If you believe that British justice is blind to wealth and power, consider these facts. Around 45,000 people have been fined for breaking Covid-19 rules, with many facing prosecution for failing to pay up. In London alone, hundreds have been dragged through the courts, often behind closed doors. Yet not a single British employer has been prosecuted for violating rules that exist to save lives, and protect the NHS from the tsunami overwhelming it.

Operation “blame the public” is in full swing. Health secretary Matt Hancock tells the nation that people are “taking the mickey” by using a rule allowing us to exercise with another person to socialise. Home secretary Priti Patel damns rule-breakers for risking the health of the nation, while newspapers point fingers at people stopping for a chat outside coffee shops: “CARELESS TALK COSTS LIVES,” bellows the Metro’s front page. In an echo of the Tories’ campaign to demonise benefit claimants in the David Cameron era, extreme individual transgressions are hunted down, extrapolated and presented as a mere tip of the iceberg: like the mum fined for driving 100 miles to get a McDonald’s burger.

The evidence exposes such stories for the unrepresentative outliers they are. As the British Medical Journal found last week: “To the surprise of many, adherence to stringent behavioural regulations has remained extremely high (over 90%), even though many people are suffering considerably, both financially and psychologically.”

Given that we know the main route for Covid-19 transmission is through the presence of more than one human being in a confined indoor space, the focus should not be on frivolous chats between friends on open-air walks, but on many of the workplaces that remain open for business across the country. More than seven in 10 workers don’t feel completely safe at work: unsurprising, given that research by the Trades Union Congress finds that many workplaces are still not Covid-secure.

If you walk around town centres, rather than looking out for illicit hugs, peer through the window of your local estate agent. You will find non-essential retail closed for business, but the warehouses of online stores operate as normal, and they have not been compelled by the government to update risk assessments to ensure properly working ventilation systems. At the insistence of the chancellor Rishi Sunak – who has resisted lockdown measures, and prioritised economic interests over public health – 2.7 million manufacturing workers remain at work, and construction sites remain open for business. While Covid-19 poses little threat to small children with no underlying health conditions, nurseries risk the health of those who work there and the wider community.

The simple truth is that it is easier to encourage the public to peer through their blinds looking for local ne’er-do-wells than to tackle one of the lowest levels of statutory sick pay in the industrialised world. Unions are inundated with messages from workers saying they have no option but to work – even if they fall ill – because they simply cannot afford not to do so. A shredded social security net collides with the fetishisation of work – in August, ministers let it be known that employees failing to return to the workplace risked losing their jobs – with predictable consequences: the spreading of a deadly virus, and a horrifying second wave.

All these factors are far more likely to drive up the R number than isolated individual violations of the (belatedly implemented, constantly changing) lockdown rules. Aided by a largely supine media, the government’s attempt to shift the blame from the bosses to the public appears to be working: 58% hold the public responsible for the surge in coronavirus cases, with just 28% blaming the government.

How is this possible? After all, the vast majority of Britons could say – honestly – that they have abided by necessarily authoritarian Covid rules, for many months, at great personal sacrifice. The “public” that is being held responsible is a demonised, phantom “other”. On a basic psychological level you can see how this works: every time you see someone who appears to be flouting the rules, you feel a rush of irritation – at someone raising their middle finger at society, while you suffer the consequences of sticking to your legal and moral obligations. Those moments of frustration stick in our memories, in a way that seeing the vast majority of strangers socially distancing and wearing masks does not. They are also less abstract than thinking about non-essential workplaces being kept open, or bosses failing to ensure that their employees are safe. And 40 years of Thatcherite dogma – that the evils in society are caused by individual failings, such as laziness – make it easy to suggest spiralling infections are due to failures of personal responsibility, rather than systemic problems accelerated by government failures.

At huge economic, social and psychological cost, and despite numerous government failures, the public has overwhelmingly accepted the mass curtailment of their freedoms. Britain is not in a near-uniquely disastrous situation because of the flawed character of its citizens. For dubious economic reasons – the more you fail to tackle a public health crisis, the more harm you inflict on the economy – the government has allowed often unsafe workplaces to remain open. That is one of many reasons Britain has sunk into a coronavirus mire. And if the government succeeds in convincing its population to blame each other, we will surely sink further.

Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

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