Is Matt Hancock trying to live out a fantasy of being an old-fashioned schoolteacher? Increasingly, he seems to be giving the impression that he thinks that the key to saving us from coronavirus is to patronise us as often as possible.
This morning, Hancock said, “If you don’t want us to have to take the step to ban exercise of all forms outside of your own home, then you’ve got to follow the rules.”
These are the condescending and insulting words of the sort of teacher who threatens to punish the whole class for the behaviour of one or two pupils. The notion of “follow the rules or I’ll make the rules harsher” sounds as absurdly illogical to me today as it did when I heard some of my own teachers make similar comments three decades ago.
Perhaps at Hancock’s next briefing, a bell will ring as he finishes. If people get ready to leave, he will say “The bell is a signal for me, not for you!”. Then if they start talking to each other, he will say, “It’s your own time you’re wasting, you know.”
But this is about something that matters more than Hancock’s irritating condescension. At the heart of this issue is a conflict over two ways of attempting to deal with the pandemic: one based on people working together co-operatively as equals, the other based on the rich and powerful controlling the rest of us.
Like the vast majority of people, I am observing the physical distancing principles that have been put in place. In my daily walk, and in my occasional trip to the Co-op, I keep at least two metres from others as I walk (usually far more).
It seems to me that the vast majority of people are already following these guidelines. I suspect most of us are doing so because we appreciate the urgent necessity of tackling coronavirus, rather than simply because there is a rule about it. These guidelines are working because most people see them as a community effort to protect each other and save lives, not because we’re frightened of Matt Hancock.
I have no wish to defend the people who were photographed gathering in groups in parks yesterday. They should have not done so, and I would be happy to see them dispersed. We need to remember that these people are a very small percentage of the population as a whole. However shocking these pictures are, photos of the parks in which people were observing the rules are considerably less likely to make the news.
Other politicians may be reluctant to disagree with Matt Hancock today. Perhaps they will be concerned about not sounding tough. But they can sound tough by asking why the police were not dispersing the people gathering in parks, as they have the power to do within the existing rules. I have heard from several friends who have been questioned or criticised by police while walking far away from anyone else and behaving well within the guidelines. Stories of over-the-top and ineffective policing are starting to appear, and there will almost certainly be a lot more of them.
Sadly, there are police who seem keen to follow in the old policing tradition of throwing their weight around to no good purpose and beyond the limits set out by the law. Surely some police could use their power to disperse the gatherings that have been pictured in parts of the media?
Like the sort of old-fashioned teacher who he seems to be channelling, Matt Hancock fails to explain why he thinks that people who are breaking existing rules will adhere to stricter rules. People already breaking the rules would be likely also to break new rules.
The people who will lose out if all outdoor exercise is banned are not the sort of people who cheerfully gathered in London parks yesterday. The people who will suffer are those who are carefully following rules out of concern for others, and who will be prevented from taking safe and careful walks distant from anyone else. Some of them are people without gardens and without spacious homes; some are very lonely, others lack any chance for physical or emotional distance from the people they live with. Despite this, many have gladly observed the rules because they want to save other people’s lives.
Such selfless behaviour should be met with gratitude, not with new rules that prevent safe behaviour while contributing further to the epidemic of mental ill-health that is likely to follow on from the coronavirus pandemic.
But as Matt Hancock knows very well, every time newspapers or social media posts focus on individual behaviour, they are not focussing on the systemic problems that make this crisis even worse than it would otherwise be. Even the fairest and most well-prepared society would struggle to deal with Covid 19. But it could cope with it a lot better.
We are now being told to “Protect the NHS” by a party who have spent years underfunding it. We are relying on the dedication of carers, cleaners and drivers whose pay and job security are among the worst in the UK. We are trying to cope with measures that inevitably increase loneliness in a society in which loneliness and social isolation are already endemic. And while NHS staff struggle with insufficient protective equipment, the government maintains the seventh highest military budget in the world, spending billions on nuclear submarines that are pathetically powerless to make us any safer.
So let’s follow the guidelines. Let’s support our neighbours. Let’s save lives. Let’s exercise safely and carefully. And yes, let’s disperse groups of people gathering in parks or elsewhere. And let’s not allow the government to attack people who are behaving safely as way of diverting attention from their own failures and the failures of the systems that they uphold.