One week into the UK’s so-called ‘lockdown’, and I thought it would be good to look at the UK response to the virus, and round up some political and social developments within this benighted territory over the past few weeks. Coming so soon after last year’s late general election, which confirmed the Johnson administration in power, it’s difficult not to see the Covid-19 crisis as a test of this government’s mettle and fibre, and it’s an interesting political story. But much more broadly, I’m solidly of the opinion that this crisis presents an opportunity to consider, and reconsider, where we are as a society and as a culture, and specifically to refresh our political vision and ambition. Personally I find the idea of ‘going back to normal life’ horrifying; to even consider that option I’d call tragic, and a wasted opportunity. Going back to the interminable boom of traffic; the illegally filthy urban air, a killer in itself; to go back to how we were: now that’s what I call a zombie apocalypse. This crisis, it seems to me, exposes very clearly where the unacceptable has been normalised. To expect to go back to accepting the unacceptable is to lower ones expectations so far one might as well have no expectations at all.
The gathering storm
Think back to another age: mid-March, just about half a lunar cycle ago, when pubs were open and I could go see XOM play Pink Floyd at the Dark Horse. I do some work with the NHS, chairing a monthly networking meeting for service users and professionals, and it was around this time all ‘non-essential’ meetings and training within the Birmingham and Solihul Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (try saying that after six jam sandwiches) were cancelled. Precautionary measures were being taken as the scale of the epidemic on the continent became apparent.
As an excellent round-up of the story of UK politics in the time of Covid-19, found of all places in the New England Journal of Medicine, reminds us, it was only around this time, March 12th, that Johnson held his first major press conference on the issue, but, despite increasingly concerned communiques since January from the UK’s public health community:
there was no appetite for banning mass gatherings, since we were told […] that doing so would have minimal impact […] there was no recommendation, far less any instruction, to shut down one of the busier weekends on the sporting calendar. Such inaction continued despite the prime minister’s warning that “many more families will lose loved ones before their time.”
In the absence of a government policy, the football authorities (both rugby and soccer) acted with admirable responsibility: they postponed the matches despite the financial losses…Hunter, D. Covid-19 and the Stiff Upper Lip, 2020
Indeed, it now looks like civil society was way ahead of the government; but so were other governments.
Herd it through the grapevine
Sir Patrick Vallance, who going by the surname is affiliated with the followers of William the Conqueror, used to preside over R&D at big pharma company GlaxoSmithKline. These days however he slums it as the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and it was Sir Patrick who used the term ‘herd immunity’ to describe an aspect of the government’s strategy. Quoted in the Guardian, Sir Patrick argued:
“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; […] to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission […] “
He added: “This is quite likely, I think, to become an annual virus, an annual seasonal infection.”The Guardian, 13 March 2020
Regardless of the wisdom or otherwise of this approach, I think the term ‘herd immunity’ got people’s backs up: people don’t on the whole like being regarded as cattle. The public quickly got the impression the national plan was accepting “a large number of deaths soon, to ultimately get the population to a Covid-19–resistant state”. Some, including the Guardian, implied the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the so-called ‘nudge unit’ which has been a feature of British politics since the ascendance of the Cameron/Osborne double-act, were partly responsible for fashioning a response based on behavioural psychology.
Regardless, the policy did seem out of step with other governments, as Eire and France had already by this point closed schools, universities, and moved to ban mass gatherings. The Guardian ran an Op-ed titled I’m an epidemiologist. When I heard about Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus plan, I thought it was satire. Jeremy Hunt, former Health Secretary and the candidate Johnson had beaten in the final round for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and therefore the Premiership, registered his concern that more serious measures were not being taken, and government strategy at this point became politically untenable.
Their finest hour
In civil society, consciousness of what was before us became crystallised, focused. At the pub that weekend, there was talk of little else, and of making the most of a last opportunity to socialise. One colleague from another NHS Trust suggested that the usual tensions within the service had abated:
all parts of the service are now pulling together and coming into line in an unprecedented manner – co-operation and flexibility amongst front line staff has been extraordinary
Silver linings, unexpected consequences.
The Monday evening following I walked past the same pub, guitar in hand, and I caught sight of an MC of my acquaintance, so I went to over say hello. He was predicting the forthcoming lock-down, in characteristically Biblical tones. Noticing the guitar, he asked me if I had been practising. “No,” I replied, “I’ve just played an open mic in Kings Heath”. “We do what we do, don’t we” he observed stoically.
Johnson announced more stringent advice that Monday; the NEJM argues these vague announcements only added to the confusion. By Wednesday, March 18th, the government announced school closures for the end of the week. On March 20th, at the spring equinox, the NEJM could write:
Throughout the past few weeks, the U.K. mantra has been “we will act at the appropriate time according to the science.” Many clinicians and scientists have been pushing the panic button, but the alarm, if heard, was not acted on publicly until the third week of March. Everyone is hoping that their gut instincts, the experience of other countries, and now the models are wrong. What is not in doubt is that barring a miracle, a treatment, and ultimately a vaccine, the NHS in the United Kingdom is about to experience a challenge unlike any other in its 70 years of existence.Hunter, D. ibid.
Four days later, the government announced the UK ‘lockdown’, to last a minimum of three weeks, with emergency legislation planned for later that week to enforce it. As has been pointed out though, these measures are less draconian than in other countries – there’s no actual curfew or travel ban as such, and the Civil Contingencies Act has not been triggered. The new regulations are however fairly strict, and and enforceable by new police powers:
Meanwhile, outside our island, news of riots and breakouts across prisons in South and Latin America reached me, as people began to take matters into their own hands.
Join me soon, when I’ll be looking at life since the ‘lockdown’ began. I’ll look at further political, social and cultural developments, as we begin week two, and try to ascertain what might happen next.