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Freedom comes at a price

15-07-2021 The Tablet - Wed, Sep 8th 2021

Government Covid messaging

The British government has resoundingly fallen between two stools in devising its policy after the end of the current Covid lockdown next Monday. In trying to please both sides of the debate – libertarian on the one hand, safety first on the other – all it has achieved is confusion, and possibly a nasty bruise to its reputation as the public realises it has been let down. The Prime Minister has announced that in England legal restrictions, for instance enforcing the wearing of masks in crowded public spaces, should be replaced by voluntary advice, leaving it up to every individual whether they comply or not. This is not going to work.

Cases of Covid are rising exponentially. This is because a sufficiently large part of the population have not yet received the double vaccination necessary for reliable protection, leaving them vulnerable to what is still a nasty disease if not quite the killer it was. The National Health Service is again under great strain, coping with the rising number of cases that need hospital treatment. Many non-Covid conditions are going untreated again. This is a bad time to be diagnosed with cancer or to need a hip replacement.

The government advice only makes sense if the sole reason for wearing a mask and practising social distancing is to protect oneself from being infected by the breath of someone else. It could be argued, as the government seems to believe, that one should be free to decide whether or not to place oneself at risk. This is like saying that the only reason for laws against dangerous driving is to protect dangerous drivers from injuring themselves. In fact the primary purpose of a face mask is to protect other people from being infected, if one has the disease oneself without being aware of it (or “bravely carrying on”, as some people say they do with a bad cold). And no individual has the right to decide, alone, whether to put other people at risk of harm. There is no libertarian case for repealing the law against dangerous driving.

So Boris Johnson is asking the English public to act as if the law remains in force, because otherwise the risk is great, but meanwhile lifting legal restrictions, thereby signalling that the risk is small. Thus has “having your cake and eating it” – Johnson’s favourite format for policymaking – become the driving force for a public health nightmare. Fewer people are dying with Covid, certainly, but tens of thousands every day are being advised to self-isolate – popularly known as “being pinged” because of the use of a smartphone app which utters a beep when activated – as they may have been exposed to someone with Covid.

It seems property owners are still entitled to apply their own rules, refusing entry, for instance, to anyone not wearing masks, and enforcing social distancing inside. Anyone who insists on entering without complying, unless they have valid health grounds for not doing so, could be accused of trespassing. So the best advice to churches, that have on the whole been scrupulous in following the lockdown rules, has to be to continue to act responsibly, as if nothing has changed – in the name of charity, justice and the common good.

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