Wednesday 12 January 2022

Luck, not skill


On Monday, Michael Gove was busily repenting his ‘sin’ of arguing for a more cautious approach to Covid in England than that decided upon by the PM (with its inevitable knock-on effects in Wales). In effect, he was arguing that because the Omicron wave has turned out – so far at least – to be less severe in its impact than some of the worst-case scenarios put forward by the experts, Johnson took the right decision in not implementing further restrictions. That is something of an oversimplification, based on hindsight. The outcome actually owes more to luck than judgement. And whether the decisions were right or not depends on some difficult value judgements as well.

Imagine two cars at the top of a steep hill crowded with pedestrians. One driver disables his brakes completely before both cars set off down the hill. It is an almost inevitable result of the physics of gravity that the brake-free car will arrive before the other, even if a few pedestrians are killed or injured in the process. Whether disabling the brakes was the ‘right’ thing to do depends on how highly we value two things: getting to the bottom first, and the lives and families of the unfortunate pedestrians. It is increasingly clear that Johnson and his government place a very high value on being first to the bottom and a very low value on the lives of the pedestrians. They believe that getting through the Omicron wave before other European countries will enable the UK economy to recover faster than others. Some ministers have been talking openly about there being a ‘first-mover’ advantage. It follows that they view any additional deaths or injuries incurred in the process as a ‘price worth paying’, and scorn those other countries (and we’re not just talking about other parts of the UK here) who are slowing their progress in order to protect citizens. Whether events have proved them ‘right’ or not doesn’t simply depend on whether they get to the bottom first. It also involves an implicit value judgement on the cost of getting there.

It’s true that nobody knew in advance how many extra hospitalisations and premature deaths would result from allowing rapid transmission of the virus, but everybody knew that the answer would be both greater than zero, and also greater than in other countries which adopted a more cautious approach. How much greater is down to luck, not judgement. The English government has been very much, as Mark Drakeford put it, an outlier. Making such a value judgement is actually not a unique position for a government to be in – all administrations sometimes have to make difficult decisions based on costs and benefits. (A much more down-to-earth example is when local councillors have to decide whether to install a new pedestrian crossing or not, and take the number of accidents and deaths into account in the process.) The pandemic has, however, elevated this type of decision to a much greater scale; they’ve been gambling using the lives of tens of thousands of citizens as the stake. Having the highest body count in Europe is nothing to be proud of, however Johnson might try to spin the ‘benefits’; and it’s a direct result of government policy.

What the statements made by Gove and others this week reveal is just how little the lives, health and well-being of the citizens of the UK matter to them in comparison to securing the profits of companies (and Tory donors). Their real ‘success’ is in getting so many people to share their view that the rest of us are essentially of low value and expendable.


Anonymous said...

'Some ministers have been talking openly about their being a ‘first-mover’ ...'

There or their? Me thinks 'there'!


John Dixon said...

Thank you - that's a fair cop and has duly been corrected. The result of a different first draft which referred to 'their desire to be...'.