Commentary: Counting on personal responsibility of others to keep COVID-19 at bay can be tricky

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LONDON: We must learn to live with the virus. We must take personal responsibility. Freed from the shackles of the law and the sanctions of four-figure fines, the government is setting England free once more to laugh in the face of COVID-19 and hope that it doesn’t laugh back in ours.

I suspect the government is roughly right in its thinking. Sooner or later we have to reclaim normality and what better time than when the number of daily cases is doubling in a fortnight?

I mean, if we waited until they were lower again it wouldn’t be sporting, would it? And in fairness to the prime minister, we can hardly learn to live with the virus if there’s not much of it about.

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CONFUSING WHAT LIVING WITH THE VIRUS MEANS

But even though I broadly agree with the reopening (I really can’t see the argument for nightclubs but, then again, I never could), the new slogans are already beginning to grate. “Hands, face, space” may have been tiresome but it was at least informative.

What are we to make though of “Learn to live with it”, which, as a piece of advice, boils down to little more than “Stop whining”. Actually, it looks like the message is: “With the most vulnerable jabbed, we are going for herd immunity. Learn to live with it.”

Except the first part was mysteriously left off official communications. The attitude underpinning “Learn to live with it” is essentially “S*** happens”, a brave position since when it happens to the electorate, it tends to happen to the government too.

Britain Wimbledon Tennis

People sit and watch tennis reruns on a screen outdoors at Henman Hill after rain delayed play on day eight of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Already, trains and shops are sprinkled with people whose idea of personal responsibility is to wear a face mask but not over their nose.

Even if the argument is valid, the advice is not entirely helpful. It is not, for example, a line I would feel any confidence advocating in regard to housework.

As the plates pile up in the sink, I’m not sure I would do well telling my wife that we have to learn to live with dirty crockery.

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TAKING BACK PERSONAL RESPONSBILITY

We do not generally “learn to live” with burglary. Although, on reflection, that does often seem to be the UK police’s approach.

Nor is home secretary Priti Patel learning to live with illegal immigration or offering people-smugglers the patently sensible advice to show some personal responsibility.

This is where the other asinine slogan comes in. It may indeed be time for us to take back personal responsibility and, for most of this crisis, the true story has been of people in the UK trying to follow the rules — those people outside government, anyway.

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People sit in an outdoor dining area in Covent Garden, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outb

People sit in an outdoor dining area in Covent Garden, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, in London, Britain, June 15, 2021. (File photo: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls)

But in my experience, those who need to be told this are the ones least likely to exercise it. Already, trains and shops are sprinkled with people whose idea of personal responsibility is to wear a face mask but not over their nose.

And how ready do I feel to count on the personal responsibility practised by the kind of self-regarding heroes who brag about refusing the vaccine and think their refusal to don a mask places them on a par with Soviet dissidents or the French resistance?

In many cases, personal judgment is entirely appropriate. I do not have to go into a crowded pub if it bothers me (though the staff have no option).

I can be as careful as I feel I need to be in social interactions. But many have no choice about using the Tube, and there seems no good reason for removing the mask requirement on public transport.

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PERSONAL RESPONSIBILTIY FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD

The problem here is that the responsibility we are asked to take is not for our own person but for someone else. Those who remain fearful are having to rely on those who do not.

So even if you think, as I do, that the government is not wrong to remove most restrictions, it might be a nice example of the responsibility it espouses to accommodate a few lingering rules in those areas where people are dependent on the consideration of others.

Yes, it is an imposition, but the existence of government itself is a recognition that unchecked personal responsibility is rarely enough for good order.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of constructive criticism, I’d like to offer an alternative slogan for the new era of personal responsibility: “COVID-19’s still with us. Don’t be a git.”

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