe, in leaving Covid-19 behind. The vast majority of restrictions were lifted on January 27. Faced with the end of the exercise, and thus absorbing all that came before, many are having to come to terms with how deep down, and perhaps not even that deep down, they always knew the arbitrary and incoherent restrictions were disproportionate, often unscientific, and dubious if not entirely ineffective—but went along with them nonetheless. In short, the U.K. is in the throes of immense buyer’s remorse regarding the Covid-19 restrictions it bought so readily, and so Partygate is proving a lightning rod.
“People have been horrified by the double standards of politicians who told us to stay at home while they partied,” says Laura Dodsworth, one of the earliest and most voluble voices to speak out against lockdowns and restrictions in 2020, and author of A State of Fear: How the UK government weaponized fear during the Covid-19 pandemic. “But the next logical step in the thought process is, hang on, they told us we were in grave danger and we must stay at home to protect ourselves, each other and the NHS. Then comes the realization that the fear was amplified. And so, the exaggerated claims unravel.”
That unravelling means there is a sense that U.K. Inc. is lurching to a giant venting and reckoning over the past two years, especially when it comes to the behaviors of the political “opposition” and the media—usually two important institutions for holding the government to account.
“I believe how people deal with [the] information and realization is personal—can they self-individuate away from collective thinking and mass hysteria,” Dodsworth says. “Some of the back-pedaling by people in the media is highly disingenuous, I do feel less forgiving towards them.”
The Labour Party opposition have piled into the government over the parties of course. But when these horrible and often bizarre restrictions were put in place, did Labour politicians say anything? No, they went along with them, or asked for stricter enforcements, as our democratic parliamentary system of checks and balances imploded and continued to do throughout most of the pandemic.
The same is true of previously relied-upon and once dependable mainstream media institutions such as the BBC and Guardian, which are also endlessly piling in on the government over the parties. Did those media outfits call out restrictions or do robust reporting at the time considering a spectrum of voices and options? No, they trotted out the same narrative of fear and went along with it all.
Admittedly, they are now addressing the restrictions, but only indirectly through the lens of events at Downing Street. There remains far deeper drilling and unpacking to be done—about the restrictions and their impacts and whether they were proportionate. That isn’t happening, as media continue to regurgitate news about another party unearthed and how the police have now been dragged in to investigate.
At least the BBC has just now, finally, decided to clarify when it broadcasts the daily tally of Covid-19 deaths each night on the television news—which the likes of Dodsworth have long called out as psychological manipulation and stoking of unhelpful fear—that some of the deaths will have been “with” Covid and not necessarily “because of” Covid. It’s a start, but it took nearly two years to get there. Similarly, all the while various scientists and media pundits who pushed and praised restrictions endlessly are now finally changing their tune. The backpedaling and hypocrisy is getting called out as this Great British Vent-off gains momentum.
But this includes many of the public now having to face up to their acquiescence and herd-like conformity this past two years.
“Beyond the fury, though, lies something deeper yet, and far more uncomfortable: a need for absolution,” writes Mary Harrington for UnHerd, highlighting how “no one respectable wants to look at whether the rules he imposed, with overwhelming public support, were themselves worth the price.”
Harrington notes the work of the French philosopher Rene Girard, who in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978) expounds on the development in ancient human societies of the “scapegoat mechanism.” When tensions threaten to boil over, Girard suggests, a group will resolve them by focusing anger and hostility on a single individual to carry the weight of collective wrongdoing and acrimony.
I have sympathy with what many Brits are going through in experiencing this “buyer’s remorse” over the Covid-19 restrictions and what they went along with. I have done the course, so to speak, on this type of regret. Like many veterans, I have had to come to terms with what I participated in with the British Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s very painful to accept what you believed in wholeheartedly and committed too was misdirected, let alone morally corrupt.
Harrington notes a funeral worker breaking down in tears in a recent radio interview describing how he felt “like an idiot” for stopping weeping, bereaved relatives coming to funerals to mourn their dead loved ones. An NHS nurse recalls how a man “begged, wept, shouted to be let in, but we said no—for the greater good of everyone else”—after which the man’s wife then “died unexpectedly and alone.” That last example encapsulates the type of course chosen by the majority, who did what they were told thinking it was for the best, versus a minority who decided to hell with the rules based on the ethical priority of the given moment and situation. Now there is a national weighing up of who got it right or wrong.
“For those who were part of the lockdown Resistance, it is gratifying, but also oddly unbearable, to see the people who attacked us admitting that the ‘misinformation’ we were accused of spreading 18 months ago turns out to be remarkably close to the truth,” writes Allison Pearson, a prominent columnist with the Daily Telegraph and one of its most outspoken critics of the handling of the pandemic. “With the UK set to be one of the first countries to come out of the pandemic, I thought it was worth starting to compile a list of the most lunatic measures. Lest we forget.” The list of 50 of the “most lunatic measures” that were imposed finishes with: 50. “Dying alone. How many died alone? How many?”
When I was traipsing around the Iberian Peninsula doing multiple Caminos to escape lockdowns, I met an Irish pilgrim who, echoing Pearson’s no. 50, railed against the cruelty of the Irish state’s draconian approach that meant devout Catholics died unable to receive the Last Rites from a priest—something, in the eyes of the individual on his deathbed, of crucial and existential comfort and significance.
As the U.K. population gradually and painfully reflects on the depravities and inhumanities of such measures, there is a lot to confront that won’t be easy to accept. We may very well continue to wear a figurative face mask about what went down.
“People will find it easier to tiptoe round or laugh off the big subjects and fail to make ground or innovate,” is the conclusion of Camilla Long, a columnist for the Sunday Times. “Vaccine passports, forcing people to take the vaccine, firing them, making children have it—no one feels able to discuss this stuff openly now.”
It won’t be any easier in the U.S., especially given the even more polarized climate. But ultimately facing up to harsh truths is a universal challenge whether you are in the U.K, U.S., or anywhere else.
Any moving on from the pandemic and the extraordinary measures imposed will have to include forgiveness and acceptance also—a process I can again relate to, post counseling for a PTSD-related moral injury. But to achieve this we will have to overcome, in the words of Long, the “legacy Covid-19: less openness, less exchange of intelligence, less reason, more fear, more established positions, people angrily taking stands.”
At least the U.K. has reached a juncture where it might try to overcome those hurdles. I suspect that Long’s verdicts levied on the state of the U.K. are actually more applicable to the U.S. Having at one stage been well ahead—certainly of the U.K.—in terms of bouncing back from the pandemic, the U.S. appears to have fallen back and become further mired in increasingly politicized mask and vaccine mandates.
“Human beings always do what is least painful,” Michel Houellebecq wrote in his 1998 novel Les Particules élémentaires (The Elementary Particles). His despairing dismantling of modern society and its mores was published two decades ago but it looks even more prescient thanks to Covid. “For as long as it is less painful to confess, we talk; then we are silent, we give up, we are alone.”
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer who splits his time between the U.S., the U.K., and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter: @jrfjeffrey and at his website: www.jamesjeffreyjournalism.com.