Over the past few weeks, the UK strategy on COVID-19 has veered dramatically from contrarian laissez-faire to hasty, panicked adoption of social control measures similar to those in other European countries. An endless stream of British journalists implored us, initially, to simply trust our government’s favored experts (and, implicitly, to ignore the suspiciously foreign advice of most other epidemiologists, including those employed by the World Health Organization).
This stance became increasingly hard to defend after it emerged that the government’s initial strategy — allowing the virus to infect the young and healthy in the hope of building “herd immunity” that would protect vulnerable groups — was, at least partly, based on faulty modeling. Specifically, scientists advising the government had used data for a different disease with a much lower hospitalization rate than had been observed in countries hit earlier by COVID-19.
Pro-government commentators quickly divided into two camps, with the first adopting a position that’s almost too absurd to engage with seriously. They claimed that nothing about the government’s approach had actually changed, the public had simply failed to understand it properly.
That footage you watched of the UK’s chief scientific adviser explaining why “herd immunity” through widespread infection was a desirable goal? Those words didn’t actually mean what you thought they did. The Newsnight segment where a Public Health England official told us to see our elderly relatives, go to the pub, and generally carry on as usual if we didn’t have symptoms, despite the evidence globally of asymptomatic transmission? It simply never happened. Who are you going to trust, your lying eyes or the 2017 winner of the Political Commentator of the Year award?
The second group attempted a more subtle defensive maneuver. Rather than informing us, Ministry of Truth–style, of the absolute infallibility of the government response, they asked us to trust the good intentions of the people in charge. Under the headline “Our politicians are only trying to do their best,” the Spectator’s Alex Massie opined that the pandemic “is a time for generosity and kindness; a moment for the cutting of slack and the making of allowances.” A sentiment that seems unobjectionable in the abstract, but rather misses the point when it comes to assessing the actions of political leaders during a crisis.
I do not care whether Boris Johnson means well. Nor am I interested in the purity of Matt Hancock’s heart. Frankly, I do not claim to be able to judge whether Rishi Sunak is trying his absolute hardest, or whether he could be going at it with a bit more welly. I imagine they all believe themselves to be good people, doing as best they can in difficult circumstances. That seems to be true of most politicians.
Indeed, it’s true of most people in most walks of life. In situations like this, where our leaders appear to have made a whole series of gravely suboptimal decisions — risking hundreds of thousands of lives in the process — asking “incompetence or malice?” obscures far more than it reveals.
A foundational myth of technocracy is the existence of a single set of desirable political goals. It imagines some unified “public good” that people in power will generally aim to maximize, even if they use different tools and strategies to do so. According to this logic, political decisions cannot be morally right or wrong, only effective or ineffective.
An estimated 130,000 preventable deaths due to austerity are simply a regrettable, unintended consequence of David Cameron and George Osborne’s attempt to do what they believed was right. The “incompetence or malice” binary posits only one, unlikely seeming, possible alternative: that killing people was a deliberate policy goal.
I have no doubt that, all things being equal, Boris Johnson would like to minimize the number of deaths from COVID-19. The pertinent question is not whether the UK government has this aim at all, but the extent to which they prioritize it over other, competing concerns.
While some have attempted to argue that a recession could result in more loss of life than the virus (relying on the dubious assumption that government cannot prevent people dying prematurely due to poverty), it’s generally been understood that there is a direct trade-off between economic growth and saving lives.
In the United States, Republicans have made the issue explicit. Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick went as far as to suggest that “lots of grandparents” would prefer to risk their survival than see the United States adopt public health measures that further damage the national economy. Though Donald Trump has not stated the apparent trade-off in quite such stark language, he’s repeatedly pushed for Americans to return to work just when epidemiologists expect the pandemic to hit its peak, saying that “the cure cannot be worse than the problem.”
As is often the case with Trump, this seems less a deviation from conventional elite opinion than an example of him saying the quiet part loud. Though no UK politician has dared to say similar publicly, a recent Sunday Times article said that government adviser Dominic Cummings outlined the government’s original strategy as, according to one observer’s summation: “protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.”
The notion that it might be justifiable to sacrifice human lives in service of “the economy” only makes sense if you conceive of economic growth having some independent, intrinsic value beyond promoting human well-being. In reality, this euphemistic language serves to obscure the truth: that the people who are sacrificed are predominately poor, and the people who benefit from a buoyant stock market are the rich.
Though viruses do not discriminate based on class, working-class people are significantly more likely to have jobs that cannot be done remotely. The individuals who are urging that we “carry on as normal” likely have far more ability to take measures to protect themselves and their families.
In the case of the UK, it seems likely that ideological priors also influenced decision-making in more subtle ways. Anyone paying attention knows that the NHS consistently operates at close to full capacity, to the extent that even regular seasonal flu can send hospitals into crisis. This state of affairs is the result of a decade of underfunding by the Conservatives, rationalized as the pursuit of “efficiency.”
You don’t need to be an epidemiologist, or even to have studied the numbers closely, to wonder why the government ever believed it could deal with the sharp spike in demand expected under a minimalist strategy. Bad modeling notwithstanding, there was ample evidence from other countries that hospitals were struggling to cope.
I can only assume that those in government who backed the “herd immunity” strategy desperately wanted to believe an easy, non-economically disruptive option was available. The alternative — that a significant increase in government spending was going to be necessary, and that systematically cutting public services to the bone has disastrous consequences — presents a significant challenge to the Conservative worldview.
All of us tend to be less skeptical of ideas that align with our existing beliefs about how the world works, and how things should be done. It’s unsurprising, then, that many jumped at the prospect of a laissez-faire solution. The idea that other countries (and the World Health Organization) had gotten it wrong, and that more interventionist approaches would ultimately be futile, must have been highly seductive. One anonymous senior figure even briefed journalists that measures taken in Italy were “populist, non-science-based measures that aren’t any use.” In reality, going into lockdown seems to have significantly slowed the rate of infection.
Eventually, the current crisis will pass, but it will be a huge mistake if we attempt to return to “normal.” The issues we’ve been forced to confront have lasting implications. Namely, if foundational economic principles must be abandoned when things get tough, does this system really serve our needs? If rapid, radical change is possible when circumstances demand it, what excuse is there for failing to act with similar urgency to prevent cataclysmic climate change? What can and should we do differently, now that we know doing things differently is possible?