This hasn’t been the new government’s first nationwide crisis. That was widespread flooding hitting many regions of the UK. As I explained here, that was partly a disaster created by the Conservative party (with a little help from their coalition partners). Journalists had their chance to make a story out of this by using the hook of Johnson’s non-appearance at any of the flooded towns, but it didn’t happen, just it didn’t happen on all the previous occasions we have had widespread flooding. Which is why spending on flood defences continues to be inadequate.
Lack of criticism encourages a certain laziness, but also gives politicians the courage to do things that those in democracies with more accountability would not do. I think we can see both in the coronavirus crisis.
In the initial phase of the UK pandemic, where cases were mainly coming via contact from abroad, the NHS were trying to prevent infections by tracing and getting those who had contact with the virus to isolate themselves. For that phase to have any chance of working, the Prime Minister needed to impress upon the country the importance of voluntary social distancing, so that cases the health service missed did not pass the virus on. Instead the Prime Minister continued to shake hands as if nothing had happened. He even suggested the media was overreacting to the virus.
That was a very personal example of laziness. But more generally the government needed to get across the seriousness of the situation without creating widespread panic. The best way to do that is to create social solidarity and trust in government. You create trust in government by openness. It is not good enough to say you are following the science and not be honest about the science and the alternatives available, so everyone can understand why you are taking a particular course. .
The government started from a difficult position because its actions elsewhere had created a very divided society. There would always be those that questioned what they were doing. But if the government really was following the science, and it was obvious to anyone who investigated the literature the government released that it was following the science, then that politicising of the government’s approach would have been limited.
You can see this in the behaviour of the opposition. They initially did not question or criticise what the government was doing. In a crisis they were prepared to give the government the benefit of doubt. But if that was to last it required bringing the opposition alongside as part of a national effort, by for example including an opposition minister or the mayor of London in COBRA meetings.
None of this happened. One of the reasons it didn’t happen is that the government knew it faced a largely compliant media. On social media there were enough friendly voices to try and shut down those who “questioned the science”. Blunders came and went with no consequences, such as Hancock’s premature claim that he was working with retailers, the 111 service giving the wrong advice and with too few staff to take calls, and delay in checking at airports and getting people to quarantine themselves.
The government’s strategy, of keeping information tight and endlessly repeating that they were following the science, might have been enough if it hadn’t been for many other countries following a different path to the government once it was clear that the containment phase was not working Other countries seemed to be introducing more stringent measures to ensure social distancing than our government. A few, like Italy, were doing so because the pandemic was uncontrolled and they had no choice. But other countries, like Ireland on our doorstep, did it from choice. It seemed clear that the UK was following a different path and it wasn’t clear why. When people like the editor of the Lancet started questioning the strategy, news programmes like Channel 4 News and Newsnight began to ask questions. And those questions were not answered.
People started taking their own actions to ensure social distancing. Universities started teaching online and large events were cancelled. Then Scotland jumped ship and suspended large gatherings, and later the football league suspended matches. At that point the government, which was supposedly following the science, seemed to panic and follow Scotland’s lead. Rather than the government leading a national effort, it appeared to be playing catch up.
I think it is fair to say that the government’s communications strategy has been chaotic. You cannot communicate to people in a crisis like this with occasional press conferences and off the record briefing to the odd journalist, or with your health minister writing behind paywalls in the house newspaper. You cannot pretend that you are aiming to protect the vulnerable and elderly when you offer no guidance to those groups to limit social contacts. You cannot keep saying you are following ‘the science’ when most other countries are doing something very different, because science is international. And you cannot tell people questioning your approach to be quiet to stop panic when you brief a journalist to say
“What keeps ministers and officials awake at night is the fear that if the epidemic becomes too great they would have to make appalling decisions, such as that the NHS would stop treating people over a certain age, such as 65.”
Alot of this is laziness encouraged by the belief that most of the media will back you come what may. But I also want to talk about risk taking, and a good way of introducing this is to look at this clip from the Irish media talking about how they see the UK strategy. Please also read James Meadway’s comment, which is very pertinent to the subject of this blog. Please view and read it before continuing.
In this Irish view, and many who have tried to work out why the UK strategy seems more laid back than elsewhere, the UK idea is to generate widespread immunity before winter hits the NHS and social distancing no longer works. The idea is to flatten the curve, but not too much. It is the only explanation I can come up with for the comparative lack of action in the UK compared to elsewhere, including Ireland. So let us suppose that is the strategy.
Other countries are trying to flatten the curve by much more, and perhaps even with the aim of eventually being to make the ‘contain phase’ work. That seems to be the idea in China. I don’t want to speculate on which strategy is right or wrong, because I don’t have the skills to do so (although this is a strong critique of the UK approach). What I think is worth noting is that the UK strategy is very brave from a political point of view. In the short term it is quite likely that a lot more people will die in the UK than in other countries. And while the UK strategy may be proved right in the longer term, there will always be a risk that this will not happen.
Many politicians, subject to a reasonable and fearless degree of internal scrutiny, would reject the UK strategy as just too risky - for them. However if a politician is not subject to strong internal scrutiny, they might be tempted to take a greater risk. That may be what is happening in the UK, as it is happening with Brexit. With Brexit it is people getting poorer, but with this crisis it is people dying.
This is particularly the case when the UK more than other countries has a health service that has been stripped to the bone, working at more than full capacity at normal times. This may be the reason that the government has adopted this strategy - it is trying to avoid a larger crisis developing at the worst time for the NHS at the beginning of next year. Capacity constraints in the amount of testing it can do may have caused the government to abandon widespread testing so soon, including testing NHS staff. The government doesn’t believe it can keep enough social distancing going until this time next year, even though it would have six more months to prepare.
Here we come to the major reason why weak media scrutiny puts this country at far greater risk than elsewhere. We have had 10 years where the NHS has been starved of resources, and the media has been shamelessly repeating the government line that the NHS has been protected. Every medic knows that you cannot keep spending on the NHS constant (even in real terms) and not end up with an NHS crisis. Yet this government spin has been repeated ad nauseam. And then of course we have had Brexit which has robbed the NHS of invaluable doctors and nurses. The government took a huge risk with the NHS by implementing austerity and Brexit, and they could do so because of a largely compliant media. Now many people my age and older could end up paying the ultimate price.
So yesterday, if you listen to the BBC, “the science changed”. Yet in reality a good bit of why the advice changed was obvious to many before it changed: just look at this clip from Irish TV. More detail here and here. That it took those advising the government longer than many outsiders to see what was wrong should be the subject of an inquiry once this is all over. We can only guess what happened. Plans drawn up for a more serious than normal flu pandemic became part of internal government groupthink, when in fact we should have been treating this pandemic as something we should suppress rather than control. It also seems, incredibly, that not enough time was spent telling politicians about the risks involved in following their original strategy.
Even now I worry that the government is being too 'British' about this, with lots of advice and recommendations. When is travel essential? Here and here are examples of what happens when that advice is not followed, because no sanction is attached to not following it. Three other points that are now clear. First, the government did not prepare for all this early enough, and the media should be giving them hell for this failure. (Most of the media won't, for reasons described in the post.) Second all those who said people had no right to criticise because the government was following the science now look extremely foolish, and they need to admit their mistake.
But third and most importantly, the majority of the media that gave very little time to the concerns of others need to reflect on how many lives their inaction may have cost. As James Meadway reminds us, it was Amartya Sen who suggested that a free press meant less deaths in famines, and now we can see why.