Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
When the quarantine measures were introduced, I began a paper round for various self-isolating neighbours in my village. There was a lot of nervousness back then, and I would generally leave their newspapers (Telegraphs, for the most part) at their garden gates and perhaps have a shouted conversation through an upstairs window.
Since then, things have slackened. Some villagers are sticking rigidly to the social distancing rules, but most are flouting them in sensible and cautious ways. They are driving to visit their children and grandchildren. They are meeting each other in twos and threes for tea. They are gathering in gardens, at a suitable distance, for glasses of wine.
Given how thunderingly unlikely outdoor transmission is, these strike me as pretty moderate peccadilloes – if, indeed, they are peccadilloes at all. Any risk, after all, is borne by the people involved. But here’s the thing. Statistically, many of the same people must be telling opinion pollsters that they want the restrictions maintained.
Economists call it “revealed preference”, a fancy way of saying that actions speak louder than words. Could it be that, despite the overwhelming demand for harsh prohibitions – a demand that weighs heavy on ministers and their advisers – a lot of people are privately sceptical? Might we be keeping our distance, not for fear of infection, but for fear of censure?
I know that I obey the rules largely out of politeness. I step ostentatiously around people on pavements for the same reason that I cover my head in a Sikh temple: to show respect. How many others, I wonder, are doing the same?
There has been a vivid daily demonstration of our collective double-standard in the tightly-packed mass of journalists swarming outside Dominic Cummings’s house, yelling at him about social distancing rules as they jostle shoulder to shoulder.
Perhaps the country at large is like those journalists. Perhaps people have quietly given up on the quarantine. Perhaps their attitudes have shifted as more information has come in. After all, we now know that the rate of infections peaked here five days before the lockdown began. We watch our European neighbours safely reopening shops, schools and cafés. We see the empty Nightingale hospitals. Have we simply adjusted our opinions in the light of the evidence?
I’d like to think so. But the likelier explanation is that people are being quite honest with the pollsters. They want the lockdown to continue; they just implicitly exempt themselves from parts of it.
I’m afraid this mental sleight-of-hand – what psychologists call “self-serving bias” – comes naturally to human beings. Most people unconsciously separate their own actions from those of everyone else. We complain, for example, that the attractions we visit are “spoiled by tourists”, without acknowledging that we are tourists. We sit in traffic jams fuming about “the traffic” as though it had nothing to do with us. In the case of Covid-19, there may even be an ugly but rational freeloader justification for wanting everyone else to reduce the risk while you disregard the guidelines.
The Dominic Cummings affair has highlighted these inconsistencies. It was straightforward for lockdown sceptics like me. We had argued all along that the restrictions were excessive. I stuck up, for example, for Stephen Kinnock when he was ludicrously criticised for marking his father’s birthday by driving over to see him in his garden. When Neil Ferguson resigned after keeping a tryst with his mistress, I was angry, not because he had flouted the rules, but because he had contributed to their imposition in the first place.
The main accusation against Cummings, namely that there was one law for him and one for everyone else, left me completely nonplussed. How was he treated any differently? What other keyworker has been sanctioned for safely moving his family to a place where they could get support?
I accept that we anti-lockdowners are in a minority. But so, I suspect, are those who are following every dot and comma of the guidelines. Most people stand somewhere in between, backing the broad idea of a quarantine but interpreting its provisions flexibly, at least in their own cases.
This is simply not sustainable. When governments micromanage human behaviour, absurdities follow. You end up with the state ruling that (for example) you can have your cleaner in your house but not your mother. You make the law asinine.
It would have been better to have stuck to the essentially Burkeian approach we pursued at first – applying as few prohibitions as possible and asking people to use their nous.
These événements have brought us face to face with the contradictions inherent in our policy. It was impossible to listen to the media exegesis of what the guidelines meant without realising that we have tied ourselves in knots to no good end. Let us instead remove the bulk of legal restrictions and tell people: “Here are the risks and here are our recommendations; now please use your common sense”. There is even a word for it – “conservatism”.