Don't think the government restrictions are there to protect you

If you want to minimise your risk of exposure, you cannot simply look at what is allowed, because many things are allowed for reasons other than because they are safe enough

Before the mob comes after me, don’t worry - this isn’t an anti-lockdown, anti-vax, or any other sort of criticism of the UK or any other government’s approach to dealing with Covid-19. I have many rants about that, but there are plenty of those out there (including a few every month on my Twitter). I wanted to touch upon a more fundamental aspect of the blunt-instrument policy tools at play, and why they’re designed to optimise for group outcomes and not just safety from Covid-19 at that.

Many people look to what the government does and does not allow them to do as the best practice guidelines. In some cases, that’s out of a genuine appeal to authority (“they’re the experts” “they’ve studied the virus” and so on), and in others, it’s just an easy way to excuse some behaviours (“oh I’d love to meet but the lockdown” or “it’s legal, so yeah we’ll go to the pub tonight”). Broadly speaking, it makes sense - governments in the Western liberal tradition are meant to restrict freedom only when it’s absolutely necessary, and otherwise let individuals decide what’s best for them, since the individual is usually best-placed to make that judgement, and that judgement will differ from person to person.

A fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of a lot of behaviours around the restrictions present is conflating what is safest from the point of view of the individual with what is implemented at the policy-level. At the end of the day, government policy is not, and should not, be the sole source of guidance during this pandemic, but I’ve seen a lot of people who otherwise don’t think that way apply this standard when it comes to Covid safety.

Just to be clear: I am making a very narrow point about people who want to stay safe, and how they should not let themselves defer their calculus to the blunt instrument of Covid bans and restrictions. If you don’t want to, or don’t care, this probably isn’t for you.

My argument in brief

  1. Restrictions are a compromise between protecting lives and livelihoods
  2. Restrictions are a way to manage risk, not bringing it down to zero
  3. Restrictions are also designed so that they can be understood by the public, monitored, and enforced
  4. Therefore if you want to minimise your own risk, you cannot simply look at what is allowed, because many things are allowed for reasons other than because they are safe enough

Restrictions are a compromise between protecting lives and livelihoods

Remember how restaurants were allowed to stay open (once upon a time, anyway), but having friends over wasn’t allowed? And you’d think “but I’m seeing the same people, just not getting charged extra for the food I’m having - and really it’s safer since there aren’t others around”. If the sole objective of restrictions was keeping people safe from the virus, you’d be right (and, well, neither thing would be allowed).

At the end of the day, Covid-19 is one of many things that can hurt or kill people, and governments, rightly or wrongly, have been trying to balance things out. On the more reasonable end of the spectrum, we have kept hospitals and GP clinics open for non-Covid operations and allowed other essential sectors like grocery retail to remain open. On the more reckless daring side of things, governments tried to make up for spring’s economic devastation by inviting tourists, allowing pubs and restaurants to re-open, and in the case of the UK even subsidising eating out (let’s ignore the research that showed that this led to an increased spread of the virus by as much as 17%).

If the virus was the only source of harm in the world, we’d have shut down every business, school, and other ‘non-essential’ source of potential virus transmission. No supermarkets, no schools, no cancer or maternity ward. Even if you think that governments didn’t lock down as hard or as fast as they should have, a lockdown as total as that would have been crazy, and caused a lot more suffering than the Covid-related deaths it would have theoretically prevented.

Restrictions are a way to manage risk, not bringing it down to zero

You know how schools stayed open while offices were closed? And people were all like “why do they get a pass?".

You might be tempted to write it off as the same economic reason as restaurants opened (“people can’t work if they have to babysit all day too!"). However, I do think that most governments have realised the enormous costs school closures bring on children, especially those most disadvantaged. With that in mind, it is helpful to understand that schools remaining open is not a judgement on the risk of transmission, or at least not fully so. Would schools remain open if that were to severely endanger children? Probably not. But have they remained largely open, and one of the last things to close during the lockdowns? Yes.

Think back to the early ‘flatten the curve’ campaigns: They acknowledged that people would get Covid and that many transmissions were unavoidable, but stressed the importance of reducing them below the healthcare system’s critical capacity limits. Well, the decision behind keeping schools open (or gyms) was that those were important enough (to lives, to health, to the economy, and so on) that they were worth the risk, not that the risk wasn’t there. And from what I’ve gathered, the UK MHRA decision to prioritise giving people a single dose of the vaccine instead of the ideal two doses was for similar reasons.

To be clear: I am not defending whether those assessments were right or wrong (I think some were, others weren’t). What I’m stressing here is that in almost all cases, the decision process wasn’t “well this is safe, therefore we’ll allow it” as much as it was “this carries an acceptable level of risk given the benefit it provides”.

Restrictions are also designed so that they can be understood by the public, monitored, and enforced

Personally I find restrictions like curfews (rules saying you can’t be out of the house after a certain time, even if on a lone walk) kind of silly. The virus obviously doesn’t become more transmissible after 10 pm, so why can’t I meet my friend at the park, or a pub (outside), or even just go on a walk because I was working till late? (More than that, curfews mean that many activities just get squeezed into a smaller number of hours, e.g. some people who’d meet for drinks at 9 pm now have to be there at the same time as the 7 pm crowd, but whatever.)

While going on a lone walk at 11 pm is safe in itself, from the point of view of the police it is hard to tell if that walk is to the park or to your friend’s house. And given essential things like going to the supermarket or to work don’t happen at night (otherwise the curfew might be imposed during daytime too), having a plain-and-simple “if you’re out we will stop you, and we will fine you” rule makes it easier to enforce than a rule that can be skirted if you just tell the officer that you’re on a walk to the park (even if you’re on your way to a house party). Is that ideal, or fair? No. Does it maximise your individual health and safety? Not if you didn’t have time to go for a run earlier, and this was your only opportunity for the day. But it does (at least attempt to) maximise the overall enforceability of restrictions, which in turn are in place to minimise the rate of transmission of the virus.

Plus, let’s not forget that restrictions can be complicated and confusing, especially when they change as our understanding of the science evolves (remember when we didn’t think the virus was airborne, and thought hand sanitiser was the solution? heh). So you might look to rules like curfew or the UK’s “rule of six” and think “God, that’s dumb/unnuanced”, and it might be, but it might also be the easiest to remember and comprehend. I like to think I follow Covid and lockdown news closely, but I still couldn’t tell you everything someone can or cannot do under Tier 2 or Tier 3 (and barely know what’s new under Tier 4 other than ‘no more gyms’).

Concluding thoughts

The argument I’ve made today is not that you shouldn’t adhere to the restrictions, or that you can use the above reasoning as an excuse for not doing so. Rather, I just wanted to make sure that if you do want to minimise your own risk, either because you don’t want to get Covid, or pass it on to others (or both), that you need to think about what you are doing beyond just a simple “is this legal”. You may well end up doing the maximum of what’s allowed, which will depend on where you live and what stage of restriction there currently is when you read this, or you may end up staying at home except for essential trips and daily exercise even if bars and restaurants are fully open again. Either way, it will hopefully be more reflective of what you actually want to do, and the amount of risk you actually are okay with taking up.

So, next time you decide to increase your Covid risk by going to the supermarket, meeting others indoors, or taking public transport, I hope you do so because you are okay with that, and not because you’ve outsourced decisions to do with risk to the government.

PS: Here’s one of the most helpful articles I’ve come across that clearly explains some of our most recent understandings concerning Covid-19. The same author also wrote this piece more recently on how to reduce risks during Christmas, but the advice is valid even though we’re past NYE!

Nick Zervoudis
Nick Zervoudis
Data Product Manager

Data Product Manager