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National (self) identity and responses to the pandemic… October 20, 2021

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Was struck by a point made in the Guardian editorial on the reports released concerning the response to the Covid pandemic by the British government. Well, actually, was struck by many points (not least that the focus is on England almost to the exclusion of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales), but this one here seems particularly intriguing:

The review’s remit was purposefully narrow. It says very little about the wider impact of the pandemic on the NHS, or what went on inside hospitals. Staff shortages that were already acute before Covid are now approaching an emergency. Also missing, except in fragments, is the wider political and social context. Why, for example, did the government decide early on (wrongly) that the British public “would not accept a lockdown for a significant period”?

The relevant section is as follows (you can read the whole report here – good luck):

Assumptions about behavioural compliance

108.Another potential reason for the late lockdown was the behavioural advice that was being tendered to the Government. Behavioural advice is tendered to the Government through SAGE’s sub-group, the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B).168 SPI-B’s first publicly known input into SAGE was on 25 February 2020 on the risk of public disorder.169

109.The initial action plan did not consider the possibility of ceasing all non-essential contact. Dominic Cummings told us that the idea of behavioural fatigue was a part of “false groupthink”:

One of the critical things that was completely wrong in the whole official thinking in SAGE and in the Department of Health in February/March was, first of all, the British public would not accept a lockdown and, secondly, the British public would not accept what was thought of as an east Asian-style track and trace-type system and the infringements of liberty around that.170

The then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care also indicated to us in June 2021 that “the clear advice at the time was that there was only a limited period that people would put up with it—would put up with lockdown.”171 On 9 March 2020, Professor Chris Whitty told a Government press conference:

It is not just a matter of what you do but when you do it. Anything we do, we have got to be able to sustain. Once we have started these things we have to continue them through the peak and that is for a period of time, and there is a risk that, if we go too early, people will understandably get fatigued and it will be difficult to sustain this over time.172

Further, on 10 March 2020, SAGE said that:

A balance needs to be struck between interventions that theoretically have significant impacts and interventions which the public can feasibly and safely adopt in sufficient numbers over long periods.173

However, SAGE later said on 16 March 2020—the meeting where the scale of the epidemic became apparent—that its advice on interventions should be based on NHS needs, not on public compliance:

SAGE agreed that its advice on interventions should be based on what the NHS needs and what modelling of those interventions suggests, not on the (limited) evidence on whether the public will comply with the interventions in sufficient numbers and over time.174

110.It transpired that the UK public were very compliant with the eventual lockdown measures.175 Professor Chris Whitty also said in November 2020:

Across the board, my reflection is that the great majority of people—and this is reflected in all the polling and a variety of other things—both intend to stick to the rules and do stick to the rules to a remarkable degree. To go back to Patrick’s point, were that not the case, we would be in a massively worse place than we are at the moment. My expectation is that R would have shot right up if people had not massively reduced the number of people they have contact with, had not stuck to all the things we need to do in individual actions they can take—such as hands, face and space—and businesses had not done a huge amount to try to make them Covid secure. Without that, we would be in a very difficult place compared with where we are now.176

111.The restrictions eventually imposed on the UK public because of the pandemic were unprecedented. Even in wartime there had been no equivalent of the order to make it a criminal offence for people to meet each other and to remain in their homes other than for specified reasons. In advance, it may not have been unreasonable to assume that the public would have a limited tolerance of such draconian restrictions. But that assumption turned out to be wrong. In the event, compliance with social distancing measures was at a level and for a duration beyond what was anticipated. If a belief that people would not comply delayed a full lockdown, and caused an initially limited set of non-pharmaceutical interventions to be adopted, this was a poor guide to policy.

Isn’t that a curious decision in a state where there has been so much talk over the years of a British (or perhaps more accurately English) phlegmatism in the face of adversity (usually in reference to World War Two)? But then on reflection note the assumptions built in from the off – the attitude that behaviour in Britain would be distinct and different to ‘east-Asian style’ behaviours; self-perceptions about ‘liberty’ and so on. The idea of conforming with rules and regulations – on the one hand quintessentially English (at least as a trope) is suddenly transformed into something that is othered – quintessentially behaviours characteristic of those living in Asia, with the related assumption that they value ‘liberty’ less. 

Let’s be charitable though. Some of those dates are early on – 25th of February 2020, 9th of March. And so on. But let’s not be too charitable because the necessity for constraints on behaviours became apparent very very quickly indeed – “SAGE later said on 16 March 2020—the meeting where the scale of the epidemic became apparent—that its advice on interventions should be based on NHS needs, not on public compliance”. 

And while there’s a balance in all things that latter point makes perfect sense. The NHS was the instrument which would meet the virus head on. It had to be protected. 

And what of the actuality once the pandemic had spread. Now cast our minds back eighteen months and more to a point where when the news arrived it was unprecedented in near enough living memory. But key was the fact that there was a very virulent disease at large (though unfortunately as we know to become more virulent) with lethal effects for large numbers were there no constraints – and no known cure or treatments. 

How did the UK public respond to that?

It transpired that the UK public were very compliant with the eventual lockdown measures.175 Professor Chris Whitty also said in November 2020:

Across the board, my reflection is that the great majority of people—and this is reflected in all the polling and a variety of other things—both intend to stick to the rules and do stick to the rules to a remarkable degree. To go back to Patrick’s point, were that not the case, we would be in a massively worse place than we are at the moment. My expectation is that R would have shot right up if people had not massively reduced the number of people they have contact with, had not stuck to all the things we need to do in individual actions they can take—such as hands, face and space—and businesses had not done a huge amount to try to make them Covid secure. Without that, we would be in a very difficult place compared with where we are now.176

And the report considers:

111.The restrictions eventually imposed on the UK public because of the pandemic were unprecedented. Even in wartime there had been no equivalent of the order to make it a criminal offence for people to meet each other and to remain in their homes other than for specified reasons. In advance, it may not have been unreasonable to assume that the public would have a limited tolerance of such draconian restrictions. But that assumption turned out to be wrong. In the event, compliance with social distancing measures was at a level and for a duration beyond what was anticipated. If a belief that people would not comply delayed a full lockdown, and caused an initially limited set of non-pharmaceutical interventions to be adopted, this was a poor guide to policy.

Of course, this was a Tory government, which would bring its own set of assumption to policy making (or policy abdicating) throughout the pandemic. But the scientific advice was – to some degree, inflected by similar thinking (the report notes a “a consensus between official scientific advisers and the Government [which] indicates a degree of groupthink that was present at the time which meant we were not as open to approaches being taken elsewhere—such as earlier lockdowns, border controls and effective test and trace—as we should have been”. It would be useful to delve further into why that was so in the UK as distinct from say the ROI (which had a caretaker government of the right of centre which at least on paper might have been inclined to take a not dissimilar path). Perhaps this was a function of them working for this administration, or the interactions with the administration (notable was how politicians took the lead role in press conferences with scientific and medical authorities playing a subordinate role). And again, perhaps too some of the tropes mentioned already were extant in a more generalised fashion in their thinking.

But this interwove with those sort of assumptions outlined above in a particularly toxic manner. The report notes for example “[there was] a policy approach of fatalism about the prospects for covid in the community: seeking to manage, but not suppress, infection. This amounted in practice to accepting that herd immunity by infection was the inevitable outcome, given that the United Kingdom had no firm prospect of a vaccine, limited testing capacity and there was a widespread view that the public would not accept a lockdown for a significant period.”

State power is an interesting thing. Who holds it at a given point in time and what they believe is a factor that inflects so much of what occurs within a state. Examples from the pandemic abound. The United States, Brazil and the United Kingdom. In each instance – albeit to different degrees – those governments were ideologically and in other ways held hostage by their own preconceptions, or they amplified by inaction or indifference or unwillingness to intervene to any great degree other preconceptions. But small wonder that those who do not believe in the power of the state to intervene, or are averse to the very idea, were perhaps the very worst placed to face the oncoming pandemic. 

The report notes one key aspect of this: “This was not the only way to proceed, and indeed the UK was an outlier internationally in the gradualist approach that was being taken before late March.120 Countries in East Asia were the first to experience covid-19. Their response was a much more rapid and muscular imposition of social distancing and requirements to isolate.121

But as the report also notes once the course was set it was difficult to shift it. “even when UK policy had changed to bring in a comprehensive national lockdown, the role of non-pharmaceutical interventions against covid-19 was complex, inconsistent and opaque for most of the rest of 2020.”

And one could argue that now, in 2021, as the year draws to a close that approach has continued to a greater rather than a lesser extent. 

Comments»

1. crocodileshoes - October 20, 2021

That’s a really good analysis, WbyS, to which I’d add one factor: the UK media. Our press in particular may be to the right of what we’d like to see, but you have to be living in the UK, seeing the front pages of the Mail and The Express and the Telegraph and the Sun, listening to the phone-ins, to realise how far to the right the political centre-of-gravity of the British media is. I don’t believe any government or public body in the UK can make a decision now without the reaction of the right-wing press at the back of their minds: they’ve internalised all that Thatcherite stuff about ‘liberty’ and ‘sovereignty’ to the point that the obvious public gods is less of a priority than pleasing a few proprietors and editors.

Liked by 2 people

crocodileshoes - October 20, 2021

Public ‘good’.

Liked by 1 person

WorldbyStorm - October 20, 2021

Thanks croc. That has to be it, the media. A sort of meta-chorus and woe betide anyone who steps out of line.

Liked by 1 person

2. Wes Ferry - October 20, 2021

Friendly reminder in this thread about national self identity in Britain — approaches by Scotland and Wales to the Covid pandemic are very different to that of England’s.

Liked by 1 person

WorldbyStorm - October 20, 2021

Yeah, and I guess Scotland in particular has a different sort of media structure – would that account in some ways for the SNP doing better there?

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3. Klassenkampf Treehugger - October 21, 2021

Yes – that’s what struck me in skimming the reports of the report:

“a consensus between official scientific advisers and the Government “.

At a time when the carnage in Italian hospitals was clear, along with the successful control both by the Chinese and South Korean authorities, cultural arrogance also drove the top echelons of the scientific advisors in England, and prevented effective action being taken until it was too late.

Which led, along with general Johnson & Co inspired incompetence, to at least 50,000 avoidable deaths and even more disablements.

The fact that Independent Sage was set up in the UK, and repeatedly rightly contradicted the idiocies of Brexitanian Covid policy, is indicative of the culture that disables both the higher civil service as well as politicians there.

No one will get through this winter and minimise further losses without continued mask-wearing, working from home where possible, and vaccination passes for those who want to gather in large numbers indoors.

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