Leader: Lessons from the plague year

In the UK, Covid-19 has interacted with pre-existing medical and social ills to lethal effect. We cannot cure them by simply importing a model from abroad.

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Almost a year after Covid-19 was discovered in Wuhan, China, the pandemic is still accelerating, not receding. On 16 October, global cases rose by more than 400,000 in a day for the first time. The illusion of any imminent return to “normality” has been dispelled.

As countries contend with a second wave of the virus (or, as is the case in the US, an unbroken first one), observers search for examples to emulate. Some cite New Zealand, where a swift lockdown led to only 25 coronavirus deaths and, on 17 October, a landslide election victory for Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party. Others point to Sweden, which eschewed strict restrictions but has so far avoided a significant second wave, or Germany, where mass testing allowed the country to escape the worst of the pandemic. What no one suggests is that the world should follow the lead of the UK.

During the first wave, a chaotically late lockdown led Britain to suffer one of the highest recorded excess death rates in Europe, as well as the worst economic recession of any G7 member state. Faced with a second wave, Boris Johnson’s government has again proved incapable of controlling the virus. As Philip Ball writes in this week’s cover story, the pandemic exposed the Prime Minister’s “laziness, lack of focus, inflated triumphalist rhetoric and flippant bonhomie”. The supposedly “world-beating” test and trace system is thought to be missing nearly three-quarters of new cases. After this failure, the UK faces an unpalatable choice between a new national lockdown or thousands of additional deaths. 

Some British commentators advocate ate a strategy of “herd immunity” – allowing the disease to spread in the hope of building resistance to it – as supposedly pursued by Sweden. Yet as Anders Tegnell, the Swedish chief epidemiologist, explains, this was never his country’s policy. “In common with other countries we’re trying to slow down the spread as much as possible… To imply that we let the disease run free without any measures to try to stop it is not true.” Indeed, Mr Tegnell warns other countries that a genuine herd immunity policy could be disastrous: “If you have Covid-19 spreading, so that 50-60 per cent of your society eventually have the disease, it can rapidly overwhelm your health service… If you can avoid that I would say that you definitely should.”

Sweden’s approach, which depends on voluntary social distancing, is far from an unambiguous success story. The country has reported the 15th highest per capita death rate of any country (with 581 deaths per million people) and GDP fell by a record 8.3 per cent in the second quarter. But the strategy enabled schools for all children aged below 16 to remain open and for something resembling normal life to prevail.

Yet the Swedish model cannot simply be transposed to the UK. It reflects qualities for which the Nordic country has long been admired: high levels of trust (in one of the world’s most equal societies), an emphasis on child well-being, and a generous welfare state (which ensures individuals have the financial support necessary to isolate).

In Britain, the absence of these qualities has intensified the crisis: low levels of trust and mutual respect (in one of the West’s most unequal societies), high rates of child poverty and social deprivation, and an enfeebled welfare state. As Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet medical journal, has argued, the UK is enduring a “syndemic” – a synthesis of epidemics. Covid-19 has interacted with pre-existing medical and social ills to lethal effect. It is no coincidence that Liverpool, the fourth most deprived local authority in England, was the first area to be classified as “very high risk” under the government’s new system.

The notion that Britain’s ills can be cured by importing a model from abroad is a delusion. Mr Johnson’s leadership has been predictably inept but the UK’s problems long pre-date his premiership. Only by addressing Britain’s deep-rooted injustices can the government ensure it is better prepared for the next pandemic. 

This article appears in the 23 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic

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