Predictably, the New Year started in the United Kingdom with new lockdowns. Given the negligent and cavalier stance of the Conservative central government towards basic public health principles since the start of the pandemic, and the consequent peril to the National Health Service, this was inevitable, although one may argue with some of the specifics. It is important to remember, though, that both the parlous state of the NHS and the neglect and defunding of public health infrastructure are consequences of a homicidal decade of Conservative austerity, correctly described in 2017 by the editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton, as ‘a political choice that deepens the already open and bloody wounds of the poor and precarious’.
One of the knock-on effects is that we are now living in a police state – so far, a non-violent one, but violence is not a necessary element of the definition. Hyperbole, you say? Well, what else would you call a polity in which the decision about what constitutes a ‘reasonable excuse’ for leaving home is decided, in the first instance, by police, who will be defended by Cabinet ministers? I wish politicians and self-styled progressive colleagues alike would stop dissembling on this point. They might well defend the situation as necessary, but they should stop lying about its nature. Presumably some of these fines and arrests will be successfully contested by those with the time and money to do so, should government eventually permit courts to resume routine operation, which is far from certain.
Speaking of lies, porkies* of Trumpian proportions have been emanating from central government. We are told that, if we obey the rules and all goes well with vaccination, restrictions might be eased in ‘tulip season’ (May, in these parts) or ‘spring’ (technically, before 21 June). If any reader believes that, then I can offer a really good deal on some oceanfront property in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. (Spoiler alert: there isn’t any.) Given the government’s record of destroying any public health initiative it touches, the UK will be doing well to be out of the worst of lockdown by September. In fact, more severe restrictions are threatened. As John Harris observed in an important Guardian commentary: ‘The lack of alarm about these moves is remarkable’.
Disturbing manifestations of burnout can be anticipated by the end of a summer without holidays (I quote from the government guidance: ‘holidays in the UK and abroad are not allowed’). Some of us would in theory have the attractive option of sitting on the local seafront and reading once the weather warms up … except that under current guidance this would not count as exercise, one of the ‘reasonable excuses’ to leave home, so would be a crime. Such constraints weigh most heavily, of course, on those without gardens of their own or with caring responsibilities. The incidence of deaths of despair is likely to soar, as is the number of employers using depression and anxiety as a pretext for forced redundancies.
All this means that the chances of a post-Soviet style economic and health collapse in the UK, lasting for a generation or longer, are considerably greater than they were when I first raised the possibility last summer. It could be, of course, that vaccination will proceed more quickly and effectively than expected (pigs might fly, too) or that some other remarkable advance in prevention will be found. Unfortunately, it is much more likely that the United Kingdom is over as a desirable place to live and work, for a very long time, except for those living in gated communities or behind castle walls.
The ways in which the pandemic is magnifying inequality – on which I will expand in a subsequent posting, based on material from the postgraduate course in Advanced Social Determinants of Health that I lead – continue to be given limited attention. Most of the ‘experts’ calling for even stricter lockdowns probably have gardens of their own, job security, and substantial savings, unlike many other Britons; they have generally been silent on inequality issues. Still less often have they taken up Horton’s pre-pandemic injunction that: ‘The task of health professionals is to resist and to oppose the egregious economics of our times’. One wishes that members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies had to disclose their households’ incomes and net worth, along with their professorial titles and British Empire honours, as part of their declaration of interests.
Here is a thought experiment, keeping in mind two propositions. First, people working in front-line occupations (think essential retail like supermarkets, delivery, driving those buses that continue to operate, Amazon warehouses, meat packing, care homes) cannot work from home, and especially if on zero-hours contracts or without union protection cannot afford to self-isolate after a positive test or if symptomatic. (The jobs of many others, working in the sector broadly described as hospitality, have vanished under lockdown, possibly never to return.) Second, as of 25 September almost nine out of ten deaths from Covid-19 involved people 65 or older (more recent figures are maddeningly hard to find on official web sites). Most of these represented an actuarial boon for the UK treasury, no longer paying state pension, and many for defined-contribution pension plans.
Now, if you wanted to design a pandemic response that pretended good intentions whilst concealing a subtextual agenda of culling the working class (potential claimants of state benefits, after all, and therefore intrinsically suspect for Conservatives) and the elderly, the current UK response is what it would look like. The UK is hardly unique in this regard, but along with Canada and its charnel house care homes and even more calamitous vaccine rollout it is an especially egregious case.
The title of this post refers to what I consider the greatest song by Irish troubadour Van Morrison, ‘The Great Deception’. Part of the refrain goes like this:
‘I can’t stand it / Can’t stand it nohow / Livin’ in this / World of lies’.
* For those outside the UK: short for porky pies, rhyming slang for lies.