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Corona Diaries: “the more rules we are given, the less we take responsibility” – discuss.

January 10, 2021

At the moment of our greatest need, are we in the United Kingdom falling apart faster than we’re pulling together?

During the first lockdown, in The Conclave of the Rule Makers, I fantasised about the British government finding a room somewhere and filling it with rule makers:

Is there a ballroom somewhere in London populated by diligent clerks who agonise over the minutiae? I imagine little screened-off sections – perspex dividers of course, where civil servants labour over the implications of every aspect of our lives. The thought of having so much control over what we can do and what we can’t do must send some into raptures. The kind of control we’ve dreamed about. Others are probably appalled.

So I imagine there’s a One Metre Section, a Granny Hugging Department, an Orgies and Bacchanalia Team (behind opaque Perspex, of course), a Prohibited Sports Group and, occupying at least half of the ballroom, A Quarantine and Travel Directorate.

Such a gathering of rule-makers has probably not been seen since the Jewish sages of Babylon laboured over years to produce the Talmud – 2,700 pages of regulations that dictate every aspect of the lives of the faithful.

No doubt those folks are still beavering away, but I suspect they’ve now turned their attention to another urgent task: classification.

As we slowly went up the gears from Tier 1 to Tier 4, I wondered whether the government would have to introduce Tier 4.5, or Tier 5, or Tier 5(a) and Tier 5(b). Lockdown Version 3 hardly seems an adequate way to categorise the current situation.

Indeed, the Mayor of London, faced with hospitals on his patch full to bursting, with the prospect of people dying in parked-up ambulances and on trollies in corridors, has decided to up the ante by declaring a Critical Incident.

This means that he can call upon additional support, including financial assistance, to deal with the crisis facing London. I’m not sure what the Classification Department thinks of that phrase. If they include in their ranks pedantic folk like me, they might observe that something described as a critical incident should be just that: a single incident that warrants immediate attention. Something like a sinkhole opening up under the financial district, or a terrorist attack, or an imminent visit from President Trump.

Actually, what London is facing right now, and quite possibly other regions in the very near future, could best be described as an emergency, in which every inhabitant, whether they know it or not, is in danger. That includes those who have had the virus, or been inoculated. Coronavirus antibodies don’t protect you from car crashes, cancer and a host of other conditions that might cause you to seek hospital treatment. If there are no staff to treat you because they’re all trying to save those who are gasping for breath in COVID wards, you are still in danger.

Since the received wisdom seems to be that the key to heading off the current emergency is public buy-in as well as yet more regulations, we don’t seem to be doing as well as we were during the first lockdown. We’re confused by the tiers and the rules. The terse three-word slogans are no longer having an impact except to annoy us.

The evidence that might convince us of the seriousness of the situation is tightly controlled by the communications apparatus both of central government and the NHS trusts. Watch the news and you will see queues of ambulances waiting to drop patients into hospitals, but if you see the same footage every day for a week, it loses its impact. And besides, not everyone watches the news, because many find it too depressing.

Then there’s the disconnect between lived reality and what we’re continually told, both on TV and radio, and in the form of desperate and poignant social media messages from beleaguered health workers.

In my Surrey hometown, my wife and I try and take a walk every day in a circuit around the town. If you saw the unceasing procession of cars and commercial traffic passing through the town, you could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss was all about. All I can say is that the good people of Surrey must be choosing to place a very wide interpretation on the meaning of “essential travel only”.

I shall not cite the COVID deniers here, because they are beneath contempt. I suspect that most of the people out and about are taking the view that they will interpret the rules in terms of the maximum number of normal activities that they can get away with. That includes parents minding kids who are still thronging the playground in the park. That playground was closed during the first lockdown. Yet today – despite official warnings that the mutated virus is increasingly infecting the young – it’s open.

I don’t blame parents, nor do I blame people who think that going to the municipal tip comes under the heading of essential travel. There are enough people in the media and on the street who are busy pointing fingers. I don’t intend to join them. What we need now is not carping but sensible action.

Particularly, we need better communications that take into account that we’re tired of categories, tiers, confusing and inconsistent regulation and rage-inducing slogans.

We also need better communications with those who are awaiting the vaccine. Where are we in the queue, how many people in one each priority category have been vaccinated? When can we expect our jab? Even call centres, the bane of our normal lives, tell us where we are in the call queue. I don’t expect to be told that there are 3,027,354 people ahead of me for the vaccine. But it would be nice to get some sort of assurance from time to time that the line is getting shorter.

I do believe that the government is doing its best to mobilise resources that can deliver the vaccine in the shortest possible time. I also agree with its priority list. But if it wants us to keep calm and carry on, it needs to find better ways to overcome our crisis fatigue.

It’s not an easy task, especially when every effort to convince us of the seriousness of the situation becomes a hostage to its past shortcomings. Weasel words such as “deaths within 28 days of a COVID diagnosis” only serve to make some of us doubt the statistics, since the definition gives us leave to ask whether all the deaths reported are really down to COVID.

Perhaps we need to be introduced to the concept of run rate. If we continue to lose 1,300 people to the virus every day for the next year, we would have just short of half a million deaths. And if there are more deaths unrelated to COVID but resulting from the inability of the NHS to treat other conditions effectively, that number would be even higher.

Provided that the vaccines work as claimed, and that the government succeeds with it’s mass vaccination project, it’s unlikely that deaths in the next year will be in that order of magnitude. But it would surely concentrate our minds if we realised the implications of the current levels of infection.

So what can be done to pierce the fog of communications? And how can we ensure that the public health rules are seen to be reasonable and even-handed?

On the communications front, perhaps we would be better off hearing less from the politicians, and more from the professionals who can give us unvarnished facts rather than polished but unreliable expectations of the future. That means less of Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and company, and more of Jonathan Van Tam. In other words, less of “today I can announce…” and more of “here is the situation today”. If the politicians decide to change policy, they should announce this though a separate platform from the daily press conference. The daily show should focus on facts, not emotions.

Likewise, public information ads should avoid treating us as children. Less of the one-syllable slogans, less scary ads showing pictures of NHS staff in masks and visors glowering at the camera in a sinister half-light. We need persuading, not nudging or intimidating.

As for the rules, we should clearly distinguish between guidance and legal requirements. Where a rule is mandatory, it should be capable of being enforced. And enforcement should not be left to the discretion of individual police forces. If there are too many circumstantial variants to be covered by a rule, there should be no rule. This should avoid situations such as the fining of two women out for a walk by Derbyshire Police because they happen to have driven more than five miles from their homes, while others in different parts of the country travel far further with impunity.

The government needs to realise that they cannot cover every eventuality with rules. For one person, visiting Tesco every day might be an “essential purpose” even if they come away with nothing more than a can of dog food, because their mental health might depend on some form of contact with the outside world. For others (like me for example), staying at home is no problem.

To put it another way, one person’s essential purpose is another person fancying a takeaway, visiting the DIY store or going to the municipal recycling centre. An understandable desire to stop the economy collapsing directly conflicts with the uncompromising demands of public health. The result is confusion, frustration and constant testing of the limits of authority.

The more rules our rulers impose, the more exceptions and loopholes will arise. Hence the lawyer-inspired efforts of Dominic Cummings to justify his dash to Barnard Castle.

So I suggest that Boris Johnson disbands his notional ballroom full of rule-makers before they disappear up their backsides. He should limit rules to the minimum required to have the maximum effect. He should focus, in the simplest possible terms, on the objectives to be achieved and the personal behaviour required to achieve them. He should then rely on common sense to do the rest.

If honest persuasion, unvarnished facts and common sense don’t do the trick, then we shall have no reason to resent an overbearing government, and every reason to blame ourselves. Because although the government, our scientists and our employers play a part, ultimately the responsibility for surviving the current crisis rests with us, to the limits of our motivation.

Do we need rules? Of course. In an age of fake news and conspiracy theories, common sense isn’t a universal commodity. But with all due respect to my Jewish friends, I would rather we relied on ten commandments than a Talmud.

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