Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 29 March 2022

Pretending the pandemic is over has been the disaster most experts said it would be


As I wrote over a month ago Boris Johnson, in an attempt to gain support among at least half of his MPs, the newspaper oligarchs and his party donors, threw science to the wind and all but declared the pandemic was over. No more compulsory masks in public spaces, no more free testing, no more having to self isolate, and a cut back in how we monitor Covid. It was a decision of utmost stupidity, and that stupidity has now become clear.

We knew about the BA.2 variant at the time Johnson made his decision, but he ignored it. The media, and the broadcasters are as much to blame here as the right wing press, translated Johnson’s politically motivated edict as a proclamation that the pandemic was over. Most people stopped wearing masks and acted as if the pandemic really was over. No doubt BA.2 would have led to another wave of infections anyway, but people acting on the signals the government and media gave them have undoubtedly made it more severe than it needed to be..

You don’t have to believe me or the experts to believe that. Our health minister has also said that recent increases were “primarily down to the increased social mixing we are seeing, as our country has opened up”. So cases and hospital admissions now look like they are similar to the previous Omicron peak. 1 in 16 is infected with Covid in the England, and it’s even higher in Scotland.

Some firms have tried to avoid the impact this is having on absences by requiring workers to ignore they have Covid and come in to work anyway, but many in the public eye have had to retract after adverse publicity. The more serious impact has been on schools and hospitals. 202,000 children were away from state schools on 17th March because of Covid, a rise from 58,000 just two weeks earlier. 1 in 10 teachers are also absent from school. Does the government think 'living with Covid' means more periodic disruption in many children’s education?

Hospital admissions have now been rising steadily for over a month, and in England are close to the peak levels seen in the first Omicron wave. Every bed taken up by a Covid patient means one less bed that could be used to start reducing the backlog of other cases that has built up over earlier waves. That effect is amplified if staff become sick from Covid. Does the government think 'living with Covid' means more periodic crises for the NHS?

But don’t worry. Our Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, says there is no cause for concern. He says this was all expected. In other words, more kids off school with Covid and more strain on the NHS is all part of the plan. But what exactly is the benefit of allowing another Covid wave to go unchecked? Does having more people off work ‘open up the economy’? Does having more kids off school help their education? Does having hospital beds fill up with Covid patients, and doctors and nurses off sick, make us more free? With no good answers to these questions, he has become the first UK Secretary of State for Health to champion a health policy  deliberately designed to make groups in society more sick.

Such is the determination of this government to pretend that the pandemic is over that their policy will probably survive the current BA2 wave, which may be nearing its peak fairly soon. After that the warmer weather will also probably keep any new variants at low levels until next autumn. It is only then that we will see the true cost of the government’s indifference to our collective health. Allowing a high level of infection at home, and doing too little about cases in countries that cannot afford mass vaccination, is the best policy for encouraging the development of new variants.  

To be fair, this government is not alone in using the fact that Omicron is milder than Delta, coupled with repeated vaccination being fairly effective against it, as an excuse to relax Covid protections. Politicians around the world have jumped on the combination of a milder (but very infectious) dominant variant and vaccination to tell people what they want to hear, which is that life can begin to go back to something more like normal. The UK is just at the extreme end of this movement, doing things like charging nurses for Covid tests.

That people would like to go back to normal is not hard to understand. For the majority of the healthy, fully vaccinated population, Covid in the form of Omicron is not the major threat it once was. So measures like wearing a mask for most people is about protecting others rather than protecting themselves. Apart from a small minority (that appears to include most Tory MPs), most people are happy to make the small sacrifice that mask wearing involves to help the more vulnerable, especially when they have vulnerable relations themselves or hear about fatal cases in the media. Equally most people do not have the time or inclination to follow Covid data themselves. So when the government says in effect that the pandemic is over, and the media act as if this is true, then most people will happily stop doing things like wearing masks.

There are also plenty of myths that make people comfortable with not wearing a mask. Some say ‘we are all bound to get it’, whereas the real question is how often do people get it (the new variants are great at reinfection), with each infection damaging the brain and increasing the risk of heart attacks, as well as increasing the chances of getting Long Covid. Some say ‘as long as you are fully vaccinated you are safe’, whereas the truth is that you are safer but not safe, and you get less safe the longer ago your last vaccination was. Some say Covid is now less deadly than flu, because it said so in their newspaper. The reality is that Omicron has a similar intrinsic severity as the original strains of Covid, but what has changed is immunity and vaccination. (So much for the virus variants getting milder.) The reality is also that my chances of getting Covid in the UK today are higher than my chances of getting flu.

These are myths propagated by parts of the press and not countered by a broadcast media divorced from expertise. The problem is not Covid fatigue. The problem is with both those who feed false information to the public and a broadcast media that no longer fulfils it’s public information role. While it may be an unusual experience for the medical community to find both government and media working against rather than with it, this is a pattern that has become increasingly common in recent years.

Most recently we had Brexit. We will become Global Britain, Brexiters told us, trading with fast growing nations rather than a moribund EU. The reality is that UK exports have stagnated while in the rest of the world they have grown, a reality that will come as no surprise to the experts on the economics of trade who predicted this result. It happened in 2010 when we were told that all the government needed to do was control its deficit and the economy would look after itself. The media went along with that, while most experts warned austerity would harm the economy and its growth that matters, not the deficit. The result of both fantasy-led policies is that GDP per head has grown on average by less than 0.4% a year since before the financial crisis. What is new with Covid is that the experts being ignored are doctors and medics rather than economists, but the government is the same colour and the BBC remains obsessed with providing balance rather than providing knowledge.

It is difficult to overstate the harm fantasy-based governments and a supine media can do. With Covid the cost can be measured in lives lost, in operations delayed, in lost education and (initially) delayed, more prolonged lockdowns. With Brexit the immediate costs are reduced trade and UK productivity, output and incomes, but that means less resources available to the NHS and other public services. Austerity hit both directly, and we just don’t know how many died as a result of those cuts.

It really isn’t hard to understand why in the years before the financial crisis we had a successful economy where productivity was growing at least as fast as other major economies, yet since that crisis we have had a moribund economy falling behind other major economies. Before 2010 we had a (mainly) evidence-based government that took seriously the role of the State in enhancing investment, productivity and innovation. Since 2010 we have had governments that thought the best thing to do with the State was to shrink it and get it out of the way of the private sector, and whose flagship policies have caused severe damage to the economy, discouraging private investment and innovation. Champions of the ideology that has failed us since 2010 may try to pretend otherwise, but a combination of austerity, Brexit and now an ego-libertarian approach to our health are easily enough to explain the UK’s lost decade and the prospect of another to come.

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