Letting the mask slip: What’s really behind the Tories’ unlocking plans

We’re back to the era of sink or swim. In a pandemic, it heralds chaos, writes Maheen Behrana.

Maheen Behrana is a writer and Editor-in-Chief at at BBench.co.uk

It’s finally happening. The end of Covid restrictions is less than a week away.

This should be a time for jubilation, but for many, the joy that might have accompanied such an announcement has been dampened because of the exponential rise in Covid cases.

Our government is not in denial about this rise, but is adopting an ‘if not now, when?’ attitude when it comes to the ending of restrictions. For Boris Johnson, all future efforts taken to mitigate the rise in cases will be a question of ‘personal responsibility’. From masking to maintaining one’s distance, none of these things will be mandated any more. Those who stick to these rules and behaviours will be making a personal choice.

Writing in the Guardian, Stephen Reicher quite rightly points out that none of the behaviours we have adopted to mitigate the spread of this virus are a question of individual action – they only work when we act as a collective. Face masks, which have been shown to reduce transmission of Covid-19, are only effective when most people comply with the directive to wear them. The same goes for social distancing, and self isolation: we can only protect ourselves by choosing to protect others. In other words, leaving it up to ‘personal responsibility’ harms us all.

But this is precisely where the problem lies. The longer the Tories promote collective action as a means of combatting the spread of this deadly virus, the further they stray from their Johnson’s brand and belief that ‘every man is an island’. With Boris Johnson’s innovation of ‘personal responsibility’, he has signalled that the Tory party is finally reverting to form. In a pandemic – when people are looking for clear health guidance – the result is chaos. Businesses themselves are looking for clarity – and failing to get it. Britain’s shops had still not received government guidance on the mask advice, with five days to go before unlocking.

Mostly up to now, the pandemic response has been epitomised by unprecedented collective action and state support. While the Tories’ manufactured culture wars and crony contracts are a continued indicator of the party’s distinct character, no longer can Labour attack the party for its failure to spend on the public. The Conservatives have spent the past year and a half encouraging the UK’s population to be considerate of each other, and to make sacrifices for the common good. In any previous era, such actions would have been perceived as distinctly un-Conservative.

This is perhaps what rankles the wider Conservative parliamentary party. Many members have stridently objected to mask wearing – from MP Desmond Swayne who refused to wear one in September last year during a meeting with a constituent to Miriam Cates, who claims she will stop wearing her mask after 19 July because ‘freedom is very important’. Masks and other lockdown curbs are always criticised in the name of freedom and sometimes even human rights. But the objections of these Tory MPs go beyond that. They reflect a wish for the individual to be privileged over collective safety.

It’s not just lockdown precautions that the party typically prefers to see as a matter of personal responsibility or choice. Who can forget David Cameron’s insistence that ‘social problems are often the consequences of the choices people make’? Or MP Kevin Hollinrake, who just last year opposed the continuation of free school meals throughout the holidays, claiming that it was a ‘parent’s job to feed their children’ – almost as if such a belief justifies children going hungry.

‘Personal responsibility’ is the Tories’ comfort zone; collective action is anathema to them. This is why the quick shedding of all restrictions should come as no surprise, especially with an Ayn Rand-loving health secretary at the helm – and why Labour-run TfL has wisely chosen to reject the government’s laissez-faire approach.

As we revert to an era of ‘personal responsibility’, one in which something even as simple as wearing a face mask is deemed an imposition on individual freedom, we revert to an era of exclusion. Collective action is something we take not just for ourselves but for others. But when that stops, when we stop wearing masks and keeping our distance, those who feel uncomfortable or are at risk will find themselves excluded. The most marginalised will find that they are deliberately shut out from the everyday goings on of society, because society will fail to take even the tiniest of actions to include them. This warped conception of individual freedom is one that doesn’t extend to the marginalised and vulnerable, who are instead further cut off from the rest of society.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be – this is exactly how the Tories like it.

As you’re here, we have something to ask you. What we do here to deliver real news is more important than ever. But there’s a problem: we need readers like you to chip in to help us survive. We deliver progressive, independent media, that challenges the right’s hateful rhetoric. Together we can find the stories that get lost.

We’re not bankrolled by billionaire donors, but rely on readers chipping in whatever they can afford to protect our independence. What we do isn’t free, and we run on a shoestring. Can you help by chipping in as little as £1 a week to help us survive? Whatever you can donate, we’re so grateful - and we will ensure your money goes as far as possible to deliver hard-hitting news.

Comments are closed.