We sorely need a liberal approach to Covid-19, but it won’t come from the Lib Dems

Covid-19 has inflicted much on us all over the last seven months – illness, separation from friends, family and colleagues, unemployment – plus the hardship and anxiety those things bring. It has also brought with it depressing conformity; both in the way we must conduct our lives and a prevailing belief that the tougher the restrictions you want, the more compassionate you are. 

This was highlighted yesterday as just one MP voted against rules allowing police enforcement of self-isolation. As new, stricter, rules came into force on Merseyside last weekend, a video circulated on social media of police officers stomping through pubs to make sure people were complying with Tier 3 “meal and no mixing” regulations. The official Merseyside Police Twitter account responded to the clip by saying “our officers have a responsibility to ensure compliance with the law.” I’ve heard barely a whimper from politicians against such moves. 

There was a time, of course, when one might have expected the Liberal Democrat party to stand up for… well, liberalism and democracy. And yet, they’ve backed calls for Sir Keir Starmer’s ‘circuit breaker’ national lockdown. Wales, the only government in the UK with a Liberal Democrat in it (Education Minister Kirsty Williams), is in a full lockdown with shops reportedly told to sell only ‘essential’ items.

While I hate to ascribe views to the deceased, one cannot imagine the party of the late, great, Lord Paddy Ashdown nodding along to such things. I’ve met and interviewed current Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey and he is a genuinely sensible, compassionate, liberal, man. Having campaigned actively for the party a number of years ago I know some members have somewhat statist tendencies, but why Davey’s natural traits have not yet manifested themselves in his party’s policies on tackling the pandemic is something I cannot fathom.

The strange thing about the Lib Dems’ positioning is that there is surely a place in the UK political market for a liberal, measured approach to Covid-19. While Matt Hancock stands at the Despatch Box and press conference podiums telling young people that if they go out they’ll kill their grandparents and/or be ill for months on end, and Labour Mayors like London’s Sadiq Khan lobby for their cities to be hollowed out by further restrictions, the party could be advocating something different. Instead, we have former leadership contender Layla Moran describing the decision not to move her Oxfordshire constituency into the Tier 2 “high” alert level as “disappointing.”

At this juncture I should give an honourable mention to Daisy Cooper, the Lib Dem MP for St. Albans and the party’s deputy leader. She has consistently opposed the 10pm curfew and demanded scientific justification for the patently nonsensical, counterproductive restriction.

The thing is, I absolutely do not advocate throwing away our masks and hand sanitiser. Far from it. Covid-19 is clearly a real, present and significant danger and these things, which for most people are relatively minor behavioural shifts, allow us to work, travel, and therefore socialise, a lot more safely.

The depressing truth is that this virus is likely to remain a feature of our lives for some time and, as Judith Woods so rightly pointed out on these pages: “Lockdowns followed by partying followed by lockdowns ad infinitum is a recipe for unmitigated disaster.”  

Opposition parties must therefore offer better solutions than this bumbling, reactive government is – ones that don’t simply destroy hospitality and other industries, that don’t diminish health services for everyone not suffering from one specific affliction, and that don’t impinge greatly, perhaps irrevocably, on our civil liberties.

While Andy Burnham pushed back against Whitehall bullying, Labour as the UK Opposition or the Welsh government has simply entered the lockdown arms race. Likewise, in Scotland with Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. The Lib Dems have the opportunity to offer an alternative. To stand up for the businesses that want to serve customers safely instead of being forced to choose between bankruptcy or government hand outs, for the young people that want to do their civic duty to protect themselves and others whilst also living, not merely existing, and for the elderly desperate to be reunited with family members. 

None of this is easy, but it would be nice to see the Lib Dems at least try.

 

Charlotte Henry is a journalist and the author of Not Buying It: The Facts Behind Fake News

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