Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Increasing the stakes


In the lead up to his statement on the road out of lockdown, the Prime Minister of England was keen to stress that his plans would be based more on data than on dates. Given his customary and casual relationship with truth and consistency, it was no surprise to find that what he eventually produced was heavy on dates and vague on the data. Assuming that he will do the opposite of what he says he’ll do is usually a safe bet.  It would also be no surprise to find that his apparent ‘caution’ this time round was merely a spin-based shift from over-promising and under-delivering to under-promising and over-delivering, and that he actually intends to move faster than his road map suggests with more than half an eye on the English local elections in May. His repeated use of phrases such as ‘irreversible’ and ‘one-way route’ sounded ominous.

In theory, all his plans relate only to England, but as we have repeatedly seen over the past year, short of imposing and policing a hard border along Offa’s Dyke it is impossible to fully insulate Wales from the reckless decisions of an impetuous English PM, and the Welsh Government is right to be wary of the consequences. Johnson’s critics in his own party have been arguing long and hard that once the vulnerable parts of the population have been vaccinated there is no reason to continue with restrictions, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Johnson and his cult followers agree with that analysis but are only being held back by the caution of the government scientists. Such an approach would amount to allowing the virus to rip freely through the unprotected sectors of the population (as well as any of the vulnerable who have, for whatever reason, not been vaccinated). It’s a policy which depends on an assumption that those not yet vaccinated will only get a mild illness from which they will quickly recover.

That is a big assumption and a huge gamble. We know that, allowed to circulate freely amongst any sizable population, the virus can and will mutate. There’s a reasonable chance that most vaccinations will not cause any worse symptoms, and that the vaccinations will still protect against them. But it only takes one mutation that either causes worse symptoms (and more deaths) or against which the vaccinations don’t work for us to be facing another major surge later this year, in which tens of thousands more lives would be lost. None of us can know whether Johnson’s bet will pay off or not, but his record of recklessness is not exactly a sound basis for optimism. Statistically, betting on him being wrong would have shorter odds than betting on him being right.

The sight of the leader of what is euphemistically called ‘the opposition’ supporting Johnson’s insistence on irreversibility not only gives Johnson a degree of political cover, it also increases the risk. Even more worrying is that the most vocal opposition to Johnson’s approach is coming from people on his own side – and his natural supporters within his party at that – who think he’s still being too cautious and want to end restrictions even sooner. When dealing with a chancer and gambler like Johnson, the last thing we really need is people who are egging him on to up the stakes, especially when those stakes are measured in human lives. Yet that is what we have, and with a compulsive and over-optimistic gambler like Johnson at the helm, the dangers for the rest of us are obvious.

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