May 31, 2020, Bournemouth. Picture credit: David Goddard/Getty Images
Artillery Row

We all broke lockdown, and we should have broken it more

Time to admit it: the rules were always silly, and often cruel

How sure are you, really, that you’ve obeyed all the Covid rules? My guess is that you’d have to be either a terrified hypochondriac or an avid lockdown sceptic to know the legislation well enough to answer with total confidence. The pandemic restrictions have been so complicated, changeable and poorly scrutinised as to be almost impossible to follow to the letter. Take comfort from the fact that even the Prime Minister doesn’t know if he’s broken the law because “nobody told” him. 

Many of us will have tested the limits of the Covid rules, either deliberately or unknowingly. Perhaps it was sitting on a bench with a friend, perhaps it was hugging the bride at a “socially distanced” wedding, perhaps it was choosing an especially liberal interpretation of what constituted a “work event”.

Hundreds of thousands of people were forced apart from their families as they died

To be clear, I’m not trying to excuse whatever happened in Downing Street. Just as everyone almost certainly bent the rules a bit, absolutely everyone lost something — and the reports of drinking and birthday cakes in the heart of government are an insult to that sacrifice. Lying to Parliament is clearly a far more serious breach of public trust than anything I described above. But when we complain that “the people who made the rules broke the rules” far more emphasis should be placed on the first half of that construction.

And there are particular aspects of the current scandal that illustrate why. For a start, no one is seriously claiming that gatherings of Downing Street staff were a risk to public health. With the tired caveat that we must await the findings of the police and the Sue Gray inquiry, from what we currently know these were people who worked together, maskless and indoors, for months. If anything it shows how cynical we’ve become since the days of Dominic Cummings’ jaunt to Barnard Castle, when creepy speculation abounded about whether he’d endangered lives by allowing his four-year-old son to go to the toilet.

“We allowed such a monstrous thing to be done to a woman who’s devoted her entire life to public service.” Picture credit: Jonathan Brady/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Take also the contrast that is drawn between raucous staffers pouring wine into printers and breaking swings, and the Queen mourning at the funeral of the man she was married to for 73 years. The reason that image sticks in the mind is that the Queen is the physical embodiment of our nation, and seeing her dutifully enduring her personal tragedy alone encapsulated the depredations we’ve all experienced during the pandemic. But it also haunts us because it’s a reminder that we allowed such a monstrous thing to be done to a woman who’s devoted her entire life to public service.

And of course it’s not just the Queen – hundreds of thousands of people were forced apart from their families as they died. For example the Labour Party tweeted the following account from an NHS nurse called Jenny:

It’s harrowing stuff, but not for the reason Labour wants you to think. As my colleague Henry Hill wrote in CapX, “The tweet weaponises the experience of a man who absolutely wasn’t prepared to make that bargain. It turns his private grief into public theatre, for political ends.” Here is a man being told that his obligations to the NHS outweigh his responsibilities towards the woman he loves — that’s far more sinister than any Downing Street shindig.

We were chumps

So why the outrage over government staff flouting restrictions which were self-evidently inhumane and which many of us also broke to some degree? Of course part of it is that the Prime Minister and his staff must be held to higher standards than the public, and they don’t have available the excuse that the rules were unnecessary.

But the whole affair doesn’t just shine an ugly spotlight on Boris Johnson and his acolytes, it reflects back on us too. It forces us to think again about what a miserable time we were having trying to interpret the guidance while Downing Street apparently disregarded it, and whether we made the right choices. The cruel twist, though, is that lockdown, with its infantilising demands to abdicate so much responsibility to the state, has made it difficult to view even our own decisions dispassionately.

Moral philosophers like Bernard Williams have long argued that utilitarian doctrines fail to account for the separateness of individuals and treat their happiness as completely interchangeable. The same could be said of severe, blanket policies that fail to account for personal circumstances. It’s a morally flawed way of governing, therefore there’s no moral imperative to obey every line of the Covid legislation.

Yet admitting this is to concede that where we did submit to some of the more pointless, stupid and unenforceable restrictions we were chumps. That’s a hard thing to do. Believing that all the grief, loneliness and isolation was worth it “for the greater good” is a way of coping with the trauma — but that doesn’t make it true.

The real betrayal isn’t that the Prime Minister and his staff broke their own rules — it’s that the rules made hypocrites of us all.

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