An amnesty for Covid lockdown breakers? Robert Buckland plays the rest of us for fools

an amnesty for covid lockdown breakers? robert buckland plays the rest of us for fools

Rishi Sunak ‘should be able to console himself that at least people didn’t publicly address him by his Covid nickname, Dr Death’. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/PA

When he looks back at his catastrophic campaign, Rishi Sunak should be able to console himself with at least one thing: people didn’t publicly address him by his Covid nickname, Dr Death. To date, the election campaign, in terms of pandemic reminders, could hardly have gone better for him.

The Labour campaign has seemed as disinclined as most of Sunak’s interviewers to dwell on a pandemic record that, on its own, amounts to a case for Conservative annihilation. The last government’s occasional successes do not compensate for the delays, chaos, callousness, rule breaking and still emerging scandal of preferential PPE contracts: just last week a man was arrested in a PPE investigation linked to Baroness Mone. Britain’s was the second highest excess death rate in western Europe.

The Covid inquiry continues. If the election hadn’t been called the same week as Simon Case’s postponed appearance, more attention might have focused on his line about the “worst governing ever seen”. Case confirmed, also, that he hadn’t learned in advance about Sunak’s project, “eat out to help out”, even though he was in charge of Covid policy. The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK group claims, plausibly, that it “contributed to the loss of thousands of lives”.

Did we actually live through, or with, the abandoned care homes, the (denied) PPE shortage and rite-free burials of people?

But the pandemic might, for as much as it has surfaced in election coverage, be the subject of some national exercise in selective forgetting, with the worst suffering put tactfully aside. Did we, as a man asks at the end of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (“ ’tis all wonderful, ’tis all a dream”), actually live through, or with, the abandoned care homes, the (denied) PPE shortage and rite-free burials of people who, according to Boris Johnson, would “die anyway soon”, having “had a good innings”? In the preface to the Labour manifesto, Keir Starmer dwells, more hopefully, on pandemic evidence that “working people never let each other down”. Sunak not being, admittedly, most people’s idea of a working person.

At any of his campaign events, Sunak could have been questioned about “eat out to help out the virus”, as Chris Whitty called it; a scheme another scientist called a “spectacularly stupid idea and an obscene way to spend public money”. As far as I can see, he hasn’t been. Instead, he’s boasted about furlough, presumably confident that nobody will raise, in return, their experience of relations fading and dying alone, or inadequate support for workers needing to isolate, or invite him to explain how his risk-taking in the summer of 2020 differed substantially from Johnson’s “let the bodies pile high”.

Even given live election issues, these may strike anyone with painful memories of the pandemic as missed opportunities to interrogate Sunak about decisions casting doubt on, at the very least, his competence. They might usefully remind the demographic critical to the Tories how much this party values elderly people during a pandemic. Or as Johnson viewed this tragedy: “Nature’s way of dealing with old people.” Its lessons being important to learn, as an article in the BMJ suggests, before the arrival of another one. “Voters may want to know how the parties plan to do better next time a pandemic occurs,” write Kent Buse and Martin McKee. “The first duty of a government is to protect the lives of its citizens.”

In party manifestos, mentions of a pandemic that killed almost 227,000 people are so sparing as to give the impression of, if it’s not straightforward insensitivity towards the still traumatised or sick, a powerful desire to move on. For Tories, Covid-19 is mainly an excuse for economic and NHS problems; Labour offers a Covid corruption commissioner. The Lib Dems will support “the immunocompromised”. So you can almost, in this semi-amnesiac context, understand the confidence of Robert Buckland, the Tory justice secretary between 2019 and 2021, in effectively identifying everyone who followed pandemic lockdown rules as a fool. We should have anticipated his proposal – for an amnesty for Covid lawbreakers – and acted like a Johnson.

I can only apologise to my mother, then 89 and not long ago widowed, for obediently leaving her alone for months, over 200 miles away – not least after Dominic Cummings’ totally legal escape to Durham and essential mobile eye-testing. Sunak joined a chorus of cabinet ministers tweeting in support of Cummings. “Taking care of your wife and young child is justifiable and reasonable,” he reprimanded one critic. “Trying to score political points over it isn’t.”

Research indicates, in more responsible communities, overwhelming compliance with lockdown rules that Johnson’s team belatedly put in place (after inventing a difficulty called “behavioural fatigue”) as the only way to slow hospital admissions. The psychologist Stephen Reicher has pointed out that people not only observed these rules; huge numbers volunteered to help the NHS and their neighbours: “The reality of the pandemic was not one of individual frailty but of collective resilience.”

Now Buckland, possibly pursuing South Swindon’s delinquent vote, wants amnesties for individuals who may have ended up with a criminal record (for not paying fixed penalty fines for lockdown offences) that could restrict their job and travel opportunities. A proposal, since it’s supported by some senior Tories, that is presumably accompanied by compelling indications that future, more caring pandemics will skip the UK, or anywhere a previous amnesty might undermine compliance with critical health interventions.

For Buckland’s anti-lockdown supporters, like the judge Jonathan Sumption, potentially huge numbers of deaths were always preferable to temporary restrictions on liberty. “We have [also] acquired an irrational horror of death,” he asserted, in what must have become a hugely consolatory text for relatives of the 227,000. “In the midst of life, our ancestors lived with death, an ever-present fact that they understood and accommodated.”

As hard as it is to contemplate what passed for discourse in the pandemic of 2020, Buckland shows us it would be complacent to think it could never happen again.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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