Boris Johnson's Need To Be Adored Means We Are Policing Ourselves During Coronavirus

Not wanting to isolate even a single voter, the PM's ‘advice’ has tried to appeal to almost everyone and left social distancing open to interpretation, writes Charlotte Moore.
Half of my friends see no issue whatsoever with popping out to see a pal, while others only feel comfortable catching up via FaceTime.
Half of my friends see no issue whatsoever with popping out to see a pal, while others only feel comfortable catching up via FaceTime.
PA Images via Getty Images

This week, we’ve seen far more of Boris Johnson than we ever thought was possible. With No 10 now home to a live, daily broadcast, Johnson’s Achilles heel (one of many), has truly been exposed — his need to be adored. The result is pandemonium for the rest of us.

Even amid the biggest crisis to face a generation, Johnson appears to put public polling above the safety of the UK’s most vulnerable citizens: first with ‘herd immunity’ and then with the drip-drip of public guidance as he realises this tactic will not wash with the general public.

His malleability served him well during his two terms as London mayor, and on the 2019 campaign trail and when he flip-flopped over Brexit. But during the pandemic, we don’t need him to be likeable; we need him to make hard, fast choices.

Not wanting to isolate even a single voter, Johnson’s ‘advice’ in the crisis has attempted to appeal to almost everyone. From refusing to criticise those who still frequent their local pub (flouting any attempt to protect the vulnerable) to offering almost no clarity on social isolation, Johnson ensures that the onus is on the public – and not on him.

This weakness becomes even more visible when we compare Johnson’s approach to others. Take Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, who has opted for a far firmer and clearer approach. At the weekend, she said in a speech, “If your life feels normal right now, ask yourself if you’re doing everything you can be”. Her advice is indisputable and crystal clear about the approach that Scotland’s citizens should take.

There is now genuine confusion in Covid-19 Britain. Up until Friday, parents dropped their children at school as normal. If your office didn’t offer a remote working policy as advised, you would commute to work as per usual. For many, Johnson’s desperate U-turn over the weekend, encouraging us to get outdoors to exercise and then, hours later, reversing that advice, has left many of us completely unsure as to where they stand – and the proof is in our packed parks and overflowing beaches.

Allowing social distancing to be open to interpretation has created a dangerous precedent of moral policing between ourselves – and the result is on our Twitter feeds. Divided between two extremes of self-isolation and complete disregard, the UK is being led by social etiquette and the fear of judgement, as opposed to clear guidance from leaders.

But, like almost all aspects of social media, there’s a performative nature to how some of us are behaving and exhibiting that behaviour to others.

With #Lockdown trending across platforms, a new form of ‘expert’ has arisen — the person who takes to Instagram to offer their interpretations of Johnson’s words. For example, isolating themselves completely to demonstrate that, even if others aren’t at that stage yet, they’re doing the ‘right’ thing. (Who can forget the disastrous cover of John Lennon’s Imagine, a poorly timed shot at unity from celebrities across the globe? Those who are ‘self-isolating’ in eight-bed properties couldn’t understand the cabin fever that the rest of us face.)

And this ‘I’ve got it right’ behaviour filters further down. The competitive nature of people on Instagram and other platforms means we are doing everything from boasting about our productivity and virtual work-outs to who has the best home-schooling plan – even before the closure of schools was announced.

“It’s far easier for us to judge our park-roaming peers online than critique an ever-changing and complex approach to a pandemic”

Those that query if it’s ok to see a friend or even drop something at a parent’s house are either labelled as ‘feckless idiots’ or ‘they’re blowing this whole situation out of proportion’. Even amongst our own friendship groups, a divide is clear. Half of my friends see no issue whatsoever with popping in to see a pal, while others only feel comfortable catching up via FaceTime. It’s now becoming increasingly difficult to find the line of where selfishness starts and normal life ends.

Simply put, it’s far easier for us to judge our park-roaming peers online than critique an ever-changing and complex approach to a pandemic. We’re focussing on the neighbour that stomps to the shop four times a day rather than allow ourselves to comprehend the seemingly devastating economic repercussions that affect everyone from nursery-school children to those in retirement. We all take solace in admonishing the stockpiling ‘morons’, rather than allow for nuance. For example, some of these people may have chronic health conditions, and this is the last time in the near future they may be able to truly make their own choices – even something as simple as selecting their own fruit.

We are being inundated with posing, justifications, excuses, defences, and pleas for better behaviour. Influencers are captioning photos with the words ‘Before all this happened’, for fear of anyone suggesting that they aren’t taking this seriously, and our inboxes are full of CEOs telling us that they’re ‘doing their best’.

It’s easy to see why many people feel angry and defensive. Because we are being led by fear. Fear for cherished grandparents and vulnerable friends. A scared public, desperately trying to protect those they love. But also fear of being judged and shamed for stepping out of line.

As the death toll rises, announced daily like some Twitter version of The Hunger Games, I wonder if Johnson’s desire to be adored will cost us far more than we could ever have imagined.