Don’t just blame the public over social distancing. Look to the government | Frances Ryan | Opinion

Backed into a corner, Boris Johnson has announced an unprecedented lockdown on Britain’s public life. The solemn tone of last night’s address carried the heavy weight of reluctance. For days, the government’s messaging has been that the public were failing to practice social distancing of their own accord, with sources saying there was “total fury” across Westminster over people flouting orders and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, accusing those still gathering of being “very selfish”.

You don’t have to be too cynical to feel that this language sounds a lot like the government preparing to play its get out of jail card, whereby it offers vague and unenforceable “advice”, points disapprovingly to those ignoring it, and is then free to shift blame for the inevitable rise in coronavirus cases on to the public.

From the beginning, the government’s communications strategy has bordered on lethal complacency. It told the public its plan was “herd immunity”, which required many to catch the virus, only to backtrack as if it had never said it. Johnson only closed pubs and restaurants at the weekend, having previously offered social distancing guidance that never cut through. Until Tuesday’s address, ministers have used paywalled articles and a 5pm briefing to get information across, rather than the blanket national TV ads and billboards you would expect. It has even emerged that the government can’t send advice on coronavirus directly to Britons’ mobile phones because it repeatedly ignored its own findings that an emergency messaging system could help in times of crisis. Instead, it had to rely on mobile network operators.

The result has been all too predictable. People in the UK have flocked to seaside towns and beauty spots in recent days as many families appeared to view schools closing as an opportunity for an early Easter holiday. Parks were filled with groups of friends obliviously meeting up in the sunshine. New data confirms the UK has been lagging behind other countries in measures such as cutting down our restaurant visits and working at home.

The social distancing shambles has led to some uncomfortable “punching down”, such as high-profile online accounts mocking people for queuing at supermarkets. But a focus on blaming the public risks letting the government – the party with power, resources and reach – off the hook. There is a middle ground, however. It is possible to think adults have a personal responsibility to consider their high-risk neighbours while believing the government has heavily influenced their failure to do so by poor communication and slow action.

The theme of personal responsibility often becomes toxic when used politically – whether it’s claiming that “the poor wouldn’t need food banks if only they budgeted properly”, or “the long-term sick would get off benefits if they had enough motivation”. But you don’t have to be a libertarian to understand that individual behaviour is key in a pandemic, or to believe that we have a duty to think of each other. While political structures strongly determine our choices, free will still means we hold some responsibility for them.

To put it another way: leisure venues being open for so long in the UK was a psychological nudge that gave many people “permission” to still use them – but it was still up to each of us if we chose a fun outing with mates over listening to calls to protect someone else’s life. An 18-year-old with underlying health problems died this weekend. I wonder how many nights out at the pub they’ll miss out on.

Public behaviour in the light of Johnson’s hands-off approach could be compared to smoking, in that smokers were well aware of the risk of cancer but it took legislative action to discourage many of them. But it’s actually more like passive smoking: continuing to socialise in the face of coronavirus, and the state refusing to strongly step in, didn’t just endanger individuals themselves, but other people at higher risk. Perhaps instead of photos of damaged lungs on fag packets, the government should be running ads of grandmas in ICU gasping for air. If this is hard to hear, it should be. People are dying. People are trapped inside their homes afraid. Others have enjoyed a day trip to the beach.

For years, Britain’s political culture has stoked a dog-eat-dog individualism, just as it has cast doubt on experts. We should not be shocked that those particular chickens are now coming home to roost. The government is finally introducing the state-led intervention this pandemic requires. But in the coming weeks values, as well as the law, are going to be what helps us get through this. A recognition that we are all more interconnected than appeared to be case. That individual want doesn’t trump community need. That disabled and older people’s lives are worth protecting. Some things should not need legislation.

Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist and author of Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People

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