No Reopening Please, We’re British

The Wall Street Journal reports here,

The UK has delivered at least one dose of Covid vaccine to more than 47% of its total population. This means that well over half of all adults, and the vast majority of the most vulnerable elderly, have received a sufficient level of inoculation to reduce serious illness, death, and probably transmission dramatically for the several months it will take to deliver second doses. Rates of hospitalisation and fatality tumble by the day.

So why on earth is Boris Johnson slow-rolling the country’s emergence from lockdown?

The exit plan from the current-third-lockdown began March 8th, when schools reopened, and won’t be complete until late June. Sorry, make that “until late June at the earliest”, appending Mr Johnson’s favourite three words. Nonessential retail, beer gardens and gyms won’t reopen until next week, restaurants not until May, and no one can say when draconian restrictions on international travel will be eased.

Precisely because the medical news in Britain is so cheerful, its difficulties escaping lockdown serve as a cautionary tale for everyone else. The task, it would appear, no longer is to suppress the virus or meter hospital demand or save lives or anything health-related. The task is to manage the dangerous interactions between a fearful political class and an overweening medical class.

That’s the vice in which Britain now finds itself. As fearful politicians go, few are more so than Mr Johnson. Yes, that Mr Johnson. Americans who remember his buccaneering spirit surrounding Brexit might be surprised at how his encounter with Covid – as a political leader and as a patient this time last year – has changed him.

The personal angle is best left to the readers’ own guesses, but the political transformation is easy enough to understand. Mr Johnson was elected in December 2019 with an enormous mandate to get Brexit done, and for not much of anything else. The pandemic daily exposes the extent to which a coalition among libertarian, Christian-democratic and working-class Conservatives is in danger of fracturing whenever anything other than Brexit is on the table. At the moment the civil libertarians are the dissenters, but the easing of lockdown will merely raise new policy questions over which other bits of his party can rebel.

Mr Johnson has found the only thing that can keep these cats in a vaguely herded state is success. Well, yes. In politics, nothing succeeds like success. But adopting that as a governing strategy leaves little scope for occasional fumbles along the way.

Before the vaccination programme succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, Mr Johnson’s Government was under near-mortal threat from its perceived failure to contain the pandemic’s winter wave with more-aggressive lockdowns in the autumn. Mr Johnson can’t afford to be bold in reopening for fear that some unforeseen error, or an unpredictable spike in infections, or some other disaster will lead to a political; collapse of some sort.

Which brings us to the other jaw of the vice: an overweening public-health class.

The things these medical experts say become more outlandish by the day. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, for example, is now warning that even with widespread vaccination the UK may need to brace for future lockdowns. Imperial College modellers project that – again, even with widespread vaccination – Britain could see a third wave of the virus leading to as much hospitalisation and death as the rest of Europe currently is experiencing.

Setting aside the scientific questions about all this, such pronouncements represent a bold tendency by public-health professionals to adopt maximalist aims regarding the virus and then impose politically impossible conditions – to wit, to deny the public its freedom even after delivering the vaccinations that were supposed to unlock the economy. A braver politician would sideline these folks. Alas, that’s not what that UK has.

Britain in some ways is uniquely ill-suited to navigate an exit from its lockdown. Before the pandemic it lacked a viable opposition party, since Mr Johnson had decimated his Labour opponents in a recent election. Unlike federal states such as the US or Germany, Britain lacks many competing power centres to experiment with local reopening; those it does have, in Scotland and Wales, tend toward the authoritarian. British culture is infused with a heavier dose of safetyism than it generally wishes to admit.

Yet similarities to the UK lockdown plight show up everywhere – in Joe Biden’s deference to discredited public-health authorities, in Angela Merkel’s chronic safetyism in Germany, in Emmanuel Macron’s desperate bid to hold together an electoral coalition untied only by his own past political success. The point is that the next steps out of lockdown will require conquering not the virus, but out political class’s many and varied neuroses.

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