After Brexit #6
The Second Lockdown is a Colossal Political Failure
Lee Jones, George Hoare and Peter Ramsay
3 November 2020
Britain will shortly follow Germany and France into a second national lockdown intended to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a colossal political failure, caused by the hollowing out of the state. There is a void where we need there to be a relationship of trust and authority between government and citizens, and amongst citizens themselves.
The first lockdown was bad enough. Longstanding pandemic preparedness plans were discarded as governments – shaken by public panic and doom-laden forecasting – panicked, and copied the policies of China, an authoritarian dictatorship.
One may think this was excused by the lack of information about this new virus. The World Health Organisation initially projected an infection fatality rate of 3.6 percent, which would have entailed very heavy casualties. Scenes from Italy suggested that healthcare systems would be rapidly overwhelmed. Modelling by Imperial College’s Professor Neil Ferguson claimed that 500,000 deaths would occur if nothing was done.
Nonetheless, there is never an excuse for public policy to be led by fear, rather than reasoned debate. Ferguson had forecast massive death tolls in every previous pandemic, only to be proven wrong – this alone should have induced scepticism. Subsequently, his computer coding has been debunked and his modelling disproven. Moreover, no scientist was ever asked to model the effects of lockdown – a completely unprecedented and untested intervention. This marked the start of an obsessive and irrational myopia, where suppressing the virus became the exclusive objective of public policy – regardless of the impact on other diseases, let alone considerations like unemployment, poverty, civil liberties or education.
At the start of the lockdown, the British public was told to “protect the National Health Service (NHS)”, because it seemed that the NHS could not protect them. The NHS became the National COVID-19 Service, with swathes of “non-essential” care postponed. But extra “Nightingale” hospitals constructed by the army remained empty, while the overall usage of NHS beds fell to just 64 percent in the first quarter of 2020. There were over 23,000 excess deaths at home this year, as terrified people stayed away from accident and emergency rooms, sacrificing themselves on the altar of the NHS. 2.4 million cancer patients have gone without screening, tests or treatments. The incidence of the most severe mental health conditions doubled. Diabetes increased 86 percent; prostate cancer, 53 percent; Parkinson’s, 79 percent; breast cancer, 47 percent; bowel cancer, 46 percent – the list goes on.
We now know that the lockdown harmed more people than it saved. Several scientific papers have conducted cost/ benefit assessments using the standard methods used to assess proposed treatments and non-medical interventions. They reveal that the trade-off between “health” and “the economy” – in which everyone who is not a monster is supposed to prioritise “health” – is a fiction. As public health practitioners know full well, health and the economy are not separate but interrelated. Unemployment is predicted to peak at between 9.7 and 13.2 percent. People who lose their jobs and suffer poverty are far more likely to suffer negative health consequences. Furthermore, economic recession typically entails weaker healthcare provision. There is a reason why the richest people in Britain can expect to live nearly a decade longer than the poorest.
Indeed, the lockdown is one of the most class-skewed public policies in living memory. While most of the professional middle classes worked from home, enjoying quarantinis and swapping sourdough bread recipes, the working classes – so-called “key workers” – had to continue working as normal. Cleaners, Deliveroo drivers, supermarket staff – the poorest-paid were compelled to keep the sinews of the economy going, and service those cowering at home. Working daily and living in overcrowded housing, the poorest suffered the greatest exposure to the virus, coupled with drastically curtailed provision of healthcare and education for their children. They will be living with the effects of lockdown for decades to come. While private schools moved smoothly to online lessons, the lockdown has further set back children in state education, from what was already a poor position. According to one study, Children in Year 7 (aged 11-12) are now a staggering 22 months behind where they should be in their education.
Reflecting its real class basis, the British left has ignored all of this in its fanatical support for early and repeated lockdowns. The Labour Party under Keir Starmer has only criticised the government for not locking down sooner and harder. We now have the spectacle of trade unions demanding restrictions that not only harm the wider population but also their own members. The National Education Union, which represents teachers, managed to foil government plans to reopen schools before the summer vacation and is now demanding that schools close down again. This is despite the fact that children are at minimal risk from the virus and rarely transmit it to others, and ignores the dramatically negative impact of online learning, especially for the poorest children. The University and College Union has also demanded online-only teaching, dismissing those who “fetishise” face-to-face education and warning that universities will be “the care homes of a second wave”, with 50,000 deaths. This not only ignores reams of evidence about the weakness of online instruction and the very low risks of COVID-19 to students (especially compared to care home residents), but also the long-term risks to members’ jobs. University managers see online teaching as an opportunity to enrol more students and outsource teaching to low-paid, casualised, non-unionised staff working for private companies.
Our elected representatives have failed comprehensively in their task of representing the people. Parliament waved through the draconian Coronavirus Act in a single day before promptly dissolving itself. Parliament thereby declared its own work “non-essential”. It is still not functioning normally, seven months later. Beyond a few libertarian Tories, none of our legislators seem remotely concerned by the greatest ever executive power-grab in peacetime which, as the former supreme court justice Lord Sumption has shown, has entailed illegal and unconstitutional practices, as well as starkly eroding our political and civil liberties. We have also seen the dramatic rise of political policing, as anti-lockdown protestors are violently suppressed and fined, while Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion protestors (not to mention Islamists) are unimpeded.
The only criticism heard on the British left concerns the government’s incompetence and Boris Johnson’s poor leadership. While these problems are readily apparent, this is an entirely apolitical, technocratic critique, and does not get to the heart of why Britain’s COVID-19 response has been so abysmal. It implies that if we only had a competent technocrat at the helm, things would be fine. The desired model appears to be the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who has revelled in her draconian role, or New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, who has turned her country into a hermit state in semi-permanent lockdown. But as Scotland’s surging case load suggests, even Scottish National Party authoritarianism is not enough to save us from COVID-19.
The deeper causes of our COVID chaos lie in the deep dysfunction of the British state and the underlying exhaustion of its political authority. As Tara McCormack and Lee Jones have argued on The Full Brexit, Britain’s lack of preparation to cope with a pandemic cannot be traced to Boris Johnson’s administration but goes back decades. The state’s practical capacity to organise and supply public services has been dramatically hollowed out, with the central government transformed into a commissioner and regulator of other providers. Fifteen years of pandemic planning along these lines have proven grossly inadequate, as supply chains collapsed, private providers failed, decimated public health authorities were overwhelmed, and hospitals, lacking spare capacity, discharged COVID-19 patients directly into care homes and slashed “non-essential” services. It hardly matters who was in charge as the coronavirus pandemic hit. Britain’s emaciated state would not have coped.
Efforts to build additional capacity have only exposed the scale of the problem. The state has been forced to rely on the very outsourcing companies and management consultancies that stripped it bare in the first place. Over £12bn has been spent on a “world-beating” test, track and trace system that is riddled with incompetence. Contracts have been awarded, often without competitive tendering and to individuals linked to the Conservative Party. Where we should see political leadership, we see corporate cronyism. The Cabinet Office’s COVID-19 Task Force is populated with McKinsey consultants, who were paid £563,400 to determine the “vision, purpose and narrative” of NHS Test and Trace. The failed business executive Dido Harding – a Tory peer, married to a Tory MP – was appointed to head the new agency, and proceeded to fail again. Deloitte, architect of the disastrous outsourcing of personal protective equipment and logistics, was appointed to source 20,000 ventilators, but delivered just 344 before the virus peaked. Deloitte was also made responsible for “lighthouse laboratories”, outsourcing responsibility to other private companies, which set up shop in remote locations then spoiled tens of thousands of tests. Just one contract, awarded without tendering to the private firm Randox (which retains a Tory MP as a consultant), exceeded the entire annual Public Health England budget for disease control: £133m versus £86.9m. Randox tests were subsequently withdrawn for being potentially unsafe. A £410m contact-tracing contract was also awarded to outsourcing firm Serco – which had previously been fined for poor performance but is a major Tory donor – this time with no penalty clauses. Serco then traced just 59 percent of contacts, against a target of 80 percent.
This is not simply evidence of Tory corruption, as some would have it. These practices, which began under the Tories in the 1980s, accelerated under New Labour. They are part of a much deeper problem: the reconfiguration of the state to make it less responsive to popular demands and massage expectations downwards. This began as an attempt to scale back the concessions made to workers after World War II in the context of a serious profitability squeeze in the 1970s. Subsequently, it became second nature to our political and bureaucratic elite, reinforced by increasingly cosy relations with corporate executives and the rise of depoliticised, technocratic policymaking, including through the European Union, which has consistently promoted healthcare privatisation. At root, the problems of state capacity are symptoms of political malaise.
Like the shambolic Brexit process, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the sclerotic nature of Britain’s political and bureaucratic establishment. It has become so unaccustomed to representing and serving the citizenry that parliament can dissolve itself without a second thought, while ministers and civil servants struggle to devise and implement any effective policy. Even the World Health Organisation now admits that lockdowns only kick the can down the road. The stated purpose of the original lockdown was to “buy time” for health systems to adapt. Yet they clearly have not done so, because now a significantly slower rise in hospital admissions than that in the spring is enough to prompt warnings that the NHS is on the verge of collapse. With very little achieved by government in the past six months, we are returned to the already failed policy of lockdown without any clear aim or criterion for what might constitute success.
Despite its 80-seat parliamentary majority, the government clearly lacks any political authority of its own, and so is buffeted back and forth by scientific opinion, media hysteria and public anxiety. A government with real authority would be able to resist the rising tide of irrationalism, make the case for “focused protection” of the vulnerable, as supported by many scientific experts, and steer the population through the crisis. Lacking any ability to mobilise the citizenry for a shared struggle, it can only try to demobilise them, placing atomised and fearful individuals back under virtual house arrest. The opposition – unable to grasp the political void at the heart of our problems, still less to address it – distinguishes itself only in its enthusiasm for ever-tighter controls. Growing state authoritarianism is a weak substitute for political authority.
It is hardly surprising, then, that populism is back again. The absence of any sustained criticism of lockdown authoritarianism among the political mainstream has left the task to cranks and conspiracy theorists. The millions of people who now observe the prospects of a second lockdown with justified horror have no political movement to help them understand the situation, let alone to represent them. No wonder that Nigel Farage - who joined the lockdown left in expressing outrage about the pursuit of herd immunity back in March - scents an opportunity, relaunching the Brexit Party as Reform UK, on an explicitly anti-lockdown platform. As always, populism only flourishes in the void left by the failure of representative democracy.
We have argued that Brexit is only the necessary start of the long process of filling that void. The COVID-19 crisis shows just how much further we have yet to go.
 E.g. David K. Miles et al. (2020) “‘Stay at Home, Protect the National Health Service, Save Lives’: A Cost Benefit Analysis of the Lockdown in the United Kingdom”, International Journal of Clinical Practice, early online, August ; Robert Rowthorn and Jan Maciejowski (2020), “A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the COVID-19 Disease”, Oxford Review of Economic Policy 36(S1): S38-S55; David Miles et al., “Living with COVID-19: Balancing Costs Against Benefits in the Face of the Virus”, National Institute Economic Review 253 (2020): R60-R76; Julian Jessop (2020) “The UK Lockdown and the Value of Human Life”, Economic Affairs 40(2): 138-147; Paul Dolan and Pinar Jenkins (2020) “Estimating the Monetary Value of the Deaths Prevented from the UK COVID-19 Lockdown When it was Decided Upon – And the Value of ‘Flattening the Curve’”, LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 104355, London School of Economics and Political Science.
About the Author
Dr Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Dr George Hoare is a London-based writer and broadcaster. Prof Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at the London School of Economics. They are all among the co-founders of The Full Brexit.
This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.