Looking beyond our fringes to a divided, multi-tiered Britain – David Behrens

I’ve never understood those people you see on the news, who camp outside shops all night in order to get their hands on the latest iPhone.

England continues to ease coronavirus restrictions.
England continues to ease coronavirus restrictions.

It’s not as if they’re in short supply, is it? But I would gladly drag a sleeping bag down to Otley tomorrow night if it means being first in the queue to finally get my hair cut.

The reopening of barbers’ shops and other services deemed non-essential – except to the families they support – is as welcome as the blossoming of spring itself.

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Those of us who have taken on the appearance of refugees from a 1973 Top of the Pops will be able to see through our receding fringes once more. I will try my luck at my usual salon, but at this point a sheep shearer will do.

Not everyone wants a vaccination

Monday will also see the return of clothes shopping and al fresco dining at pubs and restaurants, should the April temperatures permit. Most of all, it sees a measured return of the freedom of movement we used to take for granted.

That is true, at least, for those who have still been taking any notice of the restrictions. But according to Government statisticians, more than four in 10 of those aged 80 and above have broken the rules since getting their vaccinations – arranging indoor meetings with someone from outside their usual bubble within three weeks of their first jab.

When younger people are factored in, those figures are likely to be the tip of the iceberg, and that’s perhaps why Boris Johnson went out of his way this week to say that social gatherings must remain outdoors-only affairs, and even then amongst no more than six people.

But, as he spoke, a multi-tiered Britain was already emerging from the darkness. The divisions this time are more fundamental than those of last December, when the pubs were open in North Yorkshire but not West. Now, they separate those who were caught by Rishi Sunak’s support net, and those who fell through the holes.

According to one pressure group, the latter category – let’s call it tier three – comprises more than 3m of the newly employed, newly self-employed, and those on short-term contracts. Denied aid from the state, many have had to sell their belongings in order to put food on the table. Some have gone bankrupt; others face a vicious cycle of money and mental health issues, says the charity Rethink Mental Illness.

We’re not talking here about individuals on the fringes of society; many are professional men and women with mortgages to pay and children to clothe. A freelance TV cameraman I met this week fell squarely into this third tier, having lost eight months’ work – two-thirds of his annual income – because the programmes he expected to shoot had been cancelled.

No less serious is the emerging schism between those who have had their vaccinations – whether or not they followed the rules afterwards – and those who have refused them. Let’s call these tiers one and two. A YouGov survey this week suggested that, on average, one person in 10 will decline a jab, though the figure is almost double in some communities. But with choice comes responsibility – so will the deniers be allowed the same freedoms as everyone else in the future?

In refusing to rule out the introduction of coronavirus status certificates – so-called Covid Passports – the Government has dropped a broad hint that they might not. While Mr Johnson said that proof of vaccination would not be required “at this stage”, ministerial documents left the door wide open for their adoption by shops, hotels and sports venues. Civil liberties types from across the political spectrum are soundly against any such thing, with the Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, likening certificates to wartime identity cards. Around 40 Conservative MPs have joined a campaign to see them outlawed.

But surely, free passage with the correct documentation is less restrictive than no passage at all? It’s no more an infringement of personal freedom than showing one’s ID card when entering an office. Young people already have to do that in pubs. Those in tier three especially would argue that it’s a small price to pay if it means they can continue to keep a roof over their families’ heads.

And what is the alternative? We can tolerate a New Normal in which people are camping on the streets because they need a haircut – but not because they have lost their homes.

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