Inside Story

The Covid-19 kidnap

The virus looks like being the catalyst of yet another British revolution

David Hayes 25 March 2020 1979 words

Phoney war? Near-deserted Piccadilly Circus in London yesterday. David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A toothache halts an Everest climb. A geek destroys an industry. A hacker topples a bank. An armed band wounds an empire. A market trader sparks an uprising. Now a virus kidnaps the whole world. The asymmetry game is over: Covid-19 has won. Something like it was long foretold, and that sounds a warning of its own.

Any route back from, or through, the abyss will be hard. Neutering Covid-19 is essential to minimising the pandemic’s human toll and economic hit, each measured in lost lives. A further test lies in the variegated nature of the emergency: global and national, and not just threatening health, livelihood, business, finance or governance, but all of these together. Europe’s states are stretching to their max, with no certainty that will be enough.

In Britain’s case, early caution has given way to urgency as the silo-busting scale of the challenge dawns. The government’s initial strategy projected four phases in tackling the virus: “contain, delay, research, mitigate.” Its public faces were the chief medical and scientific officers, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, flanking Boris Johnson and giving the prime minister the ballast that he can’t help but seem to lack.

The pair’s kindly gravitas made even stark detail and advice sound reassuring. Then, a fortnight ago, though it seems years, came a perceived stumble over “herd immunity” — the notion that harmless infection at scale among the fit populace would safeguard the whole, allowing more gradual management of the epidemic by “flattening the curve” and thus keeping deaths to (it was whispered) around 20,000.

The theoretic case was marred by uneven (or outright poor) messaging. Some critics baulked at the idea in principle, others noted the contrast with Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong’s proactive coordination, a lesson from SARS in 2002–03: “test, trace, isolate.” Equally, Britain’s resistance to the incrementally tighter lockdowns of European states made it seem an outrider nearer home. Scientific disquiet and media debate were prompting hints of a change when its accelerant materialised: a paper by the mathematician Neil Ferguson and colleagues at the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, published on 16 March to immediate alarm and refocus.

Drawing on Italy’s medical trauma, its data modelling found that a staged approach would result in Britain’s health services being overwhelmed, and a death toll of perhaps 260,000. The policy priority had to be suppression of the virus, not mitigation:

Perhaps our most significant conclusion is that mitigation is unlikely to be feasible without emergency surge capacity limits of the UK and US healthcare systems being exceeded many times over… [Thus] epidemic suppression is the only viable strategy at the current time. The social and economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this policy goal will be profound… [Even] those countries at an earlier stage of their epidemic (such as the UK) will need to do so immediately.

From that Monday, directives — initially poised between advice and command — tumbled over each other at the now-daily briefings: self-isolation of the over-seventies, social distancing, home working, school closures, venue shutdowns (pubs, restaurants, theatres, cinemas). Since these measures would push many businesses and workers towards liquidation, chancellor Rishi Sunak announced £330 billion (A$664 billion) of loan guarantees to keep Britain’s largely service economy afloat. His acclaimed budget’s £12 billion to fight the epidemic, a week earlier, was already a distant age.

The blizzard of initiatives culminated on Friday with two more bazookas and a depth charge. After talks with business and unions, Treasury’s “job retention scheme” committed to paying 80 per cent of employees’ wages (up to a monthly £2500, or A$4970) for three months, plus sick pay to the self-employed and welfare supplements. Some details are still to be nailed down.

By then, so punch-drunk were newshounds that the Bank of England’s launch of £200 billion in quantitative-easing bond-buying and an interest rate cut to 0.1 per cent were barely noticed outside the financial pages. These few life-changing hours also saw the lightning creation of a 320-page coronavirus bill with bracingly wide statutory powers (for example, detention of miscreants or the mentally ill to enforce lockdown).

Over five extraordinary days — surely destined to produce a companion to John Lukacs’s classic Five Days in London, May 1940health, financial, business and governance emergencies melded. And a further, intimate emergency joined them, for the cumulative effect of the PM’s daily checklist was to impose on families and individuals across the land an obligation to reconfigure their lives for an indefinite period. “Unprecedented,” rare in this old country’s political discourse, had its moment in the sun. Only the 1940 crucible of the “people’s war” had vague plausibility as an analogue, not just via its jumble of mythicised memory.

A colossal week had already called forth a touch of martialism in a Britain always ready for the parade ground. Johnson declared “war” on the virus and pledged to “defeat” the “invisible enemy.” Then his Dad’s Army–ish “send coronavirus packing,” harmless as it was, let slip his bonhomous urge to test tonal etiquette, reprised in a wayward quip promoting ventilator output as “operation last gasp,” which many affect to find enraging.

More intriguing was the glow around hitherto mundane “key workers,” evidently a capacious bunch going well beyond the uniformed, badged and suited (with even some journalists passing muster). The British state has often looked threadbare over these two decades, at times an outright failure. This latest spine-stiffening exercise, forced by impossibly acute domestic demands, incorporates its own version of herd immunity.

By last weekend, the country’s twin paths — stepping into a new economic era while approaching a door into the medical dark — were palpable. Yet daytrippers lured by bright weather packed rural scenic spots and London parks were still in la-la land, their blithe spirits at last pushing a brittle Number 10 towards quasi-curfew. Johnson’s live Monday evening broadcast, delivering its you must stay at home mantra with passable high seriousness, was as stern as this natural libertarian can manage. (“The way ahead is hard… Join together to halt the spread of this disease, protect the NHS, and save lives.”) The exceptions to staying in — buying food, medical need, essential work, a lone bout of exercise — were clearer than the compliance regime. But the twenty-seven million–plus who watched on TV alone, almost half the population, could have no doubt about the main point.

Hours earlier, the coronavirus bill, its terms and two-year lifespan agreed with opposition parties and awaiting assent by the Welsh, Scots and Northern Ireland assemblies, was given sober treatment by a depleted Commons before passing without a vote. After the House of Lords’s brief scrutiny and the Queen’s sign-off, it grants ministers “wide and robust powers” (provisional as they are intended to be) to subdue Covid-19. The second week of this latest British-style revolution — for such it is, only three months after the previous one — had begun.

These volcanic events, their perilous background fortifying social unity insistently cultivated by broadcasters — have eased the political temperature. A YouGov poll released on 24 March put Johnson’s favourability rating at 55–35; Ipsos MORI on 19 March showed 48–41 satisfaction with the government (the first such positive score since 2010). A tilt to the Conservatives is plain. But incumbents often benefit when a crisis breaks, and such findings could well change as pressures on health staff and equipment shortages rankle, and Labour’s new leader (probably the London lawyer Keir Starmer) gets a chance to shine.

In play are two other factors: bubbling fury at the government’s early dithering or inattention over Covid-19, and confidence that the state’s massive interventions (several possibly irreversible) presage a decisive left turn.

The former links scientific appraisal of strategic failings to personal weaknesses of leadership, in particular those of Johnson and Dominic Cummings, the PM’s driven, sometimes abrasive senior adviser. Their reckoning is keenly anticipated, as much as Tony Blair’s ever was over Iraq. Their many enemies’ visceral loathing, hitherto ineffective as a political tool, can now draw on epidemiological expertise. That said, the politics of science around Covid-19 is complex and dialogic at many levels, the environment fluid, arguments unsettled. The chips may fall in ways few expect, just as they have in other areas over Britain’s last five years.

The latter puts fresh wind into sails tattered by four election losses, even vindicates the Marxist determinism of the Jeremy Corbyn–John McDonnell circle at the very moment it leaves the stage. Bliss it is in this dusk to be an ageing revolutionary. Their optimism is reinforced by centre-right marketeers who back Sunak’s splurge. But only the Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard grasps the dialectic. He is scornful of Number 10’s “staggering ineptitude” over the pandemic and hails the chancellor’s “executive action befitting the wartime threat that we face” while declaring: “To avert socialism, we must briefly become socialists. We must spend whatever it takes to save free market liberalism.”

What will remain of an economy if the shutdown lasts up to a year, and how the state will keep things ticking, are moot. People everywhere, the bedrock of society, are going to be co-shapers in any outcome. The last paragraph of the report by the team led by Neil Ferguson (he now in self-isolation after being infected) makes a version of the same point:

However, we emphasise that it is not at all certain that suppression will succeed long term; no public health intervention with such disruptive effects on society has been previously attempted for such a long duration of time. How populations and societies will respond remains unclear.

All this because a tiny viral agent composed of proteins and nucleic acids became a transformative force to beat them all. The WHO’s Bruce Aylward strikes an uncommon note, but the right one: “This is a new disease. Respect it and learn as it evolves.”

Covid-19 has barely got started. Here as elsewhere, the information deluge’s endless instancy can act as an infectant of its own, blocking awareness of time’s, and life’s, true rhythms. The thought struck home for me on that pivotal day, 16 March, during leg-stretching early-evening fieldwork in six large supermarkets on the fringes of a northern English city, each one clean out of the same everyday staples: pasta, rice, oatmeal, flour, eggs, soap, toilet paper. There was no supply shortage or interruption of delivery, I was told: it was just that some patrons were over-buying.

Such behaviour is not “panicking,” writes the psychiatrist Simon Wessely in that day’s Financial Times, citing 9/11 and the 1918 influenza epidemic to exemplify his case: “We have been warned to prepare ourselves for the [likelihood] of spending two weeks in self-imposed isolation. Stocking up on necessities is… a rational and appropriate response.”

True enough, but those vast bare shelves jolted me into recall of a 1960s joke from communist Poland. A customer at Warsaw’s Smyk emporium asks if this is the cheese section. “Nie, prosze panę, this is the department where we have no sausages. The department where they have no cheese is upstairs.” I could recite the differences in my sleep, but in that moment of psychic dislocation all I could think about was equalisation, and the cunning of history. The years fell away. I had become that customer.

Only a fortnight ago, but it seems an aeon — and that, like its correlatives above, is part of the problem. In this respect, Britain’s share of the global pandemic really is the new Brexit (a word I had hoped to avoid). With the enigmatic Covid-19 in rapid transmission, a repeat of the last four years’ manic inertia will hasten genuine disaster. Soon, these weeks may well come to resemble the “phoney war” whose mental force field was brutally vaporised in 1940 as the actual conflict became all too real. •