The vaccines are working. Cases are dwindling, and hospital admissions and deaths are falling. The light we were promised at the end of the tunnel is finally in sight, and most of us are cautiously crawling towards it, one garden gathering at a time.
Last week I stopped at a traffic light and spotted a group of children on their way home from high school. I watched them as they gathered outside a sweet shop, chatting and laughing, with their face masks strapped across their chins as they sipped bottles of Lucozade. They looked like normal teenagers, hanging around doing normal teenager stuff. And after months of barely any real-life human contact, their faces, new faces I’d never seen before, caught up in their own little world of school and their social lives, felt like hope. It felt like a time to feel hopeful.
But as beer gardens, gyms and non-essential shops open this week and we return to some form of normal, we cannot forget the dark days not too long ago, when doctors and nurses wore bin bags due to shortages of PPE and their patients died alone.
We should remember the series of failures that have contributed to the ongoing health, economic and social crisis that we are likely to feel for decades. We cannot forget how the government failed to act quickly enough to stop the spread of the virus, and all the terrible decisions ministers have made since: Eat Out To Help Out, the reopening of schools and universities without sufficient precautionary measures in place, the Christmas relaxation of rules that was fuelled by sentimentality rather than science.
We should remember that other countries cancelled or cut down their cultural or religious festivals. The Chinese government cancelled lunar new year in January 2020, usually the cause of the world’s biggest annual migration. Had it not done so, Chinese cases could have been 67 times higher, according to researchers from Fudan University and the University of Southampton. In Saudi Arabia only 10,000 pilgrims were allowed to travel to Mecca for the hajj, instead of the usual two million. In April 2020, Israel banned household mixing during Passover.
But of course our silly pal Boris Johnson couldn’t bring himself to cancel Christmas. Just as he’d boasted about shaking hands with Covid-positive patients a mere 20 days before the country was forced into its first national lockdown, in December he told families it was OK to gather in bubbles of three households, for a five-day period from
23 December, before swiftly changing it to only one day of mixing. People gathered, and people died.
When the public inquiry comes we will see just how many lives were lost as a direct result of poor decision making. We will see the dodgy contracts and the extent of taxpayers’ money wasted. We will see how the vaccine programme’s success has been achieved not by politicians but by exemplary medical staff and volunteers who have jabbed, jabbed and jabbed again.
The evenings are lighter now, and soon we’ll be able to sit around tables with our friends and families. We’ll listen to live music and things really will be better. But as we embrace our new-found freedom and look towards the future, we cannot allow the government to get away with its failures.