Since the announcement of the removal of all Covid-related restrictions in England, experts have warned of disastrous consequences, from the inevitable spike in cases to new variants emerging. We can hope the government will eventually recognise the public health risks and put some of these measures back into place. However, power and cronyism – and not health needs – are likely to drive any such decision. As the last 18 months have shown, the British government’s Covid-19 strategy was never designed to manage the virus.
For all the talk of “following the science”, No 10’s use of scientific evidence has been adjusted to its policy preferences throughout. The effectiveness of masks in preventing transmission was acknowledged only in the summer of 2020, despite World Health Organization (WHO) guidance earlier in the year. Ventilation only recently became part of public health guidance in England, despite sustained evidence of aerosol transmission. The UK’s continued insistence on fever, cough, and the loss of smell and taste as symptoms of coronavirus stands in tension with research on asymptomatic infections and emerging evidence suggesting loss of smell and taste may not be as common with the Delta variant.
Other scientific evidence the government has been reluctant to acknowledge is that, while vaccines may be very efficient in preventing the worst outcomes – hospitalisation and death – vaccinated people can still contract and transmit Covid-19. This raises important moral and ethical questions about the effects of placing large numbers of unmasked people into small, poorly ventilated spaces without social distancing, such as public transport or nightclubs.
It may be tempting to explain the government’s lagging public health advice by a lack of clear evidence, the novelty of the situation, or just “bad luck”. But this obscures the degree to which the government has also exploited the uncertainty generated by the Covid-19 pandemic for economic and political gain, by using the facade of incompetence to narrow the political choices available to the public.
In a report released last December, the cross-party joint committee on national security strategy condemned the government for having “failed seriously to consider how it might scale up testing, isolation and contact-tracing capabilities during a serious disease outbreak”. But the report missed a key aspect: the delay in scaling up public testing helped to prime the space for private UK-based firms to enter the market. In January 2020, the UK passed on the early chance to use a viral sequence developed by a German lab and made freely available by the WHO to make a Covid test. It did, however, award last-minute public contracts for testing, tracing, and the production of PPE and ventilators to companies with little or no prior experience in similar tasks.
The illusion of incompetence also obscures the government’s responsibility for creating the conditions that contributed to the crisis in the first place. While other countries were rolling out testing, the British government was liaising with executives at Serco, Deloitte and other private firms – and instructing individual NHS trusts to stop purchasing ventilators or their own PPE until a centralised system run by Deloitte was operational. Subsequent reporting has revealed links between companies that were awarded contracts and the Conservative party.
By allowing the virus to replicate, the government contributed to its spread. Yet this governing approach, which we call “fatalistic liberalism”, allows it to place the blame on the mix of public behaviour and natural causes. Risk appears to be the consequence of personal choice – people can decide whether to wear a mask or whether to get vaccinated – not the result of policy decisions made at the top.
The twin alibis of incompetence and ignorance enable politicians to deny responsibility for the consequences of their own inaction. If, as the head of NHS test and trace, Dido Harding argued, no one could have predicted the virus would mutate, then no one can be held accountable for the surge in infections and the inevitable harms created by the removal of masks and social distancing.
This fatalistic approach to managing public risk is reflected in Johnson’s statement, “We need to learn to live with the virus.” But the government’s strategy is not about teaching people to live with the virus; it’s teaching people to accept that the lives of many of them are not worth saving. In this sense, the choice the British people have is not whether they want to live with the virus – it’s whether they want to live with a government that sees them as chesspieces on an invisible board in a game that it pretends no one is playing.