17 September 2020

Covid confusion is what happens when government tries to do everything

By Aria Babu

September 13 was a historic day for the UK – we are now a country with the word “mingle” on our statute books. How is the verb “mingle” legally defined, one might ask? Legal experts aren’t sure

Thanks to the latest round of ‘rona regulations, no longer can you spontaneously decide to play football – that has to be organised by someone with an official license to use the “equipment” – but you can rock up to an impromptu grouse shoot.

Political protests are allowed, but local party meetings are still banned. Maybe this will prompt your local Lib Dems to start up their weekly ‘Stop Brexit’ protests again.

There are lots of such examples of the new legislation’s comic incoherence. People wonder how the Government could be so incompetent. But for those surprised at how risible some of this stuff is, I have to ask, what were you expecting?

Ministers are trying to do something no British government has done before – to regulate almost every aspect of your life, dictating where you can go, what you’re allowed to do, and who you let into your home. This is state intrusion on an unparalleled scale, passed not with the usual solemn deliberation and to-and-fro between the Houses of Parliament, but literally overnight.

There is no version of events, no plausible fantasy front bench, and no degree of civil service reform, which would have made any government good at this. People are not machines. They don’t need a particular mandated allocation of green space or a prescribed amount of socialisation. There’s no distant third party who can work out what each person needs to have a decent and dignified existence under the constraints of the pandemic.

Without that, the Government has had to guess at which key aspects of life should be permitted. They are allowing you to go to the pub, celebrate important milestones, and hunt and kill your own dinner, because they think that will cover most people’s needs. The most obvious oversight that I can see is that since March it has been against the guidance to “hug new friends”. Fine for people who are in loving relationships, but a cruel imposition upon singletons.

Things could have been so different. Instead of trying to micromanage the entire economy, ministers should have set out some broad principles for people to follow. Yes, Eat Out To Help Out was fun, but the restaurant sector should not have been favoured like that. Especially as there is reason to believe this second spike has been exacerbated by it.

Examples of this kind of central government hubris crop up all the time. Californian legislators thought they knew better than journalists and accidentally banned freelancers from writing more than 35 articles per year. France’s Académie Française thinks it can change how people talk and protect the French language from nasty English interlopers like “email”. Central planners think they can design entire cities from scratch without ruining them. Obviously governments can get regulation right, but this usually takes time and involves consulting experts. There are no experts on how to be a person.

The Government should have set out some rules for businesses to follow about distancing indoors and cleaning of surfaces, with exemptions only allowed for genuinely critical services like healthcare, supermarkets and possibly schools. Even France, a world leader in micromanaging its citizenry, has much simpler rules which apply equally everywhere except for schools and universities, which have allowed groups of over 10 to gather, and nightclubs, which will remain shut. The government should not have been encouraging people to go into the office “to save Pret” and should have allowed companies to make those choices for themselves.

Most importantly, these restrictions should have a clear end date. The Covid-19 Alert System, which Johnson announced on television, seemed like a good idea and presented a clear path to normality again. So obviously the Government promptly forgot about it.

I understand why the Government has chosen to take this route. They think that we can have strict personal social distancing but allow businesses to open up, saving us from long-term economic damage. They think if they can limit gatherings strictly to those which are economically productive we will bounce back faster. But they were wrong to think that they could regulate something so complex as human interaction without making big mistakes.

During the pandemic these mistakes have clearly cost lives. The number of people avoiding public spaces has decreased at roughly the same rate as people losing confidence in the Government’s ability to handle the situation. You hear about people taking a “common sense” approach to the pandemic, because they do not think the mandated approach is “common sense”.

We need people to think the measures are fair and we need them to think they are sensible. People have shown they are quite willing to follow regulations that make sense to them. Messaging about handwashing was incredibly successful at the start of the pandemic and “Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” was a great slogan.

And we absolutely do need people to comply willingly. For one thing we don’t want the kind of country where police or Covid marshalls regularly  inspect people’s homes to break up illegal gatherings of seven. For another, we don’t have anywhere near the police numbers required to do that.

Now is not the time for despair, though. If the Government can get its act together in the coming weeks, while reversing the counter-productive ‘get back to work’ messaging, we could yet avoid a potentially devastating second spike. Polls suggest people are now taking things a bit more seriously, but if ministers are looking for a catchy phrase to really jolt people into action, perhaps ‘Save the Family Christmas’ will do the trick.

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Aria Babu is a policy researcher.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.