Customers form a social-distancing queue outside a Deutsche Postbank bank branch in Chemnitz, Germany. Picture: BLOOMBERG/KRISZLIAN BOCSI
Customers form a social-distancing queue outside a Deutsche Postbank bank branch in Chemnitz, Germany. Picture: BLOOMBERG/KRISZLIAN BOCSI

The pandemic has prompted European citizens to accept changes in social behaviour that would have seemed impossible only a year ago. People have stopped shaking hands, started wearing masks and learnt to talk at some distance. They have adhered to government rules keeping them at home and closing down their businesses. They have stopped attending funerals and weddings.

We’ve let the state take ever more intrusive measures in limiting our lives, all in the hope of limiting contagion. But the next apparent move in this direction — encouraging individuals to police each other — goes too far. Politicians in Italy and the UK should avoid making citizens suspicious of one another. It will do little to fight the virus while inflicting damage on communities.

As the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths surges again in Europe, governments are seeking to cut down on gatherings, including those at private homes. Health officials believe that dinners and parties can be a dangerous source of transmission, as people let their guard down, take off masks and spend time close together. The UK government has passed a “rule of six” that limits the number of individuals from different households that can mix together. Breaking it will lead to a fine. On Monday night, Italy introduced a similar restriction for indoor meetings, though it is only a recommendation.

But politicians know that setting such rules is easier than enforcing them. One cannot expect the police to knock randomly at people’s flats in an attempt to sniff out illegal parties. Hence the idea to get citizens involved in reporting on their neighbours.

In the UK, police minister Kit Malthouse said he expects people to ring the existing hotline to report violations. Priti Patel, home secretary, went a step further, saying she would call the police if she saw her neighbours breaking the “rule of six”. Health secretary Matt Hancock said that everybody should do the same.

In Italy, the government has been more restrained, but some ministers have also hinted they’re relying on the help of individuals. “Italians have shown they do not need a policeman to check on them personally. But it is clear that we will increase checks, and there will be reporting,” Roberto Speranza, Italy’s health minister, said on Sunday.

These suggestions are unacceptable. They echo darker times, for example, in East Germany under the communist regime, in which neighbours spied on each other and abused this monitoring power for personal vendettas. Such systematic reporting could also turn into a massive waste of time, as officials would run from one report to the next, at a time when resources are already stretched. Meanwhile, this attitude would make people distrust each other when they’ve already had to live through months of isolation.

Putting the burden of enforcing rules on citizens feels like a weak attempt to deflect the failures of the state onto the public. Ministers are right to demand our co-operation when it comes to wearing face masks and social distancing. But the government must also fulfil its side of the bargain, by, for example, providing a well-functioning test-and-trace system that can rapidly identify and isolate infected individuals.

The British healthcare system is struggling badly to meet the public’s demand for tests. In Italy, after a very promising start to holding back a second wave, there are signs that the situation is now coming under strain, as people complain about long lines at testing facilities.

Asking citizens to turn into policemen to make up for the state not doing its part is no way to bring society out of a pandemic and economic turmoil. Until the development and widespread distribution of a vaccine, our lives will continue to be restricted. But democratic governments must beware of pushing limits too far. A further breakdown of trust is the last thing any country needs.

Bloomberg

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