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Don’t nudge us, Prime Minister, tell us!

The prime minister’s latest conference on the Coronavirus was a masterclass in nudging, rather than telling

March 16, 2020 - 6:26pm

The Prime Minister’s latest conference on the Coronavirus was a masterclass in nudging, rather than telling. It gave the impression of a government so keen to avoid appearing didactic or authoritarian, that it ended up being less than clear.

You are not forbidden from social contact, just advised to avoid unnecessary social contact, and it is “particularly important” for those over 70 and vulnerable groups. Does that mean it is less important for young and healthy people? Johnson called this a “draconian” step but it didn’t sound draconian at all.

Because London is ahead of other parts of the country, “it is important that Londoners pay special attention … and take particularly seriously the advice about working from home and avoiding social spaces.” Again, does that mean the advice can be taken less seriously in other parts of the country?

Large public gatherings are not banned. Simply: “We will no longer be supporting mass gatherings with emergency workers in the way that we normally do.” So, in theory, go ahead with that massive gathering but there won’t be an ambulance on hand. He said that this meant “emphatically moving away from” large public gatherings. Why not just cancel them?

Asked whether he was closing pubs and clubs, Johnson answered, “What we’re doing is giving very strong advice that public venues such as theatres should no longer be visited. The proprietors of those venues are taking the logical steps that you’d imagine. [ie shutting their doors!] You’re seeing the changes already. As for enforcement, we have the powers if necessary but I don’t believe it’ll be necessary to use those powers.”

This won’t be much comfort to pubs and clubs — they’re not technically being closed, just starved of customers until they close themselves.

The liberal instincts of this prime minister go deep, and the result is very different messaging to what you see in Europe. He clearly thinks of it as a point of pride, as he put it to Robert Peston:

Government already has tremendous powers … but most people would accept that we are a mature and grownup and liberal democracy and people understand very clearly the advice that is being given to them
- Boris Johnson

We’ll see how clear they found it. Sometimes, even in a liberal democracy, it’s better to be clear than polite.

Freddie Sayers is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.


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Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
4 years ago

As with most things, this is the fault of the media. The liberal-left anyone-but-Boris faction spent so long, especially during the election campaign claiming that Boris was some form of fascist that he is now bending over backwards not to seem like one. You people are reaping what you sowed.

Gerald gwarcuri
Gerald gwarcuri
4 years ago

Liberal democracies operate on the principle that the people – not the government – decide their own fate. I think Johnson hit the right note. Of course, those who prefer to live in a surveillance state like the UK might want more of a wet-nurse approach to their lives, but not everyone does.

Totalitarianism can get certain things done, but at what cost? Let’s take the case of how Communist China ( yes, it is still Communist ) responded to the Coronavirus outbreak. We will never fully know the repressive tactics they used in failing to contain the spread of the virus or fully alert the world of the threat on a timely basis.

Liberty has costs and responsibilities. Grown-up citizens only need a word to the wise to respond. The alternative is to treat everyone like morons and pawns.

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
4 years ago

i’m reasonably sure the government is doing what’s best in this crisis. Clarity and facts are vital. This is an opportunity for the media to accept that the majority of us do understand an issue and that they should change their attitude to suit the gravity of the situation. Instead of the constant misleading and hysterical drama scenario’s we have grown so weary of.
Clarity; self isolation – does that mean we can’t walk in the park, keeping away from others? Go caravaning? Soon I hope many of the myriad of questions will be answered. Meanwhile let’s all be positive and pro-active.

Mark Bretherto
Mark Bretherto
4 years ago

Can you imagine the headlines if Boris and the Conservatives did actually ban public gatherings or order pubs/clubs to close? They get called Nazi’s as it is.