Sunday Column: We need a roadmap back to the old normal

By Derek W Gardiner

When you fly either domestically or internationally, you now have to go through both a metal detector and sometimes a full-body scanner, if it beeps then you have to submit yourself for an intrusive search by a security guard, you can't bring liquids in a bottle over a certain size on to the plane or they will be seized, as I once found out the hard way and was left with no shampoo. All of this was part of the "new normal" that came out of the September 11th attacks and they only started as a temporary measure. The welfare state and the National Health Service, whatever one's views on them, were part of the "new normal" that came out of the second world war. Passports, which have now reverted to their original blue, were part of the "new normal" that came from the first world war but all of these new normals have made us less free than we were before.

In March 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that a national lockdown would be implemented for three weeks to flatten the curve and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, however, it went on, in some form or another, until the start of July and the terms and conditions of lockdown exit required that we accept a "new normal" where face coverings were mandatory in indoor settings, one metre plus social distancing was implemented and perspex screens were placed on every counter with yellow tape on the ground to direct everyone to stand two metres apart from the person nearest to them. I have never considered any of these measures proportionate to a virus with a very low mortality rate and have long argued that the NHS should be given more resources to deal with increased hospitalizations to prevent it from being overwhelmed. However, we are now back in lockdown because the NHS wasn't given increased capacity over the summer and those ardent lockdowners, who have spent years arguing for more funding for the NHS, now tell me it's too difficult to increase capacity.

We now know that the vaccine stops people from becoming seriously ill, hospitalised and stops transmission of the virus so why are some scientists on the SAGE committee talking about masks and social distancing until the end of the year. The roadmap set out by the COVID recovery group is one that would be sensible to follow at this point. It proposes a return of schools and relaxation of the rules on outdoor meetings on March 8th, "non-essential" retail reopening at the end of March, hospitality in April and all legal restrictions removed on May 1st. This may well happen as the CRG are the same people who brought down Theresa May and they may do the same to Johnson.

However, even if the rules are relaxed I expect that some people will continue to wear face masks in winter and be warier of coming into close contact with others. Nicola Sturgeon has said she wants face coverings and physical distancing to remain for "some time to come" however has not gone into any further detail. I don't want my children to ask me why I didn't wear a face mask to go and visit Santa's grotto at Christmas time for example or worse still people in school corridors wearing masks. The longer these things are mandatory, the more likely they are to become normal. There is a reason why scientists are often portrayed as the bad guys in children's TV shows, it's because they all have a desire to remake the world in some scientifically accurate way, that's why we tend to keep them in academic institutions rather than real-world policymaking, something I think we must return to if the old normal is to ever come back.

The current Coronavirus legislation comes up for review at the end of March that must be an opportunity for its repeal or at least some amendments to give more powers to parliament in the decision making process.

A campus free speech protection bill is necessary

I was very pleased to hear that, even if this government can do nothing else right, it's finally tackling the no platform and cancel culture which has become a serious threat to academic freedom in this country. A new bill being proposed would require Universities to appoint a "free speech champion" and offer those who had been "no-platformed" the chance to sue the university that allowed it to happen. Some deny this problem exists however, I have first-hand experience of this in the last few years.

Back in 2016, George Galloway who is currently the leader of the Workers Party of Britain and the spokesman for Alliance for Unity was physically attacked while giving a talk to the University of Aberdeen Politics and IR society for alleged homophobia, misogyny and transphobia, even though these allegations could not be backed up by evidence. No action was taken against the attackers and when I invited Mr Galloway back a few years later, he declined. Having also served on the committee of the debating society, I found there were many issues they simply refused to debate for fear of upsetting people. A friend of mine, who was President of the UoA Free Speech Society, was due to take part in a debate on the free speech issue but it was cancelled because someone complained about it and I myself was banned from the debating society for two weeks for questioning whether gender studies degrees were a good use of taxpayers money.

While I would much prefer to have a pro-freedom of speech culture championed by both the right and left as it was 20-30 years ago that is simply not the case anymore and the window of acceptable opinions is shrinking and shrinking. Therefore, I think it is long overdue for the government to ensure that taxpayers money is not funding institutions that do not respect people's fundamental rights.