Inside Story

Covid-19’s awkward couple

Britain’s book of government blunders has a new chapter

David Hayes 26 May 2020 2853 words

Science and politics: Yvonne Doyle, medical director of Public Health England, during a media briefing with prime minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street yesterday. Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street

Big break, revolutionary pause, transformative hiatus or cathartic suspension? Only when it’s over will the half-world that Britain entered on 24 March, with its strange blend of movement and stasis, gain definition. Two months in, a form of shutdown syndrome makes exit on the other side hard to imagine. There is no going back to a pre–Covid-19 age. That leaves a present easier to itemise than to grasp.

In hospitals and care homes, staff and patients are on the front lines of a daily struggle for life against the fiendishly complex virus that is SARS-CoV-2. Scores are still dying each day, an undue proportion black and Asian, making the country’s toll of deaths per million inhabitants the world’s third-highest.

The economy is stripped to the manufacture, import, delivery and sale only of essentials. Schools, universities, arts venues, libraries, places of worship are closed, as are most shops. Millions are confined to home, excepting forays to buy, exercise, get medical help or make limited social contact. Windows in residential streets are festooned with children’s rainbow drawings and tributes. “Thanks to key workers and our NHS! Better times ahead!” is one of dozens in my neighbourhood.

The workforce is in limbo: the more secure on furlough, the bulk of their wages guaranteed until October by the exchequer and then by employers; others are increasingly on site; many depend on welfare, emergency funds or savings. A deep recession is under way, officials projecting a 30 per cent fall in GDP between April and June this year as state borrowing balloons. Railway and coach travel is near frozen. Business models that assume close physical contact (sports, aviation, tourism, hospitality, high-street retail, fashion, catering, gyms, restaurants, cafes) are on ice.

Parliament, TV punditry, teaching, festivals and conferences are scrambling onto Zoom or Pexip. Broadcast news has segued from journalists’ stopwatch need-to-know explainers into endless heartbait. Newspapers’ print versions, already embattled, are further shrinking as advertising revenues plunge.

The government is assailed for shortcomings in basic duty of care, testing, equipment and communication, its early delays and missteps having made its subsequent efforts a colossal but flawed catch-up. Prime minister Boris Johnson, visibly sapped after a close call in intensive care and facing a competent new Labour leader in Keir Starmer, is needled by Scottish and Welsh leaders, rash in defending his chief adviser Dominic Cummings over an alleged breach of lockdown rules, and breezing his way through every encounter.

Never in the United Kingdom’s post-1945 history have so many ingredients fermented so quickly into so heady, and contradictory, a brew. They include the state’s own fissures, with the post-1997 devolution of powers to authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland effectively reducing the United Kingdom to England in health and education policy.

The macro level forms but half the story, the other being the virus’s myriad psychic impacts on everyday lives. That can mean fears of losing health and job, and the pains of separation and the stresses of a constricted world, yet also the joys of car-free streets, freedom from commuting, cleaner air, thrilling birdsong, nature exultant. Everything, outside and inside, is in movement at the same time.

No wonder questions of meaning, purpose, choice and change, both individual and national, have acquired a new sharpness. Visions of the post-epidemic future — more green, equal, united and caring, or an authoritarian dystopia — abound. So do toolkits and slogans: build back better, great reset, new social contract. Henriette Roland Holst’s ageless poem on her native Holland lends itself to the moment: England, you give no space but to the mind.

Such dreams will be shaped, if at all, in the forge of corona-age politics. For now, their undoubted allure carries a hint of twin flaws: wishful thinking, and self-distancing from a moment whose nub is that the youthful SARS-CoV-2 continues to run the show.

In step with the struggle to define the future is a contest over the pre-epidemic past. Eventually, at least one official inquiry will assess the UK state’s performance in the context of its plans for an emergency of this type. This is already much discussed, even as the country’s share of the Covid-19 trauma has just got going. Close scrutiny of Boris Johnson’s own role is as certain as that of Tony Blair’s over the Iraq war, which was examined in Sir John Chilcot’s 2016 report. So too is attention to the performance of government departments, affiliated scientific committees, public health agencies and political advisers. Still, a lidar-like focus may be needed to penetrate layers of hindsight, covering of backs, shuffling of responsibilities: all familiar from the legion of “blunders of our governments.”

On previous form, the flagship inquiry — likely to pre-empt the one on Brexit, whose final curtain Covid-19 may well hasten — will take years (Chilcot lasted seven). By then, the court of public opinion will long have delivered its own verdict, which could land severely on some experts as well as the prime minister. Already published committee records and detailed media reports converge on a story of initial, fatal misdirection compounded by a series of analytical and logistical errors. Even in a fluid crisis where so much is provisional, that account will be hard to shift.

The story’s first part notes that Britain’s pandemic plan, drawn up in 2011 and still operative, foresaw the principal threat as a new strain of influenza. This judgement reflected the swine flu outbreak of 2009, sparked by the composite H1N1 virus. In that case, around £1.2 billion ($2.2 billion) was spent to allay the expected thousands of deaths, though they ultimately numbered only 214 out of 540,000 cases. Dame Deirdre Hine’s official report on H1N1 advised an incremental, follow-the-data approach when the next epidemic hit, plus wariness about worst-case assumptions. A contiguous factor here is that there was painful institutional and local memory of the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak, when a frenzied response saw millions of animals slaughtered and £8 billion ($15 billion) burned, but no memory at all of SARS-CoV-1.

Influenza, not corona; wait and see, not get ahead; and, to complete the set, darkness not light. In October 2016, a big simulation of an H2N2 flu pandemic was held under the aegis of Public Health England. It found that the National Health Service would be overwhelmed, identified likely shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE, and highlighted care homes’ vital role in relieving hospitals. Alarming as the exercise was, its report stayed under wraps. That the simulation took place just as Britain was walking deeper into the all-consuming Brexit mire under Theresa May might be contributory to the lack of practical follow-up. In shadow, the seeds of yet another blunder germinated.

The story’s second part begins weeks after the novel coronavirus had been identified in the wake of the Wuhan outbreak, and its full genome sequence released by Chinese scientists on 10 January (which allowed Sarah Gilbert of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, among others, to immediately start working on a vaccine). Relevant British bodies were tuning in to its spread, even more so when the first local cases, of two Chinese family members in northern England, were recorded on 31 January — by coincidence, the very day Britain left the European Union and entered a transitional period for trade talks.

Those distractions partly explains why, until late February, coronavirus was seen by the political-media class almost exclusively as “over there.” A collective jolt arrived in the first week of March, with the first local death, the number of cases passing a hundred and Johnson announcing a £46 million (A$86 million) fund for testing and vaccine research. Still, a sketchy government plan (“The UK is well prepared to respond in a way that offers substantial protection to the public”) had zero sense of urgency.

In public, Westminster’s stage-set approach, with its reassuring mantras (“contain, delay, research, mitigate”) and studied politesse between government and scientists, projected harmony. But the twenty-one days until the lockdown began on 24 March would incubate problems so fatal as to make what came later a giant work of repair. Test-and-trace plans aborted, care homes exposed, medical stocks insufficient, frontline staff under-protected, border monitoring and quarantine procedures absent: each of these had a distinct source, but linking several of them was a lack of reliable data and of systems capable of delivering, processing and acting on that data. Notionally in charge, government — inevitably, perhaps — floundered.

Much of this was owed to the way the ambiguous inheritance of those what-to-do-in-an-emergency files played out against the baffling unfamiliarity of the latest epidemic. The government in early 2020 was “hypnotised by its own plan,” writes Ian Leslie in the New Statesman: “Faced with the novel problem of an untreatable, highly transmissible virus, the government’s current advisers seem to have found it hard to break with the plan they had — now unfit for purpose — and think anew.”

An initial failure to gauge the disease’s threat had shrunk the bandwidth that, if available, might have allowed different options to be explored. Practical lessons from East Asia were neither sought nor applied. There was a crucial deficit of imagination. That bland 5 March plan was wrong: Boris Johnson’s government would lack not just knowledge and tools in taking the initiative against Covid-19 but also the ability to remedy that lack. In contrast to supermarkets’ pinpoint circuits, it had no way to conjure instant operative resilience out of sparse warehouses and uncertain suppliers in a just-in-time economy.

Among the many compelling sub-themes of this two-part story is one with a singular local twist: a shift in science’s public profile from neutral expertise towards competitive partisanship. Its pivot was the government’s mid-March volte-face from an overhyped “herd immunity” approach to a more interventionist one. The notion of allowing mild infection of the healthy young while shielding the vulnerable, mentioned on the BBC by David Halpern of the Behavioural Insights Team and repeated by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance at a press briefing, was first twisted into a form of eugenics, even genocide, then buried over a frantic weekend when a paper by the Imperial College mathematician Neil Ferguson and colleagues found that without rigorous physical distancing, Covid-19 deaths could reach 250,000 or more. The path to shutdown on 24 March, ranking among the most consequential days in British history, was set.

The switch was opposed by a vocal libertarian minority that cited evidence of Covid-19’s varying risks and impacts to argue against social closure. Some fire was directed at Ferguson himself, whose costly advice in the 2001 outbreak was disinterred. Behaviourists, economists and public health specialists widened the fray in lamenting epidemiology’s new stardom. Most telling was that the contretemps began to deflate harmful veneration of what ministers were jarringly calling “the science.”

This nebulous entity had been the government’s face-shield from Covid-19’s onset, invoked to parry every doubt over its decisions. It had the additional benefit of implicitly defusing a barb dear to opponents of Boris Johnson, his government and Brexit, its flagship cause: that these Brexiteers held “experts” in contempt. That barb dated from a late stage of the 2016 referendum campaign on EU membership, when justice secretary Michael Gove, still a key Johnson ally, told Sky News’s Faisal Islam during a gladiatorial interview that Britain would be “freer, fairer and better off” if the country voted to leave the European Union.

To Islam’s litany of twelve power centres whose leaders wanted the country to remain in the Union — including the US, the IFS, the IMF, the CBI, NATO and the NHS — Gove retorted, “The people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” Seizing on a fatal pause in mid sentence, Islam’s sharply incredulous double repeat of Gove’s first ten words launched these as the story. Gove’s unwise “had enough of experts” rode the media carousel — nonstop, into every crevice, for four years — as a symbol of crass, self-harming populism.

It was a gift that kept on giving. Never mind the sources, feel the clicks. Post-corona, dozens of “the experts are back” columns and “who needs experts now?” jibes wrote themselves. At the food chain’s pinnacle, “Boris Knows He’s Out of His Depth. Suddenly Experts Are Useful Again” was the Times headline on its 9 April interview with the geneticist Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and director of London’s state-of-the-art biomedical Crick Institute, whose Brexit views go without saying. “It’s galling when people who have denounced experts then come on the stage and start talking about experts. It doesn’t fill you with great confidence.”

The spectacle of experts’ disagreement over Covid-19 pulls the plug on the mirthless funfair. To the extent that this bombshell reflects dimly on Britain’s general level of scientific literacy, anti-Brexiteers’ pathological reductionism bears some responsibility: no chance of an “experts” sneer ever made way for a defence of the scientific (far less the democratic) value of pluralism.

The breakthrough here is that scientists (the “experts” du jour) are now part of the same cacophonous public space as everyone else. Many — along with active politicians, TV anchors, sportspeople, clerics, lawyers, academics, novelists — are now daily commentators, even capable (another thunderbolt) of drawing unfounded conclusions from false assumptions and dubious data. That the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, has spawned a dissident body, Independent SAGE, led by former chief scientist Sir David King, is the paragon’s last breath.

This is but one sub-theme of the British story that the virus has acted to dissolve and reconstitute: in effect, as an agent of influence. So when ministers are chided for leaning on “the science” they don’t disclose to avoid questions they don’t answer, when Neil Ferguson “steps back” after admitting to private assignments that violated lockdown codes, or when the public health guru John Ashton and Lancet editor Richard Horton are — as a duty to the audience, and at long last — gently reminded by broadcasting hosts of their political credentials and rhetoric, it is another little victory for SARS-CoV-2.

A forlorn government is differently exposed when its crutch, “the science,” is kicked away. No more can it so limply pass over responsibility for judgements it needs to own. That presents a new maximum test to ministers: can they convey the balance of risks with a literate awareness of scientific and political complexity? An immediate test too, as the government now plans for schools in England to reopen on 1 June as part of the lockdown’s staged easing, against strong resistance from teaching unions and parents.

Boris Johnson looked unready to reach this high bar even before the latest drama to consume his government. This was the furious reaction to Dominic Cummings’s family drive from London to his parents’ farm near Durham, northeast England, where the adviser and his journalist wife Mary Wakefield, both showing symptoms of illness, wanted to deposit their small son while themselves going into quarantine in an outhouse. Every detail of that choice is now being parsed for clinching evidence of what Cummings denies, that the trip broke the government’s then guidance to “stay home.” Genuine anger mixes with revengeful glee as the co-architect of Brexit and of Johnson’s general election victory in December, hated by many on both counts, flirts with Nemesis.

Cummings’s hour-long press conference in the Number 10 rose garden on 25 May, hours after the morning’s paroxysmic headlines, began with his chronicle of a family under pressure of illness and overwork. He described his movements as “reasonable” in the context of “weighing complex decisions to do with the safety of my child and my desire to go back to work.” Lobby journalists then all but accused him of arrogant, elitist hypocrisy in flouting orders he expected the plebs to observe.

Always careworn in appearance, Cummings is an independent-minded strategist whose intellectual seriousness, ambition and impatience radiate equally from his fertile blog. The media’s reflexive hostility over this (in British terms) uncommon radical recently erupted in intense criticism over his attendance at SAGE meetings, on the grounds that he was a political pollutant in scientific waters. This fizzled out when a few SAGE members said he mostly listened or sought clarification for the prime minister’s benefit. SAGE member Jeremy Farrar subtly wishes for more such interaction “so that advice goes directly into policy,” while blaming “not right” decisions made early in the crisis for a UK epidemic “that at least to some degree could have been avoided.”

The latest Cummings episode may also fade, though the Independent’s John Rentoul holds that only his departure can allow the people’s trust in Johnson to be rebuilt: “The public has already decided that he and Boris Johnson think that the rules for the little people don’t apply to them.”

The government’s errant choices pre–Covid-19 await their moment. So do incipient tensions between that other awkward duo, politics and science. Beyond the half-world, SARS-CoV-2 remains in charge. Those better times ahead will be a long haul. •