Most of us are conflicted about the Covid rules. So spare a thought for Kay Burley

This article is more than 1 month old

People may seem to be dividing into rival camp of ‘lockdown lovers’ and ‘anti-maskers’. But the truth is far more complex

Kay Burley at Cirque De Soleil, the Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 January 2020.
‘Celebrities must be both charmingly lawless and fastidiously law-abiding. In this sense they are just like everyone else, writ large.’ Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

Among the many things the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is that certain celebrities will go to great lengths to avoid a boring birthday. Rita Ora threw a “small” party for 30 guests a week into her supposed two-week, post-travel quarantine. And Sky News’s Kay Burley led a birthday gathering from a club to a restaurant and finally back to her house. Both were prepared to risk their careers for the sake of a few hours of fun. While a part of us might want to see these people suitably punished, we may also be honest enough to recognise that our own corona track record has been less than perfect. (If this doesn’t apply to you, congratulations, you divine freak.)

Perhaps we can deduce from all this that people’s attitudes towards rules and laws are neither simple nor necessarily logical. On the one hand we might wish to live in a kind, cooperative, trusting society. But on the other we may resent the irritating hindrances to freedom that this sort of society demands. What if there’s a deadly virus doing the rounds just when we want to invite all our friends over to make a fuss of us? Do we sit at home and do as we are told, or privilege pleasure-seeking over prudence? If it’s the former, do we risk turning into sour-faced Covid snitches? If we opt for the latter, will we be scapegoated for doing what so many others wish they had the balls to do? (Or may even have got away with in secret.)

Human beings’ attitudes towards the law are nothing if not ambivalent. If rules and laws are things that protect while simultaneously frustrating and limiting us, how do we deal with the crazy, ever-changing Covid regulations? All over the world we see people dividing into camps of lockdown-lovers and anti-maskers (loosely aligned with “controlling” lefties and “irresponsible” conservatives). But is that really the whole story? What if, inside each of us, we find a more or less volatile mess of conflicting impulses and attitudes? One minute we’re hugging our parents through plastic sheets, the next we’re pretending to be married to our best friend in order to be able to eat out together.

It seems impossible to maintain anything like a consistent approach to the endlessly shifting coronavirus rules. While in mid-March many of us went into voluntary lockdown, horrified by the government’s inaction, now we may find ourselves making up our own codes of conduct as a private retaliation against the rule-makers who are failing to protect us. But as we head out to visit our sneaky, second support bubble, we may experience a rush of cognitive dissonance. Who are we actually hurting here? Not the government, for sure, but perhaps some distant care worker or octogenarian, six degrees of separation away – or fewer. While there may be a petulant part of us that likes to reserve the right to tell the grown-ups where to stick it, there’s just as likely to be a concerned, compassionate citizen who’s motivated to do the right thing by others.

The problem with Covid regulations is that they are new and fluid, and sometimes inconsistent – your sister can only come over if you pay her to do your housework (where do I sign up?!) – meaning that our internal view of them is anything but fixed. Many people have been surprised to see virulently anti-establishment friends assiduously supporting every new edict, while standard-issue law-and-order-heads are suddenly ranting about the outrage of being forced to wear “face nappies”.

In the endless chaos of life, where one can barely begin to get to the bottom of each new moral conundrum, sometimes our only recourse is to see what those pesky celebs are up to. Famous people are a perfect barometer for the moral weather.

They’re placed in the thankless position of being feted for living beyond the petty limits of humdrum life, while also being expected to set shining examples; they must be both charmingly lawless and fastidiously law-abiding. In this sense they are just like everyone else, writ large. We may feel immense schadenfreude at Burley’s temporary downfall – “Don’t be telling me sentimental stories about NHS heroes and then drinking champagne with a bunch of maskless wonders!” – at the same time as thinking, at least the Daily Mail has no interest in where I was last Thursday.

Having said all that, it seems clear the imperfect rules were easier for all of us to obey before the Woolly Hatted One’s infamous broadcast from the Downing Street rose garden, insisting that breaking the Covid guidelines, if that’s what you felt like doing, was simply good common sense. If, as Freud taught us, human beings are inherently divided and contradictory, once in a while it can help greatly if the people with power and influence suck it up for all our sakes and set a good example. How else are we supposed to keep our poor, flawed selves on track?

Anouchka Grose is a psychoanalyst and author