Friday, 30 July 2021

Competitive recklessness


One of the more boring but predictable aspects of pandemic politics has been the regularity with which the 'Welsh' branch of the English Conservative and Unionist Party has demanded that the Welsh Government should follow the English lead in all respects, in order to maintains ‘consistency’. Leaving aside for a moment that ‘consistency’, like honesty and integrity, is one those attributes mostly conspicuous by their absence in their English leader, there’s a certain irony that people who have spent years arguing for Brexit precisely so that the UK could follow different rules to that alien place across the water called Europe should now find themselves arguing that having different rules between neighbouring administrations is confusing, but that is not something that particularly concerns them.

When it comes to relaxing restrictions, they do seem to be making the assumption that that is what most people want, despite the fact that opinion polls regularly suggest that the majority – in England as in Wales – would prefer caution. Most people have probably been able to work out that ‘learning to live with the virus’ is actually a euphemism for ‘encouraging a higher than necessary number of premature deaths’, but then, they’re not interested in most people, only in that magic 35-40% which is enough to give them absolute power the UK on the basis of the electorate in the only part that really matters to them, namely England.

Whether Mark Drakeford’s more cautious approach has always been right is a moot point, and something that will only really be understood properly after the event. The scale and lethality of the virus has created an unprecedented situation in much of the world, and different governments have responded in different ways, all of which have positives and negatives attached to them. What has been clear throughout, however, is the differing motivations of the different players here in the UK. Drakeford has consistently erred on the side of trying to reduce the numbers of premature deaths and serious illness, whereas Johnson is conducting an unethical mass experiment on the population at large by deliberately pursuing a policy which he knows will lead to more death and sickness in the hope that the numbers will ultimately be considered ‘acceptable’ and that any new variants arising out of the experiment will not be vaccine-resistant. If it works out, he will claim to have been prescient, but, like the gambler who ‘knew’ which horse was going to win, it will owe more to luck. But then, for Johnson the stakes are low. He’s not taking the massive risk which some have claimed – the only thing he’s risking is his reputation, and in his case that’s no risk at all. The real risk is being taken by the involuntary subjects of his experiment.

In truth, the differences between the actions taken by Drakeford and Johnson aren’t as different as the politicians make out – and given the nature of the border between the two jurisdictions and the limited nature of devolution, that is hardly a surprise. Many of the differences when it comes to ending lockdowns are to do with sequencing of actions rather than the substance, which leads to Wales being later than England in some respects and earlier in others. Which of them has got the sequencing right is another unanswerable question; it’s a question of balancing the advantages and risks and forming an opinion as to what suits the differing circumstances best. Demanding that all should move at the pace of the fastest in all respects might be good politics but it’s bad epidemiology. It’s ‘disappointing’ (others might prefer a stronger word there) to see the English Labour leader joining in the same game in the hope of political advantage by demanding that Johnson should follow the Welsh lead in areas where Wales has acted earlier. Arguing that Wales has got the order right and England has got it wrong is one thing – but this was an argument for taking an increased level of risk. Starmer is in danger of finding himself as out of touch with the public desire for caution as Johnson.

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