UPDATED 10 Jan 2023 by the author for clarification
Entering winter 2021, the New Normal had been on a near two-year unbeaten hot streak. By January, however, things appeared to be changing. Omicron, initially announced with grim relish as a kind of biosecurity check mate, had unveiled itself as improbable liberator.
In the UK, the new strain was already ripping benignly through the population, travestying the notion the vaccines could thwart transmissibility, and with it that fear of COVID which for almost two years had largely made willing captives, if not outright self-imprisoners, of entire populations.
There was an absence of celebration among the regimes themselves of course: all remained reluctant to relinquish their grip. The vax everywhere stayed bluntly promoted and pushed. And in those places that had most deeply absorbed the spirit and letter of the New Normal – such as Germany, Australia, Canada, and ‘blue’ USA… – the mandates marched on regardless.
Yet some regimes would prove more susceptible, or even vulnerable, to the shifting circumstances. And at least one domino was already starting almost imperceptibly to wobble…
The morning of January 7th, Dr Steve James, Consultant Anesthetist at King’s Hospital, London, learned that Health Secretary Sajid Javid (the man overseeing both the UK’s vaccine rollout and the looming mandates targeting healthcare and care workers) would be visiting his workplace.
Reliving the day months later, James tells me he had crossed his fingers, imploring fate to send Javid his way. Then he heard the minister was indeed scheduled to stop at his ward.
James was excited. He was also prepared. He’d been sharpening his views on the mandates for months on friends and colleagues and had quite deeply researched the available data. “There was no study that showed that, in a health care setting, forcing vaccine mandates reduced patient negative outcomes.”
He didn’t know exactly what he would say to the health secretary but felt confident now that a situation would arise in which he’d get the chance to say something. What he imagined though was more a word in Javid’s ear as they passed in a corridor…
At the outset of the pandemic, to make himself useful to the overstretched hospital, James had switched from cardiology to intensive care. Had he been frightened of Covid, he likely wouldn’t have volunteered to work in ICU in the first place. “If I catch it, I’m probably going to be unwell for a time but I’m not going to die,” he reasoned. “I’m probably not going to end up in ICU. I’ll get better.” Natural immunity had long appeared to him as both the inevitable and preferable outcome.
As talk of mandates started, James began to ask around. It turned out quite a few colleagues were unjabbed. While some were willing to lose their jobs, others were considering alternative methods – not all of them legal. “When crazy rules come along, people think, I don’t want to be forced into that, but I still need to feed my family. I still need to be able to do my job….”
When Javid appeared on his unit, James was there with his clinical lead. Thronged by press, the three discussed the emergent character of Omicron and the patients on the ward. Then – his movements followed by half a dozen lenses – Javid broke off and approached a group of nurses.
“What do you think of the new rule that would require vaccination of all NHS staff?” he asked them.
Soon as he heard this question, our cardiologist’s heart started thumping. When none of the nurses seemed much inclined to answer, he opened his mouth.
“I’m not happy about that…”
The confrontation was broadcast everywhere nationally and went viral worldwide.
For the “unvaccinated”, it was a clear small victory in the information war. James, in his scrubs and (obligatory) facemask, thin arms precisely crossed, couldn’t have less resembled the reckless, thick-as-shit ‘anti-vaxxer’ caricature concocted by and fulminated against day in and day out across the MSM.
James’ Instagram leapt 10k in 24 hours. The Spectator contacted him, inviting him to pen a byline. Meanwhile the hospital kept strongly advising him not to do any more interviews. “I said, do I have to take this advice?” They conceded that, strictly speaking, he didn’t. So he kept going.
He was receiving huge amounts of correspondence, also, the overwhelming majority passionately supportive and often grateful. He hadn’t expected anything like this. Reflecting on it, though, it made sense. “Something needed to come out of the system here. Something had been bottled up.”
On January 22nd, he joined the British anti-mandate campaign group Together as they delivered 200k signatures of the Together Declaration to Downing Street…
Just a few days later, a truly global liberation event occurred. The Freedom Convoy rolled into Ottawa, where it would know the instant wild success of routing the political personification of the New Normal, Justin Trudeau, from his own seat of power.
It didn’t feel like a coincidence when, just two and a half weeks after the truckers entered Canada’s capital, PM Boris Johnson announced that the UK would begin to rescind its Covid restrictions, triggering the collapse of a number of other Covid regimes and weakening all of them.
Interesting that that first glimpse of white flag would be unfurled here. Throughout the pandemic a sizeable minority in the UK had been vociferous, organised and resolute – and the state correspondingly tentative, hesitant, ambivalent…
“Yes it has been better here than it has in some places,” agrees Alan Miller, Together co-founder and spokesperson, in a North London café this summer.
“If you look at Italy and Spain, both have had experiences of dictatorships, both have a different relationship to the state. Often it becomes far more violent far more quickly, too. We saw it in France with the gilet jaunes and then the anti-lockdown protests: tear gas and watercannons, the militarized responses. But let’s not be like those people that get beaten up and say, ‘well at least I didn’t get my leg cut off.’ No! This was not acceptable.”
I liked Miller a lot. He is intelligent and pragmatic, and clearly driven by the dictates of a large heart. He had also been a man of the left since his teens, and cut his teeth protesting both Iraq wars. Not that he sees the old political distinctions as the least relevant to the 2020s.
“I don’t think the terms right wing or left wing have any meaning. The left used to believe in people. They had a sense that people could transform things… the English, French, American, Russian revolutions all had this view.”
Miller had made a professional success in the nightlife industry, and campaigned for years against the encroachment of safteyism and bureaucracy. The prospect of the vax mandates in particular, an intangible yet entangling web cast across almost every threshold in the land, seemed to him the realization of trends he’d seen coming a long way off.
“The idea of people being vectors of terrible things got really personified during lockdowns. And all of the trends, the anti-people trends, that have been around for the last two or three decades, got put on steroids: the idea that people are mad bad and out of control and need to be restricted. When in doubt regulate.”
Second perhaps only to France, UK Covid dissidents protested doggedly against the restrictions, in their tens and even hundreds of thousands. When Miller attended one of the first of London’s several large rallies, however, he was concerned. The speakers on the stage seemed ill-suited for pulling together the kind of coalition that could hope to be successful. There was, to his mind a little too much talk of 5G, for example. “The public needs to be involved in challenging the lockdowns,” he remembers thinking. “And I didn’t think these marginal individual groups would be able to bring them along.”
Together held its first meeting July 28th 2022 – over 100 campaigners attended, including religious leaders, union organizers and medical professionals. The organization would campaign outside schools and hospitals, universities, workplaces, factories, and on social media, as well as lobbying MPs and press, and providing spokespeople for media coverage on mandates and related issues.
“The reason we’ve been so successful with the anti-mandate thing is it’s front-line workers that have been involved. Not the business, not the layers of fucking bureaucracy, but healthcare professionals that said, I’ve done this for all these months, why are you now forcing us?’”
Before saying goodbye, I thanked him. My family spent 2021 under the dark shadow of the mandates, and Together’s efforts to stop them getting their foot in the door here had meant a lot, I told him. Tears filled his eyes, and he gave me a big bear hug, right in front of a confused barista.
The different parts of the UK offered different responses to Covid. Scotland for instance was much more like the other major European countries – by and large, it closed in upon itself and on itself.
Scotland is ethnically homogenous, with tight-knit communities, yet the character of its nationalist leadership is hyper-liberal – Boris Johnson’s brief and facile flirtation with herd immunity was enough to instill an enduring, still more hysterical overreaction north of the border.
“It’s almost like a cult,” explains Scottish campaigner Christine Padgham. “I used to like the SNP, but I never thought they were beyond criticism. I didn’t understand before the pandemic how much people identify with their labels. It’s become so unbelievably tribal. Whatever England says we’re just going to do the opposite. It’s so childish and pathetic.”
Padgham’s own slide towards Covid skepticism started in the spring of 2020, when she became preoccupied by the experiences of an isolated, terminally-ill old friend in a care home. “I was very fond of him. I thought it was so cruel and horrible.” She started looking into how many people were dying of Covid, really. She saw the deaths in her area, Aberdeenshire, May 2020, numbered a mere 140.
Around the same time, the George Floyd delirium swept the world. “I was quite a woke person, so I was outraged.” She ordered in the required reading, starting out with How to Be an Anti-racist. “And I just thought, this is absolute fucking bullshit.” She squeals with laugher.
“It’s all about, it’s not enough to be just not be racist, you have to be anti-racist. I live in rural Scotland, there are very few black people here.” Very few black people – very little Covid. “I just thought, there’s somebody out there, up there, totally messing with us all the time. You were allowed to protest BLM but nothing else. BLM actually made me a COVID sceptic.”
The inauguration of mass testing left her incredulous. “So let me get this straight? You’re taking random people off the street and testing them, then if they test positive, you’re saying they have the disease and if they have no symptoms, they’re asymptomatic? They’re not asymptomatic: they don’t have it!”
She knew from her own experience – she had trained and worked briefly as a medical physicist – that this was unbelievably poor practice. “You want us to be scared of this virus, which you’re saying is very deadly. Then on the other hand you can be infected and not have any symptoms. It was undermining and overplaying the disease at the same time.”
Even early on, her misgivings on testing and BLM spread discomfort, irritation and occasionally anger among her friends. Things got a lot worse when, July 10 2020, Scottish PM Nicola Sturgeon announced the mask mandates.
“We have three cases a day,” Padgham recalls, “which I knew were probably false positives. Why would you bring in masks now? Was she just doing for this for the psychological impact it will have on people?”
She shared this thought on Facebook – along with Scotland’s infection curve. “This caused huge offence, ‘Why can’t you just wear a facemask, shut up…’” She started to defy the mandates locally, in shops and businesses, resulting in several screaming arguments and evictions, sometimes by old family friends.
Padgham was already regularly poring over data from around the world. Soon she started maintaining the daily stat update on Us For Them’s (a British organization set up to protect children from the impacts of the New Normal) Facebook page.
Day one of the winter lockdown, her youngest daughter suggested they go to the school every day and knock on the door, like Black Rod at Westminster.
The playground was too icy for them to reach the entrance. Padgham and her two daughters (faces obscured in hats and scarfs) stood at the bottom of the playground and made a short video. “It’s day one of lockdowns and what do you want to say girls?” asked Padgham. “Don’t blame us, educate us” trilled her daughters in unison.
She posted the video online. Somebody in the community reported her for intimidation. The following day, two policeman called at the house during dinner. Padgham showed them the video, of her and two young girls outside the empty school. “How is that intimidating anyone?” she asked. The policemen left, embarrassed.
No sooner had the vaccine started rolling out than people she knew were getting injured and killed. When a relative passed away, she suspected the jab. At the funeral, she was disquieted by uncharitable talk of the “unvaccinated”. Then Scotland started to roll out the mandates.
“It’s that horrible feeling when your friends are pushing you out, and then the society that you’ve been a part of and you’ve been proud to be a part of and you’ve felt you shared values with starts pushing you out, too.”
In the street, neigbours called her and her family dirty, old friends gossiped about them and crossed the road. On top of the social fissures, she knew there were now plenty of places – concerts, nightclubs, football matches – she wasn’t allowed to go.
“You’ve been trying to explain to people for so long and as clearly as you can what’s coming next, that people are about to be discriminated against. And people tell you that you’re talking rubbish. Then it happens. It’s like, sorry, where are all my phone calls saying ‘oh you were right. Maybe I should start paying attention?’”
December 2021, there was a Christmas party in the village hall: vaccinated only.
The social, medical, and intellectual isolation drove her to completely refashion her social networks. The family travelled down to London frequently for the demonstrations. Besides working for Us for Them, she founded Inform Scotland, helped found Haart, and launched the CoronaStories podcast. She was part of a Telegram group of around 40 people in Aberdeenshire who would also meet monthly.
“We’re just naturally became quite a cohesive community. There are a lot of tradespeople, electricians, plumbers, carpenters. And people into alternative health. I will not be stepping foot in a GP’s surgery again as long as I live.”
At some point during the early lockdowns, on my own obscure North London residential street, stickers started to appear on the side of bins, lampposts, walls and signs. THIS ENDS WHEN WE MAKE IT END. People in 1940s Germany Didn’t Realise They’d Been Brainwashed, Either. RESIST THE GREAT RESET.
Almost as soon as they went up, they were scraped away. Within days, they had returned. And so it went, week upon week, the information war spilling out onto brick and mortar.
The stickers carried a QR code. I scanned one and accessed a local Telegram channel for an organization called ‘the White Rose’, named in honor of the civilian resistance group in Nazi Germany. It was a good way of getting information on local events and groups – as well as your own stickers. Soon these were visible in nearly every town and city in the country – and would later spread as far as Canada and Australia.
Networks like this were springing up everywhere: there was an unhesitating, well-organised willingness to circumvent stupid and tyrannical legislation. You could get what you needed, more or less, whatever that happened to be.
My favourite Covid countercultural institution was Third Wednesdays – a recurring series of nationwide piss-ups. Started prior to Covid as informal get-togethers for British libertarians, they had been (very willingly) highjacked for the needs of the larger, more heterodox crowd of Covid dissidents.
You just had to go along to an appointed pub, figure out which group was Third Wednesday’s (typically the largest, most convivial, least masked) and start shaking hands, drinking and dissecting whatever god-awful things were being propagandized that month. They are today held in over 40 villages, towns and cities across the UK on the third Wednesday of every month.
“The left and right have both been betrayed,” says founder Dick Delingpole (brother of rogue establishment journalist James). “What has become way more significant is whether you’re a libertarian or an authoritarian. Left and right: forget about it, it’s old news. And certainly, with Third Wednesday types I find myself breaking bread with people that are supposed to be my enemies. And old trade unionists come and are shocked they’re talking to an ex-public school boy, ex-tory.”
Few better embody British specifically upper-class contempt for New Normal officiousness than Laurence Fox, the actor turned political provocateur. My friend gave me his number and Fox invited me over for an interview on a sunny morning.
Fox’s second life started prior to the pandemic, with his appearance on the BBC political panel discussion show Question Time.
Delivered there by his healthy acting career, and corresponding celebrity, he would use the platform to hurl perhaps the most heinous possible insult at the British middle classes: he told them the country they lived in, the post-Brexit far right hellscape… wasn’t a particularly racist place. “We’re the loveliest little island in the world…” he smirked.
That was all it took. The scale of its impact was comparable to Kanye West’s “slavery was a choice” line. NOT RACIST? WE’RE THE MOST RACIST COUNTRY EVER! bewailed Guardian readers nationwide, including – unfortunately enough – the entire industry Fox made his living in. His flourishing acting career was a cold corpse within 24 hours.
The first Fox heard about the pandemic, he says, he was called up by a journalist friend while in a car. They told him a huge virus was about to hit, and would probably kill half a million people.
“I thought, no it won’t,” he remembers. “I didn’t buy it, right away. For some reason I was immediately skeptical. I thought how can they come up with 500k before it’s even arrived?”
His mum, at this time, was already terminally ill. “She died just two days after they were partying,” he scowls, referring to the first of the many notorious Downing Street lockdown soirees.
As for the lockdowns themselves, he says he enjoyed them. “I had a great time. I ignored every single rule – and I did it publicly. This table,” he gestures to the surface between us, beneath his kitchen bay window. “Was full every single Sunday, and I partied.”
I glanced up. Countless windows, slathered in reflected sunshine, bared down narrowly over us, watchfully anonymous.
Sure enough, he received a lot of complaints. The police called round regularly. Fox would greet them with an invitation to get off of his property. At one point he left them on his threshold announcing he was off to fetch a hammer. “I really went for them, told them to fuck themselves. Someone was repeatedly complaining. I can’t remember how many visits we got. We were noisy, doors were open, we were having a laugh.”
Shortly before Covid started, Fox began a political party-cum-campaigning group, the Reclaim Party. In the middle of 2020, he ran for mayor largely on a platform of lockdown liberation. It was an unequivocal flop. Reviewing the experience now (with an affectionate shrug), it’s quite clear Fox thought it had been worth a crack.
Fox’s public persona via Covid was unique, I thought. With his appearance on Question Time, he had effectively and unwittingly preempted the social stigma invited (often for the first time) by all Covid dissidents.
“Pandemic and wokery are the same thing. Pre-pandemic the enemy was white people – straight white males were the worst possible thing on the face of this earth. In the pandemic the same philosophical rules apply: you create the enemy and then you berate and destroy that enemy. It was the medical manifestation of what was a racial manifestation.”
I left thinking that it was this dynamic, between contemporary political morality and its discontents, that would define the future or aftermath of this movement.
It’s something Us For Them founder Molly Kingsley – my last interviewee – also had on her mind. Kingsley was another normal middle-class mum of two who was quickly horrified by the impact of lockdowns on children and low-income families.
“I think it’s beyond time that we had something new,” she says. “I think what this period has brought out. in part, is a failure of government. It’s also a failure of opposition. Our democracy has failed in these last few years – what happened should not have happened on any level. And actually it’s still going on. Look at children’s vaccines. Whatever you think of vaccination generally, it shouldn’t be happening. We shouldn’t be marketing this product to five years olds. It’s an ongoing failure.”
I had wanted to write a positive history, or portrait, of Covid resistance in my home country. There was a lot to take pride in, and a genuine case that the collective, multifaceted effort had contributed, locally and internationally, to our relative liberation today. But the infrastructure of oppression is only on standby, and it would be stupid to suggest that the UK (not to mention the world) emerged from Covid anything less than traumatized – spiritually, economically, politically and physically.
As for those of us that did resist – how could we be anything but (at best) half-nuts? Many (and in some cases all) of our previous relationships were a wreck, and whatever new comrades we had uncovered, those decades of lost relationships are irreplaceable. We’re increasingly prone to exorbitant magical thinking, paranoia, reaction: and why wouldn’t we be? Relentlessly absurdity, psy-ops and threats will do that to you.
I asked Molly her view of the UK’s dominant values, as revealed by Covid.
“We seem to place a lot of value on fear, on living in fear. On protecting ourselves. Let’s be honest, ‘keep everyone safe’ actually meant ‘keep ourselves safe’. The last two years I think have brought out the most selfish elements of human nature. To an extent values are top down driven by government. And when you look at this government, and this is all documented, it is devoid of ethics or integrity, drowning in corporate greed. When you look at the scandals, the PPE scandals… it absolutely stinks. But what are our values? I actually don’t know as a society. This is where I hope a resistance could turn into so much more than that. I think we’re all pretty bored of fighting against this darkness.”
With huge thanks to Anna Rayner, a perfect embodiment of the spirit of British resistance and the person who made this article possible. Thanks also to the excellent and talented Alex McCarron for further introductions. Additional thanks to everyone who resisted and CONTINUES to resist the New Normal however you do it.
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