Monday, 16 March 2020

Don't wait for London

At the moment, the PM is refusing to acknowledge the obvious fact that current events are going to have a major impact on the progress of trade talks with the EU.  At its simplest, governments have bigger things to worry about.  Perhaps he doesn’t care – if his real objective is to leave without a deal on 31st December, the failure to progress will make no difference to the outcome anyway.  On the other hand, perhaps he will, eventually, bow to the inevitable and accept that no-one involved really has the time to devote to negotiating, and then ask for a delay.  I can see, though, how attractive it would be for him to continue to reject any delay.  Muddying the waters is always useful – being able to blame the virus for the economic damage imposed by his approach to Brexit is, at the least, politically convenient for him.
Few of us know with certainty exactly what the scientific advice he is receiving says, but from such information as is publicly available, it appears that the main elements are:
1.    That most people will get only a mild form from which they will fully recover
2.    That having been infected once, people will develop a degree of immunity to further infections
3.    That once a degree of immunity has been built up in the population, future outbreaks will be more localised and controllable
4.    That even if the current outbreak is brought under control by draconian measures, as soon as controls are relaxed the virus will flare up again
5.    That, one way or another, sooner or later, up to 80% of the population are likely to be infected, meaning around 40 million people in the UK, and that between 0.5% and 1.0% of those (200,000 – 400,000 people) will die prematurely as a result.
I cannot believe that other governments are getting significantly different advice, and with a few caveats, it doesn’t look like an entirely unreasonable assessment to me.  (The caveats include: that for a new virus, we don’t yet know whether infection provides subsequent immunity; that viruses mutate and immunity against one strain doesn’t necessarily provide immunity against others; and that there are already some early indications that a ‘full’ recovery isn’t as complete as is generally suggested.)  But if the advice is the same and the response is different, that can only be down to the application of different political judgements to the raw probabilities.
There may well be at least an element – as the UK Government has itself suggested – of other governments doing things that they suspect will be of limited impact in order to be seen to be doing something.  They may even be placing more store in the hope that if things can be delayed long enough the same degree of immunity can be built up by a vaccine rather than by actual infection with the live virus, something which may or may not turn out to be the case.  If it weren’t for the fact that large numbers of real people are dying, it would be an interesting experiment in trying different approaches to see which works best in the long term.
However sincere the UK Government may be in its belief that its approach will turn out to be the best (and I think that the scientific advisors, at least, are sincere even if I don’t trust the politicians), there is no escaping the perception that they are doing less than other governments to try and protect the population at large.  And, coming back to the politics, the perception is all-important.  One worried Tory has already highlighted that the demographic of those dying means that they are likely to be predominantly Tory voters, but the political implications go further than that.  If, when this is all over, there is a feeling that large numbers of people have died unnecessarily as a result of the government failing to take actions which were taken elsewhere, who are their families going to blame?  It isn’t just the votes of the deceased that are at risk.
Purely as a result of such cynical political calculations, my own expectation is that, slowly but surely, the UK government will fall into line and follow the lead taken elsewhere.  They’d need to be supremely confident in their judgement of what are, after all, only probabilities in mathematical terms, to do otherwise.  For someone who so desperately wants to remain PM, political considerations will always win out in the end.  A more politically astute Welsh Government would be anticipating this and acting now without waiting for ‘guidance’ from London.

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