At a time when Covid cases in Britain stand at algunos 25,000 per day and are doubling every nine days or so, the government has chosen to lift nearly all remaining Covid measures. Boris Johnson stressed in a press conference on 5 July that this didn’t mean the pandemic was over. Far from it. He acknowledged the policy change would lead to even more infections, hospitalisations, even deaths. But his repeated mantra was that we must change the way we deal with the pandemic and “move from universal government diktat to relying on people’s personal responsibility”.
This stress on “personal responsibility” has been a defining part of the government’s message throughout the pandemic, frequently accompanied by the suggestion that rises in infection are the result of irresponsible behaviour: flouting rules, holding house parties or (como Matt Hancock claimed when speaking about spiking cases in Bolton), choosing not to get vaccinated. But never before has personal responsibility been the government’s sole tool in the fight against Covid.
There is a crucial problem with this policy shift. Wearing masks, social distancing and self-isolating are all areas where my behaviours impact you. Just as my choice to drive fast affects your chances of travelling safely, so my choice to wear a mask or not impacts your chances of getting infected. Because these behaviours are a “we” rather than an “I” thing, we generally accept that they should be regulated at a communal level. We don’t regard that as “diktat” – much in the same way that we don’t regard speeding laws or the Highway Code as tyranny. To the contrary, the absence of such rules creates a free-for-all in which the powerful generally do what they like and the powerless pay the consequences.
As the health psychologist Robert West put it, the government’s current policy is much like thinking road safety “should be completely up to ‘individual responsibility’: no traffic lights, no Highway Code, no law about driving on the left, no crash barriers”. The question of how fast you drive is not a matter of “personal responsibility” – yet ministers have decided that vital safety measures, such as mask wearing, should be. In doing so, they have abdicated the responsibility to govern in the midst of the greatest crisis of our generation. Their approach, as West said, is “absolutely bonkers”.
There is no denying that it’s equally important for individuals to assume their own responsibilities. What each of us does matters. Before March last year, the average person had contact with 12 different people in a typical week. This decreased to three people when restrictions were at their strictest, and now stands at around four. If we were to revert to pre-pandemic levels of socialisation right now, the effects would be disastrous. But the basis of this responsibility is communal, not individual. What has got us through the pandemic is acting in terms of “we”, not “me". Language matters here. There is strong evidence that addressing people as a collective makes them more concerned for the fate of others and more effective at working together to overcome emergencies.
En efecto, as soon as we start to consider how we can ensure individuals act responsibly, it rapidly becomes clear that the fight against Covid isn’t just a matter of individual decision-making. The government has said that people must “make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus”, but has said nothing about where the relevant information that might inform these decisions comes from. How can we do the right thing if we don’t know what the right thing is?
Consider the issue of face coverings. As evidence began to emerge last year about the effectiveness of coverings, ministers started urging people to wear them. But this approach had almost no effect. Take-up of face coverings remained stubbornly low, at around 30%. It was only when the formal requirement to wear masks was introduced that take-up soared almost immediately to 80% or more. This was due in large part to the fact that the regulations highlighted and clarified the importance of face coverings as a safety measure. Responsible actions depend upon people being given clear guidance and evidence about what they ought to do. Without providing this, the government undermines the possibility of people acting responsibly in the first place.
The key point here is that you can’t separate the policy from the messaging, because the policy es the messaging. And if this is true of the introduction of mask-wearing measures, it is equally true of their removal. However much you caveat the measure, saying that the wearing of coverings is “up to you” indicates loud and clear that face masks can’t be that crucial. This is compounded by various ministers indicating that they either won’t or only that they “might” don a face covering. Imagine if they said the same thing about getting vaccinated. It is hardly a ringing endorsement.
But acting responsibly is not just dependent on information. People generally need practical support. Take, por ejemplo, the need for people to get tested early if they think they may be infected, or to self-isolate if they discover that they are. Doing so clearly depends upon messaging (not least about the nature of Covid symptoms, on which people are notoriously ill-informed). But people won’t self-isolate if they cannot afford to do so. igualmente, they will be less inclined to even get tested if a positive result means taking unpaid sick leave. Individuals may have the desire to do the right thing – but they need practical support to turn this desire into responsible action.
To take another example: many people now know that ventilation is crucial to preventing the spread of Covid, and recognise the importance of opening windows and doors. But what are you supposed to do if good ventilation isn’t possible – because windows don’t open properly, or because there’s no system in place for ventilating air? Otra vez, people need support to allow them to do the right thing. Belgium has made the use of CO2 monitors mandatory in some public buildings, while New York is putting air purifiers in every classroom. Yet the UK government has done nothing comparable. Once again, its resounding attitude is: it’s up to you.
Just as we must play our part in the fight against Covid-19, so too must the government. For this reason, what’s really worrying about Johnson’s policy shift is what he’s no dicho. By emphasising only personal responsibility, the government is effectively abdicating its own responsibility for future outbreaks and deaths. Support measures (which were never adequate in the first place) will be removed. This new shift in approach, far from making people safer, will mean they are now on their own in the face of the pandemic.