By Jenni Russell in THE TIMES, 26 June 2020
Risk preoccupies us all. Set free, told by the prime minister that hibernation is over, what daily choices should we make between safety and the chance of debility or death? Lockdown was the simple stage. It offered maximum security. Now the continuous assessments of the risks we’re running start, though no one I know can keep track of exactly what the government thinks we’re allowed to do, with whom, and when.
Are the new freedoms too much too soon? Should we have remained under a tighter, clearer official rein? The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, wasn’t signing up to be responsible for the consequences. His reservations were clear. The relaxations might work out. They might prove an error. They’re undoubtedly a gamble, and one that the politicians rather than the scientists are choosing to back.
Underlying this dilemma is a more general question: how safe should our lives be? In the past 50 years our expectations of protection have soared. The chaotic norms of my childhood have vanished. My mother rode motorcycles without a helmet, we five children lolled loose in cars without seatbelts, at university we made toast on gas fires in our rooms and cooked stews on the open gas rings beside them. Eleven-year-olds drove tractors to bring in the harvest. Thirteen-year-olds went on unsupervised cycling or walking holidays on their own, adventures that could have their parents in court charged with neglect today.
The social acceptability of risk has dwindled rapidly. Laws brought in to save lives have done so. In the 50 years since the first limits on drinking and driving were imposed, road deaths in Britain have tumbled by more than three quarters. Deaths from fire have fallen by two thirds since the mid-1980s.
Increasingly we believe that threats can and should be minimised or eliminated. Yet in the pursuit of security, it’s worth asking whether we are prioritising the length of our lives above the experiences that make it worthwhile.
The political philosopher Matthew Crawford is one of those who believes that western societies are being blighted by what he terms safetyism, the elevation of safety above all else. He argues that when the state cocoons its citizens from dangers, people lose the elemental pleasure, autonomy, mastery and sense of discovery that comes from taking their own decisions and risks.
In his new book, Why We Drive, Crawford rhapsodises about old-fashioned cars like the Ford Thunderbird and laments the rise of bland autonomous vehicles. “The most authoritative voices in commerce and technology,” he writes, “express a determination to eliminate contingency from life as much as possible, and replace it with machine-generated certainty.” Indeed, in some cases, he argues, car safety features have exactly the opposite effect: by lulling motorists into a false sense of security, they can make accidents more likely, not less.
He makes the case for a broader view of the purpose of life than simply the defence of it. He argues that safetyism has “displaced other moral sensibilities that might offer some resistance” and that “there appears to be a feedback loop wherein the safer we become, the more intolerable any remaining risk appears”.
I am with Crawford in thinking our culture underrates the downsides of security, and the inevitability and necessity of risk. I am for fire safety and seat belts but also for accepting that challenge and danger are an inescapable part of a full life.
The coronavirus is forcing us to recognise the impossibility of ensuring safety. We cannot remain invulnerable, sequestered, or everything else we value — jobs, the joy of being with others, exploration, discovery, live sport and performance — will collapse.
Most people now accept this and support opening up. We understand risks must be taken and accept that, as Boris Johnson announced this week, the government will no longer police our behaviour, and that we must also take responsibility for containing viral spread.
If we’re required to be our own risk takers, it’s vital we have all the information we need. Only then can we reasonably calculate whether to wear masks, see friends, visit a restaurant, go out to work. The government’s app, once a “crucial” part of leaving lockdown, has failed. The other line of defence, the national track-and-trace system, is still not up to the job.
The government’s scientific advisers warn that to be effective, track and trace must be reaching, testing and isolating at least 80 per cent of the contacts of all those diagnosed. It isn’t. More than a quarter of all Covid cases aren’t being reached at all. Some of those contacted are refusing to self-isolate. Test results need to come within 24 hours, and contacts must be reached within 48; instead they can take days.
These problems aren’t unique to Britain — other countries are struggling to make their track and trace systems work and persuade their citizens to download apps.
But there’s a danger that a second Covid wave here could be blamed on how we exercise our personal responsibility, despite the fact we don’t have enough information to guide us.
Instead of Johnson’s cheerleading this week we needed a commitment to recognise past errors and to step up. Britain is ready to take risks. We must ensure that government’s failings don’t force us to take needless ones.