75 years after the end of World War II in Europe, the Johnson government is inviting the people of Britain to “celebrate” the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany. So, what kind of “victory” has that turned out to be?
I quote just one statistic at this point, coronavirus deaths (as of yesterday): Germany 7277; UK 30,076. For comparison, population sizes are Germany 80 million, UK 66 million. So, per capita, the death rate differences are even larger. And Germany’s pandemic started a couple of weeks earlier than the UK’s.
So, if our Government had managed the outbreak as well as the Germans’, pro rata, we would have 24,000 fewer deaths. So, who is to blame? I will argue below, the answer is Tories, Tories and Tories.
The Spanish Flu pandemic (which, incidentally, wasn’t Spanish) occurred in three distinct waves with the second worse than the first. The graph above clearly illustrates this point. (NB: the figures along the lower axis are dates: shown, rather confusingly, in US “semi arse about face” month/day format.) It is mainly because Wave 2 was biggest, reinforced by current epidemiologists’ modelling, that the Government is being cautious about lifting the current lockdown restrictions.
I argue below that, similarly, our present predicament comes about as a result of Tory Governments’ mismanagement and bad policy making, also in three distinct waves. As a result, the country was far less prepared than it could – or should, in my view – have been.
Wave One: 1980s and Thatcher
My wife has just delivered a load of face masks and headbands she has sewn for use by frontline staff in the fight against the pandemic. This is all too reminiscent of the pre-Industrial Revolution period in the late 18th and early 19th century. People spinning and weaving cloth in their own cottages. So, what accounts for our apparent regression?
Wave One and the first betrayal were started forty years ago by Margaret Thatcher. She may be remembered for a number of things. For now, I will concentrate on three: monetarism, anti-Trade Union legislation and the City Big Bang deregulation.
The graph below shows the trend during the 18 years of Thatcher and Major Government. The steep drop in the period 1979 to 1982 is mainly associated with the Tories’ flirtation with monetarism. For a period, this was treated almost like a religious belief within Tory ranks and was responsible for the needless destruction of many jobs, particularly in manufacturing. The second steep drop around 1990-91 was at the time Thatcher was ousted and replaced by John Major. Although the primary causes of this recession were global, civil unrest and rioting occurred in such diverse places as Birmingham, Oxford, Tyneside, Cardiff and Bristol.
The second factor was the anti-Trade Union legislation passed during the Thatcher period. A fairly neutral account is found here. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that this started a long period of change from relatively secure and well-paid manufacturing jobs to the insecure zero hours and sham self-employment we see today. The people in this insecure workforce are really at the sharp end of current lockdown policies. The “treat them like shit” attitude, too prevalent in today’s employment practices, was an inevitable result of weakening the countervailing power of the Trade Unions.
The third factor was the so-called Big Bang. In the prevailing orthodoxy of the time – still largely present in today’s Johnson cabal of True Believers – the financial centre in the City was “liberated” from the old-fashioned practices of yore. As a result, financial services grew in parasitic fashion into the monster we see today, with its abuse of power and prevailing attitude of personal greed. I covered this topic in more detail in my 2015 post The City: Paragon or Parasite? Its general thesis is that what’s good for the City is generally bad for the rest of us. “The rest of us” includes those trying to make a living from manufacturing.
The upshot of all this is our over-reliance on imported goods (such as panic-bought substandard PPE flown in from Turkey by the RAF). A weakened manufacturing base has left us dangerously vulnerable in times of need on items such as ventilators, PPE, testing kits: all the things that the government is still playing catch-up on, 2 to 3 months after they should have been aware of the seriousness of the threat from coronavirus.
This constitutes the Tories’ first betrayal of the people of Britain: the 40-year weakening of our capacity to make the things we need in times of crisis. (A possibly similar argument could be made about the food we eat, but that’s another story.)
Wave Two: Decade of Austerity 2010-2020
Wave Two and the second betrayal cover the last 10 years of Tory-led government and the Osborne-led religion of austerity. A nation was persuaded to believe that the New Labour government was responsible for the 2008 global recession and the solution was austerity. Translated this means punishing the weakest and poorest in society whilst letting those responsible – organised finance – to escape scot free. Despite some eye-watering spending announcements by Rishi Sunak, many of the tenets of austerity are still in place in the mind set of Johnson and his gang.
What concerns us here is the cumulative effect of austerity over the last 10 cruel years: the graph below shows the trend. The overall figures disguise the fact that local government has been squeezed even harder (by 40%) than public spending overall. And, of course, apart from the last few desperate weeks, NHS spending was frozen (in real terms) for much of the decade.
In the 2010s, the government split Public Health from the NHS and then (as I said above) squeezed local government very hard. Casualties would be care homes, public health resources and support services for vulnerable and disabled people. Cuts in benefits, including for those with disabilities, have weakened our collective resilience further.
A new and shocking example has emerged with the past 24 hours. During the years of austerity, Channel 4 News has revealed that 45% of PPE stock was allowed to get out-of-date. This includes 80% of respirators. In 2009, following an outbreak of swine flu, £500m was spent building up a national pandemic stockpile. Channel 4 “has also obtained evidence suggesting the stockpile had shrunk significantly over the last ten years, while the UK’s population continued to grow.” In short, we were less prepared for pandemic than at the end of the last Labour government.
To make matters worse, the government was forewarned. In 2016, Exercise Cygnus simulated an influenza-type pandemic and predicted that the health service would collapse through a lack of resources. The Daily Telegraph reported one government source as saying that the results of the simulation were “too terrifying” to be revealed. Eventually, the Guardian leaked the findings (redacted to exclude sensitive personal information) on 7 May this year.
In summary, Tory led government policy decisions weakened the UK’s preparedness for a corona-type pandemic systematically and repeatedly over the last 10 years under the cover of austerity. Income and health inequality widened over the same period, leaving the most vulnerable even more so.
This is the Tories second betrayal of its people.
Wave Three: Johnsonian Dogma 2020
And so we turn to the recent past with Johnson as Prime Minister. The story doesn’t get any better.
All but the most stupid and the most ideologically zealous supporters of Government policy – the two groups are not mutually exclusive – have noticed by now that the government was asleep at the wheel in the weeks before the pandemic took off. World Health Organisation warnings as early as January were ignored. WHO advice to do “testing, testing, testing” was similarly dismissed by a government that was riding on a wave of hubris following the UK’s “departure” from the EU on 31st January.
Despite Ministers’ untruthful denials, it was UK Government policy right up to 20:00 on 23rd March that “herd immunity” was the best approach, making the UK an outlier in Governments’ approach to the pandemic around the world. Then we had the “screeching U-turn” and lockdown. By this time, of course, it was too late. It has been a game of catch-up ever since. Oh, and repeated instances of over-promise and under-deliver: on PPE, testing, contact tracing, whatever.
Conservative dogma had led to an over-reliance on the private sector and the bypassing of expertise in local government and other local arms of the public sector. A good, i.e. bad, example was last Thursday when Health Secretary Matt Hancock crowed that his “100,000 tests” target had been met. This was only achieved if you count test kits posted out (but clearly not yet used) on that day. Also the army was called in to set up “mobile testing centres”. In one instance for which I have an impeccable source, the local authority had not been forewarned of the army’s arrival and “caused chaos”. It seems that at one point, random people were approached in the street and offered at test. And all to meet a politically motivated target. Following the science, my arse! And, as we well know, in the days since, on at least 5 occasions, the number of actual daily tests have fallen well below 100,000.
Other countries have done better, and more consistently, than the UK. And another thing. Local GPs and Public Health officials around the country have NOT been given geographically-based test results numbers, essential for the next phase of tracking clusters and tracing contacts. Perhaps this is because the government handed the contract for manging testing to Deloittes – yes, that Deloittes, one of the accountancy and consultancy big four who have repeatedly failed, big time, to spot companies on the brink of going bust. The system for getting feedback from Deloittes to key local expertise doesn’t exist yet.
This illustrates a continuing weakness in the Government’s approach: too much is attempted to be run from the centre and/or by private companies with no relevant experience, rather than use expertise in local authorities. So, even as I write, the Government continues to screw things up, avoidably.
The third wave of government betrayal continues, unquestioned by a loyal and sycophantic press (with the honourable exception of the Guardian).
And so to today’s bread and circuses. We are invited by those who govern us to celebrate an event which happened before 99% of us were born. By inference, even to applaud our government’s “success” as Johnson called it on Monday. Try telling that to the grieving families of the 24,000 individuals, disproportionately black, brown and poor, who have died too soon thanks to Conservative government failures over the past half a century.
Citizens of Britain: you reap what you sow.