In Britain, Christmas locks itself down

Experience suggests one should only call a turning point after it has actually – well – turned.

That said, it might be wise to keep an eye on developments in the UK over the Christmas and New Year period.

While Europe is fast locking down for fear of Omicron, Britain’s cabinet is the fulcrum of a political battle over whether any policy response would be meaningful.

On the one hand, PM Boris Johnson, with a proven track record of overriding gloomy expert advice when he proclaimed Britain’s freedom day in July .

With that under his belt, one might presume that he challenged his advisers equally (if not more) robustly when they came up with their worst-case Omicron scenarios.

But in the end, he concluded that a package of measures (modest by European standards, with some seemingly-chosen for signalling impact) was warranted.

Then the other hand came into play, delivering a sharp slap to the PM.

Channelling a widespread public discontent, his party split last week over even this measure of big-statism.  And on Monday, it is rumoured that the Cabinet he formerly dominated, rebuffed him on further moves.

Do bear in mind that Omicron case numbers have been rocketing at unprecedented speed, and in the background is a steady drumbeat of a roughly 10% excess mortality rate (ie, about 1,000 extra deaths per week).

Despite all the messy-family-drama-in-public overtones, this actually appears to be a meaningful debate over what policy measures might or might not achieve versus the undoubted costs.  

Equally interesting is the complementarity of the public (ie, the non-policy) response.

Voluntary social isolation has surged pre-Christmas among those with a heightened sense of risk, while there appears to have been a strong response to the offer of Covid booster jabs.  Meanwhile, the young have kept partying and deaths are occuring disproportionately among the unvaccinated.

The UK’s Office of National Statistics reports:

Over the whole period (1 January to 31 October 2021), the age-adjusted risk of deaths involving COVID-19 was 96% lower in people who had received a second dose at least 21 days ago compared with unvaccinated people.”

One possible explanation is that the public – in all its glorious diversity of opinion – is getting more comfortable in thinking and acting for itself.  And that fewer people believe that as long as they comply with government edicts, that the government agrees to protect them from any negative economic, social and health changes.

One might also speculate what other advice the Cabinet is getting on the wider social and economic picture.

Is Treasury, for example, telling them that the global supply chain disruption excuse is masking support for dud businesses, and a slowdown in productivity and quality investment?

Or perhaps the health and education ministries are discovering that the Covid disruption did not really make bureaucrats much more caring or careful with public resources, but has led to an intolerable attrition among those front-line service staff imbued with the ideals of public service.

One of the costs of refusing to adapt to Covid is promotion of the belief not only that unwelcome change can be avoided, but that it can be morally right, as well as self-serving, to do so.  

Britain’s cabinet may be tackling the political ramifications of this sooner than most.

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