Goodbye to the science

By Mike Phipps

Keir Starmer called it “reckless”. Serious newspapers questioned why Boris Johnson was lifting all Covid restrictions at a time when cases were rising exponentially and are expected to reach 50,000 cases a day by July 19th. But the right wing tabloids loved it, with the Daily Mail leading the cheers with the headline ““Freedom at last”. Tory parliamentarians shouted “Halleluiah”.

Hundreds of Covid regulations will be revoked on July 19th, making “England the most unrestricted society in Europe”. Johnson said his aim was to “move from a universal government diktat to relying on people’s personal responsibility”.

Yet it’s doubtful whether this constitutes a significant change in policy at all. From the outset, the government’s position has been determined by Darwinian theories of ‘herd immunity’, behavioural science, nudge units and encouraging people to “make informed decisions for themselves”.

From the government’s standpoint, the great advantage of this stance is that it allows it to put the blame for the pandemic’s growth on individuals acting irresponsibly, rather than its own shortcomings. Government messaging throughout the crisis has been vague – often deliberately – in its emphasis on ‘guidelines’ and personal choice.

As Steven Methven observed:

“Since the pandemic began, there has been plenty of talk from the government about responsibility, though usually ours not theirs. As we have tried to navigate more than a year’s worth of confusing advice, we have been instructed, over and over, to exercise responsibility, along with common sense and restraint… Government messaging about ‘responsibility’ performs two functions. First, it turns our gaze away from the government’s responsibilities by creating the illusion that there are large numbers of people who behave irresponsibly, whose fault it was that the virus was inadequately controlled. And second, it gives the appearance of the government doing something about it.”

According to the government announcement, the only remaining regulations will be a requirement to isolate after testing positive for Covid-19, plus restrictions on international travel and mandatory social distancing at airports and other ports. But after over a year of profligate outsourcing fiascos, there is still no functioning test, trace and monitoring system in operation.

One of the key provisions in the announcement – the ending of the requirement to wear face coverings – is fundamentally unpopular with the public. Over 70% of people polled believe that face masks should continue to be mandatory on public transport when Covid restrictions are lifted, and 74% said they would continue to wear them. 66% said they should be worn in shops. The Chair of the British Medical Association, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, said it “makes no sense” to stop wearing face masks in enclosed public settings.

The problem with the government making this a matter of personal choice is that covering one’s nose and mouth is not primarily about self-protection. It is designed to safeguard others from being exposed to aerosols that might contain the virus. ‘Freedom-lovers’ who abandon their masks are not taking a risk with their own health, but with that of others. This is what makes the government’s advice quintessentially selfish.

Prof Stephen Reicher at the University of St Andrews, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, tweeted: “It is frightening to have a ‘health’ secretary who wants to make all protections a matter of personal choice when the key message of the pandemic is ‘this isn’t an “I” thing, it’s a “we” thing’.”

The relaxation of restrictions comes at a time when 50% of the population has not been fully vaccinated. In high-transmission urban areas that rises to 70%. The government knows cases are on the rise. Health Secretary Sajid Javid expects cases to soar and one leading scientist has warned they could reach 200,000 a day.  At times during the crisis, the underfunded and understaffed NHS has been overwhelmed and contingency plans are already being laid for a surge in hospital admissions this autumn. Many NHS workers must feel the government relaxation is a slap in the face and will make their workload even more intolerable.

While high levels of vaccination have seen a fall in hospital admissions and fatalities, the research is unclear on the true impact of inoculation – especially in relation to new variants of the virus. Meanwhile, 400,000 people in the UK have been living with long Covid for over a year.

The change in policy is also a blow to the clinically vulnerable. Even if their workplace is deemed safe, how sure can people feel secure travelling on packed public transport, with neither social distancing nor face coverings required?

Sajid Javid justified the change in policy on public health grounds. Top scientists take a different view. Prof Susan Michie, the director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London, and another member of Sage’s behavioural science subcommittee, tweeted: “Allowing community transmission to surge is like building new ‘variant factories’ at a very fast rate.”

The government announcement contained some reassurances that directors of public health could take action to impose restrictions in emergencies. There’s typically no detail but the assumption is that local authorities would be expected to step up, as some did when national government plans for track and trace failed miserably. Where are the resources for local councils to do this?

For many, the announcement of the new policy makes the timing of the resignation of Matt Hancock suspicious. Was the footage of his breach of government rules leaked in order to make way for a more laissez-faire Secretary of State?

Unions are particularly dismayed by the ending of restrictions. Unite said that dropping mask-wearing on public transport would be “gross negligence”. Over 50 bus drivers in London alone have died from Covid.

The shop workers’ union USDAW said face masks should continue to be mandatory for shoppers after July 19th to protect staff. Unison Assistant General Secretary Jon Richards agreed, saying the public “don’t need a confusing free-for-all, with ministers absolving themselves of any responsibility for public health.”

In making this change, the government has abandoned the most vulnerable in society in order to please their friends in business and the media. Nothing new there. But there is no way that we should fall in with this agenda.

As Professor Tim Bale tweeted: “If ever there were a time for UK Labour to finally and spectacularly break ranks with the government on Covid-19 then surely, surely this is it, no? They have an awful lot of medics, public opinion, and plain common sense on their side.  But will Keir Starmer go big on it?”

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Sajid Javid. Source: Creative Britain. Author: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, licensed under the Open Government Licence version 1.0 (OGL v1.0).

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