For every British civilian killed in the Second World War, three died with Covid – the numbers are roughly 70,000 and 227,000. Coronavirus is not in the same grim league as the Black Death, the plague that killed perhaps two million in the mid 1300s – up to four in ten of the entire population. But it killed far more, not as a percentage but in raw numbers, than the Great Plague of 1665-66 that we remember through the horrified writings of Samuel Pepys.
That is to say, the pandemic is one of the greatest historical disasters of non-military British history. Its effects linger. There are the businesses that never came back; the still-empty offices that seem so pointless after the “work from home” culture became the norm. There are the clinically vulnerable hiding away, uncounted and barely part of the national conversation after the ending of the official shielding advice in summer 2021. There are thought to be between one and two million of us suffering from the fatigue and joint pains of “long Covid”. There are our memories of the bereaved.
So yes, of course there needs to be a thoughtful assessment of how the country dealt with this extraordinary event. Did we lock down too early, or not early enough? Did the “Eat Out to Help Out” Treasury scheme to encourage people back into restaurants save businesses but spread the disease? Was the money spent on test-and-trace technology effective? Were the Nightingale hospitals, emergency clinics designed to help support the NHS, a sensible precaution?
The official inquiry, under Heather Hallett, opened last summer and will not conclude its public hearings, never mind publish its final report, until the summer of 2026, well after the next general election. But now it threatens to derail, and indeed derange, Conservative Britain.
Much of what will be uncovered we do not need to know. The gritty detail of exactly what X said about Y in the heat of an argument about a desperate choice in a Whitehall bunker – really, who cares? We made up our minds about those involved long ago. The real reckoning won’t come in Hallett’s limpid prose in two or three years’ time, but at the ballot box, long before that.
What we really need to know is what a current government – this one or the next – is actually, practically, doing to prepare us for a future pandemic. What is the precise status of emergency hospital capacity? And the storage of personal protective equipment? What about our vaccine manufacturing ability? Construction of the £215m Oxfordshire-based Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre, sold to the US pharmaceutical company Catalent, was paused late last year. In May the New Jersey-based company apologised for “poor performance” after its share price tanked. This is what matters for the future – not whether Boris Johnson contemplated firing Matt Hancock.
I said that the inquiry was derailing Tory Britain, but this was an understatement. The row over Johnson’s private messages is the most extraordinary example of open warfare between a previous and current prime minister that even the Conservative Party can offer – more dramatic than Ted Heath’s sulk against Margaret Thatcher, or her “backseat driver” unhelpfulness towards John Major.
Johnson’s eager offers of help to the inquiry amount to a proposition that a toddler of average intelligence could decode. He doesn’t trust the Cabinet Office to decide what the inquiry should see. He thinks that a full disclosure of all messages will make Rishi Sunak look like a cold-hearted balance-sheet killer and a treacherous underling. He is using the argument about transparency to, as it were, pull down the house: “You want folk to know what was really going on? Bring it on, Rishi baby.” It’s the final scene of Reservoir Dogs translated to a Westminster alley.
[See also: Is Sunak delivering on his migration promises?]
In all this we see a kind of political surrender by Boris Johnson. In taking on the Cabinet Office, which has counter-threatened to withdraw his free legal help, the former prime minister is taking on the centre of his own party. Not just Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, and James Cleverly and the rest of the cabinet, but the scores of Conservative MPs who rely on them for any chance of holding their seats, and the hundreds of party members behind them.
Against those odds, he cannot win. The peer Peter Cruddas and his Conservative Democratic Organisation can be as angry as they like about attacks on Johnson from inside the party. They can provoke by-elections. They can salt the Daily Telegraph with invective. But they will not be able to overturn the solid centre of the Tory party in parliament; and if they did, they would provoke an early election that would turn defeat into political slaughter.
Perhaps we see here the beginnings of a divide in Tory Britain that has been, in modern times, endlessly predicted and never come about – a kind of Corn Law split, but based on personality and populism, rather than high policy.
There should be no lefty glee. I said that Tory Britain was being derailed, and also deranged. After 227,000 dead from the pandemic – real people, not numbers – scientists from Johns Hopkins University recently asserted that the spring 2020 lockdown saved as few as 1,700 lives in England and Wales, and was a “policy failure of gigantic proportions” – notwithstanding the downward spikes in infections after the lockdowns. The report was – surprise, surprise – published by the free-market think thank Institute of Economic Affairs, and appeared on the Telegraph front page.
Let’s try to ignore proper history – the raw fear, and the films of convulsing bodies dying in foreign hospitals, and the statistical modelling. Right-wing broadcasters, mimicking US hosts, endlessly inveigh against lockdowns as some kind of authoritarian leftist plot, apparently imposed upon a free people by the machinations of Whitehall. Agonised, thoroughly decent scientists struggled to do the right thing – I interviewed them at the time – but are now caricatured as pitiless Nazi Sturmbannführers.
Like so much else, this is being imported from the wilder edges of the American hard right. Lockdowns were a brutal and crude response to what might have happened – nobody knows, really, what would have transpired if we’d mingled and coughed as normal – but that’s what we tried. And we were saved not by the “miracle” of vaccines but by admirable self-discipline and the science, the logical, well-understood science, of vaccines. Yet an anti-science paranoia, the Great Revulsion, is spreading.
It’s dangerous. What has been happening over Covid is similar to the saloon-bar mockery of net zero, posing as bluff common sense but rooted in an unscientific dismissal of man-made global warming as “green crap”. For some on the right, science has become not the driving force of contemporary civilisation, but a disreputable form of post-Marxist social control, dedicated to the removal of classic cars and the vaccination of children.
This is why there should be no glee on the centre left. What we are seeing is the right rebelling against the hard facts of our times – a heating, hyper-connected planet, causing migrations and wars, and helping spread diseases. Revulsion against this is emotionally understandable but intellectually impossible. The Great Revulsion of Conservative England is a grievous intellectual virus caught from abroad and spreading across Britain. It is becoming part of our common future.
We need to start to consider the awesome nature of what a future Labour government – if that is what we choose – will inherit. Not just a high-tax, low-growth period of economic failure, not just a no-way-out Brexit, but a paranoid, raging blame culture, which attributes the complexities and misfortunes of the modern world to a mysterious cabal of leftist civil servants and scientists. As we look back on the real pandemic, then, welcome to the fantasy future.
[See also: Labour and the return of the state]
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine