Damaging ideas within the Conservative party have weakened our ability to defeat the virus
The coronavirus pandemic struck the United Kingdom when its National Health Service was on its knees suffering from staff shortages and the longest waiting times ever recorded. A decade of austerity had taken a terrible toll. Yet public satisfaction in the NHS went up. This surprising gap between the NHS failures and the public’s belief in the health system seems to have been driven by the support from across the political spectrum for more funding. This probably, say researchers, started to impact on public perceptions, most notably on their optimism for the future.
It would be a mistake to think the spread of Covid-19 can be checked by hope alone. The last 10 years have undermined the ability of the government to respond effectively and efficiently. As the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty told the Guardian, the “most damaging aspects of ‘austerity’ cannot and will not be undone” and represent “the fatal weakening of the community’s capacity to cope”.
Even today ideology plays a bigger part in the government’s response than many insiders care to admit. A more proactive mindset might have seen the state mobilise an effort to track down those in need of a coronavirus test and offer it to them. Instead voluntarism remains the creed of the current government which opted for an online booking system for tests that was predictably overwhelmed within hours.
In the coming weeks there will be an argument about whether the shutdown is more deadly than the virus. The case for lifting the current restrictions can be rooted within Conservative thought which privileges individual autonomy and the promotion of individual responsibility. Calls for these to be dogmatically pursued run in the face of evidence that the old and the poor are more vulnerable to the disease. A virus as communicable as Sars-Cov-2 means that the health of the richest is dependent on the health of the poorest. It does not make sense for at-risk working-age adults to return to jobs in which there are numerous social contacts. Having emptied Covid hospital wards, would this not just risk filling them up again?
Whitehall also has to find a way of ensuring press releases are realised on the ground in the country. Before the Conservative state-shrinking began in 2010, there had been government offices of the regions which could operate between ministerial departments and the various bodies, often very local, that are charged with implementing policy. These overlapped with regional health bodies and could deliver policy around the country. It is an open question as to what coordinating body will do that today.
Another aspect of Conservatism is, as Samuel Johnson opined, that “order cannot be had but by subordination”. The government has had to be pushed into saying it will be transparent about its scientific advice. It has a track record in adopting tactics to choke off critical voices. Tory ministers neutered the Health Protection Agency and brought the often loud scientists and doctors who led it to heel 10 years ago. Its successor is Public Health England, which is accountable to the health secretary, and led by a career NHS manager. Lost is an opportunity for an independent voice to speak influentially about important health matters.
Ministers are about to make a series of political choices that they will undoubtedly present as a natural response to be instituted so life can rebound. These choices may be informed by science. But they will be guided by a particular political morality, which will not be as evidence based or as rational as science.