The protests in Europe show why the Government pressed ahead with its ‘big bang’ July reopening

23 Nov

In the last few days, shocking scenes from Europe have been splashed across the newspapers. Huge protests have erupted in the continent after governments ramped up their Coronavirus measures to deal with growing rates of the virus.

In Austria, which has become the first country in Europe to make vaccinations compulsory and has returned to a full national lockdown, tens of thousands protested, with signs reading “no to vaccination” and “enough is enough”.

Elsewhere in Belgium, 35,000 protested against measures such as vaccine passes for restaurants and bars. Demonstrators threw fireworks at the police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons.

Similar incidents have taken place in other destinations, such as the Netherlands, where riot police used horses, dogs and batons to get rid of the crowds, as well as in Croatia and Italy. All in all, it has been an incredibly chaotic week – which should make leaders think hard about their future pandemic strategies.

In the UK, there have been some very deep-seated notions about how to best manage the virus – now tested by events in Europe. One has been the assumption that the more restrictions, the better. The media and critics of the Government have often called for lockdown(s), “Plan B”, and even referred to England’s unlocking in July as the “big bang” reopening, while idolising Germany and others with stricter policies. 

But our European counterparts show there are two major dangers to indefinite restrictions. One relates to people’s immunity. Part of the reason the UK is in a better position, according to experts, is because it timed its “exit wave” – a rebound in infection when people start circulating again – with summer, when it’s easier to deal with.

While this meant the UK had high infection rates during this period, leading to accusations of it being “plague island”, it now has high levels of immunity (also thanks to the vaccine). Many European countries, on the other hand, now have spiralling infection rates, as their exit wave has come in the worst possible moment (cold weather).

The second issue with the “indefinite restriction” argument is that people’s tolerance for strict measures has a limit, as is obvious across Europe, as well as Australia, which has had one of the longest lockdowns – and resultant, widespread protests.

It’s interesting to note that the UK government was derided at the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis for holding off on lockdown, due to fears about how long people could cope with such conditions. We can now see why behavioural scientists were worried; there have been violence and arrests in countries that hang onto their Covid measures, and do not give citizens enough reassurances about when these will end. 

In fact, governments have hinted to their citizens that they can expect more restrictions. Germany, for instance, has imposed new measures on the unvaccinated and vaccine passports have been eagerly embraced in many countries.

In general, there has been a groupthink – not just in Europe, but elsewhere – as to how to manage the virus. Paperwork and strict restrictions are seen as the default, sensible approach.

But hardly any of these restrictions have been brought about through votes, so it is no wonder we are seeing large-scale backlash. As I wrote recently for ConservativeHome, Austria’s decision to make vaccines mandatory should be a big wake up call as to how illiberal and extreme some policies are getting.

In the UK, particularly thanks to the booster programme, is moving forward and leaders are confident we will not experience the current scenes in the rest of Europe. Nadhim Zahawi, who was behind the vaccine rollout, said he hoped we would probably “be the first major economy in the world to demonstrate how you transition this virus from pandemic to endemic using vaccines”. 

For all the criticisms levelled at the Government, we can now see that there is more logic to its decisions than its critics thought; that, along with the vaccine rollout, we have got into a good position in regards to pandemic management. Far from considering measures, such as vaccine passports, because others have done so, we should use our momentum to show what normality can look like.