“The crocus of hope,” Boris Johnson explained, when announcing his government’s plans for reopening in February, “is poking through the frost and spring is on its way both literally and metaphorically”.
The Prime Minister’s plan was, if all went well with the vaccine programme, to finally and irreversibly end lockdown restrictions on 21 June: the summer solstice. There are all sorts of reasons why this plan is likely to be over-optimistic, even before the unexpected problems with the vaccine supply-chain. There is a strong chance of a winter resurgence of the virus, necessitating another lockdown. We don’t yet know how effective the Covid vaccines are at preventing transmission, or how long the immunity lasts. And Johnson’s proffer of hope is firmly ensconced in vaccine nationalism: the “scientific cavalry” arriving, as he said last winter when he promised a reopening in time for Christmas. But viruses don’t work that way. If you let the virus rip through large parts of the world, as the EU and US seem determined to do, then you all but guarantee its evolution into more virulent, deadly strains. This is a long-term, global challenge.
Johnson’s resort to this mythic image of seasonal rebirth was in part a response to the Daily Mail’s criticisms. Having begged him to “bring us sunshine” when he was elected Tory leader, they have since castigated him as a “gloomster”. However, despite its deliberately ironic Wodehousean cadence, the choice of image was not merely frivolous. Political symbolism is an intensely serious business, and the line will have been carefully worked out for its emotional resonance. Springtime is a pregnant political metaphor for the passing of oppression and the rebirth of freedom, from the Prague Spring to the Arab Spring.
It has also, since the Conservative chancellor Norman Lamont augured the “green shoots of economic spring” in the depths of recession in the early 1990s, come to signify an escape from crisis and stagnation. The British right has been assiduously building up this repertoire of significations around Covid. Last year, the British tabloids sold Johnson’s premature reopening as “freedom”, while Rishi Sunak dignified his “Eat Out to Help Out” debacle last year as a route to life “without fear”. This year, Johnson invokes “a spring and a summer that will be very different and incomparably better than the picture we see around us today”.
Part of the art of government is to naturalise what is in fact political. This allows them to conceal the politics of their decision-making behind the rhythms and accidents of the natural world, or scientific data. For example, the head of the NHS test and trace programme, Dido Harding, insisted that the third lockdown was caused by a new variant which no one was “able to predict” – as though the government’s obtuseness about schools transmission and the policy of letting the virus circulate did not make new variants more likely. Johnson claims that “we”, the government, “did everything we could” to prevent mass Covid deaths – as though all political agency is wielded by fragments of viral data. In reality, modelling suggests that the delayed winter lockdown caused 27,000 more deaths, adding to the 21,000 extra deaths caused by similar delays last spring.
And this is the danger. The winter has been so awful, and we’ve all been longing for spring, that the stirring seasonal narrative culminating in solstice festivity can obscure what the government is really deciding here. Johnson’s speech outlining his plans briskly stipulated the inevitability of “more cases, more hospitalisations and sadly more deaths”, whether reopening happened in six months or nine months. Denying the plausibility of a “zero Covid” strategy, his reasoning invoked the civil defence discourse of “acceptable losses”, yet he did not specify exactly how much death would be acceptable. Meanwhile, the government presented its objectives as being guided by “data, not dates”, but placed all the emphasis on dates and gave no information about the thresholds of transmission, hospitalisation and death that would guide its decision-making. Given everything that has happened, it’s asking too much for us to take this on trust.
Subtle as it is to choose the summer solstice as the date for promised liberation, moreover, any optimistic-looking scenario by mid-summer might be profoundly misleading. There is, by now, a sizeable body of evidence suggesting that Covid-19 transmission is influenced by the seasons. Unfortunately, this subject has been befogged with nonsensical assertions, such as Donald Trump’s claim last April that Covid “goes away with heat and light”. Although sunshine might have a mild virucidal effect, because the lipid envelope of the virus is susceptible to temperature, humidity and solar radiation, the main reason for the seasonal effect is due to the indirect behavioural results of environmental conditions: people crowding indoors in the cold weather leading to more mixing. This is why, even with mass vaccination, it’s likely that there will need to be further restrictions by winter. So, while Johnson insisted that his was a “one way road to freedom”, his sanguine seasonal metaphor ironically evoked the patterns of cyclical repetition that might disturb his plans.
A final problem with seasonal metaphors in this context is that seasonal incoherence is the unique experience of a damaged planet. The same forces driving deforestation, enabling zoonotic outbreaks and speeding dangerous viruses to the majority of humanity are also those causing freak weather events and polar perturbations, and disrupting the phenological rhythms of life. The chorus of birdsong becomes uncanny as it extends well past the mating and migration seasons into the autumn. Even the crocus of hope strikes an ominous note when it blooms earlier in the year. The seasons, in other words, are no longer purely natural events: they have been infiltrated by the political economy of fossil capitalism.