Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 20 June 2023

Sunak is right to fear the Covid Public Inquiry, but the right wing press will remain unscathed by it


My rule of thumb for this government is if it trumpets that it’s doing something, it is probably doing the opposite. [1] George Osborne kept saying he had a ‘long term economic plan’ but in reality he kept changing rules to try and wrong foot the opposition for short term political advantage. May’s ‘strong and stable’ government was weak and volatile. When Johnson said he was going to ‘get Brexit done’, what he actually did was negotiate a deal that he intended to renege on almost immediately. When Sunak said he would lead with integrity, he meant he would lead with only slightly more integrity than Johnson. It is quite an effective political strategy for a media more interested in what politicians say than do, until it is found out.

One of the best examples was during the pandemic, when the government declared it was ‘following the science’. We soon realised this wasn’t true as the second wave began to gather force in the autumn of 2020. SAGE recommended a (temporary) lockdown but Johnson refused, under pressure from Sunak in particular. An early lockdown that got R<1 (R is the number of people on average a person with Covid infects) would have greatly reduced the loss of life from that second wave and reduced the length of time a lockdown was required, thus benefiting the economy as well. As I wrote repeatedly at the time, the health/economy trade-off that the government kept talking about is another example of my rule of thumb: there was no trade-off, because reducing R helps rather than hinders the economy.

We now also know that Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme was never discussed by SAGE, the committee of experts advising the government. It is easy to ‘regularise’ this by suggesting it’s a typical example of government departments worrying about their own pitch and not talking to other departments (which is obviously true - see this Institute for Government study for example), but the failure went well beyond this. The Treasury is full of very bright people, and if I can work out that controlling Covid is just like controlling inflation, so can they. The scheme was bound to raise R, so they needed SAGE’s input to assess how much it would do so. That they didn’t bother suggests ministerial direction from Sunak.

SAGE member John Edmunds says “it was a spectacularly stupid idea and an obscene way to spend public money.” A study by Thiemo Fetzer in the Economic Journal found that the scheme was effective at getting people back into restaurants, and as a predictable result helped increase the spread of Covid by a significant amount. The Treasury line - that the scheme was successful at getting people into restaurants but had no impact on Covid infections - is just unbelievable. How exactly do they think Covid spreads! Whereas in the autumn of 2020 he just encouraged Johnson to make a choice that killed many unnecessarily, in this earlier case Sunak is directly responsible for some of the lives lost in the epidemic.

In these two cases ‘following the science’ either means ‘doing the opposite of what scientists suggest’ or ‘not wanting to ask the scientists because we will not like their answer’. We know less about what ‘following the science’ really meant in the early months of the pandemic. We know that Johnson was keen on herd immunity, but to what extent were SAGE consulted about possible alternatives to that strategy? Here Edmunds says

“We were asked questions and gave scientific answers but we didn’t know what strategy was being discussed by the government. It was written by them and we saw it the same day that the press saw it. They never said: ‘Here’s the strategy, what do you think of it?’ That’s not how it worked and that is why it’s always been so misleading for the government to pretend that it was following science. That’s just nonsense.”

The idea of herd immunity came from plans for milder pandemics, which were not severe enough to warrant lockdowns. But from Edmund’s account it seems that SAGE were never asked if this was the right strategy for this pandemic, once fatality rates were known. It seems the responsibility for looking at alternatives to herd immunity far too late rests somewhere between Johnson, his ministers and political advisors, together with Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance.

Given Sunak’s central role in at least two of these three major errors during the 2020 pandemic, it is little wonder that he is trying to withhold information from the official Covid Public Inquiry. He is unlikely to succeed, but his aim may simply be to delay any damaging news until after the next election. The excuse that he was just looking after his ministerial interests is hardly likely to go down well when many lives were unnecessarily lost as a result of his advice and decisions. In any case the economy was worse off too, and he chose to ignore or go against the government’s own experts. Once upon a time a minister that got things this badly wrong (costing lives as well as money) would have resigned without having to be asked, and it tells us a great deal about the current Conservative party that he is now Prime Minister.

One reason for that, and unfortunately an issue that is unlikely to be central to the Public Inquiry, is the role of the right wing press. These newspapers very quickly decided that lockdowns were a bad idea, and they used their influence to promote that idea. That they did so tells you a great deal about what motivates the policies they promote. Losing money because less people were buying their papers was more important to their owners and editors than that scientific opinion was almost unanimous in saying that lockdowns before a vaccine was available saved lives. [2] The newspapers promoting this anti-lockdown agenda were prepared to see many of their readers die as a result of their advice. Their campaign to remove what has for centuries been a last resort of pandemic control continues to this day.

The right wing press has a considerable influence on what is discussed in the broadcast media. This meant far too much time was spent debating whether lockdowns were a good idea, and far too little discussing why quick and stringent lockdowns are much more effective (and much less costly in economic terms) than delayed or ineffective restrictions on social interaction. The right wing press has even more influence on Conservative MPs, and those working for them. It is part of the reason there were illegal parties in Downing Street and CCHQ. It is a key reason why too many Conservative MPs were opposed to lockdowns, and ministers (including the current and former Prime Minister) delayed imposing them at huge cost.

That the right wing press has such power with little or no responsibility or accountability is a familiar observation, but one that cannot usually be so directly linked to so many deaths. If the Covid Public Inquiry criticises either Johnson or Sunak for contributing to the UK’s relatively high death toll, Baroness Hallett will be taking on not just the Conservative party but also its newspaper wing.

With Johnson no longer an MP, it is in the interests of Sunak and the Conservative party to use him as a scapegoat. Corruption and sleaze, mistakes during the pandemic, and even the failures of Brexit can somehow be presented as a purely down to Johnson. Competence is back in charge, they will argue, after an embarrassing interlude involving an unfortunate fiscal event. The reality is, as my rule of thumb would suggest, quite the opposite. 

Conservative MPs and their press made Johnson leader despite his obvious unsuitability, Johnson’s Brexit was backed by Sunak and every Conservative MP before the 2019 election, these same MPs ignored the government’s own advice to wear masks in parliament’s chamber, it was Sunak as well as Johnson that made the wrong calls during the pandemic, it is Sunak who waved through Johnson’s honours list that included those who partied during lockdown restrictions, and it is Sunak and many Conservative MPs who dare not vote for the recommendations of the report that led to Johnson's departure. Johnson was adept at portraying his government as quite unrelated to the Conservative government that preceded him. It was nonsense then and it is nonsense for the government Sunak leads. As we shall see, Sunak has a great deal to fear from the Covid Public Inquiry. 

[1] As ever, this is borrowing from the US right. ‘Fair and balanced’ is the motto of Fox News. Trump’s version of twitter is called ‘Truth Social’.

[2] Scientific opinion is near unanimous in part because of the following simple logic. First, lockdowns reduce the social interaction that spreads the disease. Second, it makes sense to reduce infection as much as possible before a vaccine becomes available. Together this means lockdowns saved many thousands of lives during the pandemic.

1 comment:

  1. Very good article, Simon. Full of truth.


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