Strategic indecisiveness is fatal in a pandemic

As European countries race to reintroduce restrictions to beat back a new rise in coronavirus infections, a semantic skirmish of sorts has erupted. In the UK there is an allergy to the word “lockdown”, at least about anything to be applied nationally; the talk now is of a “circuit-breaker” if things get worse. And when Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the country on Tuesday, the message was that the restrictions he announced were not precursors to a lockdown but measures designed to avoid a lockdown.

A more enlightening semantic contribution comes from Devi Sridhar, the public health expert who has advised the Scottish government on the pandemic. As she says in a tweet, a “narrative of lockdown v. no lockdown [is] not helpful” because public health-driven restrictions are a matter of degree and “how much they affect the economy [and] daily life” rather than a binary issue.

True enough. What is binary, however, is the distinction between a strategy of maximum repression (or elimination) and one of mitigation. This choice has to be made, and much goes wrong for a government that puts off making it.

The two strategies require not just very different policies, but very different mindsets about the policies. Repression is the aim of getting virus prevalence to an…

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