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5 November 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 12:42pm

Why we need to go beyond “incompetence“ to explain the UK’s Covid-19 failures

The government's shortcomings are systematic, not random: part of a decades-long project to hollow out the state and funnel power upwards to private asset-owners.

By Christine Berry

With the UK having suffered both the highest reported excess death rate in Europe and the largest fall in GDP among G7 countries, the view that the UK government has botched its response to the Covid-19 pandemic must be among the least controversial in British politics. There has been much to criticise about its handling of the crisis. Most of these criticisms – of the delay in locking down; the inadequate supply of PPE; the lack of mass testing; the dysfunctional contact tracing system – have been framed in terms of incompetence: a matter of insouciance, unpreparedness, indecision or basic ineptitude.

All these criticisms are well-founded – but does this framing really capture the scale and nature of this historic failure of governance? Is the calamity the UK has endured merely an unfortunate accident, driven by the absent-minded blunders of people who don’t know what they’re doing? Or do its roots go deeper than that? As Tom McTague has written for the Atlantic, Britain entered the crisis “poorly governed and fragile”. Neither our economy nor our politics had the resilience to weather a storm like this. The accusations of government “incompetence”, however justified, have tended to distract from the longer-term structural causes of our high death toll and grave recession.

Austerity had stretched the NHS to breaking point, while outsourcing had hollowed out the state’s capacity to function. The shredding of the UK’s social safety net, combined with the spread of low-paid, insecure work, led to thousands of people being unable to self-isolate and unable to absorb sudden losses of income. The country’s dysfunctional housing market left entire communities trapped in overcrowded homes. The economy’s over-dependence on landlordism contributed to the warehousing of older people in care homes and the warehousing of younger people in student accommodation – both of which became epicentres of viral spread. Structural racism, and a hostile environment for migrants, left people of colour disproportionately exposed to all these dangers and more. Even the most capable government would surely have struggled to avert a disaster that has been decades in the making. Like the financial crisis, the catastrophic impacts of the pandemic are inextricably linked to a failed economic model, driven by an exhausted and flawed neoliberal ideology, and overseen by a weak and captured state.

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“This is not a time for ideology or orthodoxy,” Rishi Sunak declared in his first Covid press conference in March. Yet ideological distaste for the public realm has been a recurring theme running through nearly all of the government’s most egregious policy failures. In March lockdown was fatally delayed in part by Boris Johnson’s libertarian instincts; even now, he castigates his own restrictions as “erosions of liberty”. Sunak’s July mini-budget claimed to be “unencumbered by dogma”, yet it eschewed large-scale public job creation in favour of ineffectual subsidies to private companies.

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Balking at the obvious need to bolster state capacity, the government has instead poured billions into disastrous private systems, in what the journalist Rachel Shabi calls “pro-privatisation shock therapy”. The president of the Institute of Biomedical Science blames “political dogma” for the stubborn refusal to draw on existing public labs for testing. Meanwhile, the government haggles with local leaders over comparatively tiny sums (£65m for Greater Manchester), insisting, “there is no money left”. With the cost of long-term government borrowing at record lows, such claims are not statements of economic fact, but ideological preference. Even the IMF is advising governments to continue borrowing, warning: “Pull the plug too early, and you risk serious, self-inflicted harm.”

Seen through this lens, many things that we might be tempted to put down to mere incompetence begin to look like part of a consistent pattern. Throughout the crisis, the government has seemed surprised by predictable events. It has ignored warnings and demands to act until the last possible moment, when it is staring over the edge of the abyss. The events of the past week are a painful example: having resisted earlier demands for a two-week lockdown, the government is now forced to impose (at least) a four-week lockdown, or face the imminent meltdown of the NHS. Having ignored calls to extend furlough since the summer, it has now extended the scheme at the last minute, with thousands of workers already laid off.

[See also: Simon Heffer on Boris Johnson’s crisis of statesmanship]

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There was an element of head-in-the-sand denialism at work here. But this reluctance to reckon with reality in part stems from horror at the scale of state intervention required. In March Sunak promised to do “whatever it takes to support our economy through this crisis”. Johnson said that the government would “put its arms “around every single worker. At this early stage, clearly neither Sunak nor Johnson had fully grasped the magnitude of the crisis. They have been back-pedalling away from the implications of their words ever since. A temporary life-raft was one thing, but as the crisis drags on, they fear a permanent shift in people’s expectations of government – perhaps even a rehabilitation of the concept of social security.

Johnson’s Rooseveltian rhetoric, meanwhile, is just that – rhetoric. It has not been accompanied by any serious expansion of state investment, either to fill the jobs gap or to deliver his promise of “levelling up” the north. Still less does it mark a Damascene conversion to the merits of a more humane and supportive state, as the recent row over free school meals makes abundantly clear. The government is determined to squash the notion that the state has a duty to ensure universal access to the basics of a good life. Indeed, it has been willing to expend considerable political capital to resist this principle. No doubt its leaders realise how explosive a precedent this could be, how it could rewrite the UK’s political economy.

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This isn’t only about the size of the state – it’s also about who and what the state is for. Beneath the chaos of the government’s U-turns, contradictory signals and constantly changing rules, there is an underlying consistency in whose interests are protected and prioritised. Johnson’s primary constituency is not working-class voters in the “red wall”; it is rentier capital – those who make money by owning and speculating on assets, rather than through productive activity in the “real” economy. (Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers have shown themselves more than willing to offend the latter brand of capitalist, as when he reportedly declared “fuck business”.)

This set of priorities is nowhere more obvious than in housing – the classic example of a basic human need subordinated to the demands of the rentier economy. The government has thrown private renters under the bus, refusing to extend the ban on evictions, or even to implement its manifesto promise to end “no fault” evictions. By contrast, landlords have been almost uniquely shielded from the effects of the pandemic. They still have the right to recoup any unpaid rent in its entirety. They can access mortgage holidays if their tenants are struggling to pay, while tenants themselves never had the right to request a rent holiday. Buy-to-let landlords also benefitted from July’s stamp duty holiday, at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £1.3bn.

[See also: Martin Fletcher chronicles the government’s coronavirus failures]

When the government has talked about protecting “the economic recovery”, it has often been code for protecting rentiers. It seems to have no plan beyond pumping asset prices back up – and little interest in whether this will actually safeguard the livelihoods of ordinary people. Measures such as the stamp duty holiday have helped to ensure that the housing market recovers strongly, while jobs and wages look likely to remain depressed for a long time to come. The government’s premature push to cajole people back to the office in August was widely mocked as an effort to “save Pret”. But it was really about protecting city centres built on inflated commercial property values – and the corporate landlords who benefit from them.

The course of the pandemic in the UK has been a failure of governance on an epic scale. But we should be clear that this failure is systematic, not random. It is not simply a question of individual error, of amateurism or ineptitude. It is the consequence of a top-heavy economy, a creaking state and an ideological reluctance to do anything about either. Of course, the hostile takeover of the Tory party by inexperienced mavericks has played its part. But they are following in the footsteps of a decades-long project: to hollow out the state and funnel power upwards to private asset-owners. It’s this that progressives should have in their sights.

Christine Berry is a researcher and writer based in Manchester

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