Victory over Covid Day

Welcome to Normielisation, a semi-regular newsletter looking at British politics, culture and society

We should not underplay the achievement of the UK beginning the first vaccinations against the Coronavirus this week. In what has been a shocking approach to dealing with the pandemic, the UK are now finally getting something right. We’re at the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the beginning of the end is not the end, and we still face a long road to beating the disease. If we mess these next few months up, the UK will see thousands of totally needless deaths.  

One of the reasons the coronavirus is such a difficult disease is how skewed its impact is. While it has a fatality rate of roughly 1%, for many the disease is entirely asymptomatic or mild. This is particularly true for younger people who are at very low risk of death from the disease.

In fact, one useful rule of thumb for thinking about the dangerousness of coronavirus is that contracting it doubles your normal individual risk of dying that year. If you’re young and healthy you are very likely, but not guaranteed, to be fine. If you’re old, or have several health conditions, you’re at much greater risk.  

In practice, this causes us some problems when dealing with individual behaviour. On a personal level it’s sane for a 25 year old to disobey the rules to meet a group of young pals indoors. Their risk of serious illness from the disease will barely have increased.

Similarly, if you are the owner of a pub in Tier 2 it’s totally rational- desirable even- to bend the rules on “substantial meals” or household mixing. Absent the carrot of proper financial support, or the stick of harsh enforcement, the personal damage of not doing what’s best for your business is too great.

It’s a classic collective action problem that the Government have consistently failed on. While at an individual level all of these actions are rational, at the level of the population they increase the spread of disease and, in turn, the number of deaths.

Nevertheless, without wanting to absolve the Government of responsibility- their response really has been appalling- I can’t help but wonder how different things would be if the 1% death rate were spread more evenly across the population. If each individual had a 1% risk of dying from COVID I suspect things would look very different, particularly if children were at risk. For all the UK’s response to the virus has been a black pill, I do think the properties of the disease itself explain some of this, particularly in how, frankly, “pro-virus” views have been able to infiltrate our political discourse.

This makes me fear the impact that Christmas will have on the spread of the disease. I accept that it was always politically impossible for the Government to impose restrictions that they cannot enforce, but worry that many will see the announcement that “three households can mix” as a sign that we’ve reached a Christmas truce with the virus. It seems obvious that this, coupled with the loosening of restrictions a week ago, will lead to a jump in cases and deaths- just at the point that we are beginning to vanquish the disease.

Given the political difficulty of Christmas restrictions, what can the Government do?

In my view, while there’s still two weeks to go until Christmas, there needs to be an honest conversation about risk and mitigation. The goal should be to move people’s mindset away from a rules based approach- “Boris says I can have my mother AND my daughter and her kids round on Christmas day”- to one based on risk. We need a frank explanation that, while you are allowed to mix three households, it might not be smart to mix your primary school age grandkids and their 90 year old great grandmother, particularly when the vaccine is so close. We also need to point out that, even if you personally are low risk, spreading the disease has wider implications.

It would also be helpful to discuss genuine mitigations that households can take, such as isolating from this weekend onwards, or meeting people outside instead of indoors. In doing this we should  seek to avoid utterly unhelpful advice, like this insane BBC piece which warns against board games and suggests families do quizzes instead…

In making this argument Government needs to emphasise the existence of the vaccine and that this Christmas genuinely will be a “one time thing”- something they couldn’t have said even 5 weeks ago. Being careful this Christmas will save lives.

To underline the seriousness with which they view this message, they should announce a Victory over COVID Day bank holiday. A date for a second Christmas where everyone can see each other and go wild. This could take place on an extended 4 day May bank holiday, but could even be earlier based on triggering a target of having 85-90% of vulnerable people vaccinated. They could even promise a voucher scheme, giving every person £20 to spend at a hospitality venue of their choice, providing a confidence boost to our strategic restaurant sector.

We’re so close to the end of the pandemic, it would be foolish to throw things away for the sake of a few days in December. By setting a VC day now, the Government can give us all something to look forward to, while effectively informing people of the risks of this Christmas period.



What I’ve been reading recently

Ben Macintyre- A Spy Among Friends: A gripping narrative account of the Kim Philby affair, of which I previously knew very little. For those as ignorant as I was, Philby was an MI6 officer who was part of the Cambridge Five spy ring of double agents, spying for the Soviet Union during WWII and the early stages of the cold war. This is a gripping account of the Philby story, something I knew very little about. I was particularly struck by what a pathetic figure he ended up being.

Ed West- Small Men on the Wrong Side of History: The Decline, Fall and Unlikely Return of Conservatism: An old recommendation, but one I would be remiss to mention. Earlier this year Ed West released this fantastic book, which is part exploration of why conservatives (note the small c) continually lose, part history of conservatism and part memoir.

Disclosure: Ed is a friend of mine. The last time I saw him was just after Christimas when we went with some other pals to see the Troy exhibition at the British Museum. That everything has gone to shit since then feels a fitting tribute to the thesis of this book.