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There is a fine line between optimism and complacency that Boris Johnson has often crossed during the coronavirus pandemic. In July, when lifting the first national lockdown, the prime minister held out the prospect of “a significant return to normality” in time for Christmas. He restated that ambition in November, when setting out the terms of a second lockdown. “I have no doubt that people will be able to have as normal a Christmas as possible,” he said.
What marks that forecast as typically Johnsonian is the gratuitous certainty. The prime minister believes that asserting something with confidence makes it more likely to become true. That method can be effective as campaign rhetoric, but in government it risks making an enemy of reality.
So it has proved in the pandemic. A fixation on achieving “normality” warped the prime minister’s judgement of a probable timetable for national recovery. Public expectations have been poorly managed, especially with regard to Christmas. The licence to form a social “bubble” of up to three households over five days is now obviously hazardous when infections are rising in many parts of the country.
That permission cannot be revoked without causing disappointment and frustration. People have made plans. They are anticipating the emotional balm of contact with their families. Mr Johnson feels unable to change the rules, so he invites people not to exercise in full the freedoms that are available. In a press conference on Wednesday he alluded to a popular song, advising the nation to have themselves a “merry little” Christmas, with the emphasis on “little”.
That levity was unhelpful given the scale of the challenge. Littleness is not a useful metric in practice. The prime minister was characteristically reluctant to sound at all prescriptive. A casual (and historically inappropriate) comparison of existing rules to Oliver Cromwell’s puritanical assault on Christmas in the 17th century exposed a visceral distaste for social restrictions of any kind.
By contrast, devolved governments have issued guidelines describing regimes that are measurably tighter. The letter of the UK law applies, but there is no doubt that the devolved spirit is more prohibitive. In Scotland the advice is for people not to travel and to meet only outdoors. The Welsh recommendation is for social bubbles of two households, not three. Wales has also signalled a move towards a fuller national lockdown starting immediately after Christmas.
A consistent lesson from the pandemic experience is that it pays to act quickly and forcefully. Premature relaxation buys transient social and economic respite at a severe cost in subsequent infections. The potential effect of such a surge on health services that are always hard pressed in January and February gives cause for maximum caution in the coming weeks. Scenes from hospitals in Antrim, Northern Ireland, where patients had to be treated in queueing ambulances, provide chilling evidence of how quickly events can spiral.
Although the availability of a vaccine is cause for optimism in the medium term, the shorter-term hazard is still complacency. Given how long the ordeal has lasted already, public fatigue is inevitable. It naturally gets more challenging for politicians to keep demanding compliance and asking for patience. But Mr Johnson seems to be under the illusion that he can curry favour by signalling his own weariness with the process. That is a mistake. His palpable reluctance to impose any rules has diluted their authority. His squeamishness about discipline has given tacit licence to disobedience. The prime minister sees the terrible risk of the collective guard being dropped over the coming weeks. He urges caution in the exercise of freedoms that he feels unable to rescind. It is a vital message, sadly diminished by his inadequacy as the messenger.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Guardian view on Johnson and Covid rules: a habit of complacency | Coronavirus