Unelectable opinions, no.2: the ineptness of rule sets for Coronavirus lockdown

Unelectable opinions, no.2: the ineptness of rule sets for Coronavirus lockdown

Last Wednesday, tennis players across England celebrated being given permission to return on court – for singles, that is. Tennis coaches celebrated getting their earnings back and ceasing to rely on the prospect of government handouts.

But why, you might ask, was singles tennis banned in the first place? It’s one of the most socially distanced sports one can imagine, with players spending the vast majority of the game over 20 metres apart. Compare that to someone jogging along a narrow track, breathing heavily without wearing a mask, which pretty much guarantees that anyone coming the other way is going to breathe in their potentially virus-laden droplets. Yet running was actively encouraged at a time when tennis and golf (another sport with built-in social distancing) were banned.

Of itself, tennis isn’t the biggest issue in the world. But it’s an example of a more significant problem: the UK government’s rules on lockdown – and, indeed, those of most other countries – have seemed full of inconsistencies, creating consequences that just seemed to fly in the face of common sense. Why limit going out of the house to an hour? Why was this supposedly  the same if you lived in the middle of a busy city as if you lived in an isolated farmhouse?

The underlying problem is this: rather than carefully lining up the rules with the principles of what we were trying to achieve, the government preferred to make simple, prescriptive rules about individual points of behaviour. And that was always going to create idiocies which would bring the rules into disrepute and prompt people to ignore them.

The rules that we actually want are these:

  1. Don’t breathe on anyone else. To help guide you: when breathing normally, your breath travels under a metre, when speaking, it’s more like 2m, when breathing heavily as a result of strenuous exercise, it can easily reach 4m. Wearing a face covering – pretty much any sort, it doesn’t have to be surgical – reduces this to under 1m with acceptable probability.
  2. Don’t put yourself in a position where other people can’t avoid coming into range of you breathing on them. Guideline: your breath hangs in the air for around 15 minutes, or somewhat longer in stagnant air indoors.
  3. If you touch anything that someone else may have breathed on within the last 24-48 hours (in practise, almost anything outdoors), don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth before you have washed your hands thoroughly.

    (By the way, if you’re living in the same household and you get infected, everyone else in the household probably will too. So exclude them from “anyone” in the above rules).

Consider what this means for going out and meeting people. If you want to go out and meet your friends, it’s fine: you can meet as many of them as you like as long as (a) you’re keeping a couple of metres apart at all times (less if you’re wearing masks) and (b) you’re not standing somewhere making it impossible for other people to get past you. Getting together in a circle with your friends in the middle of a field is just fine. And it really doesn’t matter how long you spend. Sunbathing in the middle of a park – for any length of time, as long as there’s space – is fine, sunbathing on a park bench next to a path is not, especially if you’re talking.

For the runners I’ve mentioned above, this would have various implications to stop them breathing heavily into confined spaces – which is profoundly antisocial at the moment. Firstly, if they can, they should avoid narrow spaces: pavements, alleys, pathways with walls or trees either side. If that’s impossible, at the very least, they should wear a mask and do their best to steer clear of people coming the other way. Local governments could help by marking out official one-way lanes for runners in local parks, much as our larger supermarkets have done for shoppers pushing trolleys.

I’m not going to overburden this post with more examples: suffice to say that I could write hundreds of words going through irrational inconsistencies even within my own small area of life. What I’m more interested is the principle: why did government officials think that it was a better idea to micro-manage individual activities rather than explain the problem to people and expect them to make good decisions?

I don’t know the answer to this, but I have my suspicion and I don’t like it. My best guess is that the rulemakers think the majority of people are too fundamentally stupid and/or irresponsible to take a simple set of principles and deduce how they should behave. It’s an incredibly patronising attitude, which fails to recognise that it cuts both ways: for everyone too stupid to understand a principle, there’s someone else who recognises a stupid rule when they see one and draws the conclusion that all rules are stupid and should therefore be ignored. It also fails to realise that the really irresponsible people are going to be as irresponsible on detailed rules as they are on the big picture.

Our tennis coaches are mainly self-employed and will have been filing their claims under the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme when it opened – at exactly the time that the rumblings over “how are we going to pay for all this debt” have started increasing. Those claims were completely unnecessary: a result of poorly targeted rulemaking. I’m sure there are thousands of other examples.

Dear Government, please start treating people with some respect and make the rules line up with what we’re all trying to achieve, to minimise the havoc caused by this epidemic. Otherwise, you waste everyone’s time and resources and bring yourselves into disrepute.


In my guidance to rule 1, I don’t know whether 1, 2 and 4 metres are the best numbers to use: better scientists than me equipped with the latest evidence might choose different thresholds.

I’m talking about guidance to the public here. Obviously, there are many types of environment where there’s a need for clear guidance specific to that environment – hospitals, schools, offices, building sites and many more.

This all assumes that we agree with the basic strategy of “we need lockdown in order to minimise transmission of the virus”. Not everyone does, but that’s another story which needs to be explored separately.

2 thoughts on “Unelectable opinions, no.2: the ineptness of rule sets for Coronavirus lockdown

  1. I watched New York City try the ‘reasonable’ approach and so many folk really could not understand the consequences of their behavior. The information was out there, but it was many weeks before it was fully understood that masks were not self defense, but to protect others (this included MIT alum friends of mine). Relaxed regulations were abused by some religious leader to still have congregations. At first basketball courts were deserted but soon enough nets and backboards had to be taken down. On the other hand, California, and particularly Northern California clamped down hard. Stiff rules across the board with penalties. Acquaintance of mine has been fined twice for abusing the rules. Just anecdotal, but it reminds me of childhood vaccinations. Attempts to have folk be reasonable just fall apart. This is just not straightforward to me.


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