So now we know: as in Pirates of the Caribbean, the rules of the C aren’t so much rules, they’re more what you’d call guidelines. Robert Jenrick has confirmed that the public could always exercise “a degree of personal judgement”.
This will come as a considerable surprise to the 27million people who listened to Boris Johnson on 23 March: “give the British people a very simple instruction. You must stay at home, because the critical thing we must do to stop the disease spreading between households. That is why people will only be allowed to leave their home for the following very limited purposes: Shopping for basic necessities as infrequently as possible; one form of exercise a day, for example, a run, walk, or cycle alone or with members of your household; any medical need to provide care or to help a vulnerable person; and travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home. That’s all. These are the only reasons you should leave your home. You should not be meeting friends. If your friends ask you to meet, you should say no. You should not be meeting family members who do not live in your home. You should not be going shopping except for essentials like food and medicine, and you should do this as little as you can and use food delivery services where you can.”
Still, at least we have all been enlightened on the point. From now on the public are going to interpret government instructions accordingly. If the government is asking for their help to track, trace and self-isolate, quite a lot of the public are going to ignore the bits of that which are a chore. If the Prime Minister’s chief adviser can exercise a degree of personal judgement to move his family all over the country while infected with Covid-19, why should ordinary members of the public stay holed up indoors for weeks at a time as a courtesy to the government? Quarantine after flying in is going to be interpreted flexibly by some – why should a quarantinee suffer the inconvenience of running out of toilet roll if he can just nip in the car to the supermarket for a quick five minute shop? It’s not as though the government has any right to complain now, is it?
This is a public health disaster in the making. It’s not as if Britain is out of the woods yet. While the death rate from Covid-19 is falling, Britain still has the second worst death rate in the world this week. If the government needs to issue directions the public again as a matter of life and death, it has nothing but each citizen’s self-interest to appeal to. In many cases, that is not going to be enough.
The government’s own behavioural scientists are furious. Stephen Reicher, in a twitter thread retweeted by two of his colleagues on the relevant government scientific advisory committee, fumed: “Be open and honest, we said. Trashed. Respect the public, we said. Trashed Ensure equity, so everyone is treated the same, we said. Trashed.Be consistent we said. Trashed. Make clear ‘we are all in it together’. Trashed.”
At the same time, the government has thrown its own approach to lifting lockdown out of the window. On 10 May, Boris Johnson announced a Covid alert level system to guide the actions. At the time, Britain was graded at Death Con 4. Theslide showing this was the first slide at the daily briefing every day for a fortnight. It was last used at a daily briefing on 21 May, showing the same grading. It has not been seen since. (The news that Dominic Cummings had broken quarantine and lockdown broke on 22 May.)
In the same speech, Boris Johnson reaffirmed the five point test for deciding whether to act:
“We must protect our NHS.
We must see sustained falls in the death rate.
We must see sustained and considerable falls in the rate of infection.
We must sort out our challenges in getting enough PPE to the people who need it, and yes, it is a global problem but we must fix it.
And last, we must make sure that any measures we take do not force the reproduction rate of the disease – the R – back up over one, so that we have the kind of exponential growth we were facing a few weeks ago.”
This week, the government has frenetically issued announcements about reopening schools and shops in an apparent attempt to provide material for a sequel to 101 Uses For A Dead Cat. It has not given any rationale for these decisions based on the science. It has not said if the Covid alert level has changed. It has not said how it has assessed the risks under the five point test.
Now it may be that the government has performed those assessments. But at the very least, it has reached the point where it is unable to communicate that it has done so. The government’s control of public health messaging has completely broken down.
In the middle of a pandemic, we have reached the point where the government lacks any moral authority and any ability to communicate the reasons behind its decisions. Many of the most difficult decisions lie ahead. It is very difficult to see how the government can take them without any public confidence in it.