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Thu 1 October 2020
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Stephen Colegrave looks at the structural failures behind Britain’s COVID-19 catastrophe from the perspective of 10 years’ time

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Living through the COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to take the long view when each day seems to bring another headline. The big question for future historians will be whether society changed in the long-term.

At the moment, many commentators have suggested that we have become a more caring and environmentally-conscious society. Even the abrasive TV presenter Piers Morgan has found a caring side and dumped his friend President Donald Trump (at least for now). But this, and the middle-class, Facebook-induced lockdown ‘Blitz Spirit’ of sharing endless pictures of sourdough and quizzes will be only an incidental aspect for specialist social historians.

To consider how historians might view the pandemic, let’s imagine it is 2030 and the world has moved on. People are flying, socialising and going to restaurants again; the world is going about its daily business. But will it be the same as before?


Historical Context – Spanish ‘Flu

The first challenge for historians is to set COVID-19 into its historical context. In the UK, it was certainly the largest loss of life since the Second World War.

On the home front, loss of life was higher than in the ‘Blitz’, By the time excess deaths are finally calculated there will probably be more than 75,000 in the UK, considerably fewer than the 228,000 killed by Spanish ‘Flu in 1919. Spanish Flu had three waves in Europe and the poor were disproportionately hit by the first wave and the rich had the highest morbidity in the second wave according to recent Norwegian historical research by Svenn-Erik Mamelund.

Like the Spanish ‘Flu, the first wave of COVID-19 in the UK disproportionately hit the poor. Three of the poorest boroughs of London, Newham, Brent and Hackney had up to four times the national death rates in the first set of ONS data for the pandemic. It soon became clear that the BAME population like that in most other European Countries and America, were hardest hit. More than 60% of nurses who died were BAME and the BAME population was more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19.


Wartime Dissonance

Social historians will note the dissonance between the attempt to recreate a very white and colonial Blitz spirit with the fundraising efforts of the 100-year-old veteran Major Tom Moore and Vera Lynn songs, while the truth was that a whole section of society to which this bore no relevance, was dying quietly.

The lockdown was the biggest mass curtailment of personal freedom since 1945. The UK Government was surprised how compliant the general population was.  77%  supported the Lockdown at the end of April in a YouGov survey. Historians are likely to question how the population maintained its support of the lockdown and the Government for so long when it soon became clear that lessons from China and Italy had been ignored and Britain was heading for a much higher death toll than most other European countries.

The daily press conferences had a distinct wartime propaganda feel to them. They characterised COVID-19 as a war. Campaigning headlines with bravura promises of a billion pieces of PPE or 100,000 tests a day were continually backed up by under-delivery. A compliant press urged the country that it was all in it together and cabinet ministers were allowed their own mini personal party-political broadcasts as in the ‘interests of the country’, BBC interviewers let lies and half-truths go unquestioned.

As the Prime Minister ‘fought’ for his life in hospital, the press waited with bated breath and appealed to a sense of patriotism, while untested elderly patients were discharged into Care Homes with deathly consequences.

Political historians will find the root cause of both the disproportionate deaths on the poor and BAME population and also the compliance of the population, in the previous decade of Conservative Governments’ austerity and the hollowing out of the UK Press by the rise of social media.


The Role of the Media

As many as twice the number of people who died of COVID-19 died prematurely over the second decade of the Twenty-First Century according to the BMJ in 2017.

George Osborne, who interestingly spans both root causes as an architect of austerity and the editor of the compliant Evening Standard, cut and cut local Government budgets by more than 30% and starved the NHS of at least 3% per annum of budget increases that would have kept it in line with European health spending. This meant that social and health care were totally unfit for the pandemic.

The only surprise was that the NHS stood up so well and didn’t become overwhelmed like social care. However, this was more down to the heroic efforts of frontline staff and local hospital trust management than NHS England and Public Health England, both of whom tried to thwart them at every turn and completely ignored any previous pandemic planning.

The root causes of the emasculation of the press and media go back far further to the modernisation of newspapers in the 1980’s driven by Rupert Murdoch. Great independent editors like Harry Evans were replaced by proprietor’s puppets as they reaped the financial rewards of relocating to Wapping and breaking the power of the unions.

Soon 80% of papers were owned by six billionaires, who were happy to turn a blind eye to prejudice, lies and illegal practices like phone hacking as their editors chased sales at all costs. When Google and Facebook took most of their advertising, the editors accelerated the lies and sharp practices in a desperate attempt to stay in business and the UK Press became the least trusted in Europe in 2011, an accolade it retains today.

One of the consequences of the billionaire ownership of the press was a long-term campaign to pursue an anti-Europe, pro-Brexit strategy. Historians will find this contributed to Britain having the highest death toll in Europe. This anti–European approach led by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, reinforced the concept of British Exceptionalism: this led to the fateful strategy of herd immunity, the refusal to follow the World Health Organisation’s advice of ‘Test, Test Test’, and the fateful delay of lockdown

Dr John Dagpunar at the University of Southampton has estimated that delaying the lockdown by just one week could have cost up to 30,000 lives.


The Role of Social Media

Social Media historians will connect this mainstream media failure to the fateful exposure of Cambridge Analytica and the negligence of FaceBook as revealed by journalist Carole Cadwalladr and whistleblowers Chris Wylie and Shamir Sanni. These social media and digital campaigns have played an important role in the rise of populism with Trump in America and eventually with Johnson in the UK

The ability to use social media, however unethically and illegally, was met with little resistance from the main platforms which were still largely unregulated. Both Johnson and Trump focused on manipulating messages and attitudes to the exclusion of logistics and delivery in the best populist tradition. Unfortunately, there were real-world consequences such as the fall-out from Europe and the explosion of the biggest racial conflict since the civil rights movement in America as both leaders energised their bases.

Political historians will acknowledge that Johnson squandered his personal political capital that he had built up tangibly with his surprise 80 seat majority in the General Election in the previous December and the personally as he survived a close shave with COVID-19 in Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital ICU at the height of the pandemic.

The wheels were already coming off the bus when even the compliant media couldn’t cover up the shambles of PPE delays, lack of testing and rising care home deaths. The final blow was his insistence in defending Cummings and the breakdown of trust and consequently of compliance of lockdown,setting up the risk of a second wave of infection.

My prediction, for 2030, is that we will see that Johnson’s administration never really recovered and it was only a matter of time before the 1922 Committee and the Conservative party lost patience, especially when a public inquiry revealed the extent of the herd immunity strategy.


Long Term Global Impact

Historians will be interested in the long-term impact of COVID-19 in a wider world context.

The next phase of expansion of infection and deaths will be in middle and lower-income countries such as the flare-up in Brazil and elsewhere in South America. The MTC Centre for Global Infectious Disease forecasts that as many as 40 million will die in these lower-income nations. The question will be whether the parochial way most nations have dealt with their pandemics can quickly evolve into a more international approach help save potentially save 30 million of these deaths?

Unfortunately, America seems unlikely to help as Trump isn’t even prepared to support the World Health Organisation (WHO). Will the EU take the lead and help or perhaps China will see this as an extension of its international development strategy? China might give healthcare aid to countries in exchange for access to raw materials especially lithium and the new minerals needed for electric cars and IT? Or will historians see COVID-19 as the end of an international system that has been in place since the post-war settlement?

Over time, COVID-19 is likely to be seen as exposing fissures in politics, economies and society that already existed. Populist governments had the highest death rates and their leaders were found wanting. The racial tensions in America were heightened by the inequity of lockdown, and around the world — especially in Hong Kong — COVID-19 used as an excuse for suppression. The post-war international system was falling apart anyway with China and Trump and COVID-19 will hasten this.

The future of the UK is less clear. It is likely that it will emerge from the pandemic a less equal society, with inequalities rising even faster than during the previous decade.

Although there is likely to be a revitalised parliamentary opposition under Keir Starmer, the Conservative Party will ensure it retains power until 2025 under the Fixed Parliament Act, with or without Johnson.

Whie the Government has been quick to support business and 7.5 million furloughed staff, the numbers of people driven on to Universal Credit rose by 1.5m from 13 March to 13 April. This figure is likely to jump significantly when furlough finishes, driving many into poverty — especially from the airline, hospitality, creative and events industries that are likely to be the hardest hit. Unemployment will more than 10% for some time as a quick bounce-back looks increasingly uncertain.

Despite assurances, this Government is likely to look for cuts in public services even if it doesn’t call it ‘austerity’. Any recovery plan that requires significant funding will have to wait until a possible change of Government in 2025, by then irreparable damage will have taken place.


Will Anything Really Change?

The big question for historians will be whether society changed in the long term.

Back in 2020, many contemporary commentators believed that COVID-19 would lead to a more caring and environmentally conscious society — a change in behaviour that will make us kinder, closer as a nation and more willing to improve the planet.

Certainly, after lockdown and social distancing, people will value families, friends, social gathering in a way they never had before and quickly dropped online Zoom meetings. Air travel, car usage and over-consumption will all resume and probably within two years will be back or exceeding pre-lockdown levels. But many will be dealing with mental health, unemployment and poverty over that time as well.

The hope for the future as always belongs to the young. For them COVID-19 and lockdown probably will have a much greater impact on their lives than older generations, even though it didn’t affect their physical health so much.

As a formative experience, especially for those teenagers on the verge of adulthood — such as the 600,000 sixteen-year-olds finishing their GCEs online and social distancing for their first summer of independence – the experience will be profound. This ‘Lockdown Generation’ could have as big an impact on the future of society as the ‘Baby Boomers’ did, Perhaps they have been made more caring, less enamoured with online and more determined to make a better future. This is certainly a generation for future historians to watch.


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