London Letter

Locked Down in London

Leaving the re-opened London Library (masks compulsory throughout, all borrowed books subject to sterilisation) in the late afternoon I walk through a West End so desolate it could be the set for an apocalyptic film. All but a handful of its scores of cafes, restaurants and drinking places have closed, many of them permanently. Not only are there no tourists or theatregoers, but most of the businesspeople have not come back, despite the end of lockdown. The staff in the Jermyn Street gentlemen’s shirtmakers, bootmakers and hairdressers try not to look like men and women contemplating unemployment and poverty. 

This report appears in October’s Quadrant.
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Other, more residential quarters of the capital have returned to busyness. But even on the busiest high streets there are bleak stretches of boarded-up shops and restaurants. Things were not good on the high street even before COVID-19. High rates—the business-destroying property taxes on which the English exchequer excessively relies—high rents, internet shopping, and the drift away from communal entertainment had all taken their toll. The lockdown turned the possible demise of thousands of enterprises into certainties. For most people, or at least most people over thirty-five, it is sad to see the end of so many pubs, butchers’ shops, newsagents, cinemas, grocery stores and the abundant cheerful cafes that enlivened British life and improved British coffee-drinking taste after the 1980s. For others, especially the sort of person who sees all technological or internet-related change as an unqualified good, or who prefers to communicate or be entertained while physically alone, none of this seems like a great loss.

Among the British political and journalistic class there seems to be remarkably little concern about the economic impact of the lockdown, the millions of jobs that have already been lost, or the likely political and psychological impact of mass unemployment and impoverishment.

It was all too typical when, at the end of August, the Guardian columnist Marina Hyde attacked the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, for, in her version of events, “giving us a new mantra: Leave home. Forget the NHS. Save Prêt”. She was referring to the Prêt à Manger sandwich chain, which a few days before had announced the closure of dozens of stores and the cutting of 3000 jobs. This had prompted a Daily Telegraph story saying that the Prime Minister was worried about the reluctance of Britons to go back to their workplaces in the wake of the lockdown. (More than 50 per cent of British office workers are still “working from home” compared to fewer than 20 per cent of German office workers.)

The Prime Minister, it is fair to say, has chosen to respond to the Covid crisis with slogans. “Stay at home; protect the NHS; save lives” was the first; the most recent is “Hands/Face/Space”. However, he has expressed little concern in public about what seems to be a looming economic and financial catastrophe.

This is perhaps not surprising. Like many members of the legion of Guardian columnists and BBC broadcasters who fiercely condemn anyone who expresses worry about the economy as “putting profits before human lives”, he belongs to that small but influential part of the population for whom money has never been a real worry, or whose limited experience of life renders them unable to sympathise with the concerns of people who work for or own private businesses.

That so much of the London political and media elite feels something akin to aristocratic disdain for the fortunes of shopkeepers and their ilk is perhaps understandable. After all, you would be hard pressed to find institutions in the UK in which nepotism and hereditary opportunity are more common than in the BBC, the political parties, and even (or especially) the theatre with its actors’ dynasties.

A surprising proportion of Britain’s middle-class opinion-formers and policy-makers seem to be privileged in another way, one that has only become apparent thanks to the crisis. They seem to have led lives remarkably untouched by serious illness or even the threat of it. In any case they demonstrate minimal awareness of the annual destruction wrought in this country by various cancers, by influenza and other illnesses, let alone the enormous death toll inflicted by malaria and other epidemic diseases in the developing world. Such blessed ignorance would help explain the decision that the British state should essentially treat COVID-19 as the only serious biological threat to human life and health.                 

For during the lockdown, the National Health Service essentially stopped testing for any and all other illnesses besides COVID-19—even as it struggled to set up an adequate testing regime for the new virus. Scores of thousands of people were not given and have not been given the mammograms, colonoscopies and cervical smears they were due, despite the fact that entire hospitals lay empty for months, waiting for an avalanche of Covid patients that never arrived. Many of these untested people will lose their lives to cancers that would have been treatable if caught in time. You could make a strong argument that they were effectively sentenced to death by politicians, administrators and opinion-formers in a state of collective panic intensified by social media.

This is not to say that COVID-19 is not a frightening, devastating disease, but to question the sometimes bizarre ways in which the British state has responded to it. As its critics have pointed out, the government has dramatically changed its tack on lockdowns, testing regimes and quarantines several times. This would be understandable and indeed desirable if it were primarily in response to changed circumstances or new understandings of the virus and the best ways to prevent and treat it. More often, the government’s U-turns seem to have been prompted by waves of outrage on Twitter. Cabinet members like Health Minister Matthew “Panicking Matt” Hancock and their advisers are not just obsessed with Twitter but, like so many journalists today, confuse its surges of anger and approval with actual public opinion. As one long-time observer of Westminster pointed out, this is rather like a Prime Minister sending his ministers to Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner as a way of gauging the public’s response to his policies.

No one has yet explained one of the great mysteries of the British response to COVID-19: why during March, April and May the UK was the only country in the world to maintain a normal international airport regime, as if the crisis were not happening. Not only were there no restrictions on flights from China, Iran, Austria and other early hotspots, but no monitoring of any kind. Britons returning on flights from northern Italy in March and April, some of whom had actually had COVID-19, told the newspapers how astonished they were that there were no officials taking down names and contact details to aid in tracing people who might be importing the illness. This was while countries like Singapore and Taiwan with experience of SARS were testing and staying in touch with all new arrivals.

According to one Westminster theory, there was a political reason for the UK’s failure to put in place even the most basic record-keeping measures at a time when they might have made an enormous difference to the medical authorities—and to Britain’s lamentable early efforts to control the epidemic. If passengers arriving on flights from Italy and other hotspots were to be registered or interviewed, it would have required co-operation between the Ministry of Health, the Home Office (whose Border Force runs passport control and customs) and the Ministry of Transport. But Matthew Hancock, Priti Patel and Grant Shapps, the heads of their departments, and the civil servants beneath them, were incapable or unwilling to work together. Boris Johnson lacked the leadership or inclination to force them to do so. So the kinds of monitoring regime found in every other developed country—and many developing countries—was never even attempted. Instead, in July, months after it would have made sense to do so, the Johnson government suddenly began imposing strict quarantine restrictions on international passengers, regardless of whether they had been recently tested or were flying in from countries with low infection rates.

During lockdown most people obeyed the rules, even the silly ones that made a crime out of public sun-bathing and prompted officious police to decide that certain food products like Easter eggs did not count as essential items. When people did kick against the traces it was often in strange, small rebellions, like speeding in their cars through empty streets, or riding their bicycles on paths intended for pedestrians only.

Despite all the political conflicts over Brexit and other issues in recent years, there was a kind of pulling together here that was apparently not possible in the United States. There weren’t many opportunities to see or talk to other people, but when you did, say in the supermarket or at the pharmacy, there was often friendliness, an openness and sense of shared experience that was moving and gratifying.

It was clear that most people, of all backgrounds, trusted the government to do its best. They put their faith in the National Health Service—an object of worship in much of British society—and in official agencies such as Public Health England, which in theory is the equivalent of America’s Centers for Disease Control and Germany’s Robert Koch Institute. Unfortunately, for most its existence, the main function of the PHE has been to put out warnings against excessive drinking and other low-intensity public health threats. Its staff were not up to the challenge of dealing with a major epidemic, as events soon showed.

For instance, when it became obvious that Britain needed to establish a large-scale Covid testing regime as quickly as possible, PHE’s leaders insisted that only they be allowed to carry out such tests, even though PHE’s own testing centre was still under construction, and various universities and private laboratories already had the facilities to do it. This was not just a matter of an agency trying to defend its turf against all comers, there was also a political-ideological element. Like many health officials in the UK, PHE’s executives were apparently obsessed with the idea that the Tory government could use the Covid crisis as a means of increasing the privatisation of healthcare. It often seemed as if preventing such a horror was a higher priority for PHE’s bosses than fighting the pandemic, and the UK testing regime was and continues to be shambolic and inadequate.

To be fair, the entire British civil service, not just PHE, is not what it used to be. Among other handicaps, the British state in general is now highly resistant to any kind of public policy that might require public employees to have direct, non-virtual contact with the public or to spend time outdoors on foot. This is most obvious in British policing, but even the census is now carried out using small samples and computer models rather than having officials go from house to house. So it is no surprise that British governments did not consider Covid strategies that would require large numbers of workers to go knocking on doors and asking people about their movements or their symptoms.

As autumn approaches, we seem to be on the verge of another lockdown, although it is unlikely to be nearly as severe as those imposed in countries like Spain and parts of Australia. It is not clear that the public will be as amenable to restriction as it was during the spring and early summer. It does not help that, like governments elsewhere early in the crisis, that of the UK resorted to what seemed to be necessary or beneficial untruths for the public good. For instance, in order to ensure that hospitals had sufficient protective equipment, the public was repeatedly told that it should not seek to obtain masks, because masks were ineffective at preventing the spread of the disease. A few months later, masks were made compulsory on public transport, in airports and other public places. Most of us will wear our masks when we ride public transport or go out to the shops—assuming that the stores are still open—in the hope that the masks will protect others and ourselves. But it may take a while before those officials, scientists and doctors who lied (for what they considered to be the best of reasons) regain our trust, and that could be dangerous for everyone.

Jonathan Foreman is a journalist based in London. His previous London Letter appeared in the April issue

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