Despite its vague, ever-changing messaging about how the UK population might shield itself against the global coronavirus pandemic, the government has been consistent in building one key narrative: ‘selfish’ people are responsible for its rapid spread. In the midst of ongoing testing and protective clothing scandals, and as ministers needlessly delay announcement of an imminent lockdown extension, we’re being primed to blame each other for the consequences of repeated government missteps.
This isn’t a new tune for the Conservatives – we’ve long been told that ‘scroungers’ and ‘shirkers’ are responsible for our broken welfare system and eroded workers’ rights. Now, ministers have ‘sunbathers’ in their sights.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock admonished us last weekend, warning: ‘If you don’t want us to take the next step and ban exercise… then the message is very clear… you have to follow the rules.’ Did you get that? When tougher measures arrive, it’s because we forced his hand. When the death toll keeps rising, it’ll be the ‘flouters’ fault.
We can expect more of the same over the Easter weekend. Fiction comes to be taken as fact through repetition. An MP’s soundbite becomes headline news and soon enough #Covidiot is trending – again. Suddenly, it’s a public service to report neighbours to the police.
The problem is, we haven’t been given any explicit ‘rules’ to follow, never mind disobey. That key term doesn’t appear once in the official government ‘social distancing guidance’. That says: ‘You can also go for a walk or exercise outdoors if you stay more than 2 metres from others.’ Ministers clarified that a daily hour outside is important for our physical and mental health (which is also good for the NHS). No one said that rest-stops and sit-downs – or sunbathing for that matter – were banned. Are benches out of bounds? Should people unable or unused to moving constantly for 60 minutes stay indoors? Michael Gove already implied that only the fit and able-bodied should be allowed outside, but (wisely enough) didn’t say it outright.
Images circulating of seemingly ‘busy’ parks and bench-sitters reprimanded by police are not evidence of reckless behaviour. That’s just what it looks like when people in densely populated cities follow government advice. Inner London is home to 3.7 million people, with population density up to 16,360 per square kilometre. Basic maths forecasts that, if we all take our allocated hour, hundreds of thousands of people will be outside at any given time of the day. And if just two in three people go out between 11am and 5pm? You would expect to find 1 ,780 people per square kilometre walking around Tower Hamlets, 1,460 more milling about Kensington and Chelsea.
How might that look? A jogger can run around the outside edge of a square kilometre in under half an hour. In urban centres, that small space is packed full of high-rise residential buildings, as well as shops, bars, cafes, markets, leisure centres, offices, train stations and all those other places currently closed to the public. That leaves two options for a daily dose of fresh air, stretched legs and vitamin D: local streets and public parks.
Two weeks ago, the government instructed us: for exercise, ‘stay local’ and ‘use open space’. We should be thankful that cities like London are blessed with green space. Instead, Brockwell Park was closed on Sunday, after Lambeth Council declared it ‘unacceptable’ that just 3,000 people had passed through the day before. In a 50.8 hectare space, that’s roughly 169 square metres per person. We should keep these numbers in mind as the narrative of public blame starts to embed.
Overwhelmingly, people are following not ‘flouting’ official advice. Looks – like ministers’ words – can be deceiving. There are bottle-necks at park entrances. Some people are sitting down for a break. Perhaps they need it. Or perhaps they are just enjoying a moment in the sun – still well within social distancing guidelines – because they are one of millions of British city-dwellers living in cramped conditions with limited or no access to a private garden. For many, this hour is our only time outside each day. French doors, balconies and patios are luxuries.
Tougher measures are imminent – and not because too many people went to the park. Looking to Italy, Spain, Germany, and France – among other countries ‘ahead’ of the UK – we can expect a more severe lockdown simply because it seems necessary to slow the spread of a deadly virus. It will be necessary here because, after a decade of austerity and weeks of complacency, we do not have enough resources to protect the public and support the NHS. Our government has been slow to act, pursuing a questionable series of strategies and offering vague advice designed to protect business interests at human cost.
Over the coming days and weeks, however, ministers will keep lining up to tell us we’re selfish. They’re hoping we’ll forget that pubs and cinemas stayed open while health officials pleaded for shut down, that non-essential businesses keep running, putting employees at risk (but saving on furlough pay), and that there’s still no mass testing plan – or the means to implement one.
Because the more we blame ourselves – better yet, our selfish neighbours – the less heat is felt by the reckless team in No. 10.
Siobhán McGuirk is a Red Pepper Editor. Follow her on Twitter @s_mcguirk.
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