Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 8 December 2020


A Christmas for the Coronavirus

Forget for a moment locking down late when the pandemic first hit. Forget itching to end lockdown restrictions, leaving us with too high a case load once the first lockdown ended. Forget the utterly stupid decision to ignore local public health teams in an attempt to construct a centralised test and trace regime. Forget Eat Out to Help Out the virus. Forget trying to persuade people to go back to work. Forget still pretending the pandemic was over when planning to reopen schools and universities. Forget even ignoring the advice of the experts as the second wave got going. Forget many other failures besides.

Just focus on Christmas. Yes of course many would celebrate Christmas in the usual way whatever the government said. But there are probably just as many people who are rightly concerned about the additional social mixing that a normal Christmas is bound to bring, and these people need an authority to give them an excuse not have a normal Christmas. The only authority most will see is the government. 

No problem, you might say. Let everyone decide for themselves. That might be a tenable position to take, except for two things. The first is that public health experts are also very worried about a spike that Christmas is almost bound to create in COVID cases just a week or two after Christmas. That information must be made very clear to everyone, and the only way that will happen is if the government does so.

The second is that a national celebration like Christmas creates social pressure to take part. There is the personal pressure of wanting to see family members who you have not seen for some time at a traditional time of meeting. There is the interpersonal pressure of not wanting to tell family that you will not be hosting Christmas. And last but not least, there is the considerable social pressure that Christmas creates. Apart from friends and neighbours, don’t expect the media to act differently this year.

Which is where national leadership should come in. A responsible politician should want to avoid a second spike in cases (followed a few weeks later by deaths). They know that they cannot stop people celebrating Christmas, but equally they would want to get over the idea that it is not wise to bring households together to do so. As they know that, this is what they should say. Here is an example of what to say: short term unpopularity to save lives. It’s called leadership.

In almost every way Boris Johnson is the worst Prime Minister to have in this situation. (I say almost because there are some Tory MPs who would appear to be even more clueless.) His natural instincts are to ‘bring good news’, which means in the words of the irresponsible Tory press ‘saving Christmas’. He loves telling people to have a good time with no thought of future consequences, because that has been how he has run his charmed life. His libertarian instincts are not to interfere, and his political instincts are not to be the man who stopped people getting together at Christmas.

As a result, we get the worst of all worlds. Just saying ‘be careful’ while having a normal Christmas is less than helpful, because it suggests that if you mix households it will be alright as long as you're careful, whatever that means. As Devi Sridhar writes "[The virus] rapidly spreads indoors and in poorly ventilated settings, particularly in households, when people gather together informally in comfortable and close conditions. Disinfecting surfaces and sitting two metres apart just isn’t going to stop transmission.” In addition, trying to pack travel into 5 days around Christmas will, if people don’t ignore it, create dangerous overcrowding on trains. Is Christmas with the family so important that it is worth the possibility that you will be burying family in January, a few months before they were due to get a vaccine?

Christmas was always going to be something of a party for the virus, letting it make up some of the ground it lost during the second wave lockdown. But it didn’t need to be a state sanctioned affair. It will be yet another occasion when many will ask how on earth did we ended up with a Prime Minister who finds it so hard to make difficult decisions. Because, if we now remember the many mistakes of the last 9 months, Christmas will just take its place among many. 

These are not errors that make some people poorer or inconvenience others, but mistakes that cost many many lives. We don't often see the relatives of those who have died from the virus, just news bulletins giving cold statistics for a few seconds. But those deaths are now equivalent of a plane crash in the UK every day. Just imagine the questions we would ask about who was responsible after only one single plane crash, let alone one every day. Why isn't everyone asking those questions of the government that is largely responsible for this level of deaths? 

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