Familiar battlelines are emerging as arguments over the government’s handling of the coronavirus deepen. Writer and historian TOM HOLLAND cautions that this crisis requires a different approach
If you have had an organ transplant, if you are having chemotherapy, if you suffer from a severe lung condition, then you are, in the chilly language employed by medical professionals, ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’.
To have an underlying health condition at a time of such a pandemic is to have misfortune piled upon misfortune. Death, like life, is unfair.
What about countries? Is it possible for them too to rank as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’? If so, then Britain is in trouble.
Last week, in the macabre equivalent of Eurovision that Covid-19 has obliged countries these past few weeks to play, the UK brought up the most unwanted score of all: the highest total of deaths anywhere in Europe. As the UK approached 30,000 deaths, the Czech Republic had recorded just over 250, Greece, around 150 and Slovakia’s toll was still in the 20s.
Clearly, then, the response to the pandemic has developed not necessarily to Britain’s advantage. The more evident this has become, so the more insistently have attempts been made to explain what might have gone wrong.
There is no need to look far to find a national equivalent of a heart transplant operation. For four years now, the United Kingdom has been struggling to cope with the most complex foreign policy volte face undertaken by any European nation in at least a generation.
Uniquely among the countries of this continent, Britain has had the attention of its political classes focused on a single issue to the exclusion of almost everything else.
What opportunity was there to clear the head, and turn to other matters, when the pulse of parliamentary wranglings, diplomatic manoeuverings and public protests was like that of a perpetual migraine?
True, the government did not entirely neglect its responsibility to attend to challenges other than Brexit. In October 2016, four months after the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, an exercise to test the country’s readiness for a pandemic revealed alarming gaps in the NHS’s readiness to cope.
Two years later, a biological security strategy paper was published which, while patting the British state on the back for the quality of its preparations, nevertheless warned that the country might ‘fail to maximise the impact of our activities or to tackle issues as quickly as we need to’.
Compared to this known unknown, however, the known known that was Brexit inevitably appeared a far more pressing challenge. Just how much of the money allotted to pandemic planning ended up being spent instead on preparing for a no-deal, and how many civil servants assigned to ready Britain for the possibility of a novel infectious disease were transferred instead to the Department for Exiting the European Union is not yet clear – but that corners were cut seems more than likely. Brexiteers as well as socialists, after all, speak the language of priorities.
In October 2019, at around the time scientists now think SARS-CoV-2 was first infecting a human, an evidence session at the House of Commons into pandemic planning had to be cancelled when it was crowded out by Brexit and the looming election.
In mid-December, as the first cases of Covid-19 were being reported in Wuhan, a triumphant Boris Johnson, basking in the glow of his electoral victory, insisted that leaving the EU would be his number one priority – ‘no ifs, no buts, no maybes’.
On January 31, a week and more after the UK government had raised the risk level of a pandemic from ‘very low’ to ‘low’, Britain’s formal departure from the European Union drew a firm line under one chapter in the Brexit story, and set the scene for another: a chapter that pretty much everyone that night seemed to take for granted would continue to dominate the headlines throughout the year. And then the virus began to spread.
The country went into lockdown. Brexit vanished from the front pages. It was as though the government, after four years of continuous training for a specific event in the Olympic Games, had found itself abruptly entered for an event for which it had done no training at all.
It is hardly surprising, then, as the death toll from Covid-19 has mounted, that many Remainers should have begun to trace a sinister web of interconnections between Brexit and the erratic attempts by the government to negotiate the impact of the pandemic.
Johnson’s evident reluctance in the early weeks of the crisis to impose a lockdown has been attributed to a whole host of buffoonish motives: from a refusal to accept that a mere virus should prevent freeborn Britons from going to the pub to a conviction that trusty pluck would enable to the country to take it on the chin.
Columnists muttered darkly about the empire and the Second World War. Now, as a groundswell of opposition to the lockdown builds, the fact that many of the most influential critics of social distancing measures also happen to be passionate Brexiteers has not gone unnoticed by those who, for years now, have been determinedly fighting them in the ideological trenches.
Always the same tricks: so Chris Grey, professor of organisation studies at Royal Holloway, University of London – and consistently one of the most articulate and sophisticated Remainers – put it in a recent blog. ‘Cherry-picked statistics (£350M/ comparative death rates), semi-understood factoids (WTO rules/ herd immunity), bogus past comparisons (we managed fine before/ flu), overblown rhetoric (dictatorship/ house arrest), and drastic exaggerations of their opponents’ claims so as to erect absurd strawmen for demolition (so it means WW3/ we’re all going to die? Really?).’
It is possible, however, that the very familiarity of these battlelines is deceptive.
We are here as on a darkling plain, and the ignorant armies that clash by night are not necessarily occupying the same positions, nor even fighting on the same side, as during the great Brexit wars.
That Michael Gove and his fellow Brexiteers are dismissive of ‘experts’ has become so fundamental to Remainer mythology that it can risk obscuring the degree to which, during the coronavirus crisis, the government has been dutifully – perhaps even slavishly – respectful of experts.
Ministers who would laugh to scorn the very notion that it was their job to follow ‘the economics’ have repeatedly insisted that they are following ‘the science’.
The problem, of course – as recent events have conclusively served to demonstrate – is that epidemiologists are no less prone to disagreement, prevarication and hypocrisy than are politicians.
The government’s wild slaloming over the past few months seems to owe less to any bulldog contempt for boffins than to the disconcerting fact that the boffins keep changing their minds.
‘From what we currently know,’ tweeted Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, in late January, ‘2019-nCoV has moderate transmissibility and relatively low pathogenicity.’ By mid March the same Richard Horton was vituperatively criticising the government for not having foreseen the coming storm. Meanwhile, even as public pressure was building for a lockdown, Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, was insisting in stern tones that it would do nothing to halt the virus. ‘It’s not possible to stop everybody getting it and it’s also not desirable because you want some immunity in the population.’ Now he insists the opposite.
Meanwhile, in elite universities across the country, various epidemiologists continue to push their various models. Few countries can boast as many brilliant and influential scientists as Britain – but perhaps, for a government struggling to formulate a strategy in the teeth of a novel virus, this has become a large part of the problem. The sheer range of medical expertise that it has to call upon, far from helping it in its response, has served to precipitate the intellectual equivalent of a cytokine storm.
Few would claim that the government has played a blinder over the past few weeks, and it may well be, when the final death toll for Covid-19 comes to be tabulated, that it will indeed stand convicted by international standards of rank incompetence.
As yet, though, it seems far too early to say. If even the most brilliant epidemiologists cannot agree on whether mass infection is inevitable or not, nor on the precise reasons why certain countries should have been hit so brutally while others have been left barely scathed, who are the rest of us to insist on anything with certainty?
That Brexiteers and Remainers both seem prone to having their prejudices confirmed by how the coronavirus crisis is playing out almost certainly reveals more about the Manichaean quality of the Brexit debate than it does about the coronvirus crisis itself.
Covid-19 has become the political equivalent of a Rorschach Test. It can prove that the NHS is the envy of the world or a basket case; that the future belongs to socialism or capitalism; that Boris Johnson is a murderer or a Fisher King. Perhaps it proves that Brexit should never have happened. Perhaps it proves that the EU is doomed. As Zhou Enlai (sadly) never said of the French Revolution, it is too early to tell.