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21 February 2022

If the government acts like Covid doesn’t exist, should we?

Moral dilemmas and social tensions are thrown up by the end of pandemic restrictions.

By Danya Baryshnikov

If the Prime Minister is to be believed, all current pandemic restrictions – including a legal requirement to self-isolate after a positive test result, and the provision of free lateral flow tests – will expire by the end of this week.

Before, the idea was clear: if you are infected, it is your duty to stay at home while infected. Now, apparently, the logic is reversed: if you are afraid of infection, it is your duty to stay home until case numbers drop – or to be braver.

But I’m confused about how we approach such an upending of our current habits. A couple of weeks ago, when I had Covid, a guest was over at our house and I felt I ought to hide in my room. I thought that it might be strange to hug and greet someone, and only then announce that I have an infectious disease. My flatmate said, just don’t tell her. I suggested that this seemed wildly unfair, especially with regards to a friend – and deeply immoral. I asked him to tell us if he got Covid again. He replied that he won’t be testing henceforth, and so will have no way of knowing, given there will no longer be any provision of lateral flow tests. Which was a fair point.

The exchange unsettled me – the logic of withholding information seems abhorrent. And yet this is exactly what the government will be asking us to do.

For most of the pandemic, our individual responsibilities seemed pretty clear. “Do no harm” were the words we lived by. We protected the health service, those close to us and the strangers who were most vulnerable by sacrificing, to the extent we could, our wellbeing. But now, a hyper-infectious Omicron variant, lockdown fatigue and a lawless government (that demonstrates with its actions that rules and collective good are shaky concepts) have scrambled our moral thinking.

Is it bad to go out if I know I am infectious, but nothing stops me from doing so? Or am I a dupe limiting myself for no reason when even the Prime Minister doesn’t believe in the current, or historic, rules? Do we extend our British sensibility for working through illness, as so many in the media have praised the Queen for doing after contracting Covid? Do we just add Covid to the workplace? Do I warn the cashier that I have Covid and wear a mask, or do as my flatmate says and keep it to myself?

What I really want from the government is clarity on our understanding of the pandemic, not just what we can and can’t do. Are we saying it’s impossible to stop Covid, and so we shouldn’t bother?

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Covid, and the way our society and government have handled it, feels like it has bent and twisted my moral compass – hence my desperation to set it straight. But I guess there can be no clear moral guidebook for any issue as complex as Covid. And if there was, Boris Johnson would be the last person able to offer it to anyone.

[See also: How Covid ends]

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