One of the odder moments in Boris Johnson’s televised address on Tuesday was his claim that “we have succeeded before” in tackling coronavirus, as if one of the highest Covid-19 death tolls in the world was a triumph. With more than 6,000 UK cases confirmed on Wednesday, and scientists warning that new measures are too little, too late again, the inadequacies of his leadership are evident. What is more striking is that his new approach jibes with his own self-image. A man who built his career on lambasting nanny-statism and an ability to rally popular opinion now relies on finger-wagging.
The government squandered immense goodwill and solidarity when it allowed Dominic Cummings to flout lockdown with impunity in the spring. With the second wave mounting, it has turned to shaming and threats, scolding the public for having tests unnecessarily and for breaking the rules, and introducing hefty fines in England – up to £10,000 for failing to self-isolate. Mr Johnson even suggested that the military could be called in to ensure that the police can carry out enforcement duties. We are told that worse is to come unless we all behave.
Yet Mr Johnson portrayed a pint in the pub as a “patriotic duty”. Ministers told people that their jobs might be at risk unless they returned to the workplace. The government has yet to produce evidence that the problem is rule-breaking, not rule-following. The public have mostly done as they were told – as Mr Johnson has acknowledged. Many have been more cautious than this government, to its annoyance.
In any case, enabling and encouraging compliance is wiser than punishing breaches. One reason is simply the scale of behavioural change needed. Another is that focusing on rule-breakers can alienate some and encourage others to think that they are “not the problem”, or even that there is no point doing the right thing. Finally, while fines may deter people from wild house parties, they could also backfire – some may not admit they are ill.
Getting testing and tracing right is essential. More generally, the strategy should be to formulate sensible, comprehensible rules; to explain them clearly and compellingly; and to remove obstacles to following them. On the first count, the government is failing: the “common sense” that Mr Johnson lauds tells people that closing pubs an hour earlier is unlikely to be a game-changer. On the second, he has undercut his own message, implying that breaches of the rules might be the commendable evidence of a “freedom-loving” nation. On the last, the offer of “stay home” payments to some of the worst off is a start, but the package of measures that Rishi Sunak is to present in the Commons on Thursday will need to be much more substantial. That furlough measures are due to end just as a second wave is setting in is incomprehensible to many.
Blaming the public has allowed Mr Johnson to avoid admitting his government’s own failings – most glaringly on testing and tracing – as well as to avoid discussing why it is relying on the measures it has chosen. If you’re not sure what your priorities are, or if you don’t care to spell them out, it’s hard to convince others. But people will be more inclined to live up to their responsibilities if they see their government doing so.