With a promised end to restrictions in the UK at the end of the month, I’m hoping that this post will serve as my final Covid diary. Indeed, it now seems time to call time on almost two years of life-altering, state-mandated restraints. For all its raging transmissibility, the Omicron has thankfully resulted in very low numbers of hospitalisations and deaths.
What continues to rage, however, are the fiery cultural divisions in society. There seems to be a perverse, inverse relationship between the level of threat of the virus and how mad and maddening we behave towards it and one another. Why is this? In large part, this is because the corona pandemic constitutes a moral crisis as well as a public health one. To be sure, we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that the last two years has simply been about health. At root, the last two years have laid bare deep and troubling metaphysical assumptions about risk, purity, death.
We’ve seen these cultural and moral assumptions play out in two recent events: first, the revelations of PM Boris Johnson’s attendance at mass party events in May 2020 and second, the deportation of tennis star Novak Djokovic from Australia. Both events raise two distinct questions which I will explore in what follows:
First, the question of legality and fairness: were the rules created applied consistently and fairly (including, in the case of the first event, by those who created them!)?
And second, and more deeply, the question of morality and reasonableness: are the rules themselves worth following?
Reason and emotion both have a place in moral decision-making. And yet, as we’ve seen in recent lockdown debates in the UK, the important place of emotion in argumentation has been downplayed, even as it has dominated discussion in the background.*
When it comes to the covid jabs, I am pro-vaccine but anti-mandate.
I am, broadly speaking, in favour of the covid vaccines. Getting the jab is, on balance, a wise course of action. This is especially true for those over 50 and those of all ages who are clinically vulnerable. But it might also extend to those aged 20 and over who have no underlying health conditions. With the roll out of the vaccine in the UK, we have seen the reduction of deaths and hospitalisations and so the risk of serious symptoms has been mitigated. Conversely, I find it generally irresponsible not to be vaccinated, though I would want to reserve that opinion on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, at the moment I’d view the goal of as getting as many folks as possible vaccinated against covid to be a good outcome because it is the most effective measure for allowing life to continue while also reducing (of course, never eliminating) fatalities and associated health risks.
I dissent from the mandate position on three grounds: first, on the basis of the fact that it is deeply counter-productive to the intended goal; second on the basis of liberty and opposition to authoritarianism; and third on the basis of the precedent that is being set for coercive state action moving forward.
In a recent piece for Unherd, entitled “The new public health despotism”, Crawford uncovers the intellectual history of the administrative state—more on that term shortly—and helps to explain the long-developing shifts that have disturbed many, myself included, in the relationship between the government and the governed over the last 18 months. It makes for necessary reading not only as a retrospective analysis but also as a prospective warning as governments, including in the UK, consider stricter “plan B”s ahead of Christmas.
Towards the end of the piece, I highlighted a common tribalistic move in contemporary debates—the injunction to “educate yourself”. On this view, the problem of tribalism is simply the existence of competing ideas. The solution is simply to resolve differences of opinion through catechesis into a closely guarded communis opinio.
But we’re now almost a year on from the announcement of the first lockdown in the UK. And it was a year ago to the day that I started this diary. I therefore thought it a good moment to reflect personally on where I find myself.
To that end, I want to write about how lockdown has taught me the value of liberty, “rightly ordered”. My launching pad for doing so has been a series of conversations with friends and guests on the Politics at the Cross+Roads podcast (the issue has cropped up in a number of places, but one place to start is this solo episode). I partly started the video series to figure out a few things about myself, a bit like trying to map out my own corner of the sky against a set of constellation points. It’s therefore not surprising to me that convictions have taken shape, with some becoming stronger and others falling away. Even still, I have been surprised at how strong some of those convictions have become. And one of these has concerned the value of liberty.
According to a recent Sky/YouGov poll, trust in journalists is at an all time low. In the results of the poll, which surveyed 1652 British adults, journalists fared the worst in terms of public faith, with TV journalists receiving a net score of minus 40 and newspaper journalists, minus 55.
The issue of public trust in journalism is certainly complex. There’s clearly a massive debate to be had about the limits of this data (extent), where the data is and isn’t pointing in this direction (demographics), why people are thinking this way (cause) and why all of this matters (significance).
But in the face of this story, I want to focus on an example of journalism that I have greatly appreciated. In all of this, I have been most impressed by the coverage of the lockdown offered by the team at Unherd.
I’m depressed at the absolute prioritisation of profit over people. As Julian Knight (MP) has put it, “This exposes the crazy economics in English football and the moral vacuum at its centre…It sticks in the throat”.
We have made the acquisition of capital itself a virtue. At the same time, we appear to have abandoned those true virtues of philanthropy, generosity and helping one’s fellow man.