Day One of UK's suppression strategy

Dither, denial and delay fuel queues, shortages and incomprehension...

"There's no baby milk, so they'll just have to breast-feed for free, like we used to" says the woman on the checkout at Tesco: "There was a delivery first thing yesterday and it all went in an hour. Same with toilet roll."

I queued with about 100 shoppers from before 8 am this morning in South London, less than a mile from Parliament. There was a big delivery of Krispy Kreme donuts but not of toilet roll - and as we filed through the door it was also clear that fresh vegetables were in short supply (though not fruit or meat).

There were maybe eight bars of soap in the whole place and six bottles of Milton baby fluid. Paracetamol has long gone, and is not due in again until 29 March. I suspect the new red-bordered labels that tell you when the next delivery is due will now become more important to people than the prices (which are, according to the women in the queue, going up).

This is the new reality. After weeks of dither, denial and delay the government had no option to face the truth. Its strategy of laid-back non-intervention - what Boris Johnson called "taking it on the chin" - was not going to flatten the curve of the epidemic: instead it was going to kill 260,000 people according to epidemiologists at Imperial College.

So now we are being advised to stay home, self-isolate, avoid pubs, restaurants and theatres, and all big events will be shut down.

Before we move to the next, inevitably traumatic stage of this crisis, and to the major slump it will provoke, it's worth exploring in detail what went wrong.

Herd immunity

The World Health Organisation identified a new coronavirus as the cause of the Wuhan outbreak on 12 January. On 31 January the first two cases in the UK were identified. 

But it was only on 3 March that the government called a COBRA meeting and issued its action plan. Of the four responses urged by the WHO - testing, contact tracing, social distancing and quaranting - none were done aggressively. Instead, as country after country took draconian measures to enforce social distancing, Britain did nothing.

Instead its science chief Patrick Vallance (13/03/20) revealed they would rely on "herd immunity", letting up to 60% of the population catch the disease over time, thus mitigating the impact on the health service, social care and the whole economy. Three days later the  health minister Matt Hancock publicly disavowed the idea. But it is clear that the entire decision to become an outlier - taking no drastic action - was premised either on flawed data-modelling or political misinterpretation. 

The reason we don't know is because the coverage of this fiasco has been dominated by Lobby correspondents who depend on insider status and have repeatedly failed to aggressively question Johnson, and indeed attacked both politicians and other jounralists who criticised the doomed strategy.

But it matters. Because at the heart of Britain's governance system there is a malaise that will prove fatal unless we talk about it and put it right.

Fragmented state

During the free-market era, we've not only seen the widespread privatisation of public services, and then since 2008 their decimation by austerity. A more insidious process has effectively commercialised decision making, introducing so many layers and lines of responsibility that, when disasters happen, it is often difficult to assign blame.

From Hillsborough to Grenfell to the Windrush scandal, things go wrong with inhuman consequences but nobody is ever convicted, and most inquiries end up dumping the blame on some hapless component of the marketised system, not the government.

When Johnson announced his action plan, experts and ordinary people alike questioned it. It did not seem urgent enough, nor did it look like what everybody else was doing. Even now, amid a screeching handbrake turn, Johnson appears flanked by medical technocrats whose function is as much to absorb political pressure as to provide scientific advice.

And even now, as it is told to bin its mitigation strategy and adopt the same suppression strategy the WHO has been advocating since day one, Johnson cannot bring himself to take hold of the levers of power and use them directly.

To protect the insurance sector, he has refused to shut down pubs, restaurants and theatres by law, relying on the public to do it for him. The upshot is that thousands of small businesses in the culture and hospitality sector will go bust very quickly. 

While other countries requisition private hospital beds, the NHS is told to rent them at £300 a day. This aversion to decisive action has its physical manifestation in Johnson himself" at press briefings, when asked direct questions, he becomes an emollient blob of confusion.

This afternoon Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, will announce billions of extra money in bailout packages for airlines and the hospitality sector. All we can be certain of is that, like his £17bn fiscal stimulus announced to great back-slapping last Wednesday, it will not be enough.

But the issue now is not the numbers. It is whether the government is prepared to act like a state in wartime, reappropriate the levers of power and build social coalitions to amplify their effect.

The people in my Tesco this morning were mainly from what sociologists call the "new working class": multi-ethnic, lowish paid, non-political. For most of them it was a complete shock to see a queue at 8am, and to see shelves depleted of basic items. Having watched numerous crises on television news, they are now in one. 

There was a bit of muttering and irony, mainly about prices and the length of the queue, but the main emotion was concern. Numerous people were on speakerphone to elderly relatives.

Though it's taken weeks for people to understand the seriousness of the medical threat, most have no idea what the economic threat is. So let's spell it out.

Global shock

Neoliberal capitalism is characterised by extreme fragility. Until 2008 the mainstream economists told us that financial complexity had enhanced safety. After Lehman Brothers we found out that it did the opposite: that by creating complex, financial interlinkages to replace simple commercial and human ones, we had built a bomb.

Today, though the financial system has - we hope - been stabilised and regulated, some of the fragilities are bigger. 

The world's debt stands at $250 trillion - three and half times global GDP. During the Lehman crisis it stood at $173 trillion. Meanwhile central banks have issued free money to the tune of $20 trillion, collapsing the baseline yields on which the rest of capitalism depends to below zero.

Growth is stagnant and will now collapse, albeit temporarily. And the long-term sources of growth are, as even mainstream economists now accept, meagre. 

This was bad news even before the coronavirus shock but is worse by an order of magnitude now. Because every impact has a secondary effect. Supply chains that looked strong now look fragile; savings that looked OK are shrinking with every visit to the pension company website; as corporates fall over, plummeting bank share prices signal the secondary danger.

Whatever happens, governments have to borrow massively, spend massively and where necessary get their central banks to print money to finance the debt. Leftwing activists calling for "tax the rich" have a point - but the amounts raisable through income and corporate taxes are minimal compared to the scale of the immediate crisis measures; and in a crisis, you want to be actually cutting taxes for businesses under stress.

The left's distinctive contribution to meeting this crisis should be fourfold. 

First, to make the active case for massive fiscal and monetary stimulus, and state directed investment, and to shape it in a way that genereates bang for bucks. That means universal sick pay, universal and generous basic income payments to all citizens, the state direction of vital industries like ventilator manufacture and vaccine research, and the nationalisation of major companies declaring layoffs or bankruptcy.

Second, to ensure that all anti-crisis measures meet two criteria: are they socially just, and are they universal? There can be no private wings for Covid-19 patients; no skipping the queue; no black market in wet wipes and baby milk exclusively for people who frequent the Ritz; and when the vaccine is discovered, it should be allocated on the basis of need, not the ability to pay.

Third to mobilise and connect people. This is already happening in the community solidarity groups, often set up by people on the Labour left. More needs to be done, especially in the workplace and over the safety of health and social care workers. It's not often remembered that the use of the Underground as air raid shelters in 1940 first happened because communist activists tore the railings off the doors and led people in there.

Fourth, to design the future. Capitalism, as I have frequently argued, is a complex adaptive system that is losing its ability to adapt. It was always going to need a new economic model to meet the challenge of climate change. Now we're going to need it sooner. 

At the start of the Second World War, with U-boats threating starvation, bombs falling on London. and America not even in the war, John Maynard Keynes sat down with his US counterpart to ask: what is the world going to look like when we win? 

The result was a global multilateral system, the outlawing of fascism, a universal declaration of human rights and 30 years of growth, innovation and rising social justice. That should be the price the left and progressive forces demand, all over the world, for the inevitable sacrifices that are about to happen. 

And be confident. By the end of the month there'll be only two kinds of people in British politics: reluctant socialists and enthusiastic ones.