Johnson grasps the nettle

The Prime Minister has finally accepted the principle of there being an acceptable number of deaths. This is not callous indifference or reckless politicking, in every sphere of public activity, there has always been an acceptable level of deaths, it’s just that there is a reluctance to acknowledge such thoughts.

The obvious example is the number of deaths on the roads. In 2020, even with lockdown, 1,472 people died on roads in the United Kingdom. Had the government wished to reduce that number to zero, it could have introduced speed limits of 10-15 mph.

The social and economic cost of such a restriction would be massive: transport costs would escalate; journeys to and from work would become unfeasible; freedom of movement would become an option only for those with the means to spend days travelling to a destination.

Faced with the costs, and the public opposition, severely restrictive measures are considered inappropriate. The government will continue to introduce road safety measures, but these will be consonant with its other social and economic priorities.

In blunt terms, allowing the current speed limits to continue to operate means that the government considers there to be an acceptable number of deaths. Of course, no government spokesman would ever dare to risk the opprobrium that would follow if such an admission was made, but, when the option of bringing the number of deaths close to zero is available, not to pursue that option can only lead to the conclusion that a number in excess of a thousand a year is the accepted price of a social and economic order that depends upon swift transport.

Within government, there will be officials calculating what will be the acceptable number of deaths caused by Covid-19 that the public will accept in order to allow the economy and society to return to normal functioning.

It is a certainty that the current rules could not continue indefinitely. In practical terms, the economic costs would have brought severe social costs. But there were less measurable factors that the government had to consider, how long would it have been before social cohesion was eroded?

No-one is speculating on the number of deaths considered to be tolerable to allow the resumption of normal life, but one assumes the government have a figure in mind.

And should such an idea seem unacceptable, ask why the national speed limit is 60 mph and not a figure far lower. Deaths are accepted as the price of other priorities.

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4 Responses to Johnson grasps the nettle

  1. AC Harper says:

    I’ll agree wholeheartedly. The reason we have a government is to take those decisions on our behalf, dispassionately, that we cannot or will be reluctant to do so.

    The calculus of an ‘acceptable number of deaths’ is a brutal metric, but necessary. It’s made more tricky by the reliability (or not) of predictions. And every major debate is affected. How much do you do to ameliorate climate change? Should you decriminalise marijuana? How much should be done to regulate risky sports?

    • Ian says:

      I don’t understand why the government cannot talk to people as though they were adults.

      In lessons on Life and Death, when I explain to Year 10 students in school the concept of triage and the idea of interventions not taking place after people have reached a certain age, some are initially horrified, but then come to the realisation that for the health service to function, there has to be decisions on who lives and who dies.

      • AC Harper says:

        Perhaps because every recent government who is less than ‘rainbows and unicorns’ in its approach to matters is immediately demonised by the Media and Opposition? Social media has made the kneejerk response even more immediate and the reaction becomes ingrained as ‘truth’.

        • Ian says:

          Perhaps, one day, there will be someone prepared to say hard things. I am often disappointed by senior politicians who go to the back benches after distinguished careers and do not use their authoritative voices to talk about the difficult issues in a frank way.

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