Debate rages on every television screen and newspaper front page about the fairness or unfairness of lockdowns and semi-lockdowns. The finger of blame for the failure to stop the spread of coronavirus is increasingly pointed at the chief of NHS Test and Trace, Baroness Harding, and at the health minister, Lord Bethell, serial blunderers referred to derisively by senior civil servants as “Laurel and Hardy”.
But putting the focus on the failure of the £12bn Test, Trace and Isolate (TTI) system misses a more important point that makes the furore over the new restrictions largely irrelevant. People are rightly outraged by the revelation that a myriad of private sector consultants, without experience of public health and paid up to £7,000 a day, should have orchestrated this fiasco, but their anger is a diversion from a more significant development.
The evidence is mounting that a sizeable part of the population is voting with their feet and opting out of the elaborate regulatory system that is supposed to prevent the spread of the epidemic. They do so because they have become more frightened of these restrictions ruining their livelihoods than they are of contracting Covid-19 in a serious form.
Government and media are so absorbed in a narrative that is all about these new rules that they have not paid enough attention to the limited degree to which people obey them in real life. Blindness about lack of compliance is pervasive, though it is self-evident that adherence to restrictions is ebbing fast. This week it emerged that only 59.6 per cent of the contacts of infected people are reached by phone and told to isolate by the TTI contact tracers.
The official explanation for this low figure is lack of capacity on the part of the TTI system, but another reason is that people who cannot afford to self-isolate, for job or family reasons, simply do not answer the phone when they see a number that they do not recognise coming up. Statistics showing that people really do behave like this were published last month in a groundbreaking survey by King’s College London of 30,000 people, which I have quoted before in this column but do so again because of its great importance.
The survey shows that, while 70 per cent of people say that they will self-isolate if they have Covid-19 symptoms, only 18.2 per cent of them actually did so. The same disparity is true of testing, with 50 per cent saying that they will ask for a test if they have symptoms of the illness, but only 11.2 per cent really do self-isolate. Of those contacted by the NHS and told to quarantine themselves, just “10.9 per cent reported staying at home or quarantining for the following 14 days”.
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said diplomatically that there is “room for improvement” in the TTI system, and even Boris Johnson seems to have noticed that it is not working properly. But the Sage report last month famously recommending a short circuit-breaking lockdown, also dismissed the whole TTI system as having only a marginal impact on the transmission rate of coronavirus. It said TTI has failed to do so because it does not contact a sufficient number of potentially infected people, obtain test results early enough to be of use, and too few of those who are contacted adhere to the self-isolation rule.
It is easy to see why people who are at low risk are not complying. A person under the age of 29, who is lucky enough to have a job during a time of soaring unemployment, must balance his or her very low chances of having coronavirus badly enough to make them seriously ill against the undoubtedly damaging impact of self-isolating. Many have every reason to dread testing positive and may instead keep quiet about their symptoms or about any contact they may have had with somebody they know to have been infected.
Personal risk assessments like this explain why infection is still rising in towns and cities where there have been partial lockdowns since midsummer. The government appears baffled by this and blames rowdies outside pubs and other anti-social elements for breaking the rules. Yet for much of the population – essentially the younger part of it – non-compliance makes complete sense. Theirs is not necessarily an “I’m All Right Jack” attitude, since those ignoring the restrictions may try to keep away from their grandparents. It was surely always inevitable that those minimally endangered by the disease would not accept economic ruin and partial house arrest once initial panic was over.
Lockdown sceptics may applaud the idea that Britain has ended up with a sort of variant of the Swedish approach to coronavirus by default and without knowing it. But the sceptics who argue that the economic destruction is too great and does not, in any case, stop the epidemic, spoil their case by downplaying the virulence of coronavirus as a horrible disease. Even those openly or covertly prescribing “herd immunity” – something that is probably unattainable – are not keen to volunteer themselves for early membership of a supposedly “immunised herd”.
When President Trump said in the presidential debate this week that people would have to learn to live with coronavirus, Joe Biden made the obvious retort that a lot of people were dying with it. A total lockdown could work, as it appears to have done in China, but only through a huge and permanent mobilisation of state resources, backed by a fair degree of compulsion. For instance, Chinese returning from abroad have to isolate – and to make sure that they do just that they are allocated a hotel in which to quarantine and not let out until it is over. It is doubtful if Britain – or any European state – has the mechanisms or the determination to do the same.
All epidemics generate fear – and in the case of coronavirus there is plenty to be frightened of. The fear may be greater in Britain because of its spectacularly incompetent government, visibly out of its depth, stumbling from one unforced error to another. But its ineptitude should not distract from the fact that there is no real alternative to a policy of restrictions because two-thirds of the population want them. A Sky News/YouGov poll shows that 67 per cent support a “circuit breaking” temporary lockdown, 64 per cent oppose different rules for young and old, and 61 per cent do not trust Boris Johnson to take the right decisions on the pandemic.
The government and its medical experts risk wrecking the economy in return for limited success in combating the virus, but what they are doing reflects a contradictory popular view that restrictions must be imposed – even when so many people will not, in practice, comply with them because they believe that their personal sacrifice is not proportionate to the danger they face.