Leading article

The virus is in retreat. Isn’t it time the public is trusted to decide how to behave?

13 March 2021

9:00 AM

13 March 2021

9:00 AM

Since the start of this year, cases of Covid-19 have been in decline. Hospital admissions have fallen 80 per cent from the second wave’s peak. Deaths are down 85 per cent and cases down 90 per cent. Modelling from Bristol University says that new cases are lower now than at any point since the summer — with the number of new infections halving every week. The vaccination campaign continues to be a triumph, with almost everyone in the at-risk groups covered. Britain now has one of the lowest Covid rates in Europe.

Yet we still have one of the most stringent lockdowns in the developed world. Weekly data from the OECD identifies Britain’s economy as one of the worst-hit, and the damage is intensifying. Chancellor Rishi Sunak said this week that there is no money to give nurses a 2 per cent pay rise. This would cost about £200 million: the same as a single day of lockdown. But Boris Johnson has tied himself to a timetable for easing lockdown and now seems constrained by it.

As so often in this pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon has been more canny. She did not wed herself to a timetable so has been able to offer Scots a dividend from the UK-wide fall in Covid rates. In Scotland, four people will be allowed to meet outside from this weekend. This means (for example) that two siblings, living apart, could visit their parents to go for a walk this Mothering Sunday. If anyone tried this on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall, it would be illegal.

In England, parks are full of people who are breaking the law to go for a walk with family and friends. Millions now live in Covid not-spots where the virus has all but vanished. With excellent data gathered and published by the government, people can easily find out what the risk is in their area and judge their behaviour accordingly — which means that soon, the police are going to find themselves in an impossible position.

Last weekend, six men in their twenties were fined £200 for meeting up around a campfire in Marlborough. It’s hard to think that the officers involved will have taken any pleasure in this criminalisation of perfectly civil behaviour. Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said last week that the rules are no longer ‘manageable’, adding: ‘Police don’t want to police this. We’ve had enough of this.’

Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh recently told MPs that there was not a single case in the world of a Covid outbreak linked to a crowded beach. Surely it must be possible by now to work out the relative risks of various activities, by studying what people were doing in the days leading to their developing the disease. Perhaps Matt Hancock’s Covid phone app could help. Yet instead we are still bound by the kind of blanket rules which were imposed in panic at the start of the first lockdown.

Johnson may feel unable to revise these rules, given the fuss he made about releasing lockdown ‘no earlier than’ 21 June. The public has shown remarkable adherence to the restrictions through the worst periods of this crisis, but to deny people social contact for months on end is asking too much.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister could decriminalise minor breaches of the rules. This would allow the police to concentrate on the major breaches, such as indoor parties or potentially super-spreading events; it would encourage people to use their own judgment as to what is and is not safe.

In a democracy, police cannot ultimately enforce laws for which there is no public consent. To do so risks damaging the public co-operation on which the police depend. Say a mother is recovering from a serious illness in lockdown and her friends club together to help her with childcare: all involved would be breaking the law. Three friends taking a walk together could be stopped by police.

This is clearly nonsensical. And the public know it. They are also aware that lockdown rules have affected people in very different ways. If you live in a large house with a large garden, and you have a professional career, with secure pay and pension, lockdown has not been a great hardship. It is a very different matter if you are poor and live alone in a small flat in a densely packed and highly policed urban area.

Lord Sumption, the former Supreme Court Justice, put it well: some laws, he said, invite breach. But why, then, give Covid rules the status of laws? It demeans the law, and is unfair to the police. Far better to offer government guidance, ask the public to be careful — and use their judgment.

‘Levelling up’ was supposed to be a signature policy of this government. Perhaps it could begin by ceasing to persecute people who, after a long year of economic and social hardship, have with good reason come to the conclusion that it is safe to resume a small part of their former lives.

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