Courage and Competence in the UK Coronavirus Response: A Counterfactual

It’s fair to say that the driving motivator of the UK government’s response to the coronavirus has been fear. Fear of widespread cases and fatalities and fear of an overwhelmed health service. Fear, by and large, leads to, and is undergirded by, concerns with safety.

And there was much to fear when the virus appeared on the scene in early 2020. The virus was a kind of unknown; we did not know how it would operate. Indeed, it seemed to affect different populations, and different parts of a given population, differently. Fear seemed a natural response to the unknown. It seemed right to prioritise safety above all else. So, here in the UK, we went into a series of national lockdowns—two, in fact, as well as other measures that came pretty close to the life-altering existence that lockdowns represent.


But what if the government had appealed to alternative motivators for tackling this pandemic? Specifically, what if it had appealed to the courage of its citizenry?

Let me spell out what I mean in quite practical terms. To appeal to courage is to seek to inspire positive, tangible action that costs something. So, for instance, you might have a colleague with an elderly mother who is shielding. Your colleague will not be able to work for the foreseeable future because he will be caring for his mother, and, secondarily, he does not wish to contract anything at work that he might inadvertently give to her. Imagine that the government has appealed to its citizens to step up, as they are able, and shoulder the work that their colleagues cannot do because of caring responsibilities. And so, your employer has a conversation with you about taking up your colleague’s workload for a period. You agree, yes because you wish to help preserve life, but also because it is part of your responsibility as an employee and citizen.

Courage means stepping up to take on greater responsibility and, in doing so, protecting the life of a human deemed to be vulnerable to the virus. In the example above, safety is undoubtedly part of the response. There is the negative action of not giving someone the virus. But far more prominent in this strategy is courage, the assuming of responsibility and the tangible sense of contributing to the common good. Your colleague helps his family. You contribute to this, and to your organisation, by taking on their burden of work.

So, as you will see, I am not saying that we throw safety out the window. The government must appeal to safety. This virus is deadly, make no mistake about it. We have all heard horrible stories of those who have had Covid, and we rightly do not want to pass it on, or contract it ourselves. The current stats have 1 in 1000 dying from the virus and we have only in the last week learned of a new highly transmissible strain on the loose.

But we are right to question whether safety, which is driven by naked fear, is such an effective motivator when appealed to on its own*. In the most recent announcement, the government seemed to acknowledge that the tier system, and even lockdowns themselves, don’t quite work. PM Boris Johnson stated

I was briefed on the latest data showing the virus spreading more rapidly in London, the South East and the East of England than would be expected given the tough restrictions which are already in place.

The current measures don’t seem to work all that well, or at least only do so for a time. And so the preferred response is tougher restrictions. Part of the reason for their ineffectiveness is to do with the fact that safety and fear quickly breed complacency. If young people come to hear that the threat is existential, and yet they know that they, by and large, are not directly affected, then they might be tempted to live as normal. News of an existential threat that doesn’t affect you directly can be rather paralysing.

To appeal to courage, on the other hand, much more easily builds up society and community. It inspires positive action and personal responsibility.


But here we come to the next problem. Appeals to courage assume that the citizenry is competent. Courage goes hand in hand with competence.

The default assumption of Western governments towards their citizenries is increasingly one of incompetence. There are many reasons for this, but at face value, this would seem to be because the citizenry has, in fact, grown more and more incompetent. On this view, incompetence is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The state and other bodies that behave like states (big tech) view the populace as unskilled and incompetent. In response, they develop policies and “products” that assume their populaces are not skilled and, hey presto, the populace becomes, slowly but discernibly less and less competent. I only this weekend saw a notice in the park on how to walk your dog during the coronavirus

This vicious cycle of de-skilling I have just mentioned is discussed, with greater panache and persuasiveness, by Matthew Crawford in his new book, Why We Drive: On Freedom, Risk and Taking Back Control. Crawford’s analogy of choice is the domain of driving. Traditionally, we trusted our fellow drivers to drive well. Yes, responsibly but also with skill and courage. Increasingly, as more and more control of our lives has been ceded to big tech, where, once more, the human person is thought of as incompetent, features were put in place that allowed the car and its machinery to either adjust for human error, or take over certain functions entirely. Some of these new features—for instance, the airbag—are demonstrably good and have saved lives. Others, such as the increasing move towards automated steering and cruise control, have assumed the worst of us and, as a result, have made us worse drivers.

As to driving, so to society and governance more broadly. Assumptions of incompetence seem to thrive in bureaucratic technocracies—systems of government that operate on the assumption that those in charge hold the expertise and competence on behalf of an incompetent citizenry that does not know what it wants, or, if it does, is wrong or mistaken in what it wants. To put it rather bluntly: in its response to the coronavirus pandemic, the UK government has frequently assumed that people are idiots and has treated them as such.

Assumptions of courage and competence, I submit, have been in short supply in the governmental response to this pandemic. This is not to deny the many instances of courage shown across all levels of society. But it is worth considering how appeals to courage, based on assumptions of human competence, might have led to a very different outcome, not only epidemiologically, but also socially.

*Someone might object and say that the government did not only appeal to safety and point to the messaging around protecting the NHS. Was this not a communitarian plea to courageous self-sacrifice? There is something to this, of course. But, quite apart from the rightness of whether the citizenry should be saving the health service (and not the other way around), my point about complacency also kicks in here. This is still an appeal to a negative action—stay at home—and it is one still undergirded by fear…the NHS will otherwise be overwhelmed.

Image Credit: Diogo Nunes, Unsplash (Free public domain)

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