The Prime Minister and First Minister are both on a hiding to nothing when it comes to relaxing Covid-imposed restrictions. They are either criticised for moving too slowly and putting the economy at risk, or accused of endangering lives by opening up too soon. The Prime Minister is possibly in the tighter spot. The restrictions offend his alleged liberal leanings and politically, he has the rabid Covid Recovery Group yapping at his heels. Mr Johnson’s inner Pontius Pilate came to the surface when he announced that it was time to move from “universal government diktat” to “people’s personal responsibility”. His penchant for hyperbole has already given us “Freedom Day”. We should be grateful he eschewed a Churchillian “VE – (Virus Extirpated) Day”.

The soaring number of Covid cases however, has borne out Professor Stephen Reicher’s prediction that “personal responsibility” is not enough to halt the pandemic in its tracks. He publicly criticised Mr Johnson’s major “policy shift” that amounted to the Government, “effectively abdicating its responsibilities”. Prof Reicher stresses the dynamic of “communal responsibility” being much more effective than reliance on personal responsibility alone to mitigate harmful impact on others. Communal acceptance and responsibility for safety on the roads is an everyday example.

Although it’s a challenge to be fair to Mr Johnson, I can see where he is coming from. In this country there’s a general sense that rules are for other people. Similarly, it’s someone else’s responsibility to deal with problems. When things go wrong the usual default reaction is, “it wasnae me/us”. It may be Scots’ thing and I’ve certainly fallen into the trap. I recall being berated by an irate lady in Dusseldorf when trying to cross the road before the green light was illuminated. Germans take personal responsibility seriously and I had unthinkingly gone against her reasonable expectations. I didn’t do it again.

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We are quick to blame the Government or the council for things that we could have dealt with ourselves. A few years back I had a neighbour whose property was regularly flooded after heavy rain. The cause was obvious; a nearby drain had become blocked with debris and weeds. He was taken aback by my suggestion that he clear it for himself. “That’s the council’s job”, he huffed. It’s the same when it comes to clearing snow from the front of our properties. We drive around the traffic cone that has blown into the carriageway. “Someone else” will remove it before it causes an accident. Unwillingness to take responsibility for our own actions is evident when it comes to more important things than blocked drains, snowy pavements and traffic cones. In a recent Reporting Scotland interview, a trawl skipper from Peterhead condemned the UK government, for “betraying his industry” and failing to deliver the promised “sea of opportunity”. “This is not what we voted for”, he wailed. Schadenfreude is not an attractive response, but I couldn’t help thinking that he and his like are the authors of their own misfortune. Research suggests that support for Brexit was strongest amongst our farming and fishing communities and they need to shoulder responsibility for the fall out. It’s easier to blame the Government than accept that you’ve been conned or it’s your own fault. As Janey Godley observed, it’s like giving up your health club membership and then complaining you no longer have use of the gym or the swimming pool.

In my area, GPs have been heavily criticised for being virtually invisible during the pandemic. In a letter to a local paper, one GP practice neatly shifted the blame to its patients. They were clogging up its waiting room when experiencing only minor ailments they could have treated themselves. To a certain extent, I could see the point. Many of us fail to take personal responsibility for our own health. Eating, drinking and smoking less and exercising more, are simple ways of taking responsibility for our own health. Instead, too many of us pitch up in doctors’ surgeries expecting them to undo self-inflicted harm. It’s certainly true that Government action and inaction have contributed greatly to the stubbornly high rates of Covid infection. We comfort ourselves by thinking our inability to exist without going to the pub, our unwillingness to wear masks and avoid crowds has absolutely nothing to do with it.

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Accepting personal responsibility requires practice from an early age. In my headteacher days I requested a pupil pick up a piece of litter he had just dropped. He was most offended, “that’s what we have cleaners for”. He was promptly “invited” to pick up all the other litter in the vicinity. The school lay at the heart of an enclave of middle-class entitlement and I was unsurprised to receive a call from his parent demanding an apology for “humiliating” her son. By that time patience was wearing thin and the conversation ended with a threat that I would be hearing from her solicitor. Twenty years later, I’m still waiting. He’s obviously very busy.

Data confirms that the Prime Minister’s faith in “people’s personal responsibility” is somewhat misplaced. Yet, in the long term he may well be correct to emphasise the importance of personal responsibility in all aspects of national life. His problem is that many of his Government’s policies have contributed to a national sense of “it doesn’t really matter what I think/do”. A sense of communal responsibility is always going to be most effective, but that can only happen if there is critical mass arising from acceptance of much greater individual responsibility and empowerment. As American author John G Miller put it: “The real difference in life is between people who take responsibility for their situation in life and those who blame others."

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.