The UK government, and our society more broadly, struggled with many of the practical decisions engendered by the Covid-19 pandemic. But we also suffered a crisis of moral decision-making, caused by our uncertainty about the relative importance of things that we value.
For example, it now appears that our desire to protect the population from Covid-19 was more or less aligned with our desire to safeguard people’s mental health: those countries who have best been able to control the virus’s spread have, as a result, suffered shorter ‘lockdowns.’ But at the start of 2020, this compatibility wasn’t clear at all, and we didn’t know how to even begin reconciling these apparently competing priorities.
In other cases, our uncertainty has led to decisions that we might yet come to regret. For instance, at multiple points in the pandemic, healthcare providers and the government had to decide the extent to which dying hospital patients could be visited by their friends and family. Horrifically sad stories – in particular, that of Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, who died alone in hospital, aged just 13 – brought the dilemma to national attention.
While there was uncertainty about exactly how risky such visits were, there was more fundamental uncertainty about how to weigh any risk of increased infection against the inhumanity of allowing someone to die without their loved ones.
Intractable ethical problems are a fact of life, but where policymaking is concerned, a decision always has to be made, even if that decision is inaction.
What we do now is a candidate approach: maybe these decisions are best made case-by-case, by those ‘on the ground,’ rather than dictated from above. What it’s not, however, is a considered approach. There are competing approaches – such as attempting to systematise our cultural norms – which we should at least think about.