Imagine you’re a far-right government bent on a particular political project, whose lead minister for domestic affairs is on record as saying governments are not responsible for poverty, and you have to respond to a fast-moving contagious disease, after a decade of austerity has left the national health system overstretched even under normal circumstances and eviscerated local authorities’ ability to respond to public health crises.
You are also committed to leaving the customs union whose members buy almost half your exports and supply about 30 percent of the nation’s food, in nine months, with or without a replacement set of arrangements and despite the social and economic disruption that may ensue, including disruption of food supply chains whose precariousness the epidemic is already demonstrating.
What might your sharpest-minded strategists do?
Well, one approach would start by playing down the seriousness of the epidemic. The Prime Minister might urge people to minimise social contact, whilst sometimes ignoring his own advice. As the scale and speed of the epidemic became clearer, you might go ‘evidence-based,’ relying on a particularly apocalyptic set of model predictions that ignore the possible benefits of basic public health measures such as contact tracing, clinical observation, and testing – perhaps to avoid drawing attention to austerity’s effects on the country’s ability to carry those out.
Now invoking wartime imagery, you would close schools and most businesses and public facilities countrywide. Within a few days, enabled by a hapless simpering Parliamentary opposition that did not oppose, you would enact a 348-page piece of legislation that centralises almost all power in the hands of the political executive for at least two years, and among many other extraordinary measures gives police the authority to use roadblocks and drones to prevent non-essential travel, indeed to define it, with criminal prosecution as a backstop. You would also, quite understandably, commit to massive borrowing and spending in order partially to compensate for lost jobs and business revenues, and to keep the economy from collapsing completely.
Oh, wait – the UK has such a government, and it just did all that. Lancet editor Richard Horton has written that ‘basic principles of public health and infectious disease control were ignored, for reasons that remain opaque’; the following day, former Conservative Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt made a similar point, noting – about countries that tested early and intensively – that ‘[t]he restaurants are open in South Korea. You can go shopping in Taiwan. Offices are open in Singapore’. Abundant evidence now shows that permissible movements are now determined only by police acting on their interpretation of the orders of the political executive. When the other shoe drops, in the form of post-pandemic, post-Brexit austerity that will solemnly be defended on grounds of fiscal prudence, resistance may be difficult if not dangerous. Methinks that far from blundering, the Conservative response to the pandemic has been extremely calculating and politically sophisticated. I desperately hope I’m wrong.
 Thanks to the US, the World Trade Organization now is nothing more than a talking shop, but that’s another story.
This post was updated on 31 March