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Why is Britain’s coronavirus response so poor?

The Covid-19 failure has deep roots within the ideology of successive governments that have been committed to centralised, privatised solutions and hostile to the public sector, says SOLOMON HUGHES

BORIS JOHNSON blusters that we have a “world-beating” response to coronavirus. 

But his government is sighing with relief that Brazil has just about overtaken us in coronavirus deaths, knocking us from second to third in the grim world Covid-19 chart.

Brazil is a developing world country with over three times the UK population. 

Millions live in shanty towns without proper access to water or sewage systems. 

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is a hard-right demagogue whose attempts to play down coronavirus — calling it “a little flu” — are even more clownish than Johnson’s. 

Relying on the epidemic in a massive, poor nation with a maniac in charge to make our response look good shows how bad things are in Britain.

Why is Britain’s coronavirus response so poor? Why is our death rate putting us in the top three failures? This isn’t just about Johnson and his “incompetence,” although that counts.

It’s because the way to deal with coronavirus is to have strong local health authorities and a belief in the importance of active government and regulation.

But Britain has been a world leader in deregulation, laissez-faire government and the weakening of health and local authorities through privatisation and defunding. 

The thrust of British politics over the past 40 years — through Thatcherism, “New Labour” or post-crash “austerity” — has set us up to fail.

The government’s first error was delaying lockdown: Johnson’s delay in pressing social distancing rules is sometimes ascribed to his “libertarianism” making him not want to close down bars and restaurants, for example. 

But Johnson, who bought water cannon when he was London mayor, is no libertarian. 

Rather he is drawn to laissez-faire policies, to pushing harder on the deregulation and the “bonfire of red tape” started by Thatcher. 

He didn’t want “health and safety” rules to interfere with “the economy.” 

This short-term approach has actually hurt the economy more in the long term — a point  even some of Johnson’s more free-marketeer supporters now accept.

The virus, allowed to spread, exploited vulnerabilities created by privatisation, deregulation and too-low social spending.  

The first vulnerability is the often the least spoken about: care homes have been hit hard by the pandemic. 

Older residents are especially vulnerable to the virus. But homes have struggled to get PPE. Low-paid agency staff moving from home to home, or older NHS patients “discharged” to care homes to “protect” the NHS both introduced infection. 

Why was the care sector in such a weak state? Why was the NHS “protected” at the care sector’s cost? Because care homes have been largely privatised.

In the 1980s, local authorities provided 63 per cent of residential care home places and the private sector 17 per cent. 

Now the private care firms dominate the market. This has two effects. First, some of the private equity firms that own big care home chains squeeze money out of the homes into their offshore accounts. 

Second, political parties find it easier to underfund care services they do not directly provide. They find it easier to keep the results at arm’s length.

The second vulnerability is the NHS itself: the government was — rightly — under big popular pressure not to cut NHS spending. 

The Tories, with their dislike for public welfare spending, have responded by running the health service permanently “hot” — keeping spending low by pushing the health service to its limits.

The attempt to make nursing staff pay for their own training and holding down wages has also reduced capacity. They have reduced slack in the NHS, so it has only been able to cope with coronavirus by completely displacing much other healthcare. This will show in excess deaths. 

The NHS’s supply of PPE was also made vulnerable by privatised, penny-pinching “just-in-time” methods overly reliant on imports.

The third vulnerability is in local government. In order to privatise and defund, successive governments have also centralised. 

They have taken power from local authorities because they were too close to local people, and so less enthusiastic about deregulation and slashing spending. 

The resulting lack of local inspectors, poor housing and weak local response have added to the crisis.

The government has been pushed to try to contain coronavirus, but its programme is also weak because it is a cheapskate, privatised scheme run by corporations employing low-pay workers in high-vis jackets. 

The schemes run by Serco, Sodexo et al, in car parks and call centres, were a parody of actual infection control. 

The Tories took this route partly because they instinctively reach out for private contractors, partly because the firms getting their contracts are their mates and partly because they think contract-based solutions can be turned off as well as on. 

Strengthening existing public authorities might be harder to cut back again in the future.

So a proper programme of “track and trace” typically involves local health officials, augmented with extra staff —usually professional non-medical staff from local authorities like librarians. 

Matt Hancock’s solution is a centralised contract with Serco supplying near minimum wage staff in call centres. 

His “drive-through testing” service is also a contract, involving firms like Mitie.

The driving force is the government’s commitment to centralised, privatised solutions and antipathy to the public sector. 

Helpfully it also gives jobs to their mates’ companies. Tory Peer Baroness Couttie, an adviser to David Cameron and former leader of Tory Westminster Council, sits on Mitie’s board. 

Serco also improved its relations with government following a series of scandals by appointing Rupert Soames — grandson of Winston Churchill and brother-in-law of Tory MP Philip Dunne — as chief executive in 2014. Health Minister Edward Argar was previously Serco’s chief lobbyist.

Public health measures first grew in Victorian times when elites realised infections would spread from the poor areas into their own drawing rooms. 

Britain’s long history of privatisation and deregulation meant our politicians tried to “unteach” those basic public health lessons, leaving us vulnerable to infection. 

Their solution to the crisis is to slap on another layer of shoddy, privatised quick-fixes. Britain’s Covid-19 failures come from deep inside our politics.


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