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Government to review lockdown plans but Dominic Cummings scandal could have ruined public trust

Boris Johnson and his cabinet will review the latest lockdown plans after a weekend clouded in controversy.

On Sunday, the Prime Minister announced non-essential shops will be able to reopen from June 15 which suggested further easing could follow. But after the news that one of his own advisors made a trip during lockdown, business forecaster Professor Richard Scase thinks it will be harder for people to follow suit...

Is this the beginning of the end of a planned government policy on a phasing out the lockdown? Its whole strategy for controlling the spread of this virus has been based on trust.

It has appealed to the public to accept its guidelines to ‘stay at home’ and then ‘to be alert’. This trust that has been so successful is now in tatters.

It beggared belief to watch Cummings sitting in the rose garden of Downing Street struggling to justify his actions for breaking the lockdown rules about travel and social isolation. These are rules that he, himself, helped to construct.

There can be no excuses. Families across the nation have suffered hardship, unable to visit very sick relatives, and even attend death beds, because of these rules.

At a stroke, all trust in the government’s guidelines has been eroded and as a result, any planned phasing out of the lockdown will turn into shambles.

People on the beach at The Leas, Minster, Sheppey - but keeping social distancing during the coronavirus lockdown
People on the beach at The Leas, Minster, Sheppey - but keeping social distancing during the coronavirus lockdown

Young people- those highly unlikely to catch the virus and who know of hardly any that have died of it- were always suspicious. These are the ones that are routinely breaking urban speed limits because the roads are now ‘nice and quiet’.

They may be an extreme minority, but will young people respect rules about ‘safe bubbles’ and a limit of ‘no more than ten’ for social gatherings in back gardens? Are birthday parties going to be abandoned for families and their kids?

Cummings’ behaviour has legitimated rule breaking and destroyed government appeals to stick to them. In the final analysis people will do what they want to do and there is very little the police or any other authority can do about it.

Think of an extreme example to illustrate the point. Suppose there are social gatherings of more than ten or even fifty people after June 1 or 15 because, with shops opening again, people regard everything is over and done with and back to normal.

If there is this public rejection of social distancing by people in large gatherings, what can the police do? First, how many police would be needed to make the arrests? Second, how would the criminal courts cope? Third, what sentences could be imposed, and if prison was an option, where are the prisons that are not already over-crowded? Prison or fines for x million people? Really?

Dominic Cummings as he leaves his home in North London
Dominic Cummings as he leaves his home in North London

It all comes back to the basic point that compliance to government laws, rules and recommendations rely almost entirely upon public compliance to be effective. This, in turn, is dependent upon people having trust in their governments and accepting the legitimacy of their actions because their laws and rules are seen to be for the common good.

But when one of the rule- makers breaks the rules- no matter how painful the personal circumstances- the whole edifice collapses. People on the street start saying ‘well what do you expect of politicians’ (even though he may not be one), ‘one law for them and one for the rest of us’, ‘you can never trust politicians', etc.

How, then, is phasing out of lockdown going to shape out? Older citizens will carry on complying and doing what are they being asked to do in social distancing. Because of the older demographics of this virus they will probably know of relatives, friends and acquaintances that have either caught it or even died from it.

But for younger people who are less likely to have had either a direct or indirect experience of the virus, there will be the rapid emergence of ‘under the radar’, ‘behind the scenes’ social gatherings and other informal hidden activities.

Social distancing, key to controlling the virus, will evaporate. Young men were never convinced of the threat in any case, they were often cynical but went along with it.By his actions, Cummings has given young people, the most frequent socialisers and for whom social distancing causes big problems in their personal lives, the green light. Any bets on a second wave?

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