The same, only different – from Tony Blair to Keir Starmer

“The same, only different.” This is the advertising slogans I remember most clearly from the later 20th century (the 1970s most likely). I can’t remember what it was for, and a Google search doesn’t help. It was not one of the era’s more successful slogans, evidently. The advertiser was trying to say that its product had been improved, but without saying that it had been rubbish beforehand, or to put off loyal customers. I have often used it in connection with the Labour Party led by Tony Blair in the mid 1990s. As Sir Keir Starmer attempts a relaunch with a big speech today, it seems appropriate again, as indeed I was saying last week.

The same as what? In my original analysis of Mr Blair, I meant that the Conservatives. The party was making a pitch to “Middle England” voters who had been voting Conservative, and needed to reassure them that his party stood for a was a triumph of style over substance. Labour’s policies, notably on taxation and spending, were almost the same as the Tories. The key differences could be confined to four points that could be put on a small pledge card, alongside a fifth that said there would be no increase to income tax. Tories worried about putting “clear blue water” between them and Labour, but when they tried, Labour either immediately adopted the policy themselves, or let the Conservatives dig deeper into a hole with an unpopular policy. It was an extraordinarily disciplined effort, resulting in the most spectacular election victory of modern times, but which left the party with a weak mandate to actually do anything radical.

On reflection the slogan also applies to Mr Blair’s message to party activists. His policy stance displayed a marked turn to the right, in favour of the neoliberal orthodoxy. But Mr Blair maintained that the party retained its ultimate objective of getting a better deal for the working classes; it was just the tactics that were changing. He wrote the slogan “For the many, not the few” into the party constitution.

Mr Blair’s highly managed approach to politics invited distrust, but in both these messages he was as good as his word. In his first term he implemented austerity policies just as severe as the Conservatives were proposing, and was careful about raising taxes. In 2001, when the public had got used to Labour being in charge, he won another big election victory, but took a distinctly more socialist approach. Over the next two terms, Labour ramped up public spending and invested in public services. Anybody who did not think this approach was of the left only has to compare it with what followed. The problem was that he, and Gordon Brown his Chancellor and successor, and just as much an architect of this strategy, chose to avoid raising taxes on income and spending, and instead focused on the bubbly capital markets. When the crash came a massive hole was left in public finances. Mr Brown’s progressive cuts of the basic rate of income tax to 20% were a massive misjudgement.

What of Sir Keir? It seems to that he is trying a similar trick. His speech today was long on vague talk of transformation and a “fork in the road”, but his policies sound distinctly close Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, which are a distinct turn to the left for that party. He made working with business a central theme, and stressed sensible management of the nation’s finances. But the comparison with Messrs Blair and Brown does him no favours. These two offered the public clear messages of what they were about, especially Mr Blair. Even before he was leader, he offered us “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. As the election approached it was “Education, education, education”. On the radio this morning the Shadow Chancellor Annaliese Dodds was offered the chance sum sum up what Labour now stood for in a sentence. She waffled; I really can’t remember what she said.

But it is early days and this is not the mid 1990s. The Tories then were led by the uncharismatic John Major. Often the public go for opposites – so the best way to oppose the charismatic Mr Johnson might be something much more competent and mundane. It worked for John Major in 1992 after all, contrasting with his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, as well as the Labour leader Neil Kinnock.

Still, clarity of message can’t hurt. The real test of that is that it must upset people, especially on the left. Only then will the public understand that Labour has moved on from the crazy years of Jeremy Corbyn, and that the party will deliver what Mr Johnson say he wants to do, but is too chaotic to succeed. The same, only different.

In defence of vaccine nationalism

Not all are equal when it comes to vaccination against Covid-19. Israel speeds ahead, followed by Britain and the USA, with other European countries bumbling along in their wake. Developing countries, or most of them, are a long way behind. This has provoked some harrumphing. “None of us are safe until we are all safe”, it is said. According to this idea the vaccine should be distributed in a world programme based on individual vulnerabilities. This gets general murmurs of approval from liberal types, or at any rate those are not in government. No wonder conservatives think liberals are soft in the head.

There are deeper philosophical and ethical questions behind this, but it would be useful to start with two facts which don’t seem to get mentioned in this context. The first is that vaccine manufacture is well behind the ambitious targets set earlier in the year. The headlines may be dominated by the massive scale of orders placed by the British government and others, but delivery is another matter. According to Tim Harford in the Financial Times some 800 million doses were promised in 2020. but only 20-30 million were actually delivered. There are no surplus stocks sitting around in national inventories while the needy are unvaccinated. The second fact is that death rates in the developed world, and Britain and the USA in particular, are very high. Britain’s is the highest in the world, we are told. In the developing world death rates are much lower. Some of this may be down to weaknesses in data gathering and government denial, of course. But mostly it is because their populations are much younger, on average, and so less vulnerable. And Britain and the USA both have an obesity problem. So if you are going to start with a worldwide vaccination programme, why wouldn’t you begin with the USA and Britain anyway? Is there really a worldwide injustice here?

Looking a bit deeper there is then the question of practicality. Collective efforts are often inefficient. In Europe the EU’s joint procurement is well behind that of newly separate Britain’s. A centrally organised world programme doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s bit like the lockdown sceptics’ idea that we should protect the vulnerable and let everybody else live their lives unrestricted (or restricted only by their own fear). At fist sight you might think it looks a good idea, but it doesn’t survive any closer inspection at all.

It’s worth a thought as to why this might be. One problem is accountability. The more complicated a project, and the more people involved, the more the need for accountability slows things down. And at the world level accountability has always been a problem. There is also the question of information. The further away you are from the sharp end, the poorer the quality and the less effective decisions tend to be. Committees and collaboration have their place; they even have heir place in worldwide vaccination programmes. But not in leading the emergency effort to get as many people vaccinated as fast as possible. here allowing national governments to act independently is going to get more shots into arms more quickly.

This leads to an important philosophical and ethical issue that liberals would do well to think about more deeply. How often do we hear pleas that needs of African peasants (we often focus on the rural poor and overlook ballooning urban poverty for some reason) should be just as much concern to us as the problems of our immediate neighbours? The fact that we neglect poor people in faraway places is regarded as a moral failure. And yet when rich people, or people in rich countries, try to help poor people far away, it so often ends badly. Aid ends up helping the wrong people, or distorting market and governance structures to their detriment, or simply comes over an example of patronising post-colonialism, reinforcing ethnic stereotypes. The exercise often seems to be guilt-tripping with little wider practical utility, beyond raising the status of certain NGO types. Of course the first premise of the liberal argument is sound enough: that all people on earth are morally equal. This is not a given, but there are all manner of reasons, moral, spiritual and pragmatic, why we should believe this. But this needs to be complemented by some form of proximity principle. It is quite right to be more concerned about those closer to us than those further away. It isn’t a moral failure. We can imagine a sort of hierarchy of family and close friends, neighbours, fellow countryman and so on. Such a hierarchy invites a whole series of problems, though. Western liberals, me included, agree that race or ethnic identity should play no part in it, of course, but this isn’t universally accepted (look at what is happening in China or India). Should Britons be more concerned about Latvians than Moroccans because of some form of European or Christian identity? And a lot of aid made by rich countries to faraway places is beneficial to humankind; I give to several charities and support the UK’s generous aid budget. It’s a bit of a nightmare, which is doubtless why many liberals try to short-circuit the discussion by denying any kind of proximity principle. But that doesn’t work either.

I am no moral philosopher,so I am not going to attempt an answer to these tricky questions. I rely on intuition. To me there is nothing wrong with countries focusing on vaccinating their own citizens as a top priority, even if richer countries end up getting ahead of the queue (which won’t be entirely the case anyway; India, for example, is the world’s leader in the manufacture of vaccines and is as nationalist in its priorities as anybody). That does not mean it is right to sabotage other countries’ efforts, or to hoard unused vaccine stocks. And once the urgencies of your own country have been dealt with, it is right to devote national resources to aiding other countries where the need is greater. I often disagree with the current British government’s moral priorities, but I think they have this one roughly right.

A federal UK: a solution that is worse than the problem

In a world where people choose facts to suit their prejudices, and dismiss challenge as the work of a sinister enemy, it is still important to seek out views that make you uncomfortable. This is how I felt when I read this article in The Times by Matthew Parris. I like Mr Parris, but I often disagree with him; I think his views on lockdowns and the virus border on irresponsible. But this article, on creating a federal UK constitution to head off the threat of Scottish independence did what reading newspaper columns should.. It made me very uncomfortable because it challenged a long-held position of mine that the UK should move to federal system of government, with regional states. It made especially uncomfortable because he is right.

The idea is that the threat of Scottish independence needs a radical constitutional answer, and that such a proposal would allow unionists to grab back the initiative. And a Federal UK is thought to be that radical answer. It would allow further powers to be devolved while ending the muddle where Scottish MPs vote on English questions. It would all be so much tidier. There is nothing inherently un-British about a federal system. The US constitution has firm Anglo-Saxon underpinnings; the ex-colonial states states of Australia and Canada were set up with federal constitutions, in systems which are otherwise modelled on the UK. And a polity with 3-10 million people is often very efficient, if other European countries are anything to go by, with strong political cohesion (usually – let’s not talk about Belgium).

The problem is England. There are two ways it can be incorporated into a federal UK. First is to set up a separate English parliament. But this would so dominate the whole federal entity that it would be at permanent loggerheads with the UK parliament. I don’t think there are any good examples out there in the world where such a lopsided federation has worked. Russia has gone down this route, both in in Soviet days and afterwards, and it hasn’t been a triumph of empowerment and democracy. I have advocated this, with a new English or UK capital in Birmingham, but even then I wasn’t convinced. Mr Parris rightly dismisses it. The second route is to turn English regions into states. This is elegant in theory, but it is a top-down solution that would be imposed on a sceptical public.

This is a hard truth for people like me to bear. I am inspired by European states, such as Germany, Switzerland and Austria, which operate a regional federal system. These are amongst the best-run states in Europe. Compare that to the over centralised Britain and France. France, of course, has tried to impose regional government, as has Spain (an interesting parallel because the motivation is similar: to head off separatism). Mr Parris dismisses the Spanish solution as comprising made-up states with little political purpose. I don’t know whether he is fair on that, but it certainly hasn’t solved the Catalonian question. The problem in England is that there is little or no regional culture or identity for regional government to lock into. Like one of the more singing criticisms of the European Union: there is no demos. This is unlike the situation of the USA, Australia and Canada, which were agglomerations of separate colonies, often physically far apart.

This is the end result of nearly a thousand years of English history. Ever since the Norman invasion of 1066 the national government (which quickly moved to London) has sought to undermine any serious regional political strength. The English failed to extend their rule into Scotland, and their rule in Ireland was never entirely secure. Wales came into the realm in medieval times, but its culture never quite integrated with England’s. But in England itself, this political integration was a success. This history is unlike that of Germany and Austria, where for hundreds of years the much-derided Holy Roman Empire held sway, allowing a multiplicity of local identities to coexist.

Things can change, of course. The most successful era of local government and initiative was not all that long ago, in the Victorian era. This left some wonderful civic architecture in Britain’s great cities. That followed local economic success, which depended on local natural resources (especially coal) and surplus rural labour. In the 21st Century successive governments have tried to build on this by developing “city regions” based on these old industrial centres, and led by “mayors”. These often uncover fierce local rivalries, and can’t be said to be fully rooted.

Still the city regions were better than the Whitehall-devised regions used for EU regional policy, which had almost no popular traction, except in London itself, perhaps. The city regions, and building on existing local authority structures, remain the most hopeful avenue for developing a more devolved political structure in England. It is a long, hard road. Almost everybody seems to favour more localised decision-making in theory, but in practice they undermine it at every turn, dismissing it as a “postcode lottery”. Fighting the covid-19 epidemic was a major opportunity to develop locally coordinated structures, but the government didn’t have the patience, and has not paid any discernible political price.

What is not going to work, though, is a hastily put together federal structure for UK government based on English regions, or England as a whole, for that matter. It would quickly fall into disrepute and be widely regarded s a shambles and waste of public money, at best.

Where does this lead? Well perhaps Scottish independence is not such a bad idea after all. A separation would be yet more painful and chaotic than the UK’s separation from the EU. But that other region of good governance and civic success in Europe, Scandinavia, is based one a community of independent nations not dissimilar in size to Scotland. Separation would make me very sad, but let us not try to head it off with constitutional reforms that are just going to make things worse in the longer run.

Sir Keir Starmer must take tough decisions on personnel and policy

Recently I wrote that Boris Johnson is in a strong position politically, notwithstanding all his ms-steps on Covid-19. This was based on British success on the vaccine, and that, for most people, Brexit is not proving to be a disaster. This now seems to be accepted political wisdom. I didn’t talk about another reason he is in a strong position: the disarray of the opposition parties in his English heartlands.

This weekend’s papers are full of despair over Labour’s new leader, Sir Keir Starmer; his honeymoon is well and truly over. It is even worse for the Lib Dem leader, Sir Ed Davey, who never had a honeymoon. Journalists want to see opposition led by charismatic leaders, and neither fit the bill. But I have a huge respect for both men: the main problem with each of them is the weakness their parties.

Ever since the 2010 General Election, Labour have been chasing a chimera: the “progressive majority”. This is the idea that most voters do not want to see a Conservative government. At first the idea was used to push cooperation between Labour and the Lib Dems. But under Ed Miliband, who took over in 2010, the idea was that Labour should harness this majority on its own, by crushing the Lib Dems and Greens; there was no need to chase marginal Conservative voters and so compromise “progressive” values. This strategy was carried forward by his successor, Jeremy Corbyn. They both managed to crush the Lib Dems and Greens, but this turned out to help the Conservatives more than their own party.

Sir Keir now accepts that he has to hone his party’s appeal to conservative voters. But after a decade of the party polishing its “progressive” credentials, it is far from clear that he is taking his party with him, or that he knows how to build the trust of these voters. His early strategy was to show that he is more competent and a stronger leader than the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. He may have succeeded, but it clearly isn’t enough. The commonplace complaints are that he lacks vision, and that his team is weak. Of these criticisms, the second is probably the most important for now. None of his front-bench colleagues has made much impression, either because they aren’t really up to it, or because Sir Keir isn’t giving them enough scope. The Conservatives have their weakest front bench for some time, but even they are doing better than Labour. They have Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and even the Health Secretary Matt Hancock is showing some grit. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, seems to be completely useless to professional types like me, but it would be dangerous to underestimate her appeal to conservative voters.

Sir Keir needs to take some decisive action on his team. But he also needs to set out some kind of a story on policy. Many are urging him to adopt reform to the British constitution (with an eye on the Scots), but this looks like a dead letter to me. The English grumble about this, but have no real appetite for change. Whatever he does has to be both conservative and painful. The pain – by which I mean upsetting a lot of his activists – is necessary, otherwise the public will not believe that anything has changed. The model for this is the way Tony Blair engineered a fight over Clause 4 to the Labour constitution in the 1990s. Accepting Brexit is not enough. A tough stand on immigration and jobs for working class Britons looks like one promising angle. He will probably have to shadow Tory policy on tax and spend too even if they privately think it’s nonsense. Complaints about “austerity” will have to be struct from the Labour lexicon.

What of the Lib Dems? Going into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 exposed fatal weakness in the party’s core support, and both the other parties took advantage (roughly speaking, Labour took the votes and the Tories took the parliamentary seats). They then went all out to stop Brexit, which brought about a revival, but failure leaves them bereft. Many of their former supporters see no compelling reason to support the party rather than Sir Keir’s Labour. Alas the party will have to learn patience. They will only advance on the national scene if the other parties give them the space. If Labour follows my advice and takes a sharp turn to the right, something like the gap that the Lib Dems exploited in the 2000s will open up. Until they do, the party has to concentrate on local government to secure its political base.

There is an obvious further point to make. If both parties are weak, then it makes sense for them to work together. A formal pact is almost certainly a bad idea, but some kind of informal carve-up of seats (as per the 1997 general election) may have something going for it. If Labour adopt a more conservative policy stance, and the Lib Dems present themselves as a more progressive junior partner, they may just be able to get the best of both worlds. The Greens might be brought in to try and scoop up hard left votes.

But if Sir Keir continues to dodge tough questions on personnel and policy, he will do enough to keep the Lib Dems and Greens on the floor, but will be quite unable to challenge the Conservatives for power. Mr Johnson has some big difficulties ahead, not least Scotland and Northern Ireland, but England looks his for now.

Learning to live with Brexit means looking to the future

Like a rather surprising number of Remainers, Brexit has been like a bereavement for me. Before the referendum in 2016 few people would admit to an emotional attachment to the European Union (indeed this was one of the reasons Leave won), but I was among them. I can date that attachment to attendance at a rally in Westminster Hall in 1975, when the keynote speaker was Ted Heath, my first political hero, when I was 17. Or perhaps it was before then, when I identified as “European” when living in Jamaica, in order to distinguish myself from the many Americans I was at school with (while doubtless trying to stay ay arms length from Britain’s colonial legacy). Whatever the origins, I have been following the classic five steps of bereavement since the referendum.

Compared to many Remainers I went through Denial and Anger pretty quickly, but then I got stuck for years on Negotiation. This partly revolved around pressing for a new referendum, and thinking about how that should be conducted – though as time went by I became more sceptical that this was the right way to go. But mainly I got drawn into discussion about the terms of withdrawal and the future relationship. This was a furious paddling to try and stave off the inevitable next stage: Depression, which duly struck with the December 2019 General Election result. I turned away from the whole subject and busied myself with other things. But I can now confidently say that I have reached Acceptance. Acceptance does not mean that the pain has stopped: there will be pangs every time I get stuck in a passport queue when ravelling in the EU, and with every young friend or relative that complains that their opportunities are blighted as they can only find work into Union with difficulty. But I can than talk or think about the EU without trying to roll back time.

The breakthrough moment came last summer, when the EU agreed a post-pandemic aid programme which involved the creation of shared debt. This was a massive breakthrough in the evolution of the union. The deal itself, as usual, will not live up to the hopes placed on it, but the union is now better placed to deal with the challenges facing it. I quickly realised that this deal would have been much harder to reach if Britain had been a member. We had become paranoid about taking on debt from other EU countries – the idea of EU solidarity had so little currency. Whether or not a small majority of Britons were now in favour of British membership at any time, the country was irretrievably divided and it became increasingly difficult for the country to be a constructive member. Both John Major and Tony Blair found this, after starting their premierships wishing for Britain “to be at the heart of Europe”; they failed and subsequent premiers did not even try. The EU is actually better off without us, even though our departure has weakened it in many ways. If Britain is to rejoin, it has to be wholeheartedly, with a referendum majority of much more than 52%, and with prospective membership of the Euro agreed and understood. That will not happen in my lifetime, or not without some catastrophe changing people’s outlook, which I do not wish on my fellow countrymen. I have got over it.

So how does an ardent Remainer like me cope with Britain’s new status? I think there are two key rules. The first is to look to the future, and not to refight the battles of the past. It is very tempting to say “told-you so” as one promise after another of Leave campaigners comes to naught. But it doesn’t help; we can’t turn the clock back. And anyway, we need to understand that Remain campaigners got things wrong too, if not quite so egregiously. The second key rule is to be more realistic and critical of the European Union itself. It is useless to try and sell it to the British public, and we must understand what opportunities Brexit presents, even when we are acutely aware of the costs. In fact if Britain does things better than the EU, it will provide healthy competition that might guide it to a better place.

In this spirit, one of the most important things to understand is that the Union, and especially the Single Market, is a neoliberal project. It is based on the promotion of free trade and competition, and it aims to limit government interference in commerce. It is ironic that many Conservative Brexiteers are ardent neoliberals, and think that Brexit opens up opportunities for Britain to pursue more neoliberal policies. I differ from most people on the political left in thinking that neoliberalism is not necessarily a bad thing. This week’s Economist has an article which suggests that Britain’s economic progress in the 1980s up to the Great Financial Crisis was more down to EU membership than the liberalisation pursued by Mrs Thatcher’s government. It makes the case by tracking total factor productivity of the three countries that joined the EU (or European Common Market as we then called it) in 1973, i.e. Britain, Denmark and Ireland, compared the original six members (France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries). This had been in steady decline until 1970, flattened in the 1970s and then rose steadily until the mid 2000s. Mrs Thatcher did not rule Denmark or Ireland, so but the county’s economic performance was no better. This is false dichotomy. A large part of the economic benefit of joining the union arose from the Single Market reforms, which were Mrs Thatcher’s gift to the EU, and probably her most enduring political achievement. The Single Market was not a conspiracy to inflict pointless bureaucracy on British industry – it was in fact the opposite: to free intra-union trade (and movement of people and capital) from unproductive bureaucracy. We are learning this the hard way. It is a neoliberal project par excellence.

The Economist suggests that outside the EU, Britain might again suffer from “British Disease”, as our markets become less competitive. But where I agree with the left is that neoliberalism has little to offer most developed world economies in 2021, and certainly not Britain’s. Our future economic wellbeing is much less dependent on free trade with other countries, and state intervention is going to be much more important. Free markets are still critical, but they are not enough. Furthermore, conventional economic measurements, such as gross income (i.e. such measures as GDP) and productivity, are an unreliable guide to wellbeing.

The Conservative plan to use Brexit to drive through neoliberal reforms is doomed. If they succeed in implementing them, which they will find hard, they will deliver disappointing results with Britain outside the Single Market. There will doubtless be opportunities in some industrial sectors, but for each these there will be other sectors ruined by Brexit. Last month the Economist painted a depressing picture for the outlook for the British chemical industry. Brexit may not be as dire for Britain’s short-term economy as many predicted (though the jury is still out on that one), but medium term the outlook for GDP and other conventional economic measures is poor. But I have just said that does not matter so much. Instead we should be focusing on national wellbeing, and here there are possibilities that may be improved by Brexit, or at least not harmed. To get this sort of thinking started I will suggest three.

The first is environmentally sustainable agriculture and fisheries. We need to look at these industries not from the old-fashioned point of view of extracting the maximum quantitive output from our land and sea, but to restore those natural resources to health. Marginal agricultural land should be rewarded; alternatives need to be found to the mass use of environmentally damaging pesticides and fertilisers. We need more marine conservation zones and a war on destructive industrial fisheries. We can do this much more easily outside the EU’s management structures.

The second, and more economically significant, area for development should be the health economy. The overall importance of health to the economy is growing, but it is not an industry that takes well to conventional economic measurements. Often less is more (healthier people require fewer medical interventions; more effective medical interventions often require more economic inputs a balance that is often seems to lead to reduced productivity). We need to develop better ways of managing public health, as well as more effective interventions. Britain has advantages here, especially those that arise from a single national health service, and the way it can draw medical data together. Covid-19 has shown the good and the bad of British health services. The country has led the world in developing vaccines and other medical interventions, but public health services have been chaotic, and central government interventions ineffective – though the country’s armed services have shown some rare organisational effectiveness. The country has palpable strengths, but the whole area needs to be rethought.

And the third area for focus is developing of opportunities for people with weak paper qualifications. This should be easier now that access to our labour markets from less developed corners of the EU (and the rest of the world) is being reduced. As a good liberal I support freedom of movement, especially within Europe, but the main benefits are for those with good qualifications. But keeping foreign labour out is far from sufficient for improving the prospects for people already here. This needs much more focus than it is getting – pushing more people in badly-paid and insecure jobs is not the answer, but it is where neoliberal policies will take us. One idea on the left that I would like to be given more time and thought is a government job guarantee. I think this has more promise for national wellbeing than the much more fashionable Universal Basic Income.

I need to make one further point. These ideas, and others which make wellbeing their focus rather than aggregate income, require a much higher level of government competence than we have ever seen in this country (except maybe in the days of Victorian metropolitan development). The British government is far too centralised to be effective (a criticism I would lay against the French one too, also shown up by the pandemic response), and it is made worse by excessive faith in management consultants and outsourcers. There are pockets of excellence in British public life (much of the education system, aspects of the NHS, and the operational side of the armed forces, though not its procurement side). But something big needs to change.

The current government is ill-equipped to take advantage of the opportunities that now present themselves. They should be challenged not for promoting Brexit, but for mismanaging it.

2020 ended well for Boris Johnson: do not underestimate him

“All’s well that ends well.” This seems to be the motto of Boris Johnson, our Conservative Prime Minister in the UK. He’s had a terrible 2020, with his government constantly being wrong-footed by the developments on the coronavirus epidemic. But he ended it with two major successes and that pretty much neutralised it all at a stroke. This is how he does his politics, and it is why he should never be written off.

His first success was on the virus, with the approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The development and roll-out of vaccines is the one area of virus policy where Britain’s record stands up to international comparison (actually alongside development of treatments, though the benefits of this are less visible). And the Oxford vaccine was developed largely in Britain, and is manufactured here, as well as many other places worldwide. It seems to have the best balance between effectiveness, cost and deployability of the leading vaccines – though it lost the battle of the press releases earlier in the year, with misleading comparisons of efficacy being made with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Britain may now beat other major countries in the speed with which it tackles the crisis through vaccination, just when infection rates are starting to explode in much of the world. Britain should be among the first to see the benefits of mass vaccination.

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson’s most dangerous critics, the lockdown sceptics, have been silenced. With hospitals now under extreme stress it has become much harder to make the case that lockdowns are an unnecessary evil. And a lot of the stories being peddled by sceptics, such as that London was starting to benefit from herd immunity, have been shown to be idle speculation. Also the presence of a new, more infectious strain of the virus has served as an alibi for a lot of dodgy decisions in the run-up to Christmas. My suspicion is that much of the recent explosion in infection rates, which is leading to hospital overload, is in fact down to pre-Christmas behaviour, following the government’s announcement that a five-day easing of restrictions would be allowed. But everybody is talking about the new strain.

So, although the news from the pandemic is very depressing here in the UK, Mr Johnson has managed to limit the political fallout for him personally. The fumbling goes on, but if the vaccine goes as well as we re al hoping, then Mr Johnson can put a positive glass on the whole thing.

Mr Johnson’s second triumph is the Brexit deal. This is a huge political success, whatever one thinks of its substance. Without it there would have been a lot of Brexit-related noise and hassle in early 2021; with it the end of the transition period was a bit of an anticlimax. Furthermore, the process of pushing the conclusion of the deal to the very last moment was solid politics. Doubtless it helped to wring more concessions from the other side on the sort issues of nominal sovereignty that get his MPs so worked up. Better still, the lateness, and its proximity to Christmas, reduced public scrutiny; this critical piece of legislation was rushed through parliament in a single day. Another hope of government supporters, that the short-term economic effects of Brexit would be masked by the effects of the pandemic looks as if it will come to pass too.

It is not hard to see how the government hopes things will go from here. after a “bumpy” couple of months, the vaccine will start to push back the effects of the pandemic, precipitating an economic boom, which masks any short-term costs of Brexit. On Brexit the government doesn’t need to deliver on its preposterous promises of economic benefits (which isn’t to that there won’t be benefits), it just needs to say “There, that didn’t hurt so much did it?”. Remainers painted a picture of short-term economic catastrophe. There has been such a catastrophe, of course, but that is clearly because of covid-19, not Brexit, and the country will bounce back.

Of course this does not mean that things will keep on going well for Mr Johnson. His serial incompetence and weak ministerial team will lead him into yet more mess and muddle. It is not at all clear how he plans to get away from the carnage inflicted n government finances – though the betting is that he will try to ignore it, which is what quite a few sensible people are saying he should do. He will have a huge political headache in dealing with the bid for Scottish independence, which will be harder to ignore, though there may be political capital to be made in England.

But the point is this: we should not underestimate Boris Johnson’s command of the art of low politics. He may well last until another election (likely to be before 2024), and win it.

UPDATE

I started drafting this piece last week, and, in spite of some edits, its perspective is a bit last week. Soon after I pressed the button to publish, Boris Johnson went on the television to announce six weeks or more of heavy lockdown in England, including the reversal of his position on schools that he had been defending only that morning. To many this just shows how bad he is at managing this crisis. This could all have been done long a go – the evidence was clear then – but leaving it until later ensures that the damage inflicted will be greater. So that looks like a bad start to 2021.

But my main point stands. If the government can implement the rapid rollout of the vaccine, and if that succeeds in beating back the virus, the momentum will switch and the trials and tribulations will be forgotten. Neither proposition is a certainty, but both look probable. What is currently missing is expanded financial support for those adversely affected by the measures – but looks as if it is on its way.

Why there may be no Brexit deal

As a rule I don’t like it when journalists report events before they happen, rather than waiting for a few days when facts start to emerge. When The Economist reports on most elections across the world it usually does does so before polling day, and rarely bothers afterwards beyond a brief update in the weekly summary. So why don’t I wait to see whether a deal is reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union for trade and other matters after the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December? Well there is a lot of kerfuffle and maybe it will help to make sense of it.

Optimism has been widespread that a deal with be reached, after the usual theatrics, because both sides will be damaged if not. But over the weekend I started to become pessimistic. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, lacks the skill to pull it off, I thought. The New Statesman‘s Stephen Bush articulated the anxiety much better than me in the magazine’s Morning Call, a daily email update on British politics which well worth subscribing to if you follow British politics closely.

Mr Bush’s point is that in order make the compromises necessary to push such a deal over the line, leaders must have a clear idea of critical priorities (and, therefore what other matters reopen to compromise). For example with his predecessor Theresa May it was immigration and the Northern Ireland border; she was less concerned with the “level playing field” concerns of the EU. With Mr Johnson, he either has no such clarity, famously wanting to have his cake and eat it, in the English expression, or if he does it is focused entirely on maximising the country’s legal sovereignty, which any substantial trade deal is bound to constrain, Britain not being the United States of America.

This last point chimes with a point being made more and more loudly by Conservative MPs and Lord Frost, Britain’s lead negotiator. The EU, they say, doesn’t understand that we are a sovereign nation. In any relationship breakdown one or both sides usually claim that the other simply doesn’t understand them. The louder this claim is made, the more sceptical detached observers become. These government supporters are protesting too much. It is they, surely, who are failing to understand the priorities of the other side.

If so, there would be plenty of precedent. British Eurosceptics are often very knowledgeable about the EU, but rarely understand it, and susually to predict how it develops. I remember clearly in the 1990s how many knowing Britons told me that monetary union would never happen, for example. Others were convinced that the Euro could not survive the debt crisis of 2011.

But there are two sides to this. Am I failing to understand the Eurosceptics? In fact they have plenty of grounds for annoyance with the EU side in this negotiation. One of their leaders, the Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, claimed yesterday that the EU offered a deal like Canada’s without tariffs, and have rowed back. In particular the EU are now asking for enforcement provisions well in excess of the Canada deal, where disputes go into the World Trade Organisation’s resolution system. I have heard two arguments made about why Brexiteers’ hopes for a Canada-type deal are unrealistic. One is that the volume of trade with the UK is much higher and so the EU has more at stake; the other is that it still involves some tariffs, whereas the Britain is asking for none. That may be, but I suspect Mr Jenkin is right: that the EU side did suggest that “Canada plus” was on the table, but have backtracked under pressure from the French government in particular. Furthermore it is hard not to bristle at the enforcement provisions suggested by the EU (as reported by not entirely trustworthy sources, it must be admitted). It allows the immediate imposition of retaliatory tariffs without resort to preliminary dispute resolution. This is the sort of thing we expect from Donald Trump’s America (for example in its dealings with China), and not those fair-minded former allies at the EU, the Eurosceptics somehow don’t manage to say.

So the ire from the British government side is understandable. But perhaps they and their supporters should have seen it coming and been better prepared. Here is where trying to understand the EU would help. It is not a settled and and stable institution, like most mature nation states. Its progress resembles the flight of the bumble bee, in a constant series of stalls. But this gives it a sort of dynamic stability that the Anglo-Saxon mind struggles with (and doubtless many Latin ones too). The EU is constantly under existential threat, and its institutions and member governments must constantly seek ways to head these threats off. Brexit presents one such threat, as many a Eurosceptic has gleefully pointed out. Others may follow where Britain leads. A deal where Britain manages to have its cake and eat it would give this threat substance. This is not so much from the EU’s newer members like Hungary and Poland (with their large EU subsidies), but from the older countries, who might ask what they get in return. Far right parties, like France’s Front National, remain a potent threat to the political establishment. That threat will be compounded if the EU doesn’t seem to have done enough to protect struggling communities such as France’s fisherman, never mind one that allows their cross-Channel competitors to feed off state subsidies. Mrs May’s favourite mantra was that “No deal is better than a bad deal”. But that applies more strongly to the EU side than to the UK.

But surely the EU would not want to threaten its trading surplus with the UK? Wouldn’t a no-deal hurt them more? This was a favourite argument of Brexit supporters during the referendum campaign. But that surplus is concentrated among a small number of better-developed countries. These countries, Germany in particular, are better able to withstand the shock than others. And they are quite used to subordinating economic considerations to political ones, as has been shown by their willingness to apply sanctions to Russia. Besides Britain doesn’t have a lot of choice as to where it gets many of its imports. EU national governments, Germany and Ireland in particular, are more calmly strategic that many have given them credit for.

Meanwhile Britain has not helped itself by its government interpreting its new-found sovereignty as the right to renege on any foreign treaty it likes. Its attempt to wriggle out of the Withdrawal Agreement enacted a year a go with respect to the Northern Ireland border is very striking. Doubtless this is viewed by the government as a piece of hard-ball negotiation to increase the costs to the other side of a failure to conclude a deal. But when Britain suggests that the EU has nothing to fear from a looser British enforcement regime for the EU single market, the automatic response is to ask how the country is to be trusted without waving a big stick at them. One of the many ironies, though, is that British exceptionalism probably doesn’t present a big threat to the Single Market. Nobody loves petty rules and high regulatory standards more than the British, and they are wary of state subsidies too. Indeed, healthy competition is a more likely outcome.

The Eurosceptics’ optimism is based on the idea that Britain can gain a strategic advantage by causing tactical problems for the other side. But nobody is fooled. Do they care? Many eurosceptics advocate a “clean break”, and describe a scenario without a trade deal as the “Australian option”. There will be a bit of short-term disruption, for sure, but the country will adapt soon enough.

Those actually in the government are less sanguine of course, and that’s why a deal of some sort is still on the cards. Only a minority of the country was ever convinced that Brexit was the right thing to do, after all; they formed a narrow majority only by persuading more sceptical voters. That does not mean that a no-deal Brexit will be fatal for the government – though it won’t help handing Scotland. After all the deed will done and Britain can’t go back to where it was before. But a cruel reckoning is on its way and we should all worry about that.

Three things lockdown critics just don’t get

Here in England, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is under fierce attack from his backbenchers over both the four-week lockdown that is coming to an end, and the system of tiered restrictions that will replace it, which means that almost everybody will still be subject to heavy restrictions. These critics are, for the most part, very muddled. While I would not suggest that Mr Johnson’s management of the pandemic has been particularly competent, I do think his overall strategy is the right one.

Still, the critics are right about a couple of things. The first is that lockdowns will not eliminate the virus, which has been a realistic objective in Asia and Australasia. This is because, unlike them, we cannot seal off the country from people coming in. That would mean closing almost all airports, ferry ports and the Channel Tunnel. The trickle of people allowed in (including returning Britons) would be quarantined under guard. Goods would have to be picked from ports by drivers based in this country. It would make Brexit look like a walk in the park. No European country, or American one come to that, can enforce such a regime. It is remarkable that so many Asian economies, as well as Australia and New Zealand, are able to do this. Without having to deal with such a volume of incomers, it is possible for a rigorous test and trace system to stay on top of the virus. New Zealanders can now go to rugby matches and concerts without social distancing. The economic cost is substantial, but this regime seems to be popular with those that live there.

The second thing that the critics get right is that the costs of an effective lockdown are huge, in both jobs and wellbeing. and that the longer the lockdown goes on for, the greater the cost. But no supporter of lockdown suggests otherwise. They simply say that the alternative is worse. That is because of three things in particular that the critics mostly fail to grasp.

The first is that infectious diseases grow exponentially, and not arithmetically, unless you can impose restrictions that reduce the reproduction rate down to one or less. And that means being very restrictive: the virtual cessation of social life (England’s Tier 1 is not enough, current evidence suggests). If the reproduction rate is above one, then the disease keeps on getting worse, and will accelerate. The critics seem to suggest that there is some form of equilibrium to be found between the level of restrictions and the prevalence of the disease. So, for example, a high level of lockdown means, say, one hundred deaths a day, but a looser one means a thousand. If R is above one, however, there is no such equilibrium. The equilibrium is not a function of lockdown restrictions, but the achievement of herd immunity – which means that 70% or more must be immune (the widespread assumption being from having already caught and survived the virus), and so breaking the chain of infection. The cost of that is massive. In Europe levels of significant herd immunity have only been observed in Italian towns were the disease has killed 1% or so (see this article in the Economist).

And the second point that few critics grasp is that the damage wrought when the virus shows high levels of prevalence is about much more than a few extra dead bodies. The disease will reach a point where it is be seriously disruptive. That people can’t see this was driven home to me when a senior Conservative MP Mark Harper was interviewed on the radio. He trotted out the familiar trope than people were underestimating the costs of lockdown, which had to be weighed against the benefits. He gave star billing among the costs to reduced access to healthcare services during lockdown. And yet there will be no access to such services once the epidemic starts to overwhelm them, and it is fear of just that which is the main driver of lockdowns; without lockdown health services will be overwhelmed as sure as night follows day. And it won’t be just health services that suffer. Absenteeism will rise dramatically, disrupting all manner of services. And fear will keep at least 40% of the population at home, with the inevitable toll on mental health and the economy. Covid-19 is much deadlier than flu (or at least the strains of flu normally seen each winter), and cannot be weathered in the same way.

And the third point? It is simply not feasible to shield the vulnerable while letting those with a low risk of being seriously ill to get on with life as normal. The disease will strike down even younger and apparently healthy people; and it can inflict lasting damage even if you survive it. But the chances of serious consequences for most people are quite small (and for them comparison with flu has more validity). But the flip side to this is that many others are at serious risk: anybody over 60 or with many quite common health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. I have seen an authoritative estimate that these are about 20% of the population. But these people don’t live isolated lives: they depend on contact to some degree with healthier people. These people also have to shield, to protect those they are close to. This group is not only very numerous (somebody has plausibly suggested another 20%), but it is much harder for such people to successfully shield themselves form the outside world. In the second wave of the epidemic, where vulnerable people have been much more successfully shielded than the first, there has been a clear pattern. Firstly younger people catch it, largely without serious symptoms. Then it is passed on to working people whom they interact with (shop staff, security guards, and so on). and from these it moves on to the seriously vulnerable. It is not enough to suggest that people should simply take the level of precaution that is appropriate to themselves. That would mean that many working people would have to furloughed and somehow replaced at the front line.

There really are no alternatives if you cannot seal the country’s borders Personally I placed high hopes on rigorous test-and-trace systems, such as those operated in Germany. We have not attempted anything like German rigour in the UK, instead going for massed centralised families with a high theoretical volume but almost no impact on the course of the disease. But even in Germany the system gets overwhelmed once the virus reaches a certain level, and you are back to lockdowns. Sweden’s rather laxer regime is sometimes mentioned as an alternative, but that is breaking down too. Its advocates had suggested that infection levels would fall in the Autumn as herd immunity started to impact. But it hasn’t, because in fact Swedes had been exercising social distancing to such an extent that not enough people were being infested (and with the economic and other damage that followed). If enough people had been infected their health systems wold have collapsed.

All of which is very grim, were it not for one thing: the fact that vaccines are on the way. We don’t know much about the various vaccines, beyond basic safety and efficacy. In particular we don’t know how much they would slow transmission of the virus. But they are enough to make huge difference and allow lockdowns to be eased. Quite why Conservative critics are still banging on with their complaints about lockdowns when relief is at hand is one of the pandemics’ many mysteries.

It’s all about R. Lockdown critics don’t understand exponential mathematics

Quite early in the Covid-19 outbreak, policymakers told us that the critical thing to understand about managing the disease was something they called “R”. This is the reproduction rate: the average number of other people that anybody that catches the virus will infect. If it less than 1.0 the epidemic will fade away. More than one and the disease spreads exponentially. Discussion of R then dropped from view, with people focusing more on the absolute level of infection (usually given as cases per 100k). That’s a shame because R is central to understanding what has just happened here in UK, which also applies to most of the rest of Europe with small variations.

In those the dark days of March, R was a horrific 2-3. That meant the disease was spreading very rapidly through the population. For a moment people thought that might not be such a problem: that herd immunity would develop, and the disease would slow down as the number of potential carriers was diminished. But there are two major problems with this. The first is that if the disease spreads rapidly, then health services (and other infrastructure) become overwhelmed, and there s substantial collateral damage. And that is exactly what happened in the Spring. Hospitals started to fill up, requiring them to clear beds; people with other conditions suffered, and Covid-infected people were pushed into care homes to make room for others, with appalling results. The death rate across the country shot up, and not just because people were dying from Covid, though frightening numbers were. The second problem with the herd immunity strategy was that nobody knew whether, or for how long, catching the disease would confer immunity. It was quite an interesting example, incidentally, of how basing decisions on evidence is not quite as robust as it seems. What do you believe in the absence of evidence? In Britain people believed, absent evidence, that face masks were useless and that you would get long term immunity by catching the disease. There is no rhyme or reason to it being that way round. Too often people who ask where the evidence is are just sticking to their prejudices.

I digress. The only sensible response to an R of over 2 was strict lockdown, which was implemented in Britain on 23 March. This was remarkably successful (it is puzzling why some people suggest that it wasn’t). R came down to about 0.7, and the disease was beaten back to manageable levels in most places. But what next? The government eagerly implemented a general relaxation, while maintaining a certain number of rules on social distancing. By this time few people were talking about R, and it was hard to know what aim of it all was. I think it was felt that the relaxation would take the R back up to 1.0, but no further, thus keeping the virus at manageable levels. It is probable that a lot of faith was being put in the Track and Trace system to contain outbreaks as they occurred. And yet the system they built was not designed to achieve that level of rigour, which needs tough local leadership and timely data, both of which were practically designed out of the system from the start. The result was that R crept up to about 1.5. Much better than before, but also pretty useless in terms of managing the disease. If R is over 1, then the disease will rise up to overwhelming levels much more quickly than people will intuit, because of the exponential way in which the disease spreads.

The government’s next strategy was one of local local lockdowns. The hope was that these would reduce R to below 1 in areas were the prevalence had become high. Over the last few weeks two problems have emerged, though. First is that even with these stricter measures R is above 1, and health services are under imminent threat. Second is that R is rising scarily everywhere else, and to beyond 2 in some places. That meant that most of the rest of the country wasn’t in fact that far behind the hotspots. Just what was going on here will probably not be known for some time. Perhaps people in Tier 3 of the lockdown system felt bolshy because they were being singled out, and did not apply themselves properly to lockdown. Perhaps people in Tier 1 felt they could relax because they weren’t in trouble yet. Anyway, it is very clear that the regional response strategy has failed. And so we are back to national lockdown.

But schools an universities are still open, and weariness is creeping in as businesses fail and savings run out. The death rate is much lower than before (the rate of excess deaths remains negligible) and this is being used to suggest that we should just “live with” the virus. Some conservative newspapers (the Telegraph and Mail in particular) opposing lockdown, even though their recommendations would sentence many of their readers, more vulnerable than the average, to an untimely and horrible death, or perhaps just a long-term deterioration of health. Such critics have failed to understand the logic of R. It is not about choosing an acceptable level of disease and freezing it there: it is about stopping the disease before it overwhelms.

So how on earth do you live with the disease and retain a semblance of normal life? The only proven way is the Asian one (there are many variations, shown by China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Australia and New Zealand). This requires the disease to be stamped out, mainly through strict lockdown, for inward travel to be heavily restricted, and for any outbreaks to be stamped on hard. For some reason Europeans, and not just the British, seem unable to do this (even the Germans are struggling). It’s even worse for the Americans. Asians, and interesting this includes Antipodeans of European heritage, seem much happier to comply with busybody regulations. Not all Asians of course: Indians struggle, as do Indonesians, Philipinos and a number of others.

Absent the Asian approach, thoughts turn to the use technologies that are not yet available. Vaccines may not be the silver bullet they are for diseases like polio, but they could still throw enough sand in the wheels of transmission to stop R getting above one. Mass testing, talked up by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, offers ways of identifying infected people so that they can be isolated. That raises all sorts of questions.

Locally I have found the most informative source about the progress of the virus comes from the government’s interactive map. I have watched the infection rate steadily go up, with white ares (very low infections) moving to green, and green going moving to blue (over 100 per 100k); in my local patch it is 171. We’re keeping our heads down.

It’s all very depressing. The most important thing to understand about the spread of infectious diseases is that it is exponential. None of the lockdown critics I have heard or read seem to grasp that. And only a few understand that the critical thing isn’t the death rate but the stress on public infrastructure, including, but not limited to, hospitals. In the end it’s all about R.

September: the virus strikes back

I still have not yet recovered blogging groove, as I settle down in my new home, and with family caring issues taking priority. So I am doing a consolidated look-back on the last month’s news again. If last time the central theme was the rise of Great Power politics, this time the theme is the virus.

After the Spring crisis passed, more or less, in the developed world (not so much in the US), people relaxed in the summer (or winter depending on your hemisphere). But the virus is coming back, with the world both better prepared, but less psychologically and economically resilient. The stress is showing.

The virus’s most spectacular victim was the US President. This drama is still playing out. What has emerged is interesting, though. Donald Trump has made a great show of not allowing the virus to affect him, being rarely seen in a mask. But in fact huge efforts are made to screen anybody that comes near him, with extensive use of a quick-turnaround test. But such measures only work so far, and if enough people come into proximity, the test is bound to have miss a few. A reception for his nominee for the Supreme Court appears to have been too hubristic.

Once Mr Trump was infected his behaviour stands in complete contrast to our own Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson soldiered on valiantly, did what the doctors told him, and went to a public hospital only when he had to, with treatment recognisably similar to any member of the public. Such a passive approach was not for Mr Trump. He quickly ordered the most aggressive treatment possible, and checked himself into and then out of an elite hospital. He now claims to have conquered the virus in days. We shall see. This probably reflects cultural differences between our two countries as much as personality. Many Americans, and especially the rich and powerful, struggle with the idea that they can’t take full control of their treatment, as is often the case with the UK’s NHS. Private treatment is available here, but, quite often the best expertise is tied to the public service, and Britons don’t like public and private to mix. It is one reason why nationalising health care is unpopular in the US, even if less well-off Americans have little practical control.

But what effect will this have on the US election campaign? Democrats continue to have reason for quiet confidence. A month ago they seemed a bit rattled, as Mr Trump had forced the narrative onto his own agenda: law and order. But the Democrats’ candidate, Joe Biden, is a seasoned campaigner, backed up by a solid team. He held his nerve. The riots subsided and soon the news was dominated by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the unseemly haste to replace her before the election. Mr Biden refused the invitation to stoke up the culture war on abortion, but instead moved the narrative on to court challenges to President Obama’s health care system, which many working class Americans now depend on. This was followed by the first TV debate, dominated by Mr Trump’s hyper=aggressive behaviour. Mr Biden was not given the rope to hang himself with, and the focus became the personality of the President, which the Democrats are quite happy with. And now Mr Trump’s infection has put the virus centre stage. Mr Biden’s poll lead seems to be holding up, and perhaps even increasing. Most Americans have chosen who they will vote for, and not a few have voted already. Everything that is happening seems to reinforcing those choices, on both sides, and making each side more motivated. As in the mid-term Congressional elections in 2018, that is mainly working for the Democrats. Can they seize the Senate?

But the biggest question to me is what will happen after the election, with the country so bitterly divided. Mr Trump doesn’t seem to care. But if Mr Biden wins, he will have a big job on his hands. He does seem to be aware of this.

Here in Britain, the UK government’s reputation is floundering. There is something curious about this. After its initial fumblings, and the appalling early death rate that resulted, the country’s record bears comparison with many of its peers. The record of the US is worse, and so is that of France, since June. Also the records of England (directly under the control of the UK government) and Scotland (mainly under the control of the devolved SNP government) is pretty similar. But Mr Johnson’s Conservatives have suffered much worse damage to their reputation. Mr Johnson’s style is ill-suited to the occasion, and, worse, he has surrounded himself with weak ministers, while more competent people remain on the sidelines criticising his record. There is a lot to criticise, of course, especially with the government’s failure to understand effective process management (with vastly inappropriate and over-centralised structures), and the lack of a clear strategy, as different factions vie to be heard. But others are making the same or worse mistakes and getting away with it. Mr Johnson is failing at the sorts of things politicians are supposed to be good at, as well as the ones for which they have little expertise. Many of theConservatives that voted Mr Johnson into office last year seem surprised; but most others are not.

So far the big winner from the crisis appears to be China. Although they too fumbled the early stages, with dire consequences for the rest of the world, their brand of totalitarian government has stamped out the disease and kept the virus at bay. Meanwhile everybody else is struggling: as they ease restrictions to let life go on as it should, the virus comes back, and the exponential dynamics of infectious diseases stoke. Still, some countries seem better able to handle the challenge than others. But it is hard to generalise. Herd immunity can be bought only at a very high price, in direct and indirect deaths, and debilitating “long-covid”, and may not last long-term anyway. But containment comes at a very high price too. A vaccine seems the best hope.