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Beware of the online activists spreading false narratives over the politics of the pandemic

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, alongside Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty (left) and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (right), during a press conference at Downing Street. Photograph: Alberto Pezzali/PA. - Credit: PA

GLEN O’HARA cautions against drawing premature conclusions over the politics of the pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit the United Kingdom worse than most other countries. The raw numbers are staggering. Last week the number of confirmed deaths passed 40,000, and if we take estimated excess deaths from the virus – the difference between ‘usual’ deaths at this time of year, and those we might reasonably attribute to Covid-19 – those are might be some way over 60,000.

At the moment, the UK has the second-highest number of recorded deaths in the world, after the United States (though Brazil is catching the UK very quickly). Things have undoubtedly gone very wrong indeed.

The question then arises: what should the political reaction be? And here, the scale of the disaster has shattered the political consensus that at least appeared to take hold during March. A furious drumbeat of opposition has begun, with much justification: but led by online cheerleaders, it seizes mostly on bad news and sprays questionable numbers around like confetti.

When you follow those trendsetters on Twitter or Facebook, it is as if they do not want the government to succeed – as it must.

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Every day many influencers with tens or even hundreds of thousands of followers put out the latest fatality announcement as if they are deaths on that day alone, obliterating the key detail that this data is heavily backdated on a declining line. Those deaths often happened many days ago: adding them all up as if they all happened today is obscuring progress as the number of deaths falls.

There was even a story that the government itself had deliberately created fake social media accounts for National Health Service staff, all of which had been created to falsely parrot ministers’ agreed lines. Needless to say, it turned out to be nonsense.

There is little doubt that the UK government’s delays in the lead-up to the lockdown on March 23 cost many lives. Had they locked down immediately on March 12, when the chief medical officers raised their alert level to ‘high’, or even March 16, when the prime minister advised everyone against ‘non-essential’ travel, the peak of infections and therefore deaths would have been lower.

The failure to protect care homes full of elderly people looks like a still greater scandal from a policy point of view. Since that was well within the power of central government, and given that they knew and announced that ‘cocooning’ or ‘shielding’ was one rational quick response, it is there where governance failures look most unforgiveable.

Even so, no-one really knows how much lower the death rate in England would have been even if the lockdown had come sooner, and had the care sector been protected more successfully. The underlying statistics and the models that rely on them are very fragile, and always depend on both deeply imperfect underlying data and controversial assumptions.

The general public know and understand all this far better than the Very Online Activists who dominate so much discourse within what passes for the public sphere.

They understood hesitation and confusion in the face of the unfolding disaster; they were willing to give the government a pass while they scrambled to secure PPE; they sympathised when ministers themselves became ill.

The government’s approval numbers crashed downwards only after the mess made of easing restrictions on May 10, and again during the ridiculous and offensive Dominic Cummings debacle: but they have not cratered entirely.

The government’s position in voting intention polls has stabilised at a lower level, and they still have a lead. If we look at polling from Savanta Comres, the PM has an approval rating on coronavirus of exactly zero: that is, the same number of voters both approve and disapprove of his performance. The same number for the government as a whole is +3.

Consider, from this perspective, the popularity of the Scottish and Welsh governments. Both have surged in terms of public approval. And yet those governments have at least a very chequered record of responding to this outbreak – not that you would know it across most of social media.

In Scotland, it appears that the government in Edinburgh at the very least failed to move quickly enough to warn the public during the initial stages of the outbreak. It then lost its chief medical officer over a breach of lockdown policies (though she had at least the principle to resign).

Scottish care homes seem to have been just as defenceless as they were in England. Scotland’s deaths per million (at 690) have run not very far behind those in England (738). The testing numbers in Wales are so low that the Welsh government had to abandon its own targets.

And yet, partly because the Scottish and Welsh governments have adopted a rather more cautious policy about easing restrictions, it is Holyrood and Cardiff Bay that are seen as competent, and London as irresponsible.

While Johnson has seen his ratings slide (with Ipsos Mori, from +14 in March to -4 in May), first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s numbers ride high: at an extraordinary +48 with YouGov. In Wales, in the latest Welsh Barometer poll 62% of voters now approve of the Welsh government’s reaction to coronavirus, up from 29% at the start of the crisis: the scores for Westminster have slumped from 59% to 34%.

That gulf exaggerates policy differences that have been, to be honest, rather minimal, and demonstrates how capricious what political scientists term ‘rally round the flag’ effects can be: the Scottish and Welsh governments have become the flag around which voters rally, because the UK administration in London is perceived to have mismanaged the exit from lockdown.

The whole affair confirms just how important it is to look beyond political noise and image, to judge the real policies beyond – and pay attention to the numbers. The main thing to beware of is throwing around over-confident statements. Ignore all snap judgements. All we can really say, on the basis of what we know so far, is that the UK is in the unenviable lowest league of coronavirus performance.

Its deaths are not dissimilar to those in Spain or Italy, if we take population into account: they are probably lower than Belgium’s. These countries form an outlier group of their own, doing worse than France and not nearly as well as Germany. To split hairs between them is unwise – and inaccurate.

Social media pundits want to say that everything is clear. That the situation is cut and dried. Academics are here to tell you that things are not so simple. There is so much about this virus that we do not know: its spread and deadliness could easily be related not just to policy, but to structural realities on the ground.

Causal factors might also include: population density; the shape of average households, including how many people live alone; dependence or otherwise on public transport; movement between regions; openness to the world, including the presence of major transit hubs; the age and health of the population.

The questions should come thick and fast, and they may be more revealing than the glibness of ‘answers’. Why has no European country yet experienced a second wave of infections? Is social distancing working, and did it begin to work in March, even before the total lockdown? To what extent can it work, and which elements are most efficacious? What is the role, if any, of seasonality? Are some people immune to the disease, and why? Might that perform some sort of barrier effect on its spread?

There is no doubt this crisis has shed a harsh light on British public policy. The state is too weak. It is disorganised. Public services are spread too thinly. The government hesitated for crucial days when it might have moved to reduce the threat. But deploying angry stereotypes and slogans won’t save any lives either.

A better approach is to ratchet up the pressure as we go on from here: on track and trace; on mask wearing; on specific testing of clusters, as well as inside the health and social care sector. That is far better achieved with dispassionate analysis, and accurate numbers, than it is susceptible to ultra-partisanship.

• Glen O’Hara is professor of modern and contemporary history at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of a series of books and articles about modern Britain. He is currently working on a history of the Blair government of 1997-2007

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