The real message behind 'stay alert': it'll be your fault if coronavirus spreads | Owen Jones

This meaningless phrase allows the government to shift blame to the public for failing to be sufficiently responsible

Officially, the new strategy is “personal responsibility” and “good, solid British common sense”, as our prime minister colourfully describes it; unofficially, operation blame the public is well under way. As media outlets query why London’s trains and buses are rammed despite government advice, our transport secretary, Grant Shapps, pleads with silly old commuters not to “flood” back on to public transport.

The small flaw is that the government has ordered millions of workers to return to their jobs, and given the continued failure to invent teleporters, they need a means to bridge the distance between their homes and their work. If you’re a Londoner earning more than £70,000 a year, this is no big deal: about 80% have access to a car, and most can work from home. Unfortunately, nearly half of the capital’s citizens – and over 70% of those earning less than £10,000 – do not have access to a car: if you want to understand those images of packed trains and buses, start here.

It is unsurprising that a government that has presided over Europe’s worst death toll is so invested in shifting the blame. Was it “good, solid British common sense” to pursue herd immunity and impose a lockdown later than other European nations, even despite having advance notice of the horrors of Lombardy? Perhaps, indeed, it was “good, solid British common sense” to send vulnerable patients back to care homes without testing them for coronavirus first, seeding the illness in a sector in which up to 22,000 people may have died? Or, who knows, perhaps “good, solid British common sense” could explain how frontline staff have been left exposed for a lack of personal protective equipment?

But the strategy in the government’s new approach is clear. “Stay alert” is meaningless, of course, except to devolve responsibility for what happens next to individuals. Grownups don’t need a nanny state to hold their hands, scoff the government’s outriders: rather than relying on detailed instructions and central diktat, we should rely on our judgment. The implication, of course, is that if there is another spike in infections and death, that will be the public’s fault for not exercising adequate levels of personal responsibility.

Here is a revival of the ideals of High Thatcherism, except applied to a pandemic. Back in the 1980s, what were once known as social problems requiring collective solutions – such as unemployment and poverty – became redefined as individual failings. “Nowadays there really is no primary poverty left in this country,” declared Margaret Thatcher herself. “In western countries we are left with the problems which aren’t poverty. All right, there may be poverty because people don’t know how to budget, don’t know how to spend their earnings, but now you are left with the really hard fundamental character – personality defect.”

If you were poor, it became an increasingly popularised attitude that it was because you were feckless, workshy, stupid and lazy. Thanks to the former Tory minister Norman Tebbit, “get on your bike” became a national cliche: it was more convenient, of course, for the government to pretend that mass unemployment was caused by a lack of effort, graft and can-do determination, rather than monetarist economics that ravaged entire industries.

What the dogma of “personal responsibility” does is erase the inequalities that scar, disfigure and ultimately define society. It pretends that we are all equally free, that our autonomy over our lives and circumstances are the same; that a middle-class professional working from home with access to a car can make the same choices as a cleaner expected to work halfway across a city.

The estimated 60,000 people who have so far died in this national calamity were not wrested from their families because the public failed to be responsible, and neither will the deaths to come in the weeks ahead. Any uptick in infections won’t be down to someone standing one metre rather than two away from their parent in a park. It won’t be down to people inviting neighbours round for forbidden cups of tea in their kitchens, instead of paying poverty wages to cleaners to wash away their dirt.

The explanation will instead be straightforward: the government relaxed a lockdown to force disproportionately working-class people into potentially unsafe environments at the behest of employers who have prioritised economic interests over human life. Another aggravating factor will be the abandonment of clear instructions in favour of confusion. It may well be this is a deliberate strategy, to claim that the government was perfectly clear, but the public let the team down by not showing enough “good, solid British common sense”. Whatever happens, the attempt to shift blame for the most disastrous government failure since appeasement on to the public must not succeed. This is on them: they did this, and we must not let them forget it.

• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

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Owen Jones

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