The Covid Inquiry ought to take place later this year, assuming that restrictions have ended, but those who hold it will be in an unsettled position.
For the story of the pandemic will continue even as the inquiry unfolds: for example, Britain’s deaths per head will not be the same at the beginning of the probe as at the end, and how they compare to other countries may have changed.
But although it’s too early to attempt the last word on what Covid has taught us about the Government, it may not be too early to reach a settled view on what it is teaching us about ourselves.
“They are the common enemies of everyone who believes in freedom,” Big X says of the Luftwaffe as well as the SS in The Great Escape. To anyone with a certain view of our country, his last word reverberates with talismanic power.
What he meant by freedom wasn’t the freedom to do whatever one likes; not even the freedom to do whatever one likes as long as no-one else is harmed.
Rather, he meant what could be called British freedom: that’s to say, individual liberty within our framework of parliamentary government, common law, shared understandings and cultural inheritance.
She listed these as: “upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent-minded, loyal to friends, robust against foes”.
Obviously, a zest for individual liberty is a part of this worldview, if seen in this Protestant-flavoured, Whig Theory of History-friendly, Kipling-quoting context.
That the British – no, the English – are just such a freedom-loving people is a foundational belief for parts of the conservative movement in this country, and Brexit has strengthened it.
On this anniversary of the first lockdown, it’s time for the centre-right to acknowledge that this take on the English is simply out of date.
Whether one agrees with Jonathan Sumption or not, he is surely right to argue that the past year has seen restrictions on freedom unprecedented even in wartime.
Furthermore, it has done so under the terms of a special Act that allows Parliament less scrutiny of those restrictions than the “oven-ready” alternative – the Civil Contingencies Act.
As Sumption put it, “it has been the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our country. We have never sought to do such a thing before, even in wartime”.
And how have the freedom-loving, sturdy yeomen English responded? Our readers will need no introduction to what the opinion polls report.
Last March, a year ago, YouGov found that 93 per cent of those sampled supported that first lockdown, with 76 per cent strongly supporting it.
Has another shutdown since cooled their ardour? Not much. On the eve of the third lockdown, the same firm reported that 85 per cent backed the third lockdown, with 62 per cent doing so “strongly”.
A month later, in the wake of the Prime Minister unfurling his roadmap, YouGov found that 16 per cent thought the plan too slow, 46 per cent that it was about right…and 26 per cent, just over a quarter, that it was too rapid.
Perhaps people are telling the polls one thing and doing another? Up to a point. One study last December found that people thought they were observing the rules better than others.
As the report’s lead author suggested, that could suggest that people pardon their own transgressions while taking a sterner view of those of others.
But the study also also found that “despite these concerns, majority compliance remains high”. There is some evidence that observance is tailing off now that the end is apparently in sight – which is scarcely surprising.
What evidence we have for vaccine takeup – for which assessments are bedevilled by vaccine availability – suggests British trust in authority is high (even if it is vested more in scientists than in politicians).
YouGov found last December that the British were the second most receptive nationality to Covid vaccination. That was before the AstraZeneca row and a further decline in trust of its vaccine in many European countries.
Why has this culture shift happened? Is it something to do with the changing place in society of women over 50 years?
Do women prize security over freedom more often than men – since, after all, risk needs freedom to flourish, and men are more likely to be risk-takers: to take part in extreme sports, carry out violent crime, take illegal drugs, gamble.
How much of a factor is mass immigration, particularly when it comes to language? If you don’t speak the same tongue as your neighbour, the odds on mutual understanding, trust and friendship are longer.
That might well lead people to prize security more and freedom less – as part of the wider impact of globalisation, social media and technological change.
We don’t know but, since politics is our business, we can date the decline of freedom as a motivating cause among the main political parties from roughly the Thatcher era.
Interestingly, the last Prime Minister we can find to have made a speech about it is Gordon Brown. It was one of the three words projected at the start of the Coalition Agreement (a nod to the decidedly statist LibDems).
The long Conservative pivot from freedom passes from David Cameron’s communitarian Big Society to Theresa May’s state-lauding “the good that government can do”.
It’s too early to pass any kind of verdict on Boris Johnson, whose libertarian instincts are at odds with Red Wall susceptibilities (and much else).
But mention of him takes us to someone who long worked with him and, though far from the first person to pick up the trend to security, was the first campaigner to weaponise it effectively in a British general election.
“A brighter, more secure future,” the Tory manifesto of 2015 declared. “The next Conservative Government will secure a better future for you, your family and Britain,” its introduction concluded, in case anyone had missed the point.
Cameron won that election and the rest is history (or perhaps security). But while Covid has taught us something we all need to know about ourselves, it doesn’t mark the end of our story either.
For every trend there is a counter-trend, and we wondered at the time if Theresa May was opening up a freedom gap that others would occupy and exploit.
Covid may leave us a new normal with different ways of living, working, commuting and learning, but the question we asked then is even more pertinent now.