Saturday, 23 January 2021

Dogma kills


Despite various suggestions floated or leaked to the media, the UK Government is strongly resisting any further tightening of restrictions in order to fight the pandemic, clinging instead to the early signs of a slight reduction in infections and the hope that vaccinations will start to make a difference before too long. Instead, they say, they are concentrating on ‘enforcing’ the existing set of restrictions. The problem is that they seem to have a very narrow view of what ‘enforcement’ means.

There is no doubt that failure to comply with the rules which have been set is a major problem in fighting the virus; non-compliance gives the virus the opportunity to infect and ultimately kill more people. There is also no doubt that the more flagrant breaches of the rules which get reported – house parties and the like – annoy many of those who are doing their best to follow the rules. But an approach to ‘enforcement’ which concentrates on identifying and punishing those who engage in such activities largely misses the point. Punishment as a deterrent is an article of faith to Tories, despite limited evidence that it works. It depends on an assumption that people carefully weigh up both the chances of getting caught and the likely penalty before engaging in the activity, an assumption which is highly dubious. More importantly in this context, punishing people after the event doesn’t prevent the potential damage done by the events, which is what the real objective should be. Worse still, those flagrant breaches which they are targeting are not the biggest problem.

We have known for months that most of those who should be self-isolating are not fully doing so, and there is recent evidence that some people with symptoms are not even getting tests for fear that they will be positive and thus lead to a requirement to self-isolate. This means that there are thousands of individuals quietly wandering around spreading the virus in ways which are much less obvious – and more harmful – than the tiny minority who organise house parties. They’re also harder to identify, and a policy based on fining transgressors will not improve compliance amongst this group. The reasons for their non-compliance have also been well-known for many months. People who don’t qualify for the various government schemes, people who could lose income, or even their jobs, by not working – these are the ones probably doing most to spread the virus. Identifying and fining people who are already on the financial margins just makes things worse, in terms of both the financial impact on the individuals who are caught and encouraging others to do more to conceal their infection. It doesn’t have to be this way; the government could, right from the outset, have done more to help people to self-isolate by providing a proper support package. It’s not too late, even now, to put policies in place to make self-isolation easier, but another article of faith for Tories is that governments should avoid giving poor people money. It’s a rule which doesn’t apply to their millionaire backers and supporters of course, but it most definitely does apply to the most financially vulnerable.

Articles of faith, or dogma as they are otherwise known, are the last thing we need in current circumstances, but are the first tools out of the box for the current UK government. The current appalling death toll was neither inevitable nor accidental; it’s a direct result of Tory dogma.

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