Saturday 23 October 2021

How did England get dealing with Covid in 2020 so wrong?

 On February 3 2020, Boris Johnson gave a speech in Greenwich celebrating Brexit. In the speech he took time to talk about the oncoming pandemic. This is what he said:

"And in that context, we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other."

Lockdown came in the last days of March. We can ask ourselves what was the government doing about the fact that reports were coming in that Covid (the 'coronavirus') kills?  In the words of Sir Patrick Vallance, they were watching what was happening from January onwards. People were dying in Wuhan and Italy. 

The answer to the question is virtually nothing. I've often retraced my steps through February and March. I was visiting schools, going to football matches (the Emirates stadium, north London), travelling on trains and buses, going into the BBC. By the time I was in an intensive care ward at the Whittington Hospital in April 2020, people were dying in there at a rate of 42% dying, 58% surviving. Survival rates in care homes where old people were being decanted from hospitals was worse. 

So what is Johnson saying in February 2020 in this speech that tells us anything about why the lockdown came too late for thousands of us - for those who died and for those of us with long-lasting or lifelong damage? He is saying that he is opposed to 'market segregation' as a way of handling Covid. What is this? It can only mean the intervention of governments to lockdown! The very thing that he eventually got round to ordering. But by then, the virus was in: tens of thousands of people were infected. There had been no restrictions on travel. No monitoring, no quarantining, very little testing, no tracking, no isolating, no social distancing, no masks. But trade and travel were the same as ever it was. (Applause from Johnson.) 

You can see in the speech a horror that governments might intervene in something that Johnson seems to think is in a way sacred: "the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other." Well, in a way, it is - but only if this doesn't jeopardise the lives of the "populations of the earth"! And that is precisely what Johnson does with this speech, and what he did in the weeks between the speech and lockdown. Notice also that the word he uses to oppose this sacred right is 'autarkic' - a typically obscure Johnson-type word to use. The first time I heard it, I didn't know what it means. Online definition gives us: "A fully autarkic nation would be a closed economy and lacking any sources of external support, trade or aid."

It's a doom scenario in order to mock and despise real, practical measures that could limit or 'mitigate' the spread of the virus or that could protect the most vulnerable - the over 70s, people with immune systems suppressed and those with conditions which were quickly emerging as particularly prone to getting the most severe reactions to the virus. 

The origins of Johnson's aversion to taking public health measures immediately lie of course in what he is saying here - a belief that trading freely is the best that life can offer. But there is a wider belief that comes with the name 'libertarianism' that has to be factored in here. Since at least Margaret Thatcher's time, the Conservative Party in  the UK has championed the private over the public, the individual over 'society', the 'free' over the 'nanny state' and 'state intervention'. (Note: there is often a big difference between what they have said and what they have done in this matter. There have been plenty of occasions when a Conservative-led government has intervened heavily as a state while talking the talk of libertarianism, none most clearly in the field I work in, education. The Gove education revolution involved the government seizing control of the curriculum, enforcing it through an increase high stakes centrally-run exams/testing plus Ofsted inspections plus league tables. All the while, big contracts were handed out to exam boards and approved text book writers and companies. Libertarian? Of course not. )

Yet, when it came to public health - or to be more precise - our lives - we can hear in every phrase that Johnson uses a reluctance, nay a repugnance, towards taking state-run public initiatives. My argument here is that it is this sentiment that took us into the disaster of 2020. 

As I have written elsewhere it was matched by what I regard as one of the most callous approaches to infection that I have ever heard of: 'herd immunity' without vaccination. I only have to go to my twitter timeline of March 2020 before I got ill, to see how we were debating this at that precise moment. While 3 government scientists came on to the radio and TV and told us that 'herd immunity' (without vaccination) would be the way to defeat the virus, we were arguing that this would entail the deaths of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. That is, the deliberate mass infection of the population would result in mass death, that there were no guarantees that mass infection would result in mass resistance to the virus because the virus could and would mutate, that it was unpredictable how long or how strong any resistance would be and that where 'herd immunity' had occurred in nature it had been through evolution. That is, the survival and breeding of those 'types' who had proven to be resistant to  the virus. Again, involving the inevitable mass deaths of those 'types' who are not resistant. The example that anyone of my age knows of here is rabbits and myxomatosis. 

What we got then was a perfect storm: a marriage of right wing libertarianism with unethical, anti-social, callous science. 

I really don't think that many of our political commentators have grasped this. Of course when I think about this I do so with a mix of sadness and rage. I am a direct victim of the Feb-March outlook coming from government. It saddens me. When I look at the raw statistics of the deaths in 2020 I am enraged; when I look at the fact that those scientists who peddled that herd immunity stuff, still appear regularly on TV with never a word of criticism directed at them and when I see a government front bench blithely able to bat away all criticism of their handling of the pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, I am indeed horrified and furious. We are after all talking about wartime-like death rates in civilian populations. And it really isn't hard to find the reasons.