Fighting Covid-19 is an exercise in delayed gratification – a truth that Boris Johnson has failed to grasp

At every stage the Prime Minister has acted too late, and now hospitals are shouldering the consequences.  

Battling the coronavirus pandemic is ultimately a test of a state’s capacity for delayed gratification: the actions you take now will only begin to have an effect in a couple of weeks’ time. In the meantime, the biggest test of a politician is their ability to ride out the period in which their measures appear to be ineffective.

One politician who has grasped that is the much-maligned Health Secretary, Matt Hancock. He became a figure of ridicule among ministers and the parliamentary Conservative Party because of what was seen as a naive belief that vaccines and medical advances would curb the virus, and that, far from learning to live with the new normal, the sensible approach to the crisis would be to dig in, spend freely on attempts to defeat the disease and to endure harsh lockdowns. His approach embodied delayed gratification: the pain of lockdown in the present had to be balanced against the relief of medical advance in the future.

[See also: The UK has the highest current Covid-19 death rate of any major country]

His most steadfast opponent was the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who advocated a different form of pain now for relief later. Sunak would frequently warn MPs that the economic losses of 2020 would not simply be washed away and that the UK needed to learn to live with the virus rather than hide from it. Now that vaccines and medical treatments have both advanced, Sunak’s stock is not as high as it was at Westminster. But what unified Hancock and Sunak from the beginning was their understanding that in order to achieve your coronavirus objectives, you needed to be willing to suffer now to benefit later, whether the cost was in entering lockdown or in avoiding it.

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However, the biggest problem with the British government’s response to the crisis has been Boris Johnson’s inability to grasp that essential fact. At every stage, the Prime Minister has acted too late, preferring to search for illusory and unsustainable middle paths between his warring ministers rather than choose a single, unified approach. Now England is once again in lockdown, and faces not only a grim test of morale as hospitals buckle under the strain of the pandemic, but also a challenge to the Prime Minister’s capacity for self-control. It is hard for any government in a democracy to maintain its commitment to a policy that appears to be failing – for one led by Boris Johnson, it is harder still.

More alarmingly, there is some evidence that England’s lockdown is not going far enough to reap the benefits, while still incurring many economic and social costs. Mobility – that is to say, the number of journeys by road and rail – has fallen, but is considerably higher than it was during the first lockdown in the spring.

One explanation is that a feckless public is simply no longer following the rules, and this is the …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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