We are trapped in a long, dark tunnel, all of whose known exits are blocked. There is no plausible route out of the UK’s coronavirus crisis that does not involve mass suffering and death. If, as some newspapers and Conservative MPs insist, the government eases the lockdown while the pandemic is still raging, the eventual death toll could be several times greater than today’s. If it doesn’t, and we spend all the warm months of the year in confinement, the impact on our mental and physical health, jobs and relationships could be catastrophic.
We have been told repeatedly that the UK was unprepared for this pandemic. This is untrue. The UK was prepared, but then it de-prepared. Last year, the Global Health Security Index ranked this nation second in the world for pandemic readiness, while the US was first. Broadly speaking, in both nations the necessary systems were in place. Our governments chose not to use them.
The climate modeller James Annan has used his analytical methods to show what would have happened if the UK government had imposed its lockdown a week earlier. Starting it on 16 March, rather than 23 March, his modelling suggests, would by now have saved around 30,000 lives, reducing the rate of illness and death from coronavirus roughly by a factor of five.
But even 16 March would have been extraordinarily late. We now know that government ministers were told on 11 February that the virus could be catastrophic, and decisive action was urgently required. Instead, Boris Johnson told us to wash our hands and “go about our normal daily lives”.
Had the government acted in February, we can hazard a guess about what the result would have been, as the world has conducted a clear controlled experiment: weighing South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand against the UK, the US and Brazil. South Korea did everything the UK government could have done, but refused to implement. Its death toll so far: 263. It still has an occasional cluster of infection, which it promptly contains. By contrast, the entire UK is now a cluster of infection.
While other countries either closed their borders or quarantined all arrivals, in the three months between the emergence of the virus and the UK’s lockdown, 18 million people arrived on these shores, of whom only 273 were quarantined. Even after the lockdown was announced, 95,000 people entered the UK without additional restrictions. In fact, on 13 March, the UK stood down even its own guidance, which had gently requested travellers from Italy and China to self-isolate. This decision, taken as other nations were stepping up their controls, seems baffling.
Similarly, on 12 March, Johnson abandoned both containment and nationwide testing and tracking. A week later, the status of the pandemic was lowered, which meant that the government could reduce the standard of personal protective equipment required in hospitals, and could shift infectious patients into non-specialist care. Again, there was no medical or scientific justification for this decision.
Exercise Cygnus, a pandemic simulation conducted in 2016, found that the impacts in care homes would be catastrophic unless new measures were put in place. The government insists that it heeded the findings of this exercise and changed its approach accordingly. If this is correct, by allowing untested patients to be shifted from hospitals to care homes, while failing to provide the extra support and equipment the homes needed and allowing agency workers to move freely within and between them, it knowingly breached its own protocols. Tens of thousands of highly vulnerable people were exposed to infection.
In other words, none of these are failures of knowledge or capacity. They are de-preparations, conscious decisions not to act. They start to become explicable only when we recognise what they have in common: a refusal to frontload the costs. This refusal is common in countries whose governments fetishise what we call “the market”: the euphemism we use for the power of money.
Johnson’s government, like that of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, represents a particular kind of economic interest. For years politicians of their stripe have been in conflict with people who perform useful services: nurses, teachers, care workers and the other low-paid people who keep our lives ticking, whose attempts to organise and secure better pay and conditions are demonised by ministers and in the media.
This political conflict is always fought on behalf of the same group: those who extract wealth. The war against utility is necessary if you want to privatise public services, granting lucrative monopolies or fire sales of public assets to friends in the private sector. It’s necessary if you want to hold down public sector pay and the minimum wage, cutting taxes and bills for the same funders and lobbyists. It is necessary if corporations are to be allowed to outsource and offshore their workforces, and wealthy people can offshore their income and assets.
The interests of wealth extractors are, by definition, short term. They divert money that might otherwise have been used for investment into dividends and share buybacks. They dump costs that corporations should legitimately bear on to society in general, in the form of pollution (the car and road lobbies) or public health disasters (soft drinks and junk food producers). They siphon money out of an enterprise or a nation as quickly as possible, before the tax authorities, regulators or legislators catch up.
Years of experience have shown that it is much cheaper to make political donations, employ lobbyists and invest in public relations than to change lucrative but harmful commercial policies. Working through the billionaire press and political systems that are highly vulnerable to capture by money, in the UK, US and Brazil they have helped ensure that cavalier and reckless people are elected. Their chosen representatives have an almost instinctive aversion to investment, to carrying a cost today that could be deferred, delayed or dumped on someone else.
It’s not that any of these interests – whether the Daily Mail or the US oil companies – want coronavirus to spread. It’s that the approach that has proved so disastrous in addressing the pandemic has been highly effective, from the lobbyists’ point of view, when applied to other issues: delaying and frustrating action to prevent climate breakdown; pollution; the obesity crisis; inequality; unaffordable rent; and the many other plagues spread by corporate and billionaire power.
Thanks in large part to their influence, we have governments that fail to protect the public interest, by design. This is the tunnel. This is why the exits are closed. This is why we will struggle to emerge.
o George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist
o The main image was changed on 20 May 2020 to better reflect the text of the article.