Has the government failed to control Covid because effective pandemic measures are incompatible with their ideology?
When the pandemic hit, the UK was already battered by Tory austerity cuts. Hospitals were 40,000 nurses short, available beds were down from 22,000 to 13,000 and public health spend per head had been reduced by nearly a quarter. The UK had the third lowest number of beds, doctors and nurses in the EU. Tory underfunding and cuts meant that the UK was ill prepared from the very start. It’s clear that with a socialist policy of proper funding the country would have faced the pandemic from a stronger vantage point.
Johnson’s balancing act
The government’s ensuing incompetence is also regarded as a significant cause of the UK’s world beating death toll. This is true in the respect that Johnson, through weakness of character, has been dogged by his inability to make unpopular decisions. When pushed by huge public pressure (e.g. the school meals scandals) he has taken firm action but only at the last minute. In the main, when decisiveness is required he has opted for disastrous ‘compromise’ policies instead.
Two opposing voices have caused Johnson’s allegiances to spin like a weathervane. On the one side is his hard line, business first, back bench rebel contingent, including the European Research Group (ERG), the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) and Sunak. On the other side is the scientific advice, the unions and public opinion. Where public opinion is itself divided Johnson gets away with vacillating feebleness, a case in point being whether schools should close. But, in a narcissistic balancing act aimed at preserving his popularity with both sides, he has generally produced ‘loose’ Covid strategies that are partly fashioned by the ideology of his back bench.
Throughout the pandemic Johnson has been pressured by the backbench to ease or remove lockdown restrictions. Their argument is that strict lockdowns damage the economy and ultimately lead to even greater loss of livelihoods, deteriorating health and increased pressure on the NHS. But this argument is weak – whilst Johnson’s initial dithering was perhaps excusable, by the end of the first lockdown it was clear that robust measures with the goal of maximum Covid suppression were the most effective ways to control Covid. The government was warned by Independent Sage and others that half measures such as a natural herd immunity strategy were doomed and that suppression was likely to be the only successful route. This view was born out by the success of nations that went for early suppression such as NZ, Australia, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, Finland, Singapore, Norway and Vietnam and also by Sweden’s failed herd immunity approach.
Certainly, robust suppression would have caused some short term pain. But Johnson’s half baked, bet hedging measures caused far more protracted economic damage, far more unemployment, far more Covid deaths, far more non-Covid deaths, far more mental health issues and far more Covid circulating in the population than a robust, early Covid suppression would have done. So why did the rebel back bench doggedly persist with their pressure on Johnson to temper restrictions, despite the lethal implications?
Backdoor business and compliance
The ERG and CRG support free market capitalism, the mission of which is to shrink the state, lower taxes and deregulate business. So one reason why full Covid suppression was resisted is because it is an anathema to this libertarian ideology. Full lockdown is a “dystopian”, “draconian” tactic that smacks of state control. High Wycombe MP Steve Davis describes it as “devoid of any commitment to liberty”. In terms of business, the “liberty” in question is for businesses to make money and create profit. But keeping as many businesses open as possible, whatever the risk, is a “liberty” too far. One example is that controls at the UK’s borders have been woeful for almost a year. Whilst this might be simple ‘incompetence’, it is more likely to be driven by the motive of profit before people – closed borders would have curtailed business travel and the tourism industry.
In particular, keeping businesses open meant that the government could save money by not having to support them properly. Unlike in Europe and America, assistance for many UK small businesses took the form of loans which they will struggle to pay back, whilst a wide range of self-employed people slipped through the furlough net altogether.
Backdoor business was also promoted by the conveniently leaky definitions of ‘key worker’ and ‘essential business’, expanded in lockdown 3 to include everyone from bankers to estate agents, the DVLA, car factories and flower shops. Many people are working who shouldn’t be. The problem here is that effective suppression of Covid requires strong compliance. However, this loose terminology enables businesses in our zero hours gig economy to operate with no government plan to introduce proper financial support or legal protections for employees regarding Covid safety.
For example, employees tend not to report breaches of safety rules (e.g. lack of PPE) because they fear losing their jobs. (99% of employees don’t make a formal complaint). Complaints that are reported are not acted on. At the time of writing there have been 2,500 reports of employers breaking lockdown rules but not a single one has been dealt with (Dr Emma Runswick, Chair of the People’s Assembly, at the Zero Covid Conference on 28 November 2020). Similarly, employees are being forced to return to non-essential jobs on pain of being fired. Some are even issued with a ‘letter’ stating falsely that they are doing essential click and collect work in case they are stopped by the police (BBC News interview with Birmingham employee in high fashion retail). Employees currently have no effective, quick legal protections against practices such as these.
A consequence of this lack of legal protection is that self-isolation compliance is catastrophically low – 18% according to Robert West from Independent Sage at the Zero Covid Conference. So many more are working who shouldn’t be. This could have been mitigated by financial support from the government. But, financial aid packages for people self-isolating have only just been introduced. Sick pay stayed at £95 pw, again forcing potential Covid carriers back out to work. Here the UK government’s approach contrasts sharply with other countries, e.g. Portugal – 100% of basic salary for 14 days, Germany – 6 weeks of full pay.
Examples such as these suggest that the government, driven by the free market, libertarian ideology of its back benchers, has no real intention to control business, to protect workers’ rights or support people unable to work as this would negatively impact business and the economy. Inaction here is a double whammy for the government since it simultaneously both saves money and increases profit. The upshot is that Covid has continued unsuppressed.
“The UK government’s [Covid response] is a very concrete expression of the idea that left unchecked, the market will rationally distribute resources to where they are needed. it is the traditional pillars of the Thatcherite economy – principally large businesses and landlords – which have so far benefitted most from the government’s largesse”.Tom Hoctor, LSE British Politics and Policy (1 September 2020)
Effective compliance requires the introduction of a raft of socialist measures such as legal protections, increased wages and financial support none of which the government has been prepared to do. As Dr Emma Runswick and Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet argued (also at the People’s Assembly Zero Covid Conference), the government had an opportunity to attack the deep inequalities exposed by the pandemic but the chance was ignored. Instead cronyism has ruled – vast amounts have been spent on handing deals to Tory donors whilst big pharma and Serco make huge profits from Covid.
The conclusion is inescapable
I have suggested that stringent Covid measures are inimical to Tory ideology. The back bench has dictated our pandemic journey by pushing a weak Prime Minister into taking a compromise position which has, in turn, dangerously weakened our ability to resist the virus. Failures of policy have kept Covid circulating in the community and led to avoidable deaths. The new vaccine programme is a wonderful thing but it also masks the fact that right wing ideological unwillingness to tackle systematic inequalities has, up until now, fuelled viral spread.
The Tories could have avoided our shocking landmark death toll by biting the bullet and introducing some fundamentally socialist policies. But they chose not to.