Rather than step outside their comfort zone, ministers are engaging in fantasies about a one-size-fits-all strategy
The effective enforcement of law – any law – requires the passive consent of the majority of people to function. If you think about your nearest supermarket: if everyone in the shop decided to simply take what they wanted without paying, it would be well beyond the ability of the supermarket’s staff and security, and indeed of local law enforcement, to prevent the shelves from being picked clean.
Even if you have massive surveillance and armed repression of the population, your ability to enforce any law is confined by the willingness of the majority of the country to go along with it.
In the United Kingdom, that reality is made even clearer thanks to lockdowns.
When, in England, the Government banned households from meeting in indoor settings, the rule could not be enforced, because how can a restaurant prove that two people are not in a support bubble with one another, or six people do not live together in a house of multiple occupation? The answer is they can’t. As a result, the ban was never particularly strongly enforced.
On this basis, the coming of Christmas is a particular challenge for the British Government. Even if the Government forbids you from travelling back to see your family, they rightly and sensibly haven’t prevented people from moving house or travelling for work or urgent reasons.
If you decide to travel down to see your parents, and tell every passing policeman or other agent of the law that it is because you have broken up with your partner and are moving in with them for a bit, what’s to say you are telling fibs? The mere act of getting back with your partner at the end of the holiday proves nothing: couples fall out over the holiday period and reconcile when faced with a long, cold January alone all the time.
We can see this effect throughout the world. Every advanced economy has dealt with the novel coronavirus in a similar way: with restrictions on movement and limits placed on social contacts to stop the spread of the disease. Some have had more generous upper limits on meetings or belatedly come around to lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. Some have, through centrally enforced quarantines, managed their lockdowns through limiting the freedom of much smaller numbers of people. But they have locked down nonetheless, and many of those countries have already observed some of their major holidays.
Time and time again, people have pushed against the limits of the rules to see family and friends. Yet cabinet ministers act and brief the press as if it is in the gift of Government what exactly happens at Christmas this year, when of course it is not.