This weekend it was announced that the Health Secretary Sajid Javid had contracted COVID-19. As he had been in a recent meeting with the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, it was assumed that they would need to self-isolate in line with the COVID rules. Well, on Sunday morning it was announced that they would not be self-isolating but would be carrying out limited, essential duties as part of a trial currently under way whereby those involved could take a daily Lateral Flow Test instead.
The immediate response from many was that this looked like another example of “One rule for them, one rule for the rest of us.” Many people are currently having to self-isolate because they have been pinged by the NHS COVID App. This is creating a lot of pressure on the NHS and on other industries and created huge disruption in schools.
The point is that if No 10 has been part of the trial along with other Government departments and businesses then, there isn’t one rule for them and one rule for us. Further, I wonder if we would really begrudge there being differences in particular contexts. I think there is a massive difference between a Government official or minister thinking they were exempt from restrictions on for example taking a drive out to see a castle or seeing their mistress and the need to keep Government running smoothly.
So, what really matters here is truthfulness, transparency and accountability. There is a trial which has been running since May and you can read about it here and here The problem is that we are not told who is participating in it. The suspicion, I suspect is that this has become a convenient excuse to use. Well, there’s a way of finding out. It should be possible under Freedom Of Information to ask for the details of which organisations have been part of the trial, the original decision documents and confirmation of how many No 10 staff have participated in the trial so far. If there’s no record of Downing Street being included in the trial from the start and if only 2 people from there (Rishi and Boris) have been exempted from self-isolation then we may conclude that we are not being told the whole truth.
So our first point is that what should matter is truth and transparency. Government ministers should not be exempt from this. Sadly we have got so used to a culture where we don’t expect politicians to tell the truth and we are now reaping the consequences of this.
But if I may say so, one of my concerns throughout COVID has been that we’ve seen the “one rule for them, another rule for me” culture encouraged. We see it with politicians but I think we see it flowing through society and that’s where it is important for us to test and check our own heart motives. Is our concern that the Prime Minister should tell the truth and be expected to conform to rules for the benefit of all or is our temptation to resent them because they get away with things.
The sad truth is that the lie that I can be exempt from certain rules and requirements is a temptation we all can be prone to. It’s not that we think it is wrong for some people to be exempt its that we think that the wrong people are exempt. So if I’m honest then the temptation is for me to think that I shouldn’t need to be restricted by rules about face masks or numbers of people in my a garden because unlike other people, I’m capable of using my discretion sensibly. I shouldn’t be forced to quarantine coming from France because I need that holiday because of all that I’ve been through and again, I trust myself to act responsibly.
And we see it in a lot of areas of life. Think of the abuse scandals we’ve seen in recent years and the high-profile leaders who have fallen into sexual sin. Often, these leaders acted in ways that they would have strongly advised others against. They thought they did not need to be subject to the same restrictions.
And therein is the challenge for you and me. Are there areas in our lives where we are believing the lie that we are exempt? That’s where the danger lies.
 Even as I was writing this article, there was a U-Turn and it has been announced that the PM and chancellor will self-isolate in response to a backlash. However the points raised in this article remain pertinent. Indeed, it raises further questions about whether these decisions should be made on the basis of media and public reaction or whether we would do better to live in a society where there were better motivations for ethical choices than “can we get away with it in the court of public opinion?” My personal view is that the backlash forced U-Turn is probably worse than the original decision here.