by Tom Chivers
Monday, 4
January 2021

Boris Johnson fails the marshmallow test

Time and again, this government fails to take action when needed
by Tom Chivers
Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown this evening

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.

Join the discussion

  • I agree with the analogy of the shit sandwich but if your not a member of the comfortable middle classes, riding out the pandemic WFH on a guaranteed income, then the same is true of the long term economic damage that lock downs cause.

    For the groups least effected financially, lockdowns are the preferable option. The long term effects, the really big shit sandwich, is the debt mountain that’s going to have to be paid off at the end of all of this.

    And I get the feeling that those who have lost the least during lockdown, will be taking the smallest bite and leaving the rest for everyone else to finish once this is over.

  • Except we have been wearing masks for months.
    And yet, here we are in another lockdown.

  • if the NHS was 4 times larger than it actually is, there would be no reason to have a lockdown at all

    this isn’t true

    It’s so important to realise this; you could increase the NHS capacity (space + staff) by x10 tomorrow, and you would simply postpone the day at which too many people need medical attention at once, because transmission is happening at an exponential rate. The bit you’re missing is that reducing connectivity stifles transmission at an exponential rate as well. A party of 10 people isn’t twice as bad as a party of 5, it’s worse by an order of magnitude. The weak lockdowns we’ve had were to ‘flatten the curve’ – but it’s no good if superspreader events are still happening, ie public transport, concerts, sports matches, large events, schools and so on.

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