Those who are grabbing their new-found freedom don’t deserve our criticism.
People rush to judgement very quickly. All it takes is for a crowd to congregate on a beach, or for young people to go clubbing, and a great puritanical curtain-twitching mania is unleashed on them.
This week, Twitter is ablaze with sneering commentary about the great unwashed and what they are getting up to, now that Covid restrictions have gone.
Radio phone-ins are dominated by condescending speculation about people’s lack of responsibility.
Boris Johnson has cultivated this instinct. His current focus on “personal responsibility” is an attempt to outsource blame from the government to the public.
And it partially works.
A YouGov poll this week found 42% would blame the government if the relaxation of the rules leads to a large increase in cases and hospitalisations, while 42% would blame individuals.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves that individual duty doesn’t exist. Even amid government failure, you still have a personal responsibility to protect yourself and others.
But we have to avoid the trap of blaming the public for the government’s failings.
We’ve all been through a despairingly lonely and restricted period. We yearn for very basic things, and then feel rage when someone else enjoys them while we were responsible enough to refrain. That makes it easy to fall into the type of behaviour which No.10 wants.
Lots of people on the receiving end of Twitter outrage don’t deserve to be judged at all. They’re simply the victims of other people’s inability to measure risk.
Outdoor activities are much, much safer than indoor activities. It’s incredible that this is still not properly understood 18 months into a pandemic, but there we are. There really is no valid basis whatsoever to criticise people gathering on beaches, where there is typically a lot of space, in the open air, with a breeze. The same applies to public parks, or small distanced festivals, or pub gardens.
There’s also a distinction between indoor spaces. Some, like cinemas, are quite safe. People are sitting silently and watching a screen. They’re not drinking, or shouting, or exercising.
Others, like clubs, really aren’t safe at all. They cram people into a tight, confined space, typically with no windows, where they release inhibitions with alcohol and drugs, and dance, causing them to breathe more heavily and regularly.
They are basically petri dishes for virus transmission. You really couldn’t come up with a better environment to spread Covid if you tried.
That’s why so many people were infuriated with those who went clubbing on Sunday night. But even here, moral judgement shouldn’t be the default response.
It’s been relatively easy for people of my age, in my kind of job, to sit out the pandemic. Frustrating, sure, and sometimes scary, but circumstances made it easier than it would have been. I had a job that could be done from home. I didn’t lose my income, or have to go out to serve people in a supermarket.
Working from home was also easier because I was more established in my career. If it had happened earlier, I would have lost vital opportunities to make contacts in the industry or watch how more senior figures did things.
Many of us have been in this position. If we kept our income, we emerged from the pandemic with more savings than we had before. If we had a garden, lockdown became far more tolerable. If our house was larger, it felt less claustrophobic. There is a privilege calculus to Covid
Young people ended up on the wrong side of it. Even before the pandemic, they were economically disadvantaged by an asset economy that benefits baby boomers. They had Brexit imposed on them against their will. The Conservative government acted like a vanguard party for the pensioner class, whose interests are often in competition with the young.
A 20-year-old going clubbing this week will have spent the time since they were 18 trapped at home, typically still with mum and dad. Those early euphoric moments of youth and independence will have been taken from them.
Nightlife ended: it simply didn’t exist. Those in school received a worse education through a Zoom screen. Those leaving school for work found themselves unemployed. Those going to university had one of the most formative and blissful periods of their life turned into a panopticon prison camp.
Who can blame them for trying to rescue some joy and abandon after a period of brutal restraint? It’s not fair on them and it doesn’t help us. This whole period will be much easier for everyone if we exercise some kindness and understanding about what people have been going through.
Our judgement should rest solely on the government. It has allowed baseless optimism, proto-libertarianism and a persistent inability to understand causation to sabotage its own pandemic response. It was responsible and it messed it up.
Those who live under it are simply doing what they’re allowed to.