The government’s rhetoric in relation to its handling of COVID has been superlative – in the literal sense: they have used superlatives to describe their performance. Johnson described the UK test and trace system, for example, as “world-beating.”
And, of course, the test and trace system is in disarray.
What accounts for these failures?
The government suffers from five blind spots which have crippled its strategy and made failure inevitable:
- inability to distinguish rhetorical effectiveness from strategic soundness;
- blind faith in markets:
- irrational phobia of people being ‘paid to do nothing’;
- belief that common-sense trumps science; and
- belief that personal relationships trump expertise.
The combination of these blind spots created a vicious circle which has led to loss of control of the virus and will continue to cause further economic damage.
Fortunately, getting back on track is not rocket science – although it is epidemiology. And the government has ready access to far more productive strategies.
Inability to Distinguish Rhetoric from Strategy
In an interview he gave in 2013, Boris Johnson explained his decision-making process:
“Shall I tell you a terrible truth about politics and human nature? … You can probably make a good case for almost any course of action.… The most important thing is you should do it and get on with it.”
And, famously, his decision to lead the Brexit campaign rather than to campaign for remain was made after he drafted two opposing articles for the daily Telegraph and decided that the pro-leave article read better. Here is the pro-remain article.
But, as is becoming increasingly clear, while it is possible to make an impassioned case for Brexit – and even for the kind of no-deal Brexit that seems increasingly likely – rhetoric is no substitute for hard-headed consideration of reality.
This is even more strongly the case when you are fighting against a virus which is completely immune to all forms of charm and all rhetorical skill.
Blind Faith in Markets
As we have written before, many members the current cabinet are market fundamentalists. As a result, they are prone to believing two propositions which our experience of the pandemic has shown to be untrue:
- the economy is more important than any other consideration; and
- the private sector can do no wrong.
Belief That The Economy Is More Important Than Any Other Consideration
For market fundamentalists, the economy is paramount: the measure of success of any activity is whether the market says it is successful. The of value of any product, or even person, is its market value – or his or her market value. People may have to make sacrifices in order to increase their market value; distorting the market to protect people is wrong-headed and dangerous.
With this mindset as a background to decision-making, it is unsurprising that the government should be consistently slow to impose restrictions on the economy and hasty in removing them.
We can see evidence of this thinking as far back as Johnson’s February speech in Greenwich, in which he said:
“And in that context, we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.
And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.”
Other countries might cower in the face of the virus, Johnson suggested, but the UK would be like Superman, championing humanity by continuing to do business undaunted.
The ‘Superman strategy’ did not survive long against the reality of the virus, but the underlying thinking still seems to be prevalent.
Belief that the Private Sector Can Do No Wrong
Public Sector spending is determined by technocrats rather than by markets. To market fundamentalist, this means that it is axiomatically wrong.
In the UK, as in other countries, the health service has considerable expertise in testing and tracing. The government has consistently chosen to bypass this established expertise in order to bring in the private sector.
While consistently branded as ‘NHS’, the so-called NHS test and trace organisation has very few experts from the NHS, but instead a range of people with – at best tangentially relevant – private sector expertise.
As the British Medical Journal reported (NHS test and trace: it didn’t have to be this way):
“So, what went wrong? One thing seems clear: too many organisations spoil the broth. NHS Professionals employed us as clinical tracers, but we were recruited by Capita and placed with Public Health England (PHE). Sitel provided access to the tracing applications and systems, and these all required different usernames and passwords. Synergy CRM assigned cases and held scripts, CTAS captured contact tracing information, RingCentral was used for voice calls, and MaxConnect was used for storing knowledge about contacts. All of these systems were accessed through Amazon Workspace. Training was initially through PHE’s Learnspace, and then moved to Health Education England’s e-Learning for Health. When systems are disconnected, cracks rapidly appear.”
The test and trace app was a similar failure. Although exaggerated accounts of the cost of the UK app relative to the Irish one have appeared in the media, the truth is startling enough:
“The Irish app launched in July, when it was announced that it cost around €850,000 to develop and would have an annual running cost of €350,000-400,000.
By comparison, on 17 September UK government officials told the Public Accounts Committee that the first phase of development for a tracing app for England and Wales cost around £11 million and that the second phase of app development and running costs for the first year would come to a further £25 million.”
Indeed, the first attempt to create an app for the UK had to be abandoned altogether.
Irrational Phobia of People Being Paid To Do Nothing
The boss of Pimlico plumbers, Charlie Mullins, was widely criticised for his comments on the furlough scheme in a blog entitled ‘I’m not paying people to sit at home, and neither should any other business!’:
“The furlough scheme has created two massive hurdles to overcome – firstly, businesses that don’t want to make the tough call on job cuts yet because they have a supply of government cash to pass to their stay at home workers. The other is, of course, workers who have been wrapped up in a protective blanket that they don’t want to leave. That said, quite a few of them looked pretty happy to shed a lot more than that by stripping down to their swimming trunks on Bournemouth beach while the rest of us slaved away!!
I certainly won’t be paying for anyone to sit at home or using any government cash for them to get a wage.”
Unfortunately, this line of thinking – that workers are intrinsically lazy, while their bosses slave away – is not unique to him. Indeed in a book cowritten by cabinet ministers Liz Truss, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab among others, they commented that, “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world.”
This belief is prevalent at the heart of British policymaking, despite having no factual basis. In fact, on average, the British work longer hours than the Germans, the Dutch, the Danes, the French, the Luxembourgeois, the Belgians, the Swiss, the Austrians and the Finns.
At a time when, for many people, the best thing they can do for the country is to stay home and stop spreading the virus, they should be paid to do that very important job.
Belief that Common-Sense Trumps Science
The initial lockdown – though dangerously late – was successful in containing the virus. And once the daily death toll had plummeted, which it did from over 1,000 to low hundreds and even double digits, the temptation started to grow to unlock quickly.
The scientific consensus was that there needed to be a transition from lockdown into an effective system of test, trace and supported isolation in order to eliminate the virus. Unfortunately, given the problems in the UK test and trace system, this would have meant continuing with the national lockdown for many additional weeks.
Instead of doing this, the government decided to unlock, and to see how things went.
Some claimed that the government’s messaging on lockdown had been too effective and had caused too great a curtailment of economic activity. So just before VE day, Government sources let it be known that a relaxation was coming. And it duly came with the clear messaging about staying at home replaced by ambiguous messages about alertness and common sense, and with many of the restrictions now accompanied by phrases like “where possible.”
And on 1 June, in the wake of the public controversy over Dominic Cummings’s breach of the lockdown rules, the first stage of unlock was announced.
As the Prime Minister explained, “good solid British common sense” had worked throughout phase one and he had “no doubt” it would work in the second phase of fighting the disease.
Common sense is a useful guide to commonly occurring problems; it is not a useful guide to tackling once-in-a-generation pandemics. The human brain is not well wired to understand intuitively how exponential growth takes place, nor to make sense of cause and effect where they are widely separated in time. Most of the population, and apparently most of those in government, failed to understand the dynamics of the virus.
This was a time to trust the science, not to override it and call our actions ‘common sense.’
Belief that Personal Relationships Trump Expertise
Human nature means that we all tend to trust more those whom we have known for longer. But if this is taken to the extreme where we assume that for every problem, the most competent person to help us solve it is the most competent person from our own social circle, we risk going badly astray.
In the case of the pandemic, we can see numerous examples of important jobs which have been given to people who are close to the cabinet, rather than to the most competent individual. We have written before about the number of cases in which single tender contracts for the supply of personal protective equipment – and huge amounts of money – were given to businesses with no apparent expertise or history in the area, but with strong contacts in and connections to the Conservative party.
Similarly, the appointment of Tory peer Baroness Dido Harding to run test and trace has been widely criticised, as has her performance since appointment.
The Combination of these Blind Spots has Created a Vicious Circle
In combination, these blind spots have forced the government into a vicious circle which made failure inevitable.
Because the government placed its concern for the economy above everything else, it was always reluctant to impose lockdown. Before the first lockdown, the number of cases had been doubling roughly every 3 – 4 days. That means that each week of delay multiplied the number of cases – and ultimately the number of deaths – by four. By any estimate, tens of thousands of lives have been lost unnecessarily.
And because of its fear of giving financial support for people to do nothing, it supported the population less generously than many other leading countries.
Faced with the risk of COVID, but a certainty of starvation if they did not work, many people were unable to comply – particularly with the self-isolation requirements.
The combination of delayed lockdown, early unlocking and less than total compliance means that we already have one of the highest death tolls in the world and have again lost control of the virus.
This will almost certainly mean that strict lockdown will again need to be imposed, and because it is delayed, it will need to be longer.
In turn, this will cause further economic damage, and the risk is that the government will try even harder to protect the economy rather than to protect its citizens.
Of course, as the chart at the top of this article demonstrated, the idea that there is a trade-off is fanciful. You cannot have a thriving economy while the pandemic rages amongst the people. The countries which have done best have understood this and, as Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, put it, “gone in hard and early.”
If the UK does not break out of this vicious circle, we may end up with hundreds of thousands of COVID-related deaths and a dramatically weakened economy.
Getting Back on Track is not Rocket Science
The good news, however, is that the solution is out there. The independent SAGE group of scientists, for example, have mapped out an alternative strategy for elimination of the virus from the UK. Following this strategy would mean that the government would have to reverse its view on these five blind spots. But there is no other obstacle.
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