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11 January 2021updated 12 Jan 2021 8:01am

Why the government is wrong to blame the public for the current spread of coronavirus

The problem isn’t solely people breaking the rules, it’s how much economic activity is still legal.

By Stephen Bush

Are further restrictions on private activity needed to curb the spread of coronavirus? Ministers are not ruling out bringing an end to support bubbles, introducing curfews or restricting the amount of time you can exercise in England.

There’s just two small problems: the first is that adherence to the regulations is very high. The second is that, even if it weren’t – even if every serious survey was wrong about the level of lockdown observation – England has more than 50 million people and around 100,000 police officers. There is a hard limit on what you can police. 

[Hear more from Stephen on The New Statesman Podcast]

The real problem – and happily one the government can actually do something about, if it wishes – can be seen on almost every high street and in the United Kingdom’s GDP figures: many businesses are still open and not every office that could work from home is doing so. Meanwhile, more shops are providing click and collect services than they were in March.

[see also: The crisis in London’s hospitals exposes the real challenge of a pandemic]

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But mandating further closures is a policy that comes with costs, not least because the impact of many additional closures would fall heavily on smaller businesses, and their arbitrary nature would make it harder to fob them off with mere subsidies for wages and rents. 

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Blaming the public is the government’s comfort zone: it’s one in which it is in tune with the public’s own assumptions about risk and with much of the media. But in terms of the viral risk, and the state’s ability to combat it, the problem is in the scale of perfectly legal economic activity, not in the small amount of illegal behaviour.