Friday, 13 March 2020

Which is most important - people or money?

At yesterday’s press conference on the virus pandemic, both the Medical Officer for England and the Government’s Scientific Advisor looked and sounded like people we could and should trust.  Although with a bumbler of a PM, who looks totally out of his depth when faced with a crisis about which he can’t simply crack a few jokes, standing between them, some might argue that the bar was set quite low to start with.  Nevertheless, the other two gave every impression of knowing what they were talking about – and also admitting what they don’t know, something which seems to be a cardinal sin for a politician.  And neither immediately struck me as people who would be prepared to bend their scientific advice to fit political convenience.  Alternative experts are, of course, available; some of them with a much gloomier tale to tell, although it’s always possible that they don’t have the same access to the latest data as the two brave men who agreed to flank Boris Johnson.
And yet…  There’s inevitably still a nagging doubt in many minds when we see other governments taking more drastic action and taking it sooner, with the WHO also being critical of countries which leave the implementation of measures until too late.  I doubt that other political leaders are being given radically different advice than that being given to the UK Government.  Even if the nationalistic prejudice of Johnson to assume that ‘our’ scientists are better than everybody else’s were based in fact, the ‘best’ scientific knowledge would never stay only in one country; that simply isn’t the way that modern science works.  It’s therefore reasonable to assume that all governments are getting the same or similar scientific advice, and if they’re reaching different conclusions, it’s reasonable to assume that they are weighting the arguments rather differently.
The assertion that “the […] two crucial goals – reducing the mortality rate and economic impact – are incompatible” is an entirely reasonable one to make, and although they didn’t put it quite as starkly as that, the two wise men and their not-so-wise host basically admitted as much in the press conference yesterday: it is clear that different governments are placing different emphases on those two goals.  In essence, the more a government prioritises the economy, the more premature deaths it is explicitly accepting.  In this article in the New York Times following the budget, its authors argued that the UK had, effectively, decided to protect businesses rather than people – a decision which means more deaths due to the virus than would otherwise be the case.
The PM himself has argued that one option for responding to the virus is to simply “take it on the chin”, although he did (as this fact check makes clear) also say that it would be better to take some steps to reduce the burden on the NHS.  His comments did, though, leave many wondering whether that he hadn’t been expressing his basic instinct, even if he didn’t go as far as one journalist in the Telegraph who suggested that.  “…COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents”.  For those who see just about everything in economic terms, allowing the virus to do its worst whilst mitigating the pressures on the NHS to the best extent possible is an entirely rational response; it just isn’t one that most of us share.  But it does seem that, in balancing the two objectives of saving the economy and saving people, the UK Government has erred more in the direction of the economy than most other governments.  (Trump is, of course, another exception, although his motivation seems to be about neither people nor the economy, but about protecting his own business interests and ensuring his own re-election.)  The Scottish Government has moved a bit further in the other direction (earning the First Minister an entirely unworthy barb from the PM about the alleged lower resilience of Scottish public services), although the Welsh Government has disappointed to date.
The problem with a government which lies instinctively and unhesitatingly is that people won’t trust it when it is telling the truth.  Even during this crisis, we’ve had ministers making things up as they go along, such as the health minister talking about contacts with the large supermarkets which simply hadn’t happened.  I want to be able to trust the experts, and I have an instinctive faith in science, but I can’t help feeling that being out of step with other major European countries is not a comfortable place to be, particularly given the suspicion that the reason for being an outlier is the PM’s desire to prioritise business over people.

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