IT’S almost a year since the pandemic disrupted our lives, creating a dystopian ‘new normal’. Governments around the world have implemented strict lockdowns, stripping away their citizens’ most basic freedoms. Businesses, schools and places of worship have all been forced to close.
In many countries it’s become illegal even to protest. In the UK, gatherings of more than two people outside your household are banned on pain of fines of £200, doubling for further offences up to a maximum of £6,400. Businesses which refuse to close are being fined up to £10,000.
Countries across Europe have been handing out similarly draconian fines. But on the continent a rebellion has emerged under the hashtag #IoOPRA (#IamOpen) around the notion of individuals combining to open up their businesses regardless. It started in Italy against the backdrop of anti-lockdown protests in Naples and spread to most of the nation’s major cities in October 2020, after the government announced further lockdown measures.
Italy was the first European country to be hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s hard to forget the images of the overwhelmed hospitals in Lombardy. After a year, small business owners have simply had enough of the restrictions and the devastating impact on their livelihoods. The initial welfare payments from the government to offset the loss of income have been stripped back to almost nothing, a lack of economic support which has played a key role in the protests with many Italians holding signs reading ‘If you close us down, you pay up!’
By mid-January, 50,000 restaurants were open across Italy. Police have been ejected by restaurant owners and angry customers shouting: ‘Get out! Get out! We pay your wages from our taxes!’
These Italians have made it very clear that the risk to their future livelihood far outweighs the possibility of death by Covid.
This lockdown-defying movement has spread to other parts of the EU. The Poles, too, have had enough of life under lockdown. Poland’s mass civil disobedience campaign was launched under the hashtag #OtwieraMY. Sebastian Piton, leader of what has become known as the ‘highlander veto’ movement said: ‘The entrepreneurs are this determined because they realised they won’t survive another month, so they have no choice.’
The ski resorts of the Tatra mountains in northern Poland reopened as part of an anti-lockdown protest which began on February 1. In response the government announced a support package worth £195million for the region.
In the Czech Republic, pubs and restaurants have refused government orders to shut.
The UK government has spent £280billion to mitigate the economic impact of Covid. Despite these measures, some UK businesses have chosen to stay open. Steve Todd, owner of Reps Gym in Preston, refused to close even after being given 11 fines for breaching the restrictions. Todd says his gym ‘is a sanctuary for people struggling with isolation during the pandemic’. Two men were arrested at a Christian tea room which refused to close during the second lockdown. Hair salon owner Sinead Quinn has been fined a total of £27,000 because she refused to close.
How many more open businesses go unreported and unpoliced may be higher than the media bother to find out, but perhaps because of Rishi’s comfort blanket the protest movement in the UK has not gathered the momentum it has on the Continent.
Simon Dolan, UK businessman and founder of the ‘Keep Britain Free’ and ‘Fighting Back for Business’ movements, explained why in an exclusive interview with The Conservative Woman.
‘Right from the start, the “stay home, protect NHS, save lives” messaging was completely drilled into the minds of the UK population,’ he said. ‘Britons have been terrified by what I can only describe as government propaganda. I think this collective fear, along with British politeness, is what’s preventing initiatives like this from taking off.
‘Britain has ceased to be a free country and we must do everything in our power to get our freedoms back. Is it right to comply with laws which are so damaging and wrong? If enough businesses are to take a stand and open, the rules would have to change, as they have done in other countries.’
Dolan champions SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) which make up ‘the lifeblood of our economy’ and he is heavily critical of the government’s Covid loan scheme. The general public may be unaware but these loans have sky-high interest rates of up to 35 per cent. He reiterated the plea he made to the Chancellor on The Conservative Woman two weeks ago: SMEs should have their Covid loans written off.
Yet the prospect of loan repayments seems insufficient to galvanise British businesses into protest even though the hospitality sector in particular is being devastated.
Dolan is one of the few openly dissenting business voices. He said: ‘The government’s yo-yo restrictions and lockdowns are completely nonsensical and disproportionate to the threat. How else are we going to stop this nightmare if we don’t speak up against it? There will come a point, very soon, where the dam will burst and I believe we will see widespread civil disobedience – indeed, that is inevitable in my mind.’