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Author: Ross Butler
Written on: 13 March 2020
Last updated: 13 March 2020

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Healthcare, NHS, Medical
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On the UK's coronavirus strategy


The UK’s response to the coronavirus is at odds with much of the world, including its near European neighbours.

While most countries with the virus are closing schools and banning public gatherings (including in Ireland, with which the UK shares a land border), Britain remains open.

This is being described as a ‘huge gamble’ on the part of UK prime minister Boris Johnson – and it is. If the strategy results in materially more deaths in the UK than its neighbours, it will be difficult to forgive.

What the media has failed to observe is that every country is gambling. The only difference is, they are gambling with people’s lives, Boris Johnson is merely gambling with his reputation and career as well.

Should there be more deaths in continental Europe after politicians there have done ‘everything’ they can, then it will be difficult to assign blame. Should there be more deaths in the UK, it will be so easy to ‘they should have done more.’ The UK government’s strategy seems risky because it involves relative inaction.

So you have to ask yourself, which risk would you like your leaders to manage? The risk you and your loved ones might die, or the risk that if you die, they might get the blame?

Nobody knows what the best response to coronavirus is. But we do know that, all things being equal, we want ‘something to be done.’ This is where the UK’s strategy is above all a communications challenge. The reasons for staying open longer are systemic, and can therefore be counter-intuitive to individuals.

In a nutshell, a very tough response too early will reduce societal immunity, as well as tolerance to curfew, and could result in more deaths later on.

It is also a long-term strategy, and planning for the long-term is not a natural response to a crisis that seems so immediate and that is escalating so fast. This requires politicians to hold their nerve, not something they are temperamentally suited for.

But Boris Johnson is a very unusual sort of western politician. His instincts are liberal (much more liberal than most people who voted for him realise.) And he has an intuitive understanding that in a complex world you are better off proceeding cautiously and keeping your options open. There are few more tempting or perhaps justifiable situations to introduce draconian measures than in the name of public health. These will probably prove necessary eventually. But even in this extreme instance, a preference for the state to always do something may well be folly.

Back in 2006, Boris told an audience of insurance brokers that the real hero in Jaws was the mayor. "A gigantic fish is eating all your constituents and he decides to keep the beaches open.” Classic Boris, he was of course, setting himself up for a fall. He continued: “OK, in that instance he was actually wrong.”

And that says everything you need to know about the UK’s strategy. It is nuanced, long-term and it is being implemented by people who know they may very well be wrong.

For me, that’s some comfort.

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