If this bonkers coronavirus messaging continues, Britain may start to ignore it
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The government’s mixed signals on what is permissible are sapping trust, with potentially fatal consequences, says writer and journalist Imogen West-Knights
Go to the pub, but don’t come into contact with other people. Only meet in groups of six, but also sit in a restaurant with 30 other diners. Go to your office, but don’t go by public transport. Listen to the scientists, except when we’re ignoring them. Relax. Under no circumstances should you relax.
It is sometimes difficult, in the face of such mixed messages from the government, to resist the urge to crescendo directly into a full-throated scream on getting out of bed in the morning.
The government has an unenviable job in dealing with coronavirus, as the situation changes from day to day, but other governments have undoubtedly done it better. According to a June YouGov poll of 27 countries, Britons had the second lowest level of confidence in their government’s handling of the pandemic.
The level of trust in those making the decisions dictates whether or not people will follow their advice – so this is a pretty huge problem. Part of it is that the decision-making has seemed so erratic and opaque. Rules and advice are issued after balancing priorities and risks, but the fact that the government’s process is never made clear makes you wonder whose priorities are being valued over others’.
Getting children back to school means a risk of increased infections, so we need to limit people’s contact elsewhere, for instance in domestic social settings. This we can understand and get on board with. However, when the government pushes to get people back in the office to appease commercial landlords, and then offsets that risk by, for instance, banning your birthday picnic, it feels like being kicked while you’re down.
Then there are the times it has flagrantly revealed that there is one rule for them, and another for the rest of us. First there was Dominic Cummings’ tour of the north-east during lockdown. Now, groups larger than six aren’t allowed to meet, unless you happen to be running around in a special little costume shooting at birds for fun – which just happens to be very popular in Rishi Sunak’s Yorkshire constituency.
People have a knack of remembering past events and making their own judgments. The government can’t go from having said that nobody should leave their homes when the infection rates were rocketing in April to saying that you should get on a packed train to engineer a reunion with your colleagues’ coffee breath when the infection rates are climbing again at a similar rate. If it was dangerous then, it’s dangerous now.
To calm these fears, the government is constantly rummaging in the hat for a new rabbit to present as the magic trick to end the pandemic. The latest is Operation Moonshot, the patently bonkers idea that we are going to be able to deploy between 2m and 4m tests per day by December, and 10m by early 2021.
“It should be possible,” Johnson said last week, “to deploy these tests on a far bigger scale than any country has yet achieved.” I’m not sure what part of the last six months gives anybody in the government confidence that this “should be possible”. Under our existing testing programme, it’s difficult to get a coronavirus test any closer than Belgium – and if you’re lucky enough to have had one, there is currently a backlog of 185,000 swabs to be processed.
Before Operation Moonshot, there were the proposed immunity passports, despite the fact that scientists didn’t know how immunity to coronavirus even worked, the tracing apps that have yet to materialise, and the Covid risk monitoring system that sank without trace.
There is, of course, a delicate balancing act to achieve between stopping the economy from completely tanking, allowing people some small freedoms and protecting the most vulnerable among us from unnecessary danger. But scattergun messaging isn’t getting us anywhere, except knee-deep in the worst recession of all the G7 nations and unforgivably high death tolls. If the advice from the government continues to be this conflicting, the easiest thing for people to do will be to trust their own instincts to protect those around them.
• Imogen West-Knights is a writer and journalist based in London