Friday 14 January 2022

Making the rules proportionate


Yesterday, Jacob Rees-Mogg, in seeking to defend the actions of Boris Johnson and his government, came close to saying that what happened may have been against the rules, but the problem was that the rules were not proportionate to the situation. At least, that is how some seem to have interpreted his comments. It’s not out of character; this is, after all, the man who claimed that the reason so many died in Grenfell Tower is that they were too stupid to ignore the advice of the fire brigade. In his world, ‘sensible’ people like him and his boss should take take a view on which rules to obey and which to ignore, and should be allowed to do so with impunity.

It’s a pity that his innate sense of superiority and apparent attempt to justify rule-breaking retrospectively blur the fact that he may actually have a point. Not one which can be used to in any way excuse the past, but one which might be a lesson to learn for the future. Were the rules really proportionate or sufficiently targeted to the problem in hand? To take the specific example of the innumerable parties at Downing Street, it is surely legitimate, in terms of infection control, to ask just how much extra risk is created if people who are working closely together all day long indoors in poorly ventilated buildings then go out into the garden at the end of the day and enjoy a few drinks together in the sunshine. That added risk must be very small indeed, and I can well understand how it might have seemed that way to those involved. It doesn’t alter the fact that rules were broken, though, and that those rules gave them no right to make their own assessment of the risk of breaking them.

If that’s the point which Jake was attempting to make, then it’s a reasonable one, even if he failed to make it in quite such terms. If they’d wanted to, the government could have made all manner of exceptions to the rules which would have covered that sort of situation, but they chose not to for, I suspect, two very simple reasons. Firstly, at the time they were making the rules, they had already dithered for too long and were trying to claw back some of the time that they’d wasted – stopping to work out the fine print would have compounded the disaster they were overseeing. And secondly, keeping the rules as clear, and as black and white, as possible was by far the best way of ensuring widespread adherence. The objective was to stop people mixing beyond what was strictly necessary, and allowing people to use their judgement to decide how much extra risk was involved in activity A or activity B would have led overall to much wider mixing and faster spread – and also have made the job of enforcement many times more difficult.

It’s easy to look back and say that such-and-such an activity caused no problems, and should therefore be ignored, the argument which Rees-Mogg comes close to making. It’s like arguing that driving above the speed limit or crashing a red light on a particular occasion caused no accidents and can therefore be ignored. In this case, the simple fact is that the government made the rules and then ignored them, despite encouraging the police to enforce them for other people. No amount of retrospective analysis of the harm done (or not done) can change the fact that other people were prosecuted and fined for lesser breaches of the rules.

The point which Jake makes about how strict the rules should be is one which governments may well wish to consider carefully in responding to future circumstances, although they will always still be faced with the argument about ‘keeping it simple’ which many might think trumps any attempt at finessing the rules. But trying to use that point to justify, in any way, what has already been done is foolish to say the least. It looks like what it is – just another attempt to justify following a different set of rules.

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