Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
12 January 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 12:17pm

We are watching the slow-motion car crash of decisions taken weeks ago

The public debate about compliance with Covid-19 restrictions wrongly draws a link between the public behaviour we are observing now and the crisis unfolding.

By Ailbhe Rea

The government’s week of stern warnings about lockdown compliance continues this morning, as Matt Hancock last night refused to rule out introducing tougher measures in England, while Nicola Sturgeon today convenes her own cabinet to consider harsher restrictions in Scotland.

The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg reports that “there is real concern in government that the public, this time round, is just not paying attention to the rules as closely as they did back in the spring”, while other outlets are reporting that these tougher measures (such as closing construction sites, banning takeaways, or banning outdoor exercise with a member of another household as is currently permitted) could be introduced “if there is no improvement in compliance”.

I think that parenthesis encapsulates the problem: we are talking about lower compliance, when what we are observing is compliant behaviour within more relaxed rules compared with March. This is borne out by the data: mobility data, as well as anecdote, does show that people are moving around more than in March. But surveys continue to indicate a similar level of rule-compliance as we saw in the first lockdown and, notably, the public is more worried about coronavirus now than at any point since mid-April at the first peak, according to Savanta ComRes polling.

There is a debate to be had as to whether the way to address this issue is by amplifying the “stay at home” message, emphasising the need for compliance with existing rules, or, as Stephen argued yesterday, by addressing the large amount of economic activity and behaviour that is still permitted under this lockdown, and that wasn’t last time. England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, has, in good faith, been emphasising the “stay at home” message, urging people to consider whether each of their potential social contacts is necessary, and he seemed to suggest he was unconvinced by the prospect of tinkering around the edges of the rules. But there is quite a lot of bad faith in the “enforcement drive” from government, too, focusing on a problem with compliance when there is no evidence to suggest increased rule-breaking, and bemoaning behaviour (such as “socialising” by going for a walk with another person) that the government itself allows under the rules.

[see also: Why the government is wrong to blame the public for the current spread of coronavirus]

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

The ONS has just announced that, last year, the UK recorded the highest levels of excess deaths since the Second World War. Deaths from coronavirus continue to rise, as do hospital admissions, and our health service is under serious strain. My concern is that this discussion around poor compliance is an attempt to draw an unfounded link between the behaviour we are observing at the moment and the crisis that is unfolding before our eyes. What we are watching is the consequence of actions taken weeks ago: case numbers from interactions around a week ago, hospital admissions from infections around two weeks ago, and deaths from infections two, three and four weeks ago. 

Content from our partners
The green transition can unlock 40,000 new businesses and £175bn
Building the business case for growth
“On supporting farmers, McDonald’s sets a high standard”

You might remember what was happening around then: four weeks ago, London was still under tier two restrictions and was only about to be moved into tier three, amid reports that Michael Gove’s calls to put the capital into tier three weeks earlier had been overruled. On 22 December, Sage recommended a nationwide lockdown and was overruled. Alarm bells around the planned easing of Christmas restrictions were ignored. At the 11th hour, Christmas was cancelled for London and the new tier four areas, but it happened so late that many went ahead with their plans, while the festive easing continued across the rest of the country. 

We will see the impact of our current behaviour in a few weeks’ time, first with a fall in case rates, then a fall in hospital admissions, and then, eventually, a fall in death rates, provided this lockdown works in the way everyone hopes it will. But as Stephen Powis, the NHS England medical director, warned yesterday: “We’re still to see the full impact of the Christmas restrictions reflected in those hospital numbers.”

We should be under no illusions about what we are witnessing at this time of crisis, and it is not the result of widespread rule-breaking by the public. We are watching the slow-motion car crash of decisions taken, and not taken, by the government weeks ago.

Topics in this article :