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13 January 2021

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 bearing the consequences.  

By Stephen Bush

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.

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.

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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.

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One explanation is that a feckless public is simply no longer following the rules, and this is the government’s preferred line. As a consequence, it has launched a sustained campaign, both in private and public, against the public’s supposed non- observance of lockdown laws. The political advantage of the campaign is clear: while public opinion of the government’s competence has fallen, a majority continue to think the general public has a greater share of the blame for the spread of the disease. Criticising the public is therefore a useful distraction from the government’s equivocations and failings.

[See also: Why Rishi Sunak can’t escape blame for the Covid-19 crisis]

But there is also an important public health rationale behind the message. England’s population is around 56 million and it has just 100,000 police officers; the reality is that lockdown measures cannot be enforced without the passive consent of most people.

The government has only two levers it can pull to ensure compliance: the first is spending large sums of money on advertising on commercial radio. The second is exhortation to follow the rules by ministers themselves, though many at Westminster believe that the moral authority of Conservative politicians to do so was fatally damaged after Johnson opted to keep Dominic Cummings, his former chief of staff, in post after the adviser’s notorious trip to Durham during the first lockdown became public. (One Conservative MP once dubbed Cummings “the headcase that launched a thousand trips”, in reference to the outbreak of lawbreaking he supposedly unleashed.)

The reality, however, is that there is no evidence that the public, in England or elsewhere in the UK, is significantly less compliant with the rules than it was in March or up until Cummings’s fateful trip. What has changed is twofold: the gov- ernment has increased the number of businesses that can continue to trade, and many more businesses that opted to close voluntarily in the spring have remained open in the winter.

That is in part because the economic support that has been provided to businesses is inadequate. It is designed primarily to cover the costs of rent and staff, but leaves many businesses struggling to meet their fixed costs or to compensate their suppliers.

[See also: We are watching the slow-motion car crash of decisions taken weeks ago]

That is no blunder. It is the conscious choice of Sunak, who has opted to pursue a strategy of delayed gratification: limiting the number of open-ended commitments made by the government to businesses, with a view to asserting control over government spending as soon as possible after the crisis eases.

The Prime Minister’s inability to choose a long-term strategy means his future is defined, for good and for ill, by ministers who can. But there is a catch. The United Kingdom’s lockdown strategy is hampered not by a feckless public or a reckless, now departed adviser, but by the government’s unwillingness to pay for it. 

This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war