March 13th, 2020

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Notes from the Petri Dish

In the last few weeks Johnson and his gang of however-many-people-are-in-the-cabinet have discovered that they do rather like experts after all, and indeed are going to let government policy be entirely directed by them for the foreseeable future. But which kind of expert? Will it be your bog-standard scientists, or a selection of Dominic Cummings A-team-style geniuses, who are going to catch the coronavirus in a Heath-Robinson contraption of their own devising?

I don't know. I'd love to feel that I was in safe hands, and that the government's sharp swerve away from the international consensus on such matters as school and university closures, calling off sports events, and so on, was motivated by a policy of keeping deaths from the virus to a minimum. However, it's hard to avoid the suspicion that that aim is subordinate to the desire to make the interruption to the economy as short-lived as possible, and that a high (but relatively brief) spike in deaths is deemed preferable to a crisis that drags on indefinitely.

I have some cause for that suspicion. There have already been Malthusian voices in the Torygraph looking forward to the "cull" of the ill and elderly and the fillip that will give the economy, a view that the writer weirdly calls "disinterested" - as if untrammelled greed were as much a given as gravity.

Then there's Boris Johnson's lauding of the mayor in Jaws, who risks the citizens' lives in order to preserve the town's economy: "I loved his rationality. Of course, it turned out that he was wrong. But it remains that he was heroically right in principle." And what about Dominic Cummings' recent attempt to hire a full-on eugenicist as an aide at No. 10?

None of these things give me confidence that the government is prioritising the well-being of those most vulnerable to the virus: the old and the ill. It makes me wonder whether some of them at least aren't rubbing their hands a little (and not with soap). On the other hand, most of those who will die are Tory voters, so that's a consideration.

In any case, at the end of all this we will have a very clear measure of each government's preparedness, competence and priorities, in the form of the mortality rate. If Britain's is markedly higher than other countries', there won't be anywhere to hide.