The Covid-19 pandemic and strategy of lockdowns used to control it have been immensely challenging. Back in March 2020, Ministers and scientific advisors were reportedly very alive to the fact that as a western democracy the British public would be unlikely to tolerate draconian measures designed to slow the spread of the virus for a significant period of time.
Perhaps what has been most surprising about the pandemic and strategy of lockdown is that broadly speaking, the public have accepted it. Protests against the temporary loss of civil liberties have been isolated events rather than a common occurrence across the country.
This surprising revelation provides an opportunity to re-examine an implicit assumption that was at the heart of all health policy-making before the Covid-19 crisis. That assumption is that as a free country, it is unacceptable to mandate people to do anything to protect their health, no matter how well intentioned.
Lockdowns have turned this assumption on its head. It seems the public are willing to tolerate tough measures if it serves an important purpose.
It is well known that changing our individual behaviour is incredibly difficult. How many of us actually keep to our new year resolutions beyond a few weeks? The experience of lockdown and new knowledge that citizens will accept changes to the way we have to live to protect public health, provides an opportunity to implement innovative new health policies that will help tackle public health challenges that already existed before Covid-19, but were not considered to be acceptable policies in a free country such as the UK. Such policies would make healthy choices the default option, without fundamentally infringing the right to individual choice.