As Andrew Cusack’s Letter from London reveals with sometimes alarming examples, Britain’s battle with the Covid-19 pandemic had a large cast of villains and incompetents but a sad dearth of heroes. My own list of the latter would not be much longer than Lord Sumption, Fraser Nelson, Toby Young, the fifty-five Tory MPs who voted against locking down Britain into tiers in December 2020, and circles around the Daily Sceptic, the Spectator and the Daily Telegraph, of which the last gave space to heterodox opinions even when its own editorials supported the lockdown.
The Telegraph has won particular glory by publishing in excruciating and hilarious detail the WhatsApp messages on Covid policy exchanged between the (very) former Health Secretary, Matthew Hancock, and a cabal of ministers, senior civil servants, scientific advisers and partisan political aides who were the centre of government policy-making on the pandemic. Admittedly that avalanche of scoops fell directly into the paper’s lap, but it has exploited this opportunity magnificently to show how the UK government thoroughly mishandled the crisis in every possible way with fresh daily instalments of the Whitehall farce.
John O’Sullivan appears in every Quadrant.
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We have long known that the Johnson government got the central decision wrong from the start: whether to lock down British society by compelling all but essential workers to stay home, or to follow the less restrictive Swedish model of protecting vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, but otherwise relying on ordinary citizens to make sensible life decisions that balanced different risks. The results are now in: Britain’s death rate was almost twice as high as Sweden’s; its accumulated indebtedness was twice as high; and its economic recovery much slower.
Two ironies accompanied this central error. The first was that the UK’s original plan for treating pandemics had been the same one that the Swedish health authorities followed. It was abandoned when forecasts by Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College predicted a vast increase in infections and fatalities likely to overwhelm health services. The second was that because of the prestige of Imperial College and of British medical science generally, the UK exported this mistaken approach to the world, especially to the Anglosphere.
From the first it was noteworthy (and noticed) that New Zealand, Canada, the United States and Australia (in particular Victoria) imposed lockdowns of far greater severity than most other countries even when the regulations were broadly the same. These countries enjoyed early success in keeping the virus at bay, and Jacinda Ardern became an international left-wing folk heroine for doing so, but they had miscalculated badly. Since not even New Zealand could lock down entirely—the need for the free movement of essential workers means the virus will inevitably spread—the most they could achieve was to delay its spread at the cost of restricting everyday civil liberties and the liberal reputations of their countries. And with the partial exception of the United States, they did so with apparent public and media enthusiasm, if not almost coercion.
If that was a discouraging Big Picture, the brushwork details were positively damning. Lord Sumption, who had criticised the compulsory lockdown as a serious attack on civil liberties earlier (and more recently in Quadrant), argued last week that the WhatsApp messages showed hardly less serious consequences of government attempting to micromanage its citizens’ lives:
They reveal the chaos and incoherence at the heart of government as decisions are made on the hoof. They expose the fallacy that ministers were better able to judge our vulnerabilities than we were ourselves. They throw a harsh light on those involved: their narcissism, their superficiality, their hypocrisies great and small. Above all, they show in embarrassing detail how completely power corrupts those who have it.
There are many instances of such comic follies in the messages. For instance, a Downing Street aide asks if the lockdown requires couples who for whatever reason are living apart to abstain from sex. The chief medical officer replies that strictly speaking they should observe the rule that households shouldn’t mingle. The chief scientific adviser suggests that this is unrealistic and would probably invite mockery. Still, the debate carries on lower down the bureaucracy. Surely these powerful men are wasting time on trivialities when they could be having sex.
But some of the messages reveal more damaging effects of the WhatsApp style of government. As the historian David Starkey pointed out, like Tony Blair’s “sofa government”, it’s a form of cronyism that takes issues and decisions out of the normal channels of political debate and administration where they would be subject to critical scrutiny and perhaps improvement and leaves them in the hands of those who first conceived them. Good ideas are not improved, therefore, and bad ideas survive, even flourish, and are pursued ever more fanatically, while intelligent critics of whatever is the current official orthodoxy, who should be prized and consulted, are instead demonised, circumvented and punished.
In other words, a WhatsApp government is a forcing-house for the kind of groupthink that produced such ridiculous Treasury forecasts of imminent economic disaster in the anti-Brexit campaign—and doubled down on them when they ran into trouble.
These dangers—repeatedly demonstrated in Hancock’s messages—follow a pattern. He calls for instilling fear in the public to justify lockdown; when the public responds by demanding action, he sets new targets and proposes stronger enforcement; once these steps are adopted, he treats them as politically vital irrespective of competing ideas; and when alternatives emerge as a threat to his approach, his instinct is to stamp them out. Thus, he responds to growing support for the “f***ing Swedish argument” by asking an aide to “Supply three or four bullet [points] of why Sweden is wrong.” Well, he’s a busy man, we know, but grasping the weaknesses of policies he opposes shouldn’t be a stretch.
Obviously, Hancock is not one of the heroes in this scenario, and it’s hard to see his career staying afloat after the succession of icebergs it has recently struck. How about other leading actors—in particular, Simon Case, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove, and naturally Boris Johnson?
Simon Case seems to be the single saddest actor in the psychodrama. As the head of a civil service under fire as hostile to the Tory government, he seems to have gone out of his way to disprove that impression. He became so swept up by the imagined drama of being a major player in a national struggle to defeat the virus that he forgot that his role was to restrain such enthusiasm and ensure it was directed into the conventional channels of cabinet government. I doubt he’ll stay in the civil service, where he can only go down.
Like Hancock and others, Case is condemned by Sumption as someone whom power corrupted. But how? My sense is that the appetite for lockdown and other strong measures at the cost of liberty that gripped both the media and the public was not solely a response to the government’s “fear” campaigns. It had independent force arising partly from what Sumption identified as a greater public trust and reliance on government and partly from the sense this public mood wasn’t going to change. It was inevitable, and so therefore was the politics of lockdown.
As George Orwell wrote in his critique of James Burnham, however: “It will be seen that at each point Burnham is predicting a continuation of the thing that is happening, Now the tendency to do this is not simply a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration, which one can correct by taking thought. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in cowardice and partly in the worship of power, which is not fully separable from power.” And later: “Power worship blurs political judgment because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue.”
Such power worship also blurs imagination. There was nothing inevitable about lockdown, as the Swedes proved. Public moods often change either because policies fail or a threat fades. All those things have happened, and so they are capable of being imagined. But public moods won’t change unless they are argued with or the public’s attention is directed to events that plainly contradict them.
Most of the people in the WhatsApp messages weren’t imaginative enough to realise that. And that criticism also applies to the entire cabinet acting collectively or rather not acting collectively. They too were sidelined by WhatsAppery but they seemed to have accepted their lack of influence gratefully.
The exceptions were Sunak, Gove and Johnson. Sunak realised that lockdown was an error, justified his scepticism by consulting experts other than the Whitehall scientists in SAGE, and half-persuaded, half-supported Johnson in his occasional attempts to change the policy. As a popular Chancellor in a strong government, should he have done more, earlier? Perhaps. Questions about his strength of character and political consistency are open—he heads a government much more establishmentarian than the one in which he was recently Number Two. A work in progress maybe? Or regress?
Michael Gove lacks neither imagination nor political skills, but he was almost as keen for lockdown as Hancock, whom he “hearted” when offering support. He didn’t apparently support Boris’s attempts to open up the debate over lockdown. And his overall political calculations, at present mysterious, don’t seem to revolve around the public-interest aspects of Covid policy.
That leaves what David Starkey calls “the tragedy of Boris”. Johnson saw that Covid’s modest fatality rate posed a smaller threat to public health than Imperial College’s forecasts predicted; he worried about the real totalitarian risks of lockdown and went along with it reluctantly; he realised that when a policy had such major implications as lockdown that there should be a B Team of sceptical experts (from a range of disciplines) to provide a critical perspective on how the policy was working; and he ended lockdown before most ministers and experts wanted. Apart from that final exercise of prime ministerial authority, however, he didn’t have the expertise, the application, or the self-confidence to push back hard and effectively against the bad ideas of his subordinates. And he must now take responsibility for the lockdown and its consequences which he more than Hancock, Case, Gove or Sunak opposed. That’s both a damning indictment and a classical tragedy.
It’s unlikely that Boris will return to power even if Sunak were to fall from it. And as Fraser Nelson points out, there’s no sign that the government has learned the lessons of lockdown, and every likelihood that it will repeat errors similar to lockdown when the next pandemic comes along. Indeed, since the Sunak administration has embraced Net Zero, ESG, and a worldwide (high) tax treaty in its first six months, that’s not only happening, it’s well advanced.