Is an Easter Egg essential? Is five miles away local? Can I sit on a park bench?
These are just a few in a long line of silly arguments and non-stories about whether someone has precisely followed the Government’s rather imprecise Covid regulations. Some have taken to calling this ‘Scotch Egging’ in honour of the ludicrous, protracted debate over what constitutes a “substantial” pub meal.
This week’s Scotch Egging is a row over whether Boris Johnson’s recent bike ride around the Olympic Park was really ‘local’, given that it took place seven miles from Downing Street. In a similar vein, Derbyshire Police got themselves into a stink by fining two women £200 for driving five miles for a walk around a reservoir. The absurdity of that story was compounded by an officer apparently telling one of the women that her peppermint tea was “classed as a picnic” – if this is a police state, then it’s quite a silly one.
Over-emphasising these kind of trivial pseudo-infractions carries a number of non-trivial risks. For one thing, this genre of story suggests that doing things outside is much riskier than it really is, when all the evidence suggests that indoor transmission is far more likely.
More generally, focusing on the minutiae means less airtime for much more important issues, such as why many more kids are at school now than during the first wave. The public only has a certain amount of energy and attention, particularly after almost a year of nothing but Covid.
The supply of such stories is pretty limitless, given that the coronavirus regulations managed to be both rushed and extremely convoluted. Back in the autumn barrister John McMillan outlined on these pages just how preposterously inconsistent the rules are, and how difficult it is to stay onside. But it was his overriding argument, that the law is a blunt, unhelpful tool for changing behaviour in a crisis, that we ought to keep in mind.
There is, of course, a symbiotic relationship here between journalists, social media rabble-rousers and politicians: the former know that clicky stories and tweets will reel in the punters, the latter that they can waste time on case of individual rule-breaking, rather than explaining why it took over nine months to demand travellers have a negative Covid test before entering the country, or why quarantine was barely enforced, or why our public health messaging still focuses on hand-washing when we should be banging on relentlessly about ventilation and aerosol transmission.
The scotch egg affair is a good example of this, insofar as we should have been debating the merits of gathering inside at all, rather than splitting hairs over precisely what people would be eating while they were spending hours sitting down near people from other households.
The other big problem with the endless focus on individual rule-breaking is that it makes flouting seem far more widespread than it actually is. Throughout the pandemic, the British public have largely been patient and disciplined, even at great personal cost. But constant stories about the minority who do seem to be bending the rules encourages a perception that doing the right thing is a mug’s game, as this UCL study from the start of December makes clear.
It also encourages a narrow, legalistic interpretation of risk – ah well, it’s within the rules, officer – rather than getting people to think seriously about the places they should be avoiding. These things are always dramatically easier in hindsight, but in my view the Government missed a trick early on in the pandemic by not drumming home the ‘act as if you’ve got the virus’ line, impressing upon people, particularly the young, that they could still pose a serious risk without displaying symptoms themselves.
Unfortunately that moment has long passed. As pollster James Johnson suggests here, if the Government is concerned about people’s attitudes, appealing to the rules will only go so far. What that means is a lot more stories from the NHS frontline, and a lot less Scotch Egging.
Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.
CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.