18 July 2021

Weekly briefing: freedom day confusion and the concept of personal responsibility

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Tomorrow is ‘freedom day’ or, as the Government has rebranded it, ‘personal responsibility day’. For those of us who’ve argued that continued constraints on our freedoms were not justified given the success of the vaccine rollout, the end of legal requirements on masks and social distancing couldn’t come soon enough. So why doesn’t it feel like a moment to celebrate?

Well, for a start, the pandemic clearly isn’t over and more people are going to die. Grim warnings of 100,000 new Covid cases a day and stern advice to stay on our guard don’t exactly fire enthusiasm for the reopening. Nor is it quite the end of all restrictions or economic disruption. I’m writing this having been pinged by the NHS app along with 500,000 others last week. At his press conference last Monday, the Prime Minister said “we expect and recommend” that people will still cover their faces in crowded places and on public transport. Far from the ebullient figure he cut as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson sounded like the nation’s headmaster telling us we’d let the school down.

For anyone who quite likes their liberties, there’s also the fear that this Government, surprised at how submissive the British public turned out to be, has gotten a taste for meddling in our lives. Reserving the power to force business to demand proof of vaccination from customers is not reassuring. And while Johnson was, thankfully, quick to dismiss the idea of a tax on unhealthy foods, his government did commission the National Food Strategy which included the proposal.

Our editor John Ashmore has written a thorough and entertaining dissection of the plan, but I would add that the pandemic has amplified this kind of self-contradictory and illiberal thinking. Before Covid, it would have been difficult to imagine anyone saying something as plainly ridiculous as, “is the freedom to keep Frosties cheap worth destroying the NHS for?”, as the Strategy’s author Henry Dimbleby did on the Today programme. But you can see where his logic comes from – if ‘protecting the NHS’ is more important than being legally allowed to leave your house then of course it’s more important than breakfast cereal. With the national discourse at such a nadir, it’s hardly surprising that nanny statists have seen an opportunity to sacrifice more of our rights on the altar of the health service.

But perhaps more concerning is the general outcry over the confusion that lifting restrictions has caused. Scientists have been complaining of ‘mixed messages’ and unions and businesses groups have been begging for clearer guidance on getting back to work. Their frustration is understandable, especially when the ministers dishing out instruction don’t follow it themselves. But this does seem to me to misconstrue the concept of personal responsibility. It should be confusing. Assessing risks, weighing your own needs and desires against your duties to others, is difficult. Adult life is all about compromises and trade-offs. Unlike imposing draconian legislation without scrutiny, or slavishly following government diktats, it takes thought and effort.

While many will be looking forward to sensibly resuming their lives from tomorrow, others seem reluctant to make grown-up choices. Is it any wonder we’ve regressed when the state has treated us like children for over a year?

Conservative governments used to be characterised by being pragmatic, adjusting and renewing. In that they reflected the British character and our capacity for muddling through. As we adapt to the ‘new normal’, let’s not forget that.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX