Boris Johnson chairs a joint press conference at No10 Downing Street. Source: Flickr - Number 10 Boris Johnson chairs a joint press conference at No10 Downing Street. Source: Flickr - Number 10

In the second CounterBriefing, Chris Nineham looks at the verbal gymnastics of the government to cover its own back after its policy has been declared utterly impractical

Today’s government briefings combined shocking complacency and back covering in equal measure. Despite the frightening spread of recorded infections, Johnson had nothing to offer but platitudes, empty sounding promises and half-hearted attempts at reassurance. 

‘We will get on top of it’ he said, ‘we will turn the tide,’ and  ’we are going to emerge victorious’.  

The problem is there still appears to be no strategy to make that happen. Johnson encouraged people to stick to the guidelines for social distancing, wash hands and work from home ‘if possible,’ things that almost all sensible people have been doing for at least a week. He promised there would be more tests – doubling to a paltry 10,000 a day ‘soon’. 

No talk from either the government or the feeble press pack about the scandal of lack of protection for NHS workers or the failure to help renters who lose their jobs.   

Such do-nothing complacency has marked the government’s response from the start. This is a result of an overriding focus on keeping business going at all costs and a related fixation with crank theories and eccentric advisors.  

In the morning Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty admitted that the tiny number of tests that have happened here – basically just for hospitalised patients – meant that the government is pretty much in the dark as to how far the virus has spread. 

It shouldn’t really have to be restated, but mass testing is crucial for any real understanding of the situation, and for the successful identification, treatment, and isolation of those who are ill.

It is a measure that has been central to all the successful responses around the world. The failure to adopt it here is a direct result of the crank theory of herd immunity. This is the now-discredited idea that letting the virus rip while protecting the most vulnerable will build up sufficient immunity to stop it. 

After outrage from much of the scientific and medical community, the theory was finally trashed by the Imperial College group of researchers on Monday who confirmed it was utterly impractical and based on false science.   

But today’s briefings offered no recognition of the enormity of that mistake and – much worse – no break from existing policy. It is clear that in so far as they have a view, they seem to think that it’s virtually inevitable that the majority of people get the virus. They seem to have no concept of the widely reported fact that other countries including South Korea and China have successfully limited the spread of the virus to a fraction of their population.

The Imperial College team offer two possible ways forward. One is to slow the spread, the other to suppress it. If it has a policy at all, the government’s seems to be to slow it. This is what the Imperial college researchers say about option 1:

‘This could reduce the peak healthcare demand by two-thirds and reduce deaths by half. However, the resulting epidemic would still likely result in an estimated 250,000 deaths and therefore overwhelm the health system (most notably intensive care units).’

This government is risking lives on a large scale.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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