January 4, 2021 - 10:02pm

There was a bit in the Prime Minister’s address announcing Lockdown 3: Lock Downer which made me do a double-take.

You may wonder why we didn’t announce schools closing earlier, he said, instead of waiting until the day after hundreds of thousands of children had already gone back. And the reason was that “we did everything in our power to keep schools open”, because they know how important school is for parents and so on.

It made me think of the marshmallow test.

The marshmallow test is a staple of psychology. A child is offered a marshmallow. They can eat it right away, with no penalty. But, says the researcher, if you can wait 15 minutes without eating it, you can have two. It’s supposed to be a test of a child’s ability to defer reward, and is apparently predictive of various life outcomes or whatever.

A couple of months ago, Mike Bird, a WSJ journalist, compared Covid-19 policy responses to an inverted marshmallow test. Instead of a lovely marshmallow, there’s a shit sandwich. Every day you don’t eat it, it doubles in size.

This government refuses to eat the sandwich until it is unavoidable. They like saying that they’ve saved Christmas, but it was obvious weeks beforehand that it was a terrible idea and that it was going to have to change. They couldn’t bring themselves to say that schools might have to stay closed after Christmas, because that’s not a nice thing to have to say. So they pretended that they would definitely reopen — before the holidays they threatened to sue local authorities that were going to close early — right up to the point the primary-school children were literally home from their first day.

They have done this over and over again. They did it before the November lockdown – the “circuit breaker” SAGE and everyone was demanding. They were late with the original lockdown. They have been unwilling to take the decisions early, because they don’t want to be unpopular; so they end up being forced into it, late, leaving schools and parents no time to prepare.

These are difficult decisions. It’s not obvious that the benefits of schools closing outweigh the costs, though I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that they do. But it certainly wasn’t obvious, a week ago, that it wouldn’t happen; it was bizarre that the government couldn’t bring themselves to admit it. They didn’t “do everything in their power” to keep schools open: they just didn’t want to eat the sandwich, so they let it grow and grow.

Now, Johnson says that they hope to have vaccinated the top four most at-risk categories by the middle of February. That is 13.4 million people, and about seven weeks to do it; about two million a week. So far they have vaccinated just over a million, at about 300,000 a week. It would be amazing if they’re up to two million by next week, and the required run rate will go up. But he doesn’t want to eat the sandwich and say it’ll take longer than February, so he leaves it on the plate and tells us that soon it will turn into a marshmallow.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.