So close together, so far apart

From Mutual Aid groups to passive aggressive notes, from shopping for neighbours to overzealous policing, the Covid-19 lockdown has brought out the best in our communities, as well as some less savoury responses. Hannah Clare, Green Party Councillor for Brunswick and Adelaide on Brighton and Hove Council, takes a look at communities’ responses to the pandemic and how unclear messaging from government is leading to some negative behaviours.

Rotherham playground
Rotherham playground

Image: Luis Arroyo

Hannah Clare

In the face of a crisis, communities have come together. WhatsApp groups set up for almost every street. Volunteers coming together to organise deliveries of leaflets to their neighbours. People who six months ago would never have spoken, working together to support each other and particularly the most vulnerable.

In some places the community feel goes beyond that. There have been stories of weekly street singalongs and discos

It’s incredible. What people have done to come together in the face of coronavirus is inspiring. In the community I represent, people have been checking in on their neighbours, helping with errands, sharing knowledge and even swapping plants. People here have often risen to challenges previously but not like this.

This community spirit will hopefully continue for a very long time. Because through all this, my community has never felt so close together.

And yet… 

There is a darker side to this spirit. A trip to Facebook reveals there’s a note circulating from a nurse whose neighbour accused them of breaking lockdown. Or there’s a post in a Facebook group about joggers and cyclists just trying to get their exercise. Or there’s people asking how they can report shops or neighbours for flouting the rules. The same groups that have been set up to support each other can sometimes turn sour. 

Worryingly, this flies in the face of everything we’ve achieved. For all the coming together, it feels that we’ve never quite been so far apart either. As people struggle with the weight of the pandemic and how it has changed their lives, some seem to be worrying about the behaviour of others and how they’ve ‘broken the law’.

It’s important to recognise that for many this behaviour reflects understandable anxiety, and concern for public health. But crucially, government information has been far from clear. 

Often the law they’ve supposedly broken, isn’t actually the law at all. A briefing from Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights in early April noted that there have “been significant inconsistencies in public communication about the new Regulations” and clarified that it is only the clauses in the law that can be enforced. 

The rules the government has instructed people they must follow are often only guidance. Being two metres apart is only guidance. The same goes for not exercising more than once per day (except in Wales), exercising close to your home, washing your hands. What the law does say is: that you can’t leave your house without reason; that certain businesses must be closed; and that you may not gather in a public place with more than two people (unless in the same household). 

Beyond their powers

I don’t think people can be blamed for the confusion. ‘Strict’ guidelines, lack of clarity on what is law and what isn’t, along with continual inconsistencies from the government – it is no wonder people aren’t clear. 

Police forces, however, should know better. The Argus this week reported Sussex Police is enforcing the guidance incorrectly and misinterpreting the guidance as law. Other forces have been criticised for harsh policing too. While advice states police should ‘encourage,’ people to follow rules before resorting to enforcement, it’s clear that in some cases police forces are attempting to enforce guidance not law and are acting beyond their powers. 

There were, of course, new powers given to forces and there are examples of good practice. But it is a law with many inequalities, including for people with disabilities, with mental health needs or with issues at home, who may need more time outdoors.

The truth is the legislation was not scrutinised to usual standards (despite the contents including sweeping new powers for policing and local councils). It should have been, but in the rush to pass it through key details have been missed. It's questionable what excessive interrogation of people and their activities does to prevent the virus and how this legislation can protect all parts of society. 

I’m worried about how this affects our civil liberties. And we cannot let this tear our communities apart. We all have a part to play in driving down the coronavirus pandemic. We need rules that protect public health and keep people alive. But we cannot allow government leaders, who received multiple warnings, to blame the impact of this global pandemic solely on individuals, many of whom face conflicting guidance and are vulnerable.

The story is government inaction

We are all victims of this pandemic, with some communities disproportionately affected. And the unclear guidance from those who are in a position to lead, has fuelled anxiety and misinformation. It’s led to accusations of ‘wrongdoing’ that aren’t actually upheld in law.

The huge lack of clarity over what is lawful and what isn’t can’t become the ‘new normal’, and our sense of neighbourhood connection should not be lost. 

Support networks exist now that didn’t before and should be supported to continue. The response to the pandemic reminds us that knowing your neighbour, looking out for each other and a sense of empathy contribute to the wellbeing of everyone.

We all have a responsibility to act to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But against the backdrop of spectacular community efforts, we cannot let the narrative of ‘badly behaving individuals’ become the feature story. Government accountability for its actions, power and responsibility must be front and centre of our understanding of how this pandemic is changing all of our lives, and affecting us in different ways.

Hannah Clare is Green Party councillor for Brunswick and Adelaide in Brighton and hove. She is Deputy Convenor (External Relations) of the Green Group on the council, is Green Group Spokesperson on Children Young People and Skills Committee & Youth Service Lead, and Chair of the council’s Home to School Transport Policy Panel.