On 24 January The Lancet, Britain’s most prestigious scientific journal, published a study showing that 32% of the first patients in Wuhan to contract ‘a pneumonia of unknown cause’ had required admission to Intensive Care Unit and 14.6% had died. On 31 January two tourists staying in a hotel in York were confirmed as the United Kingdom’s first cases of Covid-19; the first death came on 6 March. Over the intervening month, a contagious businessman returning from Singapore had attended a yoga class in East Sussex. In South London, a woman displaying symptoms had hopped in an Uber to get to hospital. Yet, largely, normal life had gone on. After visiting a hospital with cases of Covid-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters, ‘I was shaking hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.’
On 11 March, five days after the first death, Conservative chancellor Rishi Sunak delivered a budget dubbed ‘the coronabudget’ — an unconditional promise of funds to the resource-starved National Health Service (NHS), a package of loans and tax cuts for businesses, and the removal of a floor on the Universal Credit benefits system for everyone else. The media greeted these measures as munificent. Internet guidance to employers as to how to make use of these loans was followed, worryingly, by a call for businesses to ‘help make NHS ventilators’.
The health secretary put out a call for ventilators via tweet. Interviewed the next day on a weekend breakfast show, the prime minister’s father said he would continue going to the pub.
The Conservatives hired a team of behavioural scientists to encourage the population into certain habits like hand-washing, not touching one’s face, and replacing handshakes with footshakes and elbow bumps — no doubt it was also to introduce the public to the idea that restrictive measures would be necessary in the face of the threat and to manage the government’s political image in a crisis. There was, the behaviourists said, a risk of ‘fatigue’ if isolation was imposed too soon. So Britain became an international anomaly: schools remained open. Politicians claimed to be creating ‘herd immunity’ by waiting for the ‘right moment’ before even asking citizens to distance or isolate themselves. Mass public events went ahead — the Cheltenham Festival races, et cetera — against the backdrop of a nation panic-buying groceries and toilet paper. Surely these desperate shoppers were a sign of the public’s lack of confidence in their prime minister, who seemed to be hiding behind the stature of his chief scientist and chief medical officer, and insisting that his decisions weren’t political. In these conditions of confusion, a divide formed between those able to distance themselves voluntarily from society and those whose jobs didn’t allow it.
On 16 March, the government line shifted. Johnson advised the public to ‘avoid’ pubs, theatres and non-essential travel, a slippery rhetorical move that meant that the businesses affected could not claim insurance. ‘The science has changed,’ declared Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s top political reporter, referring to a study from Imperial College London that warned half a million lives could be lost if Britain didn’t rethink its containment strategy. The health secretary put out a call for ventilators via tweet. Interviewed the next day on a weekend breakfast show, the prime minister’s father said he would continue going to the pub, keeping calm and carrying on despite scientific advice.
The first days of this new reality have seen a steady drip of fresh policy announcements — a ‘mortgage holiday’ of three months for homeowners, the option to receive statutory sick pay from the first day of illness, school closures from 20 March. Looming in the back of everyone’s minds: a lack of social care and an NHS that began to be privatised under Tony Blair and has been chronically underfunded over a decade of Conservative-led austerity. The Labour Party and the public ownership organisation We Own It have argued that in such dire circumstances private hospital beds should be requisitioned if there is a shortage. At my local hospital in Lewisham, where an early coronavirus case was diagnosed, cleaning and catering workers went on strike last week after newly contracted international services provider ISS twice failed to pay them correctly, leaving them unable to afford rent, food and travel despite their evidently essential work.
The chancellor’s ‘coronabudget’ plans already look desperately inadequate. Sunak’s loans to businesses did not provide incentives for these employers to protect their workers, who had to wait until 20 March for any details about how the government would safeguard their wages. In a welcome move, Sunak has guaranteed the state will pay 80% of furloughed workers’ salaries up to £2500, as long as companies keep them on the payroll. There is still little help, though, for the 5 million workers who are self-employed and those on zero-hours contracts: a slight raise to universal credit — a notoriously dysfunctional and discouraging benefits system — to the level of sick pay, at £94.25 a week. The allowances of a benefits system decimated by austerity will not suffice, and it shouldn’t have taken a deadly virus to make its shortcomings clear. The future looks precarious, too, for the 200,000 people who have lost their jobs in the leisure and hospitality sectors since mid-February.
The newest directives ‘tell’ (and no longer ‘advise’) pubs, clubs and restaurants to close. Still, without either a lockdown or clear advice on how much social distancing is necessary, the public tentatively continued to socialise in parks and at markets over the weekend, a sign of uncertainty that will cause unnecessary deaths.
In its response to Covid-19 to date, the government has clearly prioritised homeowners over people who rent. Without serious government assistance forthcoming, it is unrealistic to expect the 4.5 million renters in the UK to quarantine themselves if they are unable to work from home. While tenant evictions have been suspended for three months, official guidance suggests that after this period, ‘landlords and tenants will be expected to work together to establish an affordable repayment plan’. This is an abdication of the responsibility to protect people who may not be able to make back money lost in socially responsible isolation. As landlords enjoy their mortgage holidays while some of their tenants struggle with an impossible dilemma, the etymology of ‘mortgage’ — mortuum vadium or ‘dead pledge’ — seems a kind of irony.