Don't You Dare Blame Us For Not Following The Rules

If we’re going to shame individuals, just maybe it should be those in power, writes Jonathan Lis.
A pedestrians walks past NHS signage promoting "Stay Home, Save Lives" on a bus shelter in London
A pedestrians walks past NHS signage promoting "Stay Home, Save Lives" on a bus shelter in London
NIKLAS HALLE'N via Getty Images

It is sometimes refreshing to know that however bad things get, some favourite British pastimes will always thrive.

This week has seen extended outings for two of them: public shaming and obsessing over rule-breaking.

They intersected neatly in Priti Patel’s press conference on Tuesday. The Home Secretary praised the majority of law-abiding citizens, before turning fire on a minority supposedly wilfully breaking the lockdown rules.

She was flanked by a police officer who repeated the theme of ramping up enforcement. Implicit in the broadcast was the message that if we do not do as we are told, we face further punishment and further restrictions: like an entire class being placed in detention because of two troublemakers at the back.

There’s just one problem with all this. This is not the public’s fault and never has been.

People are exhausted, and they are human, but above all, by and large, they are complying. They followed the rules in the spring, and over Christmas, and continue to do so now.

This is not simply backed up by anecdotal evidence, which suggests people are especially spooked by the new variant and pressure on the NHS, but also by leading behavioural scientists. Indeed, one of the stories of this pandemic has been how much people have complied, and for how long, even as public trust in the government has broken down.

Not everyone follows the news every day. The rules have changed constantly, often at short notice and with minimal public information. Some of them are extremely confusing.

In her press conference, Patel herself got mixed up about the restrictions on exercise. If the Home Secretary doesn’t fully understand the law, how can she expect anyone else to? The public is scared, overwhelmed and trying desperately to do the right thing.

Yes, the streets are busier than in April. Yes, phone data shows more people are outside than before. Some of that could be people making an extra effort to take exercise – and in fact, being outside is a lot safer than staying at home for those living in crowded or multi-generational homes. Instead of giving people the benefit of the doubt, some rush to judge them.

In reality, there seems to be an even simpler explanation. Many employers are still requiring people to come to work. Nurseries are operating. The guidance on key workers has changed and some schools are now almost half-full.

Ludicrously, estate agents are open, even though it must be perfectly possible for employees to work remotely.

These are not accidents. They are the direct results of government policy. But of course it goes even deeper than that.

There is a reason that only 30% of people are thought to be isolating when they need to. Some of the most vulnerable people in this pandemic – the frontline workers who need to gather indoors or regularly interact with others – are frequently some of the worst-paid. They can’t survive on statutory sick pay, many don’t know about the government’s £500 self-isolation benefit, and in some areas a large majority applying for that benefit are not receiving it.

The only way to stop the virus is to contain it, which makes isolation one of our most essential tools.

In New York, people who cannot safely isolate at home are accommodated in hotels for free – and can even have their dogs walked for them – because local leaders recognise the need to incentivise people for the common good.

Our government seems affronted by such indulgence. Helping people, rather than threatening them, has always been an afterthought. After ten months, ministers haven’t even provided some of the poorest children with laptops or tablets.

The failures of this pandemic are and always have been the government’s. It was not members of the public who delayed a national lockdown in March, when other countries were desperately shutting down, or in September, when SAGE recommended it, or in December, when the government already knew about the new variant.

Inexplicably, some areas were kept in Tier two or three for two weeks after the south-east was locked down, even though national restrictions seemed inevitable to anyone who cared to look.

It was the government, too, which paid people to eat in restaurants, but only if they ate in, told people to go back to work, and in May sacrificed its public health messaging to save an adviser’s job. It was the government which last week, astonishingly, kept schools open for a single day. It was the government which let the virus circulate to such an extent that the new variant was able to take hold. Ministers have not even thought to educate people about how they should use masks or how often they should wash or change them.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that this all comes as the daily death toll reaches its peak. The UK has now seen over 100,000 deaths: around one in every 650 people. It is convenient to distract people from the failures which brought us here, but still just that: convenient.

Members of the public are not epidemiologists. The vast majority are doing everything they can. If people have sometimes done things wrong, it’s because the people in charge have failed to communicate or refused to help.

The government and media can shame people all they like, but if we’re going to blame individuals for their decisions, just maybe it should be the individuals in power.

Jonathan Lis is deputy director of pro-EU think tank British Influence, and a political writer and commentator.