In time there will be an accounting for the response of each government to the COVID-19 pandemic. The UK governments policies will be measured against the policies of other governments and the death tolls their various decisions resulted in. But we really don’t have to wait that long. We are already seeing the different outcomes of differing responses.
There are two institutions principally tasked with the health and well-being of the people living in the UK. The government that we currently have is the Johnson-led Conservative administration that was elected to office at the end of 2019 in one of the most partisan and concerted campaigns by the mainstream media in recent history. The health care service that we now have is a part-privatised National Health Service (NHS) which is now in large part managed and delivered by various for-profit equipment, pharmaceuticals, and support service companies, alongside for-profit primary and secondary care providers.
In order to properly understand the UK governments response, it first needs to be seen in the context of the spread of the global pandemic, and the responses of other governments that now appear to be limiting both the impact and the spread. It is worth keeping in mind that by the 31st January the UK government had already confirmed 2 cases of COVID-19 on the UK mainland.
By 27th January South Korea, with only 4 confirmed cases in the country, had its health officials already liaising with 20 medical equipment companies to develop coronavirus tests that could be fast tracked through approval and brought to market. It took only a week to develop and approve those tests. That same day, the government of South Korea increased its infectious disease alert level from level 2 to level 3.
On 28th January the Korean Center for Disease Control (KCDC) began screening and quarantining all inbound travellers from China. The day after that a call centre run by the KCDC and national health service went live. On 30th January nearly 250 civil servants from multiple government departments and agencies were seconded to quarantine checkpoints. That same day the government began sending chartered flights to the Wuhan region of China to fly Korean citizens back to South Korea. The day after that, on the 31st January, pharmacies across the country were given the authority to check patient’s recent travel history.
31st January is an important date because while some national “politicians” were still arguing that COVID-19 could not yet be treated as a global threat, the WHO was declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic with cases confirmed in the US, Nepal, France, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, India, the Philippines, Australia, Canada, Germany, Singapore, the US, UAE, Vietnam, Russia, Spain, Italy and Sweden.
So how did the UK government respond? Over a month after South Korea had moved quickly and decisively, on the 8th March the UK government proposed measures for an upcoming bill which could include the possibility of closing schools and universities. Four days later they issued new advice that left much of the population and the scientific community aghast. The government website GOV.UK advised those showing symptoms of COVID-19 infection to “stay at home for 7 days”, “Do not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital”, “You do not need to contact NHS 111 to tell them you’re staying at home”, and “We will not be testing people who are self-isolating with mild symptoms”.
This was part of what would be described the following day by the governments chief scientific adviser as a policy to build “herd immunity”. This theory, he went on to argue would mean that by allowing the virus to run through large sections of the population who were at lower risk of dying, those who were lucky enough not to die would develop an immunity to it in the longer run. This is over 5 weeks after the World Health Organisation had declared this a global pandemic.
Now I am sure that this is an interesting statistical game to play on a computer simulation, if you are that way inclined, but to treat the lives of our friends and families and neighbours as variables in some sort of pseudo-experiment in social-darwinism has to be among one of the worst crimes ever committed by a UK government against its own population in peace time. But we’ll get back to that.
This morning, 7th April, the UK government sent out a letter to every household, which was supposedly signed by Boris Johnson. The letter from the “Prime Minister” argued that people were not respecting the lock-down, the social distancing, and the self-isolation policies which his government had instituted in order to tackle the spread of COVID-19.
If I am to understand this correctly the government is arguing that it is the behaviour of those people ignoring the government advice that is causing the infection rate and the subsequent death toll that inevitably follows it to increase.
This is an interesting framing of the problem, specifically in the narrowness of its focus. As pointed out above one of the most effective responses from a national government has been that of South Korea who moved to the test-and-trace policy, facilitated by the commandeering of production capacity and the seconding of staff from the private sector almost immediately, alongside isolation and quarantining of those infected and those yet to be tested. It is also worth remembering that by this point South Korea was being roundly applauded across the globe as the model to emulate.
Here in the UK however, nearly 2 months later and still red-faced from its initial veterinarian response, the Conservative government is still doing little more than trying to shift responsibility away from their own arrogant stupidity on to the voiceless and overwhelmingly powerless masses. With barely a mention of their own inaction on ventilators, testing kits, personal protective equipment for frontline staff, or the securing of food supplies for the most vulnerable.
But it is not only the current administration, however intellectually challenged they are quite publicly proving themselves to be, that our lives are in the hands of. We are all now hoping that the NHS will protect us where the government is clearly failing.
However, the fact that large sections of the NHS is already openly privatised or covertly sub-contracted to for-profit companies is having a major influence on the ability of the NHS to cope with COVID-19.
This is because the fundamental strength of a publicly-owned publicly-accountable all-encompassing single institution responsible for the health of the UK is that its first and last responsibility is the health of the UK, nothing more. Or to put it at little more simply. There are no shareholders, no profits, no questionable financial mechanisms, no contracts awarded for political donations, no conflicting priorities, and no narrowly defined contractual obligations.
While in comparison, one of the fundamental weaknesses of a privatised, or even part-privatised, health service is in the inability of its constituent parts, the private service providers, to respond to sudden changes to demands outside of their individual and narrow contractual obligations. A global pandemic of the kind we are now experiencing is exactly this kind of sudden step-change in nationwide demand that exposes the flaws in the system.
While a nationalised organisation can respond to sudden changes by retraining and relocating personnel and repurposing assets on a national level within minutes and hours, such as in the response of the Chinese and South Korean governments, in contrast a series of privately owned companies with very narrow areas of responsibility are under no obligation to forego their profiteering in order to help out anyone, as in the case of the US.
And it is worth remembering that this current administration in the UK is only the most recent in a long line of administrations spanning all three main parties, that have collectively pushed for the piecemeal privatisation of the NHS over the last forty years as part of their neoliberal master plan.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s subsequent governments underfunded the NHS. And when that underfunded NHS began to struggle to keep up with the demands placed on it, the neoliberals in government cynically used that fact to justify the case for introducing the internal market in 1990, and the ‘care in the community’ project a few years later[i]. These were then followed over the course of the 1990s with the introduction of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and the subsequent deregulation of PFI in order to make it more desirable for the profiteers[ii].
And it wasn’t just the posh boys in the Tory party that were tearing lumps out of the NHS. With the groundwork laid by the Conservatives in the 1980s and 90s, the Labour Party picked up the neoliberal baton with gusto. First they established the Primary Care Groups (PCG) in 2000, which were then transformed into Primary Care Trusts (PCT) in 2003[iii], and of course the introduction of the now infamous Independent Sector Treatment Centres at that same time.
By 2006 the UK population were increasingly seeing through the lies of the neoliberal Labour Party, so in one last ditch effort they pushed through the Trust Special Administrator and Unsustainable Provider Regime in 2006 before being turfed out of office[iv].
But it wasn’t really until the 2012 Health & Social Care Act[v] passed by the Conservative- Liberal Democrat coalition government that the NHS ceased, in any real sense, to still be a publicly-owned and publicly-run national health service. By the time we got to the 2019 general election, and the widely reported Conservative plans to sell large sections of what was left of the NHS to the highest bidder, there was in truth little left of the NHS that wasn’t already in the hands of profiteers. And it is in that context that UK establishments response to COVID-19 must be seen.
We are now in the grip of a global pandemic with less hospital beds per person than Italy, France or Germany thanks to the policies of all three main parties.
There will be a time for an accounting and blame to be apportioned. But at this moment we need to make our voices heard if we want our loved ones to survive. We as a country need to tell the 1% that they must now put their profiteering to one side. If they don’t, then our options as a country become quite clear.
Also, if you have time in your busy schedule, there are several petitions that require our collective voice.
There is the petition seeking to stop the ‘Do Not Resucitate’ orders being issued by certain GP’s surgery. There is the petition putting pressure on the government to begin testing frontline NHS staff for COVID-19. And there is the petition set-up by a group of NHS workers making 6 demands of the government to effectively give the UK population the best chance it has of surviving this fiasco the 1% are forcing onto the rest of us as part of their sociopathic experiment in social darwinism.
I NHS plc: The privatisation of our health care – Pollock, Allyson M. (2005) , p20, 23, 24, 30, 32,
ii NHS SOS – Davis, J., & Tallis, D. (2013) , p32
iii NHS plc: The privatisation of our health care – Pollock, Allyson M. (2005) , p54, 62, 63, 64
iv NHS For Sale : Myths, Lies & Deception – Wrigley, D., Davis J.&, Lister, J. (2015) , p115
v NHS SOS – Davis, J., & Tallis, D. (2013) , p64, 66, 67, 71, 146