It’s hard to miss the government’s new Covid-19 campaign – it is designed to be as striking as possible. A series of highly emotive TV ads, social media videos and posters depict close-ups of coronavirus patients wearing oxygen masks, entreating viewers to “look them in the eyes and tell them you are doing all you can to stop the spread of Covid-19” (or variations of this).
The campaign is evidently aimed at encouraging people to consider their behaviour. The adverts are frank, censorious and accusatory: the posters featured in the promotional material around the campaign challenge the public to “tell him you always keep a safe distance” and “tell her you never twist the rules”, assuming the viewer is guilty by default.
In the wake of the UK passing the tragic landmark of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths, the case for shock tactics is clear. But that does not make the campaign any less disturbing, both in its content and its implications.
For a start, the content that has been publicised, including on the government website, does not include all the variations. I saw two posters in my local area, one daring passers-by to “tell him you really can’t work from home”, the other to “tell her you really need to go to the shop”. Neither shopping nor going to work are against the government’s lockdown restrictions – such behaviour is not breaking or even bending the rules.
Moreover, these decisions are unlikely to be in the hands of the individual. While the government’s guidance is to work from home “if you can”, ultimately it is up to employers to allow their staff to work remotely, and there is no legal requirement for them to do so. Aside from essential workers such as supermarket staff and nurses, those in low-paid, insecure jobs or on zero-hours contracts are the ones most likely to still be going to work, and those least able to contradict their bosses. As for shopping, supermarket delivery is out of the reach of many with low incomes, and availability is limited, with some retailers rightly reserving slots for the most vulnerable. People buying food for their families are now being berated by these adverts, suggesting their irresponsible behaviour is costing lives.
[See also: Is the public really ignoring Covid-19 rules?]
Which brings us to the wider problem with this campaign: it puts the government’s failure to limit deaths on the shoulders of individuals. While everyone has a personal duty to act as conscientiously as they can, the 100,000 deaths milestone was not reached primarily by people standing a bit too close to one another or leaving the house for an extra shopping trip. It is partly the tragic consequence of a long list of government errors. From sending untested hospital patients into care homes and failing to implement a workable test and trace system to dithering about implementing lockdown before Christmas and sending children back to school for one day, the government bears more responsibility for the UK’s high death toll than individual members of the public.
Even now, the government continues to blame individuals rather than offering the necessary support. Two new policies were suggested last week: an £800 fine for attendees of house parties, and a £500 support payment to enable workers who test positive to self-isolate for the full period. The latter would help people who are known to be a high risk of passing on the virus to protect others from infection; the former diverts attention on to a reckless but tiny minority. You can guess which one has been implemented, and which remains no more than a proposal.
We must be wary of the government placing the collective blame for this crisis on the public and absolving itself of culpability. It is notable that, while individual responsibility is being stressed in the most high-pressure and distressing way, the litany of Covid-related scandals over the past year, from the PPE shortage to the chaos over schools, has not prompted a single government minister to accept accountability and resign. We are told, again and again, that everyone in government is doing their best. The public are not afforded such leniency.
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister claimed he took “full responsibility” for the grim figure of 100,000 deaths. But, he continued, “we did everything we could” to minimise deaths. That simply is not the case.
It is not the public who should be forced to look coronavirus patients in the eye and think hard about their actions – it is the government.