January 25, 2022

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Political Scandals Are the Exit From Covid Coercion

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at a news conference in London, Dec. 8, 2021.

Photo: POOL/REUTERS

The bad news for politicians is that where Boris Johnson is leading, many others may follow. Don’t be surprised if the political scandal becomes instrumental in, rather than incidental to, our exit from draconian pandemic policies.

Britain’s ever-flamboyant prime minister is in new political danger this week. News has trickled out since late last year about a series of parties allegedly organized by Mr. Johnson’s staffers. At least some of these might have violated lockdown rules in effect at the time.

Until this week, “partygate” concerned allegations of Christmas festivities for staffers in December 2020. Mr. Johnson could claim he had been unaware of what was going on elsewhere in his office-and-residence complex. It helped him politically that these get-togethers occurred during a confused phase in Britain’s pandemic response when adherence to restrictions was starting to slip among the general public.

This week’s bombshell is very different. It concerns a large Downing Street party in May 2020 that Mr. Johnson admits he attended (he said Wednesday that he thought, improbably, it was a work meeting). At that time, the entire country still was in its first and strictest lockdown. Family weren’t allowed to visit dying relatives in hospitals. Children were barred from schools. A local government put police tape on park benches to prevent illegal sitting. Police issued more than 15,000 fines for lockdown violations in England alone.

The pain Britons experienced while Mr. Johnson’s staff partied explains why this has exploded. That pain also suggests such scandals may become a necessary tool for extracting societies from lockdowns, mask and vaccine mandates, travel restrictions, and other trappings of the medically obsolete but politically durable zero-Covid policies of spring 2020.

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Partygate has opened the door to a form of national group therapy in Britain. Newspapers and television stations are full of people who finally are allowed to discuss how wretched the lockdowns were. Business owners previously found it difficult to describe customers lost and employees laid off without being accused of putting the pound sterling above human lives. Families of those who died from Covid were bullied into accepting that they were barred from being with their loved ones at the end “for the common good,” but now can express their sorrow and anger publicly because it is directed not at the lockdown per se but at a politician.

It’s the same within the political class. Members of the opposition Labour Party this week took to the floor of the House of Commons to convey shattering stories, some their own and some their constituents’, of the lockdown’s toll. That this can be done in the context of a scandal about Mr. Johnson’s adherence to the rules rather than a controversy over the rules themselves finally gives Labour the off-ramp it needed from the draconian Covid policies it made the mistake of supporting these past two years.

The challenge of learning to live with Covid was always going to be that many ordinary people don’t want to feel the sacrifices they made—and supported at the time—were in vain. Arguing that lockdowns or school closures or masking were less effective than advertised may be correct, but to act on that recognition would require politicians and many voters to admit they were wrong.

Scapegoating is more likely and is one of the risks you sign up for when you go into politics. Mr. Johnson may survive partygate, but the effect of this scandal will be to weaken permanently his ability to impose further Covid restrictions. Expect him or any successor to embrace with new enthusiasm advice from scientists suggesting we now approach Covid much as we do the common cold.

This phenomenon won’t be confined to Britain. President Biden’s job is safe, but medical adviser Anthony Fauci’s is not. Rolling revelations about the extent to which he may have been involved in funding gain-of-function research in China undermine the moral authority of America’s chief lockdown advocate without having to wade directly into the partisan bogs of lockdown policy. Such a scandal also would open an opportunity for erstwhile lockdown supporters to vent their personal frustrations with Dr. Fauci’s preferred draconian policies.

Speaking of China: Zero-Covid is failing so abjectly there now that it can’t be covered up by the sort of improbable official data that has insisted the virus was not widespread in China earlier. Can an authoritarian regime pivot from zero-Covid without democracy’s means for mediating popular frustrations with the old policies?

Beijing’s advantage in the pandemic was supposed to be its ability to inflict whatever miseries it wished on its populace. Paradoxically, the dangerous moment may arrive instead when it comes time to explain to the public why such miseries no longer are useful—if they ever were.

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