62. Playing football with our freedoms

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

12 July 2021

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A big day in sport but real life goes on and the problems are not going away

“We win together and we lose together. No ifs or buts. The whole country should stand firm behind every player in this heroic team”.

David Lammy

“The standard of leaders in this country over the last couple of years has been poor but looking at that man there he is everything a leader should be. Respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine. He’s fantastic, Gareth Southgate, and he’s done a great job.” “Honestly, Gareth Southgate and Boris Johnson are poles apart. You can be a leader and be a gentleman. You can be ruthless and have empathy and compassion”

Gary Neville

“I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold. At home, I’m below the kids and the dogs in the pecking order but publicly I am the England men’s football team manager. I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players. It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.

…It’s about how we conduct ourselves on and off the pitch, how we bring people together, how we inspire and unite, how we create memories that last beyond the 90 minutes. That lasts beyond the summer. That lasts forever.”

Gareth Southgate

“The world is looking at us with disbelief — a country with some of the best universities and minds acting with arrogance, yet again underestimating our adversary,”

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology, Cambridge.

“Why in the middle of an air raid are we being told to switch all the lights on?”

Dr Gary Wood

Football’s coming home to Rome

People up and down this country woke up this morning feeling groggy if not hung over, gradually taking in the disappointment of last night. It is difficult to put the loss to one side and focus instead at what has been gained. The team has managed not only to bring people together but also to set a superb example to the country and the world. Gareth Southgate showed magnanimity in success and dignity in defeat, and immediate willingness to take responsibility for the result, something which our political masters have conspicuously failed to do. He has inspired his team not only in footballing skill but in showing what cohesion, personality and multiculturalism can look like. And he has written clearly to his team and supporters about his vision.

A Multicultural team – 8 out of this 11 have parents or grandparents from outside UK

Remarks like those of Gary Neville have gone viral for a reason, and when politicians complain that sports people should stick to sport, they need reminding that they themselves have tried to capitalise on the country’s sports teams when they are doing well – often after undermining them when they were not.

When I say “this country”, I should perhaps have been more specific and said “England”. In other parts of the United Kingdom, especially Scotland, there are significant minorities (?) whose footballing allegiance can be summarised as ABE, ie Anyone But England. While personally I find this wrong and regrettable, I would say to those who condemn it, please reflect for a moment on the reasons why this might be so. I will mention just two now, but I’m sure there are others. Firstly many Scots are looking south at a Westminster Government which, in the words of no less a person than Lord Neuberger, former president of the Supreme Court, is legislating to take us on a slippery slope towards dictatorship. Secondly there is the attitude of some of the fans, typified by the louts who broke into Wembley last night through the disabled entrance, and those who spouted racist abuse after the match. Yes, they are a minority, but sadly their activities are amplified and serve to bring their country into disrepute. And if we have a Prime Minister and a Home Secretary who refuse to condemn fans who boo their own team for taking the knee, perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking it comes from the top.

A Colossal Natural Experiment
Social distancing? Masks? And this just a year after UEFA was cancelled, with Covid more prevalent than it was then

Despite the result last night there is a lot to celebrate. Nonetheless, and I don’t want to be a party pooper, as a doctor I could not help looking at the crowds and wondering how many avoidable cases of Covid, how many people with long term disability, and even how many deaths, will result from the complete lack of social distancing and the almost complete lack of masks which we witnessed. Estimates are that Trump’s rallies last year caused 700 deaths. The total number consequent on the Euros will be less but it will not be zero. You will hear it said that vaccination will reduce the toll. However, while vaccination protects it does not provide any guarantees. Even if the vaccine were 100% effective we have nothing like high enough rates to give – dread term – herd immunity. Young football fans are more likely to be incompletely immunised and, while relatively safe from the risk of death, are still vulnerable to long Covid: perhaps 10% of those infected will have symptoms 3 months on, and in many cases the effects may well be permanent. We rightly condemned Matt Hancock for breaking his own rules at a time when Covid risks were lower than they are now, and when the ‘Johnson virus’ was not yet a thing, so why do we turn a blind eye to some 60,000 fans being packed into Wembley at a time when the virus is on the rise? This is not even to mention the 2000 “VIPs” who were allowed into the country for the event without any quarantine requirement. Even worse is the knock on effect of putting out the message that the pandemic is over and precautions are no longer needed.

This indeed is apparently the Government’s view, with today’s announcement that mandatory safeguards are to be dropped. In Sajjid Javid we have a health secretary who is much more comfortable than his predecessor was with this libertarian approach. We may perhaps speculate that this is precisely one of the reasons why he is in post, and of course if so he is there to be in a position to take the blame if and when things go pear shaped. This PM has form.

Sajjid Javid – BJ’s next fall guy?

There are few if any reputable experts in the field of medicine or science who believe that this is the right time for an abrupt release of lockdown. Alarming predictions have been made by 122 experts in a letter to The Lancet, by the BMA and by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, not to mention Dr Mike Ryan and Maria Van Kerkhove of WHO. At press conferences the Government’s scientific advisors invariably look uncomfortable while obviously under instructions to avoid rocking the boat (Stockholm Syndrome?). I can only be reminded of Anthony Fauci standing beside Donald Trump. While there may be some debate about gradual release of restrictions on businesses and travel, there really seems to be little or no argument among experts about the value of face masks, the wearing of which after all carries little or no economic cost and which we now know serves to protect not only the wearers but those around them. So why make it optional on public transport?

The consequences of premature unlocking are many. For example, the most effective way to cultivate resistant strains is to allow proliferation in a partially-vaccinated population. There are indirect effects, such as increased demand on hospital resources combined with increased absence from work by NHS workers, leading to a doubling in NHS waiting lists to 13,000,000, and this is the prediction of the health secretary himself.

With the Johnson (Delta) Variant, the rate of rise in new cases is higher in wave 3 than in wave 2, though vaccination protects partially from hospitalization and death

How is it that we are in a position, unique in the world, where such decisions are being made against a background of rising infection? We might be forgiven for thinking that the parliamentary pressure is coming from the same small vocal group who have been pushing for a no deal Brexit. Hardliners such as Steve Baker and Andrew Bridgen, members of the misleadingly named ERG (European Research Group) and the even more misleadingly named CRG (Covid Recovery Group), together with their enablers in the popular press, seem to be comfortable dismissing evidence and espousing magical thinking. Hence the attraction to them of the twin fantasies of Brexit and of “Freedom Day”. And don’t forget Andrew Bridgen was the man who told us that because he was British he would automatically be entitled to an Irish passport. When corrected on this major gaffe, he never bothered to apologise or retract it. Nor did his supporters see any need – their faith in him remained undented. ‘Alternative facts’ rule. The motto appears to be “optimism will set you free”. [Incidentally if Bridgen could get an Irish passport the loss of Freedom of Movement would not matter to him – perhaps he voted for Brexit on false premises, and if he, an MP, could do so, how many others would he now have to admit did the same?].

And we have a Prime Minister whom we are being asked to trust, despite his own open record of building castles in the air, not only over Brexit, but over things like the Garden Bridge, the Thames Estuary Airport and the Bridge over the Irish Sea. Not only are we dealing with a serial liar but a fantasist. And one who has made the same mistake at least twice before and has learned nothing. Doing the same thing again and again, according to Einstein, while expecting a different result, is the definition of insanity.

Freedom’s Just Another Word…

Why does this matter to Oxford for Europe?

Over the past week or two, Oxford has become a hotspot, one of the 10 most seriously affected in the country, and today Oxford residents are being urged to avoid unnecessary travel outside the city. We also have a lower than average vaccination rate, possibly linked to the large number of students in the city. We have as much at stake as anybody. And now we are being asked to welcome ‘Freedom’

People like us have spent the last five years reflecting on what the word ‘freedom’ means. We have a government which has simultaneously tried (and I would say failed) to make the case that freedom from European Union constraints is a good in itself, and to tell us that a massive loss of freedom of movement for British citizens, together with a slight loss of freedom of movement for their EU fellows, is also a good. This same government is trying to tell us that freedom from mask wearing is somehow a gain, even though it restricts the freedom of others, especially those who feel vulnerable, to go outdoors, to enter shops or use public transport. It should not need to be said that for every freedom there are obligations, that is what it means to live in a society. If it is good enough, as we are now told, to leave it to the discretion of individuals how to behave over public health, then why is it necessary to have laws against speeding, drunk driving or even assault?

Do our leaders not see any irony and the fact that “Freedom Day”, 19th July, comes two weeks to the day after the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons? This was rushed through without the kind of opportunity for debate which such complex legislation deserves, and predictably all attempted modifying amendments were lost. The government, equally predictably, tries to sell it as being about the protection of victims of crime, while trying to distract the public from clauses which could result in 10 year prison terms for peaceful protesters. Peaceful protest is something which for generations has been considered a very basic freedom. Does nobody remember learning about the Peterloo massacre? Bear in mind that there is already adequate legislation in place to deal with non peaceful protesters. This draconian legislation is about to be followed by something even more extreme, the criminalization of people who pull asylum seekers out of the sea. Can we be surprised that Lord Neuberger used the word “dictatorship”?

If this is such a freedom loving government, then how can it defend such steps? Perhaps the best answer comes from Humpty Dumpty:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” (Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass).

The question is, in my opinion, which would you rather, Humpty Dumpty or Gareth Southgate?

Humpty Dumpty For Prime Minister!

Please also keep an eye out for our regular series of meetings featuring brilliant speakers. The next one is on 15th July. Details here.

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The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

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