Herd immunity it is, then. Having spent months telling us that they were doing nothing but “following the science”, the government has thrown aside this pretence in order to get everyone back to work. The latest step is to re-open restaurants, pubs, hairdressers and museums. Boris Johnson’s cute little catchphrase describes this as an end to our “long national hibernation”.
Behind this sweet image of a springtime awakening for the nation, lies a grim calculation. The government’s data shows that the R number, representing the rate of transmission of the disease, has not fallen nationwide. It hovers just below one, which means that the total number of new infections should be a little lower than the number of existing infections.
However, that’s a precarious situation. The majority of infections in a pandemic situation are caused by super-spreader events, in which a small number of people unconsciously share the virus with large groups of people who are gathered together. From recent government moralising about Black Lives Matter protests, one might have thought the main risk came from outdoors gatherings. In fact, the vast majority of super-spreader events, some 97 per cent, take place indoors. Exactly the sort of situation which will now be fostered as the most high-risk commercial environments re-open. It may take just a few super-spreader events to start the disease spreading again.
Most egregiously, while announcing this, the government have reduced social distancing recommendations from two metres, to one metre. Earlier this month, the government’s own chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, insisted that the two metre rule would go on as long as the pandemic.
The science hasn’t changed, as dissenting members of Sage have made clear. The new independent group of scientists, Independent SAGE, points out that a one metre distancing rule effectively ends social distancing. Nor has the government’s ability to cope with a new outbreak changed. There is no functional test and tracing system, with some 75 per cent of cases missing from the government’s data. Give that the government’s scientific advisors say that, to stop the disease, 80 per cent of estimated cases need to be traced, tested and isolated, this is a disaster. And, predictably, it is mainly a disaster for low income and BAME workers, who are least likely to be able to work from home. And for the millions of vulnerable Britons whose “shielding” is now being expeditiously removed, so that they too can get back to work.
Yet, these measures are unlikely to be seriously challenged, despite the fact that public opinion has tended to oppose ending lockdown too soon, and played a key role in scuppering the plans to re-open schools early. The government’s senior advisors are loyal. Both Whitty and chief medical advisor Patrick Vallace were there to nod the new rules through, despite their own previous statements. The chocolate teapot leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, has been loyal. He welcomed Johnson’s statement, and applauded him for “trying to do the right thing”. He behaves as though he were in the cabinet, taking responsibility for the government’s worst moves, seemingly unwilling to gain from their failure except by complete accident. Official opposition in the UK has almost completely collapsed.
What, though, has changed the government’s calculation so drastically that it is now embarking on an all-out offensive to browbeat the public back to work? Government hawks, led by chancellor Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove, claim to want economic revival. Yet the evidence is that it won’t work. While enough people may be prepared to risk their health for a burger or a haircut to help trigger a second wave, as has happened in a number of US states, that will not be sufficient to restore economic growth.
Perhaps growth is not the only issue here. Conservative policy is rarely explicable solely in terms of growth. Austerity, in GDP terms, was a complete failure. Johnson’s Brexit plan will likely cost growth. There is a moral element to what the government does. The left gets gets this wrong, for the same reason it tends to be misunderstand neoliberalism. It loves denouncing “heartless” Tories who care about nothing but markets. In fact, neoliberal ideology is not amoral. As Jessica Whyte demonstrates in her widely praised book, The Morals of the Market, that neoliberalism was founded on a profoundly conservative moral vision. And that morality may have something to do with what the government is thinking.
The soft sell for this morality is, in a telling rhetorical tic, “freedom”. Observe the right-wing press. “Lockdown Freedom Beckons”, said the Daily Mail when the first measures were implemented in May. Now, as Johnson re-opens, The Sun calls for an end to “coronaphobia” and a renewal of “British freedom”, while the Daily Express salutes the measures as a “freedom pass”. What is the morality of “freedom”? Why does it seem always to amount to the freedom to get back to the grindstone? In neoliberal thought, freedom is commercial freedom. It’s the sovereignty of the market, as against popular sovereignty. The neoliberal economist Ludwig von Mises was completely honest about what this meant. For most people, their choices would be governed by the fluctuating price of their labour, which would “penalise disobedience” and “recompense obedience”. It would leave only a thin “margin” of choice as the “maximum of freedom” available in a market system. In such a system, neoliberals wagered, people would be more individualist, self-reliant, disciplined and obedient.
Markets are a moral force, the whip of social discipline. Dependence on markets is its own form of lockdown. It means we spend most of our hours working for someone else. Now, amid a dramatic global uprising against racism and police violence, and with multiplying crises of economy, ecology and public legitimacy afoot, the government may well have concluded that millions have too much freedom, too much time to think and act of their own volition. After all, this is a government that wanted “herd immunity” with hundreds of thousands of deaths. It didn’t want to pay millions of people to stay off work. It is far more comfortable with state cruelty than state benevolence.
One mustn’t over-rationalise the decisions of such an incompetent government. However, moral regulation is an underestimated part of what governments do. And telling people to get back to work, and calling it freedom, is exactly that.