The problem with English Common Sense in the age of Covid.

Common sense doesn’t prevail on the London Underground

A while back — pandemic-time is amorphous, it could have been weeks or months ago — Michael Gove announced that the government would rely on the common sense of the British people when it came to mask wearing and social distancing.

My initial thought was that this was the same people who’d elected him and his friends into government, and had voted for Brexit, both things that are demonstrably not sensible, so this wasn’t a great idea.

England’s dismal performance during the pandemic has shown two things about this country. Firstly, we have become too used to incompetence, and secondly our government is putting ideology ahead of informed policy-making.

It is not a party-political point, more one about populism. The years of Corbyn, May, and Johnson has been a political period that put populism ahead of competence. People, like Chris Grayling and Liam Fox, were allowed to remain in senior positions because they were loyal, despite incompetence and failures that would have seen them fired from a junior manager’s position in any normal business. Politics under Theresa May was about balancing a cabinet between Leave and Remain, it was about clinging onto power. So cabinet jobs were more about complex Westminster chess moves than competence and ability.

This has peaked in the rise of Boris Johnson. Forget what his political enemies said, his friends and colleagues told us all that he’s incompetent and a liar, yet he still managed to become prime minister. He is popular, good with a crowd, and utterly ruthless. This suited the clique of the conservative party who wanted to push Brexit through no matter what. He was elected to continue to make a bad job of a bad strategy, but instead found himself in charge during the worst crisis since the war. It turned out that he is not the Winston Churchill saviour he always wanted to be. If Covid was a war, and he was our war leader, he lost, and was humiliated.

But when you put incompetent people into the top jobs in the country, you send a clear message to the rest of the country that being mediocre, incompetent, and constantly cocking-up, is basically fine. Take the formerly sacked defence secretary, and now disgraced education secretary, Gavin Williamson. He still has a job. In any previous political era, that would be unthinkable. It may make sense for Johnson to keep him in post as a political human shield, but the message it sends out to people is that you can be utterly useless, cause untold human misery, and not suffer any consequence. The list is long, and includes Dido Harding, described recently as failing upwards through her career, Dominic Cummings and his road-trip, and of course Boris Johnson. Johnson has two big challenges, on top of the normal stuff like running the country: Brexit and Covid. There is simply no way you could say he’s doing well with either of these.

The country is suffering from top-down incompetence. It permeates everywhere; if ministers and peers can get away with it, so can everyone else. Not only does it affect peoples’ sense of what they can and can’t do, it also affects our ability and willingness to pick up on other people’s failings. In a society that has generally high standards, when someone screws-up we all point it out and correct it. When everything is half-baked, and everyone at the top is tripping over their shoelaces on a daily basis, we become numb to incompetence, and start to accept it as normal.

And this brings me back to Michael Gove. The real-world outcome of his pronouncement is that almost none of the rules, laws, and directions issued by the government to supress the pandemic are being enforced. In England and Wales, police have only issued 44 fines to people not wearing masks when they should. Statically that amounts to a complete lack of enforcement. The fact that they have also had to ask 30,000 people to put their masks on shows the scale of the reality.

This reflects a deep-seated Tory ideological aversion to a ‘nanny-state.’ Tories naturally want to fall back on common-sense rather than enforcement. To a great extent this is to be admired. In a world tending towards authoritarianism it is reassuring to see a democracy trying hard not to fall back on heavy-handed policing, at least in principle. However, applying an ideology to everything without nuance never works out well, regardless of that ideology. That applies to Momentum, it applies to Brexit.

Political ideology often replaces thought. If you have a blanket ideology you can impose on everything, you have less need to think through each problem and develop a unique and tailored solution. Blanket ideologies are also part of populism; they are easy to understand, easy to side with. It is therefore typical of this government that they would apply ideology-led policies to complex and new problems, rather than formulating policy that fits the current situation.

Johnson’s cabinet are very mediocre, and they have overseen a Covid response that has consequently been mired in incompetence and stupidity — it’s top-down. And that filtering down of incompetence, bad decision-making, lack of thought, and lack of consequences doesn’t stop at the upper echelons of health or education policy, it keeps going all the way down. It is why I’m sitting in a central London café writing this article, and every waiter and waitress is walking about with a face mask either under their chin, or covering their mouth but not their nose. It is why, when I took my first tube journey into London yesterday, I was greeted with a row of people with their noses sticking out over their masks, or masks under their chins. People not wearing masks may have a valid reason for their non-compliance, but people with them under their chin are clearly not not wearing a mask, they are just being stupid.

The government bribed us all to go out to restaurants to try to save the hospitality sector. They are now trying to encourage us to go back to offices, and back to school. Grant Shapps, another of this era’s great mediocres, announced on the news that it’s now safe to go back to work: there will be more public transport, and offices are implementing measures to keep people safe. He clearly doesn’t travel into parliament by tube. In reality — one from which he’s clearly disconnected — the half-baked, incompetent, and non-compliant behaviour of so many people means it is far from safe to go back to work. It’s hit and miss; some offices, cafes, restaurants have made a real effort, others have made no effort. With no enforcement of any rules or guidance, there is no consistency, and no real pressure to get it right.

The government has been particularly bad at communicating during Covid, and one clear problem is that they have not explained the science behind mask wearing. It is clear plenty of people know they should wear one, but don’t really understand why, so they wear it in a way that is totally pointless. There is some information around what we should do, but little about why, and even then it is vague. The underground trains are covered in signs encouraging social distancing — which is impossible if the tube train is full — but there are no signs about wearing masks, or indeed how and why to wear a mask. Public transport should be covered in public information posters explaining mask wearing, but perhaps for people like Gove that would smack of a nanny-state.

The same applies to young people, who will become the next wave’s super-spreaders. Teenagers have just seen their educations, dreams, and hopes, trampled all over by a cadre of adults who demonstrated no evidence of competence, ability, or credibility, and who suffered no consequences for their failures. Why then should teenagers wear masks, keep socially distant, or generally give a toss? One set of rules for all: if the adults can behave like kids, then so can the kids.

Despite all the reassurances from the very unreassuring government, it seems pretty obvious that if we all go back to work, start commuting on tubes and busses, and gradually move back indoors as the summer ends, whilst at the same time guidance on keeping safe is constantly changing, poorly communicated, and entirely unenforced, we face a very dismal winter of lockdowns, surges, and economic damage.

What the country desperately needs now is for consistent rules to be enforced vigorously for enough time for people to realise they matter. This should be matched by serious public information campaigns explaining what we now know about Covid, and how and why masks and social distancing can help. We need to see incompetent people fired, and our leadership start to champion professionalism, accountability, and ambition. That may change when Rishi Sunak takes over from Boris Johnson, but for now we’re stuck with a shower of a cabinet that has reached the pinnacle of their political careers because they were not competent enough to out-shine their boss.

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