The UK Government's handling of the coronavirus disaster has been chaotic from the start. Meanwhile, criticism from opposition parties has been half-hearted at best. Consequently, health professionals and scientists have had to lead the way in holding the Government to account.
One of the British Government's most effective critics has been the editor of the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, Richard Horton. As early as 29 January, Horton warned: 'It must now surely be time to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.' And by 31 January, he was already talking about 'draconian measures that limit population mobility.'
On 10 March, Dr. Horton called for the 'urgent implementation of social distancing and closure policies.' And a week later, he denounced the Government's plan to foster what one of its top science advisers, Graham Medley, called 'a nice big epidemic' in the hope of creating so-called 'herd immunity'. Horton retorted:
Any numerate school student could make the calculation. With a mortality of 1% among 60% of a population of some 66 million people, the UK could expect almost 400,000 deaths.
Then, on 26 March, Horton spoke out on BBC television:
We knew in the last week of January that this was coming. The message from China was absolutely clear that a new virus with pandemic potential was hitting cities. ... We knew that eleven weeks ago and then we wasted February when we could have acted.
Remarkably, it was only on 29 March, that the National Health Service coronavirus director, Keith Willett, responded directly to Horton, suggesting that his criticisms were unfair because the NHS had 'declared a Level Four - the highest - National Emergency on January 30.'
Although at first glance this seems like a credible argument, when you look into it, it turns out to be no argument at all. What you find is that although this NHS emergency may have been declared internally on 30 January, it wasn't announced publicly until 3 March. And, it is hard to see how a state of 'National Emergency', which frontline NHS staff knew nothing about, can have done much to prepare the service for the coming catastrophe.
BRAVE SIR LAWRENCE
With no one in government willing or able to come up with a better response to their critics, the brave individual who stepped forward was none other than Tony Blair's former foreign policy adviser, Sir Lawrence Freedman. On 1 April, the New Statesman published an article by Freedman entitled: 'The real reason the UK government pursued "herd immunity" - and why it was abandoned.'
In his article, Freedman describes the dilemmas facing the Government's scientific advisers during the crucial weeks in March when policy shifted from allowing the development of 'herd immunity' to calling for a lockdown. Freedman's narrative is sometimes informative but it cannot explain why these scientific advisers failed to make any preparations for a situation in which this new virus might act differently from their mathematical models.
This over-reliance on one particular branch of science - mathematical modelling - has been widely criticised. For example, in an editorial in the British Medical Journal on 30 March, Allyson Pollock complained that expertise in disease control and public health was being 'sidelined' in favour of abstract modelling. Former director in the World Health Organisation (WHO), Anthony Costello, has made similar complaints, warning that 'the basic public health approach is playing second fiddle to mathematical modelling.'
Freedman's narrative has many other limitations. It cannot, for instance, explain Britain's longstanding refusal to follow the WHO's 2005 advice to prepare for mass testing. Graham Medley himself recently admitted that 'mass public testing has never been our strategy for any pandemic.' He also admitted that the Government simply 'didn't want to invest millions of pounds into something that is about preparedness.'
On 11 February, the ITN journalist, Robert Peston, was told by a senior Government source that:
If there is a pandemic, the peak will be March, April, May. ... the risk is 60% of the population getting it. With a mortality rate of perhaps just over 1%, we are looking at not far off 500,000 deaths.
Yet Freedman's narrative does nothing to help us understand why - if they knew how bad things might get in mid-February - the Government didn't start immediately preparing the population for, at least, the possibility of a lockdown. His narrative also does nothing to explain why, having supposedly dropped any 'herd immunity' strategy by 16 March, the Government then took till 23 March to impose a lockdown - a delay that surely led to unnecessary deaths.
As Sir David King, the former Chief Scientific Advisor, has said: 'We didn't manage this until too late and every day's delay has resulted in further deaths.' And, as the epidemiologist, Helen Ward, says:
Between 12 and 23 March, tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of people will have been infected. ... The current best estimate is that around 1% of those infected will die.
Freedman is also silent about the present chaos engulfing the NHS. And he says nothing about the systematic running down of NHS provision - under both Labour and Tory governments - that is the appalling background to this whole tragedy.
Although it is well known that, since 2000, the number of hospital beds has fallen by almost a third, the ruthless process through which this sort of 'reform' was imposed on the NHS is less well known. It has been described by one senior treasury official in these dramatic terms:
The money squeeze in the service was akin to financial 'water-boarding': they wanted to make hospitals feel like they were drowning so that they would actually respond by raising efficiency.
'SHATTERING FAILURE OF PUBLIC HEALTH POLICY'
Freedman's over-emphasis on strategic planning - rather than on medical opinion and the realities in hospitals - must have something to do with the fact that he is an Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College. And it is striking that he chooses to repeat the point that the Government's focus on 'herd immunity' was due to their belief that 'the more the first wave leaves a large proportion of the population with a natural immunity, the better placed we are to cope with a [second wave].'
Now, it doesn't take much imagination to picture strategists in No.10 calculating that if the British population built up 'herd immunity' in the first wave of the coronavirus epidemic - while China and others did not - then the UK would have a significant economic advantage in the second wave. While other countries would have to go into another widespread lockdown during this second wave, further damaging their economies, Britain could maintain its economic activities with far less disruption.
There is, however, no need to believe in such an overt conspiracy to reach a more general understanding of what occurred. After decades of justifying every cutback, and nearly every policy, on the grounds that the economy must come first, it was simply instinctive for our political leaders to resist a lockdown at almost any cost.
In a speech given on 3 February, Boris Johnson revealed that his main concern was that the '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.'
This initial fear - regarding the specific effects of the virus on capitalist globalisation - was then quickly replaced by a more urgent concern to 'protect the economy, and if some pensioners die, too bad.'
These chilling words have been attributed to Johnson's top adviser, Dominic Cummings. But, even if Cummings never used this exact phrase, everyone - including the Government's scientists - knew what the priorities of this administration were.
As one of these scientists, John Edmunds, reportedly said: 'No one thought it would be acceptable politically "to shut the country down."' And, as one senior civil servant said about the response to the virus: 'Is it worth the economic disruption? If you look at the treasury valuation of a life, probably not.'
Fortunately, by mid March, some of the Government's science advisers were questioning their role. As the Observer says:
Many of these advisers had become increasingly concerned that the UK had become out of step with other countries because of political resistance from ministers to measures that would hit the economy. The Observer has been told that at least two senior government advisers were on the brink of quitting before Johnson switched his approach.
Rather disturbingly, some ministers are, apparently, still unhappy about any prioritisation of life over the economy. As one told the Telegraph: 'We didn't want to go down this route in the first place - public and media pressure pushed the lockdown.'
This blatant prioritisation of the economy over life has led to Britain having one of the worst death tolls in Europe. Not all countries have failed as badly as Britain. Not all countries have government advisers who feel compelled to tell journalists that:
Almost every plan we had was not activated in February. Almost every government department has failed to properly implement their own pandemic plans. ... It was a massive spider's web of failing.
But, as Henry Kissinger says: 'many countries' institutions will be perceived as having failed' and 'the world will never be the same after the coronavirus.'
The economic historian, Adam Tooze, has this to say about the future of the West:
[If] we take the best possible estimate of say 100,000 [US] deaths, and if we assume that the Chinese have underestimated their deaths by a factor of ten (say they're engaging in an extraordinary propaganda cover up), then the stark implication of that is that, per capita, there would be twelve times more victims in the United States than in China - and America's leading allies in Western Europe are not going to do very much better by that metric. ...
[Those facts] will speak very loudly in the aftermath of this crisis. ... [From now on, politics] will be overlaid by this shattering failure of public health policy that we are beginning to see unfold in the West.
This 'shattering failure' will only be exacerbated by President Trump's instinctive capitalist revulsion at any idea of a lockdown, any idea that 'we're actually paying people not to work.' As he said at the end of March: 'That's not for us!' Then, on 4 April, he declared:
We don't want to be doing this for months and months and months ... We're paying people not to go to work. How about that? ... We have to get back to work.
Some State governors will resist Trump's desire to 'get them back fast'. But, if other governors do go along with the President, the US epidemic will never be properly contained. It will then be up to workers themselves to put up resistance.
The Marxist commentator Richard Wolff has this to say about what might happen if Trump calls on US workers to return to work before it is safe to do so:
If you have this kind of disconnect between what the ruler thinks needs to be done and what a growing mass of people ... see as unbearable, outrageous, and literally a threat to their health and safety, you have the condition for a system breaking down. ...
Millions of workers are going to likely have to decide in the weeks ahead whether they will heed the demands of the rulers to go back to work and live with the risks of a disease that can kill you or tell the ruling class we will no longer work with you. ... If large numbers of people are told to go to work ... and they don't do it, that's a general strike whether you call it that or not.
BRAVE SIR KEIR
Meanwhile, here in the UK, Graham Medley, is still advocating a 'herd immunity' strategy in which people 'catch the virus in the least deadly way possible.' And some in the Government are almost as keen as Trump to get people back to work. The Times reports a government official saying:
The debate is now between people who think we should suppress the virus completely and those who think we should run things quite hot, use the spare capacity in the NHS and aim to keep the [virus reproduction] R number just below one.
As another senior insider makes clear: 'Running hot means more people are likely to die.' But the cabinet do have another problem - well summarised by the Spectator's Katy Balls:
The biggest surprise about lockdown within government has been the level of public support for it. There are ministers who think that simply waiting until the public wants the lockdown to end isn't feasible. A reckoning will come in three weeks and any changes could take some selling. 'Lockdown is the easy part - easing it is the hard bit,' says a senior government figure.
Some ministers admit that they're resigned to the fact that 'the lockdown will only start coming loose when the public wants it to - not ministers.' But former - and present - Labour leaders are working hard to restore the Tory Government's credibility and trustworthiness.
Tony Blair has launched his own exit strategy to get people back to work - while warning the Government that the 'problem is going to be persuading people that when you do ease the lockdown measures they can safely go out.'
Meanwhile, the new Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is on the same page as Blair with his repeated calls for the Government to publish its 'exit strategy now'. Rather than denouncing the Tories' murderous incompetence, Starmer is, instead, calling for 'a roadmap to lift restrictions in certain sectors of the economy.' He has even said that 'if there is an exit strategy that looks broadly right it would be a good thing if people got behind it, because that way you get the trust of the public.'
Both Blair and Starmer claim to be motivated by a concern for the mental health problems associated with months of lockdown. But dramatic increases in welfare payments, more guarantees for tenants in rented housing and free online counselling would go a long way to ameliorate such very real problems. Yet, Blair and Starmer have ignored such obvious solutions while also ignoring the equally obvious fact that any partial opening of 'sectors of the economy' is bound to risk the lives of the people who work in those sectors.
Blair's proposals suggest that the first sectors to reopen will be schooling, retail, hospitality and manufacturing. In other words, while many middle class professionals will be able to stay safe by working from home, teachers, shop assistants, waiters and factory workers will have to risk their lives to help restart the economy.
If the UK Government - and its loyal 'opposition' - do get away with a such a phased reopening of the capitalist system, it will be one 'phased not by medical advice, but by the hard grammar of wealth and poverty: poorest first, richest last.'
I've borrowed these striking words from - of all people - David Frum, George W Bush's former speech writer, who used them to denounce Trump's 'back to work' plans in an interesting article in The Atlantic. Frum's words say all that needs to be said about the 'back to work' plans of both Trump and Starmer:
In the event of an early and partial reopening, the disparities can only widen. Those who can telecommute, who can shop online, or who work for health-conscious employers like public universities will be better positioned to minimize their exposure than those called back to work in factories, plants, and delivery services. The economy will be further divided along its widening class fault.
So, it certainly looks as though there is a real possibility that British workers may find themselves facing the same dilemma as those in the US: to obey or not obey their rulers when they're told to go back to work.
Wolff's 'general strike' may be just wishful thinking - for now. But there have already been a number strikes over health and safety across the US. And we do need to remember that the political and economic landscape has been transformed in ways that open up radically new possibilities for the future.
'WORKING-CLASS FORCE FOR CHANGE'
In order to maintain society during months of lockdown, Western governments have been compelled to underwrite much of the supposedly 'private' capitalist system with massive state intervention. This has gone so far that analysts from the Macquarie Group - the world's biggest manager of infrastructure - are already warning that the 'effective nationalisation of capital, universal income guarantees, and deep changes in work practice' are leading to a situation in which 'conventional capitalism is dying, or at least mutating into something that will be closer to a version of communism.
This 'version of communism' has, of course, nothing in common with the moneyless, stateless vision that inspires genuine Marxists, as well as some anarchists. It will, rather, be one in which the state enables companies such as Google and Amazon to monopolise the market, and our lives, as never before. But now that the state is being seen to be directly responsible for the capitalist system - including everyone's income and security - workers may start to make demands on the state on a scale not seen since the social upheavals of the 1970s. As the Economist magazine says:
The novel notion that the government needs to preserve firms, jobs and workers' incomes at practically any cost may endure .... The policy will formally end once the pandemic has passed, but political pressure for similar support schemes - from the nationalisation of tottering firms to the provision of a universal basic income - may well be higher the next time a sharp downturn comes along. If politicians are able to preserve jobs and incomes during this crisis, many people will see little reason why they should not try again in the next one. ... radical change is looming.
The Financial Times makes a similar argument:
Radical reforms will need to be put on the table. ... Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.
If history is anything to go by, politicians are bound to throw nationalism, repression and war into this 'mix' in the hope of preventing any tendencies towards a genuine socialist transformation. And the capitalist state - no matter how 'progressive' - can never be the basis for such a radical transformation. But the social forces which might lead us in that direction are now becoming clearer.
It was the US historian Mike Davis who, back in 2005, predicted the present disaster in his book, The Monster at our Door. In a recent interview, Davis says:
Nurses are the social conscience of this country ... We have to broaden the definition of who are frontline medical workers because it also includes nursing home staff, janitors, people who pick up garbage. It includes the Amazon warehouse workers without protection.
These people are not only our heroes and heroines right now, but have become an immensely powerful working-class force for change. As socialists, we need to recognise their historical agency, expressing our solidarity in every way we can.
Elsewhere, Davis observes that nurses, ninety per cent of whom are women, 'really are becoming the vanguard of the proletariat'.
Inspiring words, indeed! But humanity will need more than words to get us through years of epidemics, economic crisis and even more austerity - years which will be especially devastating in the global South. On the other hand, inspiring words do have their place, so let me conclude with these words from a recent activist's report from Italy:
From the Dalmine steel mills of Bergamo to those of Brescia, from the Fiat-Chrysler plants of Pomigliano in Naples to the Ilva steel plant in Genoa, from the Electrolux factory of Susegana in Treviso to many small and medium-sized companies in Veneto and Emilia Romagna, from the Amazon warehouses in the provinces of Piacenza and Rieti, to the poultry and meat processing companies in the Po Valley, there were thousands of striking workers who came out into the squares and streets, strictly at a safe distance of one meter apart from one another ...
The struggle was so widespread that the government... issued a decree on March 17 with economic measures including blocking layoffs, providing unemployment benefits [and] economic support of 600 Euros for the month of March for self-employed workers....
The struggle continues, even in the time of the coronavirus...
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