I backed the lockdown (and quite enjoyed it). But was I just a mug?

By | June 4, 2022

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times.

In June 2020 I went to the local farm shop to buy my vegetables for the coming fortnight. I was not allowed inside the shop — instead a table had been set up outside with the instruction that I was to keep one metre away from it. You told the shop assistants what you wanted and they went and fetched it for you. Handing the stuff over was difficult because of that one-metre rule. You kind of had to lean forward, and on one occasion I fell over.

The shop workers were wearing plastic shopping bags on their feet, tied over their trainers, because of the suspicion, then prevalent, that the coronavirus had a predilection for the soles of shoes — from which, later, it would leap up in a cunning manner and dive into your mouth, and then you’d be a goner. Meanwhile, somewhere in government, they were having a karaoke party.

Downing Street culture exposed

It is difficult to credit the sheer surreal nature of that first lockdown — which, nonetheless, I rather enjoyed. In theory, we were allowed out shopping once every two weeks, and could take a constitutional once a day for one hour, provided we didn’t sit on a bench or talk to anyone else. I had reckoned it all to be a little Ballardian — not least in the stockpiling of lavatory paper and spaghetti. And yet, shockingly, it wasn’t Ballardian, because there was no real breakdown in society: we all did as we were told in an extraordinarily compliant manner. Meanwhile, somewhere in government, they were getting pissed at a party and vomiting, and two civil servants or wonks were trying to kick each other’s heads in.

I had been entirely in support of that first lockdown, in every measure of its severity, craven before the little Hitlers who sprang up to lecture you about keeping a safe distance outside the supermarket, masked-up and with chapped hands from the constant washing, and with the perpetual acrid, alcoholic reek of hand sanitiser in my nostrils. OK, I began having grave doubts later that summer, with the bizarre non-sequiturs about where we were allowed to go and what we were allowed to do — drinks down the pub, fine; visit your dying grandmother, banned etc. But for three months at least, I was a happy, supine, strangely unquestioning camper. My wife remarked to me, in March 2020: “It’s all shite, all of it. None of it will make a difference. It’s about control. And it will go on for ages.” Nonsense, my dear — it will all be over by September, and this is simply a case of ensuring the frailest of us survive, I assured her.

What a terrible thing it is to have to admit, in a national newspaper, that one’s wife was absolutely right, on all counts, and that I was wrong. The government was right too. The ministers, including the prime minister, and the civil servants took not the slightest notice of their own advice. They partied like it was 2019. They were happy to pass on the fatuous injunctions from Sage to the plebs and to ensure that transgressors were fined or shamed or both — but they knew it was all bollocks. Their actions prove this beyond all reasonable doubt.

This is, I think, at least half of the reason the public is so angry about partygate: we are angry at ourselves for being mugs and doing exactly as we were bidden. Yes, we might despise the arrogance and entitlement of Johnson and co, but the real vexation is with ourselves. And the horrible implication that the nutters, the extremists — the people we rather pompously derided and later silenced altogether — were right all along.

The latest study, from (among others) Johns Hopkins University, suggests that lockdown saved the lives of perhaps 10,000 people across Europe and America. That does not take into account the thousands upon thousands who will die as a consequence of lockdown through having missed hospital treatment, nor the ruined lives, the depression and stress, the destroyed economy, the government spending, the children’s education forgotten. Much as with trepanning or the use of mercury as a laxative, the cure was far, far more deadly than the disease.

Another study (from Italy) suggested that the more stringent the lockdown measures, the more likely (by a factor of three) people were to flout them. In retrospect, good for them. I suppose we can console ourselves that at least we weren’t as gullible as the New Zealanders — but it’s thin gruel, isn’t it? The best we can do is address Boris and — especially — Sage directly, now: “Another lockdown? Not on your life. Or mine. They don’t work.” Oh, and can we remove those bloody hand-sanitiser dispensers from all shops, please? We knew by the winter of 2020 that it was nigh-on impossible to catch Covid from a surface. And yet for some reason people cling on, like they cling on to masks, desperate to believe they are doing the right thing.

Rod Liddle writing in the Sunday Times.