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Paul Vallely: Personal responsibility, or choice?

09 July 2021

Government guidance on masks is not clear, says Paul Vallely

Ian Davidson/Alamy Live News

Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for Prime Ministers’ Questions, on Wednesday

Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for Prime Ministers’ Questions, on Wednesday

THE Prime Minister is clearly very pleased with his latest soundbite. At his press conference on Monday, he announced that he wanted “government diktat” to be replaced by “personal responsibility”, as part of his “bonfire of Covid regulations”. Boris Johnson was so pleased with his new slogan that he repeated it several times.

You can see why. Personal responsibility has been a key part of conservative and libertarian philosophy, to which he professes to adhere, since the 19th century and before. It’s an admirable concept, which holds that individuals should be masters of their own destiny, and morally accountable and legally liable for their actions.

But these are weasel words — and not simply because he and his Cabinet chums have shown themselves poor role-models when it comes to taking personal responsibility. The Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, gave the game away when he said that wearing a mask would henceforth be a matter of “personal choice”. Personal responsibility is not the same thing as personal choice.

What is a mask for? The government website, England’s chief scientific adviser, and the Chief Medical Officer have all declared that “face coverings are largely intended to protect others, not the wearer”. It is, therefore, integral to the notion of personal responsibility that we should consider the impact of our behaviour on others. Personal choice, in contrast, merely validates the selfish behaviour of mindless Covidiots.

Personal responsibility requires an informed conscience. When Mr Jenrick says, “I don’t particularly want to wear a mask,” he is expressing a personal preference rather than a moral responsibility. Freedom day then becomes a mere free-for-all day.

An informed conscience must take into account that Delta-variant cases have gone up 74 per cent just this week. It is true that the link between cases and deaths has been attenuated by the successful vaccine programme. But only 64 per cent of the population is fully immunised. Hospital admissions are rising. That is why the BMA, numerous scientists, transport unions, and big-city mayors have declared that demasking in crowded public spaces is premature.

Striking a balance between the collective and the individual good has been a judgement at the heart of handling the pandemic. Mr Johnson insists that a tipping point has been reached. He is taking an enormous gamble. As the pandemic enters a third wave, that tipping point will not be reached, with certainty, until a greater majority of the adult population has had two doses of the vaccine. Now may well be the time to loosen some restrictions — but it is not the time to abandon them entirely to pander to the cupidity of sections of the population.

Despite his earlier sloganeering, the Prime Minister has abandoned data in favour of dates. Israel offers a cautionary tale here. Last month, just days after it eased restrictions, it was forced to reintroduce a requirement to wear masks indoors amid a rocketing of Delta-variant cases. Perhaps, like Pilate, Mr Johnson believes that he can wash his hands of responsibility, so that he can blame a fourth-wave lockdown on the public. History may offer a damning verdict if more people die unnecessarily in the process.

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