Time for some Covid honesty

by | 14 Dec 2021

We have medicalised society under the promise that it would bring an end to the Covid crisis - but it hasn't. If we're to find long-term answers, the nature of the Covid debate has to change.

“When the facts change I change my mind, what do you do sir?”

“Me, I stop stating things as facts when I’ve been wrong three times already”

I have increasingly struggled to keep my patience with all things Covid and the new ‘restrictions’ aren’t helping. We are medicalising society as if we are biological entities but not economic or social ones. We have done that based on repeated promises that it is possible to eradicate (or make negligible) the threat from Covid through medicalisation.

All other policy considerations have been dragged around behind this medicalisation, but while medicalisation has helped during acute phases and has greatly reduce the impact of Covid, it has not delivered the promised end point and does not appear likely to do so in the near future. We must therefore move beyond that debate.

I am highly aware of the risks of straying from ‘orthodox political discussion’ in Britain and to suggest any hint of doubt about expert advice is to be branded a crazy by some. I shall therefore take care to make clear what I am and amn’t saying in this article.

For context, I was a full-on lockdown hawk. During the first lockdown I believed 100 per cent that the strongest measures possible were necessary. In fact I still believe that those measures were woefully late in coming and I remain unhappy about things I believe should have been done which weren’t.

Not only would I personally have had the lockdown, I’d have been much, much stronger about controls and protections about the border and I would have done an awful lot more to speed up a mass testing regime. Neither of these points are hindsight – I wrote about it at the time.

With lockdown one there was a clear strategy, which initially had the shorthand ‘the hammer and the dance’. It involved three stages. First, crush the incidence of Covid right down through hard lockdown measures. Second, use sensible, careful and proportionate measures to keep the incidence low once you end the lockdown. Third, vaccinate 80 per cent of the population and then get back to something a little bit like normality.

If there is a clear and workable strategy then I am more than willing to work to the strategy. But the existing strategy hasn’t delivered normality and doesn’t seem to be likely to in the near future – the sheer greed of the pharmaceuticals industry has ensured there will be many more Covid variants. That leaves us without a coherent strategy and I’m much less willing to work with a string of short-term tactics. That’s where we’ve been for a while.

Because the reality is that we were all hammer and no dance. In July 2020 when the first lockdown was wound back our political leaders set off on a victory lap. They did not take seriously mass testing regimes or ongoing proper restrictions at borders. At a global level they put the profits of corporations way ahead of global vaccination coverage.

The thought of something approaching a normal, happy, carefree Christmas is one of the few things which has been keeping me going this year so whatever the rights and wrongs of what is being done, the despair it has left me feeling is real

Common Weal’s head of policy Craig Dalzell and I talked about it at the time – he had been modelling the pattern post-lockdown one and by early July it was already on an exponential curve which we never escaped until lockdown two. This was government negligence and led directly to last years’ Christmas restrictions.

But while I was a little less hawkish about the second lockdown I was still a purist and stuck to all the rules on the basis that a vaccine was round the corner. By the unwinding of lockdown two that was it for me – vaccination was the strategy and if that failed there either had to be a new strategy or we had to accommodate to living with Covid for the long term.

It was a political decision to let rip at the airports and leave us wide open to new variants. It was a political decision to open schools without vaccinating school kids. It was a political decision to hold our nerve when cases started to spike and a political decision to take credit when (for reasons we’re still not clear about) that levelled out just afterwards.

With the exception of the airports (international travel is like a religion for the UK’s ruling classes) I amn’t even saying any of this was wrong. I’m saying that they were a string of tactics and they led here.

That is why I am uneasy about this latest phase. It looks to me all tactics and no strategy. They hope that booster shots do it. They hope that denying vaccines to the global south won’t mean endless strings of new variants. They hope that the economic, social and mental health impacts are as minor as public action suggests they are.

This may well be a statement of reality. This may be our future. But we are now past the point (for me at least) where public compliance alone is going to be enough to get us through this. We are strategy-less and I’m definitely losing patience with the experts.

I don’t mean we shouldn’t listen to them; of course we should. But you can count the months since the last warning that we were on the cusp of a runaway phase in the pandemic on the fingers of one hand; fewer fingers are required to reach the worldwide headlines ‘experts mystified as the crisis they predicted didn’t occur’.

So we’ve reached the phase where one Sage adviser is claiming that the whole prolonged crisis is the fault of the government alone. He promotes this view with the quote “I’m very sorry, but don’t party or else there will be no tomorrow” which is irresponsible hyperbole. And it should be remembered that he is a behavioural expert and it is they who advised the government against an earlier lockdown over fears of public compliance.

At times excuses and blame-shifting seem to mutate as fast as the virus.

Through all this the thought of something approaching a normal, happy, carefree Christmas is one of the few things which has been keeping me going this year. It feels like this has been taken from me with a week to go. Whatever the rights and wrongs of what is being done, the despair it has left me feeling is real.

We cannot medicalise a society’s future.

I am far from alone. I dread telling my daughter that the rugby team Christmas party (they’re going to some Ninja Warriors place and they’re as excited as can be) is off. My children have had so much of their childhood taken – at 12 and eight my daughter will have lost a third of the normal Christmases she can remember so far and my son half. They’re resilient – but not bulletproof.

The feedback I am getting from people is that they are nearing the end of their own patience too. I know views are mixed, but people are suffering and that is not an inconsequential matter.

What makes me particularly unhappy today is the mode of politics being used in Scotland. Politicians are not making the ‘tough decisions’, they’re guilting you into making them and offering no compensation. It is suggested I cancel everything we had planned for Christmas where there are more than three households (which is all of it).

I feel like suggesting that this is a decision for government and not for me. For all the talk of new restrictions, there really aren’t any. They are begging us to sacrifice all by ourselves and save them from the consequences of making public health decisions.

(Well, as far as I can tell there is a new restriction to self-isolate for ten days if anyone in your household tests positive, whether you yourself ever test positive or not. This is disproportionate and tone deaf towards those who can’t take two weeks off work without compensation.)

The truth is that government in Scotland, the UK and globally have mishandled this whole affair from day one. In Scotland we are scaling how much crisis we can take to how much spare capacity there is in the NHS. But that lack of capacity was created deliberately by government policy.

What there isn’t is any holding to account or learning of lessons. Much was made of how a Covid Inquiry in Scotland would be started this year – but it hasn’t. It is greatly needed as Public Health Scotland has been massaging the data and there has been next to no political accountability.

I don’t have answers, but clearly neither does anyone else, at least other than short-term, knee-jerk answers. I like you have been left to make up my own mind, with a big dose of guilt attached.

If that is the stage we have reached, it is a stage that must mark a parting of the ways. We cannot medicalise a society’s future. Look at France where 75 per cent of the population is now voting for some variation on hard rightwing policies. If experts offer us no end point then we must decide how to live, and that is not primarily a medical question.

I have not turned into a wild anti-vaxer, but if two years of compliance isn’t working, I can’t see how three years of it will. Or four. Or five. Who knows – this is an open-ended contract.

In Scotland I’m afraid that I think today’s announcement was cowardice, a convenient balance between technically doing nothing and having a rock-solid get-out if doing nothing fails (through the power of a ‘galloping tsunami’ of soundbite-friendly hyperbole). If I have lost most of my faith in Covid leadership here and worldwide it doesn’t mean I’ve turned to to ‘plandemic’ conspiracies, but it does mean I amn’t really content to continue further along this road.

Either we need a clear strategy to take us to an end point or we need an open, guilt-free debate about how to live with the virus and what that means. Pretending all is fine and then dropping this kind of announcement on people days before Christmas? This can’t become some kind of Festive tradition like bad knitted jerseys and novelty songs.

Something needs to change in our Covid debate. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m now convinced that waiting for the next ‘address to the nation’ isn’t it.

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