The government thinks the British public is doing rather well in the coronavirus crisis. Cabinet ministers are reported to be ‘astonished’ at how fully we’re all complying with the rules imposed to enforce the lockdown. Good for us. But what about them? How well do we feel they’re doing? And might things have been a bit better if they’d paid more attention to what ‘we’ think?
The government is surely right to be pleased that the overwhelming majority of us are ‘doing our bit’ to see off the Covid-19 pandemic: it won’t be seen off unless we do. But perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprised that we are. Without being smug and complacent about it, or making claims that can’t really be substantiated, it’s probably fair to say that the British are pretty good in crises. We know what needs to be done and we get on with doing it. That, at any rate, is what we like to tell ourselves about how we’ve responded to major crises in the past, like the two world wars.
Rightly or wrongly, we believe our national character is all about common sense and buckling down. Other countries have different ways of doing things. The French, for example, seem to take it in their stride that during the current crisis they must have an official piece of paper on them specifying their purpose whenever they go outside, or that a gendarme will root around in their shopping trolleys to make sure they’re not illicitly trying to buy an ‘inessential’ item. But such indignities are not for the Brits because, for us, they’re not necessary. We’ve got our common sense and an intuitive feeling for what should and shouldn’t be done in a crisis.
Whether this is self-flattery or not, the question arises whether the government has this same inherent sense of ‘knowing’ what needs doing or not. Or, if it doesn’t, whether it might have done better to have paid more attention to what many people ‘sensed’ needed doing in the first place.
The question arises because it is difficult to be quite as complimentary about the government as the government is about us. Of course a defence of its conduct in such appallingly difficult circumstances can be made, and I’ll come to that. But what’s the case for claiming not just that the government’s record is not as good as it might have been but also that the public has been ahead of it at almost every stage?
Consider the issues on which it has come in for criticism. First there was the U-turn, switching from a policy in which it was deemed OK to let most people get infected and so create ‘some kind of herd immunity’ (in the words of the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance) to the current policy of lockdown aimed at stopping as many people as possible from being infected. Then there was the related issue of testing: first it was thought not very important to test for the infection and now we’re scrambling to hit a target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month, a target that’s been downgraded to an ambition and which no one thinks will be achieved.
Or take the scandal of personal protective equipment, PPE, which it has taken weeks to provide for frontline staff in the health service and only now, a month into the crisis, is promised for carers in care homes or those who visit the vulnerable in their own homes. And then there was the very real fear from the outset that the NHS would simply be overwhelmed, with not enough beds, not enough intensive care facilities, not enough ventilators, not enough doctors and nurses. And what about the Cinderella in the system, the social care sector, palpably vulnerable because of the number of frail, ill old people it caters for, unable to practise social-distancing from carers on whom they depend for everything and who, the former pensions minister, Ros Altmann, said this week were ‘being abandoned like lambs to the slaughter’ until the government hurriedly came up with a plan for them on Wednesday. The list could well go on.
In every specific it could be said the public was more prescient than the government. Few ‘ordinary’ people from the outset believed we should do anything other than stop the virus in its tracks and make sure that as few people as possible got infected. They urged a lockdown long before the government countenanced the idea and they want it to continue now even as some in government are hankering after a relaxation. That’s ‘common sense’. It followed from that that, of course, there should be as much testing for the disease as we could handle. And with testing, as with sexually-transmitted diseases, an urgent programme of contact-tracing should then be pursued to catch those who might have caught it. As for PPE, how could it possibly be the case that a health service in one of the most prosperous countries in the world should not have in store an adequate supply of kit for those propelled in an emergency into the frontline, our doctors and nurses? And how could we ever have got ourselves into a position where we had to import what we didn’t have all the way from China? It defies common sense. Ditto ventilators.
As for a shortage of doctors and nurses, isn’t it simply extraordinary that we should depend so much on foreigners to staff our hospitals? How come we didn’t train as many of our own nurses as we might need, or that the supply of places in our universities to study medicine fell far short of the number of young British people wanting to become doctors. And the social care sector … words fail us. Haven’t we, in the light of all our own individual experiences of the severe pressure it’s been under, been banging on for years that it can’t be left so grotesquely under-resourced as it has been? In every case, we might say, our ‘common sense’ has been on the money with the government lagging far behind.
So what would the government’s defence be? Well, on the overall strategy of whether to go for ‘mitigation’, in pursuit of herd immunity, or ‘suppression’ via lockdown, it was always in the hands of experts, it pleads. The current government simply inherited a ‘plan’ going back at least fifteen years, that in an eventuality such as this, mitigation was the best course. That was what the scientific advisers reconfirmed at the beginning of the outbreak. It’s just that they changed their minds. And so the government, despite the obvious risk of political embarrassment, did the same. Would it have been better, they might gently ask, to have defied expert opinion and operate on a hunch?
On testing, it was only doing the same thing: following the advice of experts rather than take a punt of their own. Back on 26 March one of those experts, Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, said that the World Health Organisation’s exhortation to ‘test, test, test’ didn’t apply here because ‘we have an extremely well-developed public health system in this country’. Was a ‘mere’ politician, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, to tell her she was talking through her hat? As for PPE well, sure, there was a problem initially and there are still some hitches in getting the stuff to the right places, but there is now more supply than demand (according to Mr Hancock on Wednesday). And in any case, if the government had spent millions on storing vast amounts of the stuff in warehouses all over the country ‘just in case’, wouldn’t it have been attacked for wasting money on things that would ‘never be used’ when there were more pressing needs crying out for money to be spent on them?
And the NHS hasn’t been overwhelmed, the government would protest. It’s built new Nightingale hospitals in a matter of weeks and there are now more beds than demand for them. Sure, it might have been reassuring to be like Germany and to have had, at the outset, five times as many hospital beds as Britain has, but then ‘experts’ have been complaining for years that Germany has been ‘wasting scarce resources’ by maintaining so many rather than following the excellent British example of reducing the number of beds (by 40% over the last thirty years) and using the saved money to improve NHS services in the community. And given that scarce resources are a fact of life, depending on foreign doctors and nurses rather than just training up our own makes obvious financial sense.
Finally, on social care, the government might want to say: ‘Fair cop, guv: you’ve got us there. But it’s an issue all governments in the last thirty odd years, not just us, have failed to deal with. If only we could stop it being a convenient political football and get some cross-party agreement on the way forward, we’d have that one sorted too. And we’re working on it.’
So there you have it: the public’s ‘common sense’ approach against the government’s defence that, actually, it’s all a bit more complicated than that. The same difference of approach could be put another way. It’s that public common sense is almost always precautionary: it favours doing what’s necessary to avoid harm whatever the cost (or at least that’s its view retrospectively). Governments, on the other hand, have to consider all sorts of other factors beside the precautionary. But that means they run risks and when a sudden, out-of-the-blue crisis such as this one blows up they are left a bit exposed. Or perhaps rather more than a bit.
So are we right to think the government would have done better if it had listened to public common sense more from the start, or should we be less critical of how they have handled things? What does seem clear is that once all this is over, a public mood in favour of the precautionary is likely to have a deep impact on the choices government makes. No government that wants to get re-elected is going to expose itself to the charge that it is recklessly leaving us vulnerable to another pandemic by not having enough hospital beds, too few ventilators, no protective clothing for frontline services and a social care sector that is still a sitting duck for the grim reaper.
Meanwhile, in the light of the government’s having complimented us for how well we’re doing in the crisis, how well do we think it has done?
Let us know your views.