The British government’s approach to the Coronavirus pandemic is an uncomfortable accommodation between instincts – to nudge or to push. Remember the argument for an in-house app? A highly centralised system, it was said, would facilitate enhanced test and trace setup – the spread of the disease could be monitored in real time. A decentralised app would operate on a peer-to-peer level, notifying an individual if they had come into contact with the disease.
The two visions are fundamentally different: the latter, a useful compliment to largely informal social distancing; the former, a vital wellspring of information for policymakers, allowing them to make better informed decisions about public control measures.
The app is still said to be in development.
The government’s vision for its testing regime is similarly hamstrung. At the end of July, the NHS launched its “Let’s get back” campaign. It was accompanied by a promotional video in which a doctor told us, cut through with jolly stock images of sports games: “So let’s get tested and get back to the things we love.” If you have symptoms “no matter how mild” you were encouraged to get a test. The subliminal messaging was quite clear – a return to normality is predicated on mass testing. It’s there to serve the public and to work alongside a return to normality and individual decision-making.
But this view of testing has proved rather at odds with the government’s “whack-a-mole” strategy – over the last month, increases in case numbers, a crude measure, have been used to justify pretty dramatic public health interventions, such as a local lockdown in Leicester, for example. A more generalised rise in cases across the country has today led to a strengthening of guidance on social life into law, enforceable by the police.
It comes back to “nudge or push”. The French example shows that overinvestment in “push” is unsustainable. What seems to have happened is that the population have used the easing of lockdown to bumptiously get back to normal. From anecdotal evidence, all that appears to have changed in the Gallic public’s behaviour is widespread mask wearing; social distancing is non-existent. There is a simple explanation that is nothing to do with the French national character: they had a very tough lockdown, which changed behaviour overnight by force. No nudge, just push.
Another consideration is that France had a different experience in its first wave of the coronavirus to Britain, including a lower number of deaths. It managed to contain the burden of infections within Paris and the Île-de-France. A less regionalised and geographically-large country, England, had no such luxury and was hit hard in multiple areas.
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France is a cautionary tale which tells us, as some would have it, that we should have been far more decisive at earlier stages in the pandemic. But it also warns us that our government should be more limited in its aspirations. Less of this grandstanding “Moonshot” stuff, please. People should be encouraged to get tests if available and they should act accordingly if they become ill. Case numbers, unless in exceptional circumstances (i.e. waves of hospitalisations), should not be used as a blanket justification for aggressive control measures.
“Nudge” is a far more humane guide for policy-making and it is the only humane way to manage this in the long term.