The limits of optimism

Like Mr Stimpson in the film Clockwise, Boris Johnson is learning about the perils of fostering hope

Artillery Row

Another Downing Street press conference, another sharing of sobering news. This Friday evening’s update commenced with the prime minister’s announcement concerning “changes in the scientific data or the analysis” which suggested there was “some evidence that the new variant – the variant that was first identified in London and the South East – may be associated with a higher degree of mortality”.

Better news exists. There is no clear evidence as yet to suggest the new variants, including those from South Africa and Brazil, are vaccine resistant. And the vaccination rollout is going to plan – a record 400,000 vaccinations in the previous 24 hours. At this rate, the four most vulnerable groups will have been vaccinated by mid-February.

Yet, anyone betting on a relaxation of the lockdown in England (and its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) before the end of March is now taking their instinct for contrarian investment to the limits. Even the date when schools go back, which Boris Johnson again stressed was top of his lockdown easement priorities, seems less and less likely to be directly after the February mid-term break.

There is a statutory requirement for lockdown reviews every fortnight. Last Wednesday’s review came and went with minimal fanfare not least because nobody sensibly imagined it would recommend relaxations. The next review is scheduled for 3 February. The best that can be anticipated from that survey is that additional restrictions within the country’s borders will not be imposed. Although whether tougher border controls are required with the world beyond is now one of Whitehall’s keenest debates.

One current line of attack on the government’s strategy is that the January lockdown is not as tough as the restrictions imposed in March 2020 even although the threat to overloading the NHS is greater. But the idea that the rules – and enforcement – of this winter’s lockdown are lax really does confuse self-chastisement with remedy. The reasons for the virus’s current more virulent variations have nothing to do with the permission given in January of 2021 but not in March 2020 for silent and socially distanced private prayer in churches. It is not as if we are in the midst of a great religious revival. Closing parish churches to even the cleaner or wrenching coffee cups from walkers undertaking their mid-afternoon exercise is not the difference between lockdown working and failing. It is an exercise in ignoring the effectiveness (or lack of effectiveness) achievable by the big prohibitions in order to put false hope in the difference that banning the marginal would bring. It is the politics of diversion.

Yet we all need faith in something. And false hope has been what Boris Johnson has given us throughout 2020. In large part, he did so because it is in his nature to be an optimist and to shirk – both as a man and as a politician – from being the bearer of bad news, if it can be at all avoided. He understood the market psychology in which investors, businesses, employers and despairing parents needed to feed hope that salvation was always just a few weeks off. Otherwise, they might pull the plug.

Even he has wearied of keeping up the pretence. Neither at Friday evening’s press conference nor in the preceding week has he allowed himself to be drawn on dates for when lockdown will be easing. Experience has taught him that much. Sadly, that is not entirely a good sign.

For, to quote John Cleese’s character, Mr Stimpson, the headmaster for whom successive unfortunate events conspire to ruin his moment of triumph in the film Clockwise, “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”

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