Government must trust the people – while clamping down on the covidiots

It's not as busy as it was pre-lockdown, but Ipswich is doing better than larger cities - especially

It's not as busy as it was pre-lockdown, but Ipswich is doing better than larger cities - especially London. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

This is a column that has changed radically in my head from when I first thought: “What should I write about this week?” on Sunday afternoon.

That change has come because of the rapid change in the covid-19 situation both locally and nationally – and it has prompted me, and I suspect millions like me, to review my current situation.

While I’ve seen the number of infections creep up over the last few weeks, I’ve managed to convince myself these new cases are in places far away from here and that something not too far removed from the pre-covid normality was settling down.

I haven’t been to pubs or restaurants, but I have had an occasional coffee with a friend in Costa and I have made my first train trip for several months. I’ve been to museums and I had an enjoyable Bank Holiday Monday riding the steam trains at Bressingham.

I’ve always tried hard to observe social distancing rules and I don’t think twice about going into shops so long as I’m wearing a mask and do my best to keep out of the way of other shoppers.

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Last week there was a major step for me. I returned to work in the office for two days for the first time since March. It seemed familiar but yet slightly odd – less than half the desks were occupied and I had become very conscious of the fact that I was spending a lot of time in an air-conditioned building.

This week, as the figures leapt up, I took the decision (thankfully backed by my boss) that as I had worked effectively from home for the last six months I could resume full-time homeworking again. That’s a decision that’s right for me, a 60+ senior writer, but I fully appreciate that my younger colleagues will be happier working in the communal space of an office.

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And that’s the dilemma we’re now seeing in both public and private-sector work places – but it’s a dilemma that I’m becoming increasingly optimistic that Ipswich and other Suffolk towns might in time become reasonably well-placed to exploit.

We know some town centre businesses are desperate to get office workers back. Some – but not all – are returning and more will come back in time. Rising case numbers at present may slow or even reverse that in the short term, but there will be more people working in the heart of our towns in the long-term.

As I’ve said before, many of us may never return to the office full-time, but I remain convinced that businesses in towns like Ipswich can adapt and can attract more locally-based people who are not travelling long distances to work.

MORE: Town centres are changing for ever – and we need to accept that

A telling fact I picked up this week was that while passenger numbers were gradually increasing on Greater Anglia, one sector of the market that was not going up significantly was commuting to London.

If you think Ipswich town centre is quiet now, look at the weekday pictures that are now circulating showing the City of London or Westminster! They are still really looking like ghost towns.

The government’s determination to get its civil servants back to their offices will be seen as vital by the businesses that rely on them – but what are the chances of officials who have been safely working from home returning to the long commute just as infection rates rise exponentially?

The current rise in cases has been largely blamed on young people (who tend to get a milder form of covid-19 than us oldies) not observing self-distancing rules in pubs or each others’ homes. That appears true – and the antics of some Premier League footballers while away with England or on holiday where they have been pictured clearly not observing social distancing rules – bear that out.

But it must also be said that most of the young people I know are as scrupulous, or even more so, than we are about keeping to the rules – and are very wary about putting themselves at risk.

Yesterday there was confusion about whether the government was planning a 10pm curfew to deal with the current crisis as officials were touting the idea in the morning – but then the PM seemed unwilling to commit to it in the afternoon press conference.

In my view it would allow people to go out to the pub sensibly – and wouldn’t affect the majority of drinkers who don’t stay out late at night.

But it would prevent the, mainly younger, covidiots from getting too drunk to care in the early hours when problems can arise. Publicans would just have to try to avoid the 10.30 scrum that many of us can remember when “Last Orders” were called!

As the number of infections rise, the government does need to take action and to inform the public of the dangers. But it also needs to trust people to do what they feel is best for themselves to some extent.

There are dangers of young people spreading what is, for them, a mild illness to their parents and grandparents who might be affected much worse – but many young people have left home and don’t interact with their parents and grandparents that often. Is it right to condemn them to a life of isolation?

On the other hand, is it right for the government to tell people who are worried about the risk of getting the illness at work – and who can work well at home – that they should go back to their normal workplace?

The government is right to tell people what its experts believe is the safe way to behave. And it has to introduce penalties for those who blatantly ignore basic safety.

But ultimately it has to trust the majority of the people to make the right decisions about how to lead their lives – while accepting that there will be some total Covidiots out there (and that some of them may be highly-paid, high profile, figures that the rest of us can just shake our heads in disbelief at!).

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