By turning his back on more interventionist measures to tackle Covid-19, Johnson is courting disaster for Britain
By Alan Simpson
Published on the Morning Star, Mar 17, 2020
The nation is at war. Peacetime production has slumped, foreign travel collapsed, casualties rise.
In every part of the country, people worry about how to avoid the enemy.
This time, however, it is germs, not Germans, that we fear. Even the Germans are under attack.
Medically, economically and politically, the coronavirus pandemic has caught us all on the hop.
Forget the Chancellor’s hyperbolic claims. His first Budget will not save Britain from either coronavirus or an economic crash. Sadly, nor will anything emerging from the Prime Minister.
Far more significant than the Budget speech was Boris Johnson’s admission that “many more British families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
This isn’t so much a prediction as an acknowledgment of where his policies are taking us.
Johnson’s preference for encouraging individual behaviour change — rather than more interventionist “test-and-trace” and social-distancing policies — will deliver a slower drift into a much deeper problem.
Most offensive of all is the claim that “herd immunity” is what will save us. Throughout history, herd immunity comes only after widespread infection and substantial death rates.
Even the benefits are often shortlived, with immunity not comprehensively passed on to succeeding generations of the herd.
By turning his back on more interventionist measures, Johnson’s policies look more like A Very British Cull — ironically, one getting shot of large numbers of the very voters who put him into power.
At the moment, Britain has a lower death rate from the virus than Italy (1.4 per cent against 6.7 per cent).
The logic behind the government strategy is that the more dispersed the detected cases, the more manageable they are for the NHS. Without testing and tracing it will not last.
Coronavirus in Britain is running about three weeks behind Italy. The path of its unfolding epidemic is entirely predictable.
Cases double every four days. By the end of the week we can expect about 2,000 cases. In less than three weeks — assuming the rate of increase remains constant — the total number of cases in Britain will have exceeded 16,000.
Even this number is misleading. In truth, the government does not know, and does not want to know, Britain’s true infection rate.
The World Health Organisation now says that China’s most effective strategy was the extensive testing, proactive detection and immediate isolation of patients. This is what rapidly reduced infection rates.
By choosing not to adopt vigorous test-and-trace policies, Britain has opted not to know precise numbers. The government is left chasing water down a hill. Except it isn’t chasing.
Current online advice says “don’t go to your GP and don’t call NHS 111 unless your condition becomes serious.” No wonder the public are confused.
It’s hard to predict the number of hospital admissions to expect, but a 20 per cent uptake would generate over 3,000 cases. Some curious counting methods could make the numbers much higher.
The normal NHS way of dealing with a surge is to release about 10 per cent of hospital capacity.
This would amount to about 3,000 beds. In exceptional circumstances it might increase to 20 per cent, but only for a short period. Soon the pressure of competing demands for hospital beds builds to breaking point.
By the end of three weeks, the capacity of the NHS to deal with the coronavirus epidemic will be close to breaking point. Long before then, people will question Britain’s lack of critical-care beds.
Italy has 12.5 critical-care beds per 100,000 people: the UK has 6.6 beds per 100,000.
It is one of the — many — brutal ways of measuring the scale of NHS cuts since 2010. No amount of Johnson’s hand-washing can escape this.
In search of safety nets
Neither Johnson nor his Chancellor has a magic wand to wave over absent critical-care beds and the medical staff they rely on.
Private-sector beds can be requisitioned into “the war effort,” but then we come to staffing.
Johnson cannot magic back the 14,000 EU nationals who left the NHS during Britain’s Brexit debacle, nor reverse the 87 per cent fall in NHS job applications that followed.
What Britain needed was wartime mobilisation for peacetime survival. Instead we’re offered hand-washing and a melee of “unofficial” messages that simply add to public confusion and anxiety.
Digging for Britain: Kids’ army to the rescue?
If the government does declare quarantine zones, close schools and cancel public events, a second raft of bigger issues then emerge.
To avoid a health-service implosion, food still has to reach the homes of those self-isolating. Healthcare must reach the infirm. The vulnerable still need support. The answer that is emerging looks remarkably like a socialist version of Deliveroo.
Here is the silver lining to a dire situation. In the absence of government leadership, whole communities have been quietly stepping up to the plate, providing the leadership the nation lacks.
In Wuhan, an impromptu army of young volunteers, transporting food around on empty buses, has delivered the food and medicines that has kept others alive.
It is what happens in a war. Dad’s Army, Mum’s Army and (increasingly) Kids’ Armies have stepped in, providing the emergency safety nets their society needs. One way or another, we are all following China’s lead.
In Britain, the most visible sign of this came from those volunteering as emergency responders, providing non-medical support services to the NHS.
As self-isolation increases, it appears too in local support networks.
We’re part of a neighbourhood internet group that offers shopping and support to anyone self-isolating. Go onto Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook and you will find these in their thousands, all across the country. Some reports suggest that up to three million UK volunteers are stepping in this space.
Increasingly, as older and more vulnerable members self-isolate, it is younger people who underpin these safety nets. Slowly, we are rediscovering what previous generations did in wartime. They called it “social solidarity.”
Uncomfortable home truths
If this is what gets Britain through, then brilliant. But my generation, the older generation, mustn’t miss the chance to face painful home truths. Coronavirus is to the elderly what climate is to the young.
Far too often climate campaigners come across indifferent — older — voices saying: “It’s population, not climate, you should worry about. Birth control’s the answer. Just stop these kids breeding the way they do.”
Left unsaid is the presumption that we’re talking about the developing world: black people, not white. So, for starters, let’s look at the actual numbers. According to the UN, out of today’s global population of 7.6 billion there are about 2bn under-15s.
By 2100, when the population may rise to 12bn, the number of children is projected to be … 2bn.
If population growth is a problem, it isn’t the kids. It’s those of us living longer. Coronavirus has grasped this in a way that prejudice doesn’t.
Solidarity or disposability?
The alternative to solidarity is disposability. Those quarantined on cruise ships, in Mediterranean hotels, or who comfortably work from home aren’t the poor, living in crap housing.
Nor are they people on zero-hours contracts or working supermarket shifts to part-pay their way through higher education.
Security for the quarantined affluent will increasingly depend on support from the more marginalised around them.
Nowhere will this be more evident than in the US, where coronavirus could sink Trump’s re-election campaign and send Republicans clamouring for Obamacare.
Today’s pandemic could bring the US’s private healthcare system to its knees. Trump may agree to universal “free testing” for the virus, but then what?
All subsequent medical advice/treatment must be privately paid for. And millions of US citizens don’t have private health insurance.
So are people in the US with no insurance going to self-isolate just because they feel ill?
Not if a wage to feed themselves depends on turning up for work. And if this shares the bug, so what?
If enough older, affluent US citizens start to drop like flies, maybe the system will have to open up to the poor?
In any event, domestic economic life will implode in the US, just as it is doing everywhere else. This will sink Trump. When affluenza is threatened by influenza all political bets will be off.
After the implosion
An economic implosion in 2020 is unavoidable. No amount of Central Bank interest-rate reductions will avert this.
Societies that are afraid to go outside, or share the air they breathe, and have lost faith in the safety nets they once took for granted, are only ever semi-functional. But it is around the silver linings of such a collapse that tomorrow’s New Jerusalem will have to be built.
Today’s crisis will see carbon emissions tumble, pollution levels plummet, and a generation of younger people emerge as social saviours.
Around them a very different green new deal must then be written. Tomorrow’s security will require a more circular, cleaner, inclusive economics. It will have to put back to the planet more than it takes out, and turn its back on beliefs that we can just shop our way from one crisis to another. This won’t be before time.
Alan Simpson was Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010.