Coronavirus

Covid Britain: A nation hooked on lockdown and stuck fighting a wearisome culture war

BY Gavin Rice   /  19 May 2020

As we approach the middle of the ninth week of UK lockdown, it appears the scale of the economic Armageddon we are undergoing – or, perhaps more accurately, which awaits us in full form around the corner – is yet fully to be grasped. The legitimate fear and anxiety is still very much pinned on COVID-19 as a severe public health threat, while the matter of financing this level of national inactivity remains a distant bridge to be crossed once we have caught our breath.

Yet the latest economic figures make grim reading. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s latest scenario analysis suggests that public sector borrowing for 2020-21 will hit £273 billion, or 13.9% of GDP – a peacetime record for the UK. The previous record was in 2009-10, in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Analysis by J. P. Morgan released today depicts a growth in unemployment of 300,000 during the first quarter of 2020; with hundreds of thousands of currently furloughed workers facing redundancy when their employers eventually go bust. The bomb of post-COVID joblessness is yet to explode. One in three 18-24 year-olds have lost their jobs, vacancy advertisements are down 92%; in September thousands of graduates will find their post-university offers of employment to have evaporated.

All this would make one assume the nation must be itching to get things moving again. Things cannot go on like this, surely? Eventually people will fall behind on their rent, homeowners will default on their mortgages, asset prices will crash. As soon as is feasible the British people will want to get the show back on the road.

Or so you’d think. Research by Ipsos Mori for King’s College London finds that out of three broad categorisations of feeling towards coronavirus lockdown – the Accepting, the Suffering and the Rejecting – the Accepting is the largest group on 48% (the Suffering sit at 44%); just 9% have serious feelings of doubt or misgiving about the scale of the measures. Over 90% of the first two categories support lockdown measures with over 80% favouring increased police powers. Teachers have been told by their unions to defy government instruction to restart schools – chatterati orthodoxy about listing to “the science” notwithstanding.

In truth, lockdown has become something of a hobby for many British people – if not quite yet attaining the level of a religion, then certainly a national pastime. With the absence of televised sport, live entertainment or even a good old pub to visit, not the mention the normalising effect of face-to-face social contact, coronavirus culture fills the vacuum.

To an extent this is understandable. We are facing the largest public health crisis for a generation, while the thought of losing elderly relatives and loved ones is too much to bear. At the same time, coronavirus news obsession has taken the nation by storm, and have-a-go epidemiology is the latest craze.

“We needed to lock down 2 weeks sooner, THAT would have solved things” insist critics; “The modelling was completely wrong! They used a totally rubbish system”, cry others. Amid the maelstrom of speculative froth and oversupply of information, how can we know who is right?

Frankly, it has all become rather wearisome. And while the economic catastrophe is bad, the COVID crisis has revealed – and inflamed – aspects of British culture that are somewhat unseemly. Curtain-twitching, whether physical or online, has been in the ascendancy. The passion for call-out culture and bluntly correcting one’s neighbour on their behaviour (in the past it was un-PC word choices or voting for Brexit; now it’s going shopping once too often) has found a new world of opportunity in which to vent a feeling of moral superiority. Nasty (though sometimes funny) memes about the stupidity of lockdown-breakers and “deniers” abound online. And, as ever, criticism of the NHS or of any dimension of perpetual lockdown orthodoxy makes one a traitor at best, a granny-killer at worst.

Even the government seems to have been surprised by the egg it has laid. Jacob Rees-Mogg conceded in the most recent edition of ConservativeHome podcast that the government’s stay-home-at-all-costs advice may have been “too effective” (governments always price in levels of non-compliance whenever making a decision). It’s hard to work out whether the confusion of current guidelines should be attributed simply to chaos at the heart of the government communications machine or whether it is a deliberate tactic. Fudge the advice and you will get a slow trickle-back to work rather than opening the floodgates, while the naturally cautious stay home longer.

It’s disappointingly predictable to map attitudes to COVID-19 – fanatical lockdown enthusiasm versus stoical compliance and a desire to get back to work – onto either culture wars or the Brexit divide, but there are certain tribal traits that can be identified here. It seems to be the most fanatical Remainers, the type who would blame Brexit voters personally for voting to ruin the country, who seem most likely to favour locking down, well, forever.

Some of the very people who said no government would ever vote to make its people poorer are now calling on the government not to ease restrictions or allow schools to open, favouring an approach that looks likely to impoverish the nation further and destroy opportunity for a whole generation, not to mention torpedoing the tax base from which we fund the beloved health service.

Perhaps this is simply a psychological misfire caused by fear. But that’s precisely the point: amateur covidology, like astrology or alchemy, represents a frantic attempt to overcome the unfamiliar sensation of being unable to defeat nature and control the unknown.

Perhaps if the Government had acted differently outcomes would have been statistically significantly different, but somehow I doubt it. The what-ifery, whataboutery and finger-pointing is unbecoming of a nation that prides herself on unity and teamwork in a crisis.

The objective should be clear: beat this thing as quickly as possible, but recognise that the state is not omnipotent and we cannot fully prevent the tragedy of humans falling ill. Proportionality – and sanity – will need to be restored. Let’s hope the culture hasn’t been too badly shattered along the way.


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