Hypotheticals are more interesting than brass tacks. When it was announced that the police would get access, on a “case by case basis”, to the details of people who had been asked to self-isolate through NHS test and trace, the immediate concern of the British Medical Association was a what if: what if it deterred people from getting tested in the first place? What if they mistook this for the app, which is anonymised, and ceased downloading it? What if (this is my personal hypothetical) this erodes the trust of the one person left in the country who doesn’t know that “NHS test and trace” is actually a euphemism for operation run by the cock-up behemoth that is Serco?
Yet as interesting as those questions are, by far the more pressing one is: how on earth are the police supposed to track self-isolation refuseniks? With whose army? Never mind the powers that have been bestowed on them by rushed legislation, you have to ask who gave the gift of time, the blessing of infinite resource? As the constabulary freely admitted before this pandemic erupted, they didn’t have the manpower to chase down things that were already illegal; a swath of new laws means very little in that context.
Lockdowns function not by force but by consent, which is tougher to generate the second time round. In March there was novelty, there was ambition, there was the human spirit questing for an upside. With no planes in the sky, we could hear birdsong. We could imagine things being better afterwards. Maybe we would learn Spanish. Now we know that those things won’t happen, and it is simply a miserable grind. If we want to understand human behaviour at all, and with it likely outcomes, we need to park moral questions – how can a responsible person put their desire for a pint above their shielding neighbour? – and consider what the factors are for citizenly obedience.
In order to follow strict rules, people need to believe they will make a difference: a drop in cases is not enough. If no progress is made during the lull, it feels like an outcome postponed rather than averted. In areas over which the government has the least purview there has been progress: treatment for the virus in a hospital setting has improved; death rates have gone down. Yet the government has nothing to show for the time we bought it. Indeed, every week since March has brought some new instalment of their inadequacy. When it’s not a calamity directly related to the virus – million-dollar consultants selling mixed messages, PPE procurement from amateur chums – it’s an A-level fiasco, or a university debacle. Deferred gratification is something most of us, at our most responsible, can comprehend, but it presupposes some future that is indeed gratifying. When tomorrow simply looks like a worse version of today – and the spectre of a no-deal Brexit doesn’t help, here – why kick the can down that road?
Compliance relies, furthermore, on altruism, trust, community spirit, notions that only sound abstract until you’re confronted by the chasm of their absence. The very real and fatally corrosive sense that it’s one law for us and another for them – for brevity, the Dominic Cummings effect – has generated more than a burning sense of injustice. It turns out that anyone, if you look closely enough, has breached the intent behind one rule or another, whether it’s Tony Blair returning from the US straight into an eaterie, or the SNP’s Margaret Ferrier boarding a train knowing she had tested positive for Covid-19. Which all raises more of an existential question: are those in power uniquely bad at following rules? Or are they just the most visible of a whole nation of scofflaws? Will I wake from this nightmare to find that nobody was ever obeying anything?
This all could have been allayed if the Barnard Castle visit had had consequences: but possibly the more egregious mistake of the prime minister has been to sporadically try to thrust blame back on to the population for relaxing too much. Some of us spiralled into accusing one another, some disregarded him as a man wriggling on the hook of his own insufficiency, some of us cycle through those two responses multiple times on any given day. But it doesn’t matter who you distrust most, between your fellow citizen and your government, the damage to national unity is the same.
The very low levels of buy-in for the self-isolation rules – only 11% of people told to self-isolate by NHS test and trace go on to stay at home for a full 14 days – hint at the practical failures that will have an impact on every new guideline. If people can’t afford to stay at home, they won’t. If the state’s best idea of support is to suggest you use your annual leave for your 14-day sojourn, it has effectively resiled from its duty of care, which undermines its rhetoric and credibility. The deficiencies at a regional level carry the same message more starkly: a government that doesn’t care whether or not you can feed yourself has no place in the matter of your health.
The important thing is not to blame one another for the failures of whatever lockdown comes our way. Instead we must demand a functioning find, test, trace and isolate system, administered by local authorities in conjunction with public health, bulwarked by financial support, which would stem this overwhelming sense of futility. The opposition, meanwhile, must avoid painting a fresh lockdown as a moral good: it will maroon itself on the wrong side of a false binary.
• This article was amended on 21 October 2020. An earlier version said that “only 11% of people who test positive go on to stay at home for a full 14 days”. That should have said that “only 11% of people told to self-isolate by NHS test and trace go on to stay at home for a full 14 days”.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist