The Government misjudged British society at a fatal cost. Yet society is now on a path to legitimising the resulting disaster.
Determining the behaviour of nomadic people are two components of society. The first is the capacity of their society to enact a preferred outcome, whether that be having the required horses for war or enough food to fuel migration. The second is culture. Mainly how they view the world and relations between people. Including their ambitions and what behaviour they accept happening within tribes.
As our capacity to act moves from the individual to the nation-state or international organisation, and culture becomes the sum of far greater numbers of people and differences, this analytical concept has been dismissed. Yet the coronavirus pandemic was a battle where old met new. It catapulted the frailties of the past into an age that had supposedly mastered its own survival through knowledge and technology. Determining the decisions taken by scientists and politicians, within this crisis of confidence, were the very same concepts that nomadic tribes employed.
From the 2011 Influenza Plan, it is clear that the Government believed the UK neither had the capacity or the required culture to prevent the spread of the disease. This thinking led to little effort being made in February to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
The plan states how ‘it will not be possible to stop the virus as it will spread too rapidly and too widely’. Border closures were judged ineffectual. The document urges for the economy and education to remain as open as possible. Controls on public transport were not planned.
A cause of this thinking was the belief that the British people would not accept significant disruption to their lives. It was believed society would be unlikely to adhere to regulations, even recommending the continuation of large public gatherings as an ‘important indicator of normality’.
Britain lacked the culture and capacity to fight influenza in any way other than maintaining normality for as long as possible. ‘During the pandemic the Government will encourage those to carry on with their normal lives whilst taking basic precautions’. This judgment led to a plan that predicted up to 315,000 additional deaths, possibly over as little as fifteen weeks. This was to happen in the knowledge that a vaccine would be available within four to six months.
This staggering death toll was not the result of mismanagement or failure, but rather the outcome of Government strategy. On 4th February SAGE recommended that the Government use current ‘influenza pandemic assumptions’. Before predictions of a collapsed NHS and 500,000 deaths, scientists used the same assumptions in determining their plans to fight Covid-19. We could not stop the virus, and people would not be prepared to sacrifice their livelihoods to do so. This strategy was criticised by the WHO, who warned 259,000 deaths would result.
Although there was scientific rationale for avoiding such restrictions as SAGE wished to prevent a second wave, it is staggering how incorrectly the Government judged society’s ability to cope.
Last week the Bank of England said it was more optimistic than its rosy economic projections made in February. Such estimated GDP to recover rapidly towards pre-Covid levels over 2021 and that a double-hit recession had been avoided. Despite desperation for in-person interaction, technology has ensured the continuation of work and education.
The country did have the capacity to cope with lockdown, as well as having the capacity to stop the disease. Border closures once deemed ineffectual are now being advocated to prevent the spread of new variants.
More significant however, is how wrongly the state judged the culture of its people.
We have since learned that individuals are prepared to sacrifice their livelihoods to save lives. Although the extent and longevity of this sacrifice is surprising, it is not hard to imagine one’s reaction under the planned outcome of an influenza outbreak. The Government predicted a society where amid 315,000 deaths people would continue to use public transport, meet in large stadiums, and parents send kids to school.
Studies have shown in March last year people did change their behaviour before lockdown. Fewer people visited friends or family, and more turned to online shopping. This was before any mass restrictions. It was evidence of a natural human reaction. People were scared and acted accordingly after seeing in Italy overwhelmed health systems and army trucks transporting the dead.
In the summer, Boris Johnson was astounded at people not returning to the office or taking advantage of fewer restrictions. At each stage, the Government misjudged the cultural priorities of British society. Indeed, across the world when faced with such a threatening virus, people hunkered down in the security of their own homes.
Government pandemic strategies have thus been based on incorrect assumptions about the capacity and culture of the UK. In future pandemics, Governments will act more strongly at the beginning, enforcing border closures and social distancing measures, aware of society being able to cope and prepared to sacrifice their livelihoods. Particularly with the former bolstered by the building of domestic industries to manufacture tests and vaccines at speed.
Yet there is a contradiction underlying this lesson. Although society has learned just how wrong the government was in the early stages, even though they judged incorrectly something as fundamental as our behaviour in the face of mass deaths, we are also legitimating what has happened.
In focus groups run by James Johnson on Matt Chorley’s Times Radio show, voters are frequently legitimating and trying to explain the huge death toll. One voter even wondered whether our anger with the government was because of the bad weather.
This is not unexpected. Throughout history in the face of the exceptional, societies have attempted to make it more ordinary. To help explain what has happened by positioning it within their own religious or social interpretation of the world. Through such explanation, exceptional destruction can be legitimated. Even when the Mongols killed around 800,000 civilians in the siege of Baghdad, local Muslims went to strenuous efforts to explain the death toll. The writer and politician Juvayni said it was punishment from Allah for their recent sins. Many Muslims retrospectively converted the Mongol leader Hulegu to Islam, making the destruction more palatable as it was caused by one of their own.
This process is underway now, and will be made much easier by a successful vaccine programme helping to obscure the horrible memories of the past year. British society has left a contradictory lesson to politicians and scientists.
Individuals are prepared to lockdown and society can just about cope. We have the culture and capacity to do so. This is not a direct repudiation though of those assumptions made in Whitehall about our culture. Society is currently on a path to legitimating and explaining over 100,000 deaths by vouching for the unprecedented nature of the disease or by linking our anger to the weather. This is despite over 50% of deaths occurring in the winter when the government knew far more about the disease.
The only question remaining is whether such retrospective legitimation would have been able to take place after an even larger number of deaths. Thankfully, the lessons individuals have taught politicians and scientists over the last year, means governments in the future will be unlikely to try and see.