To everybody’s horror, the UK’s COVID-19 vaccination programme is exhibiting all the signs of being a wonderful success. The Office for National Statistics has calculated that by mid-March, over 50% of the UK’s population had been fortified with antibodies against the virus. This immunity is the result either of vaccination or of prior infection.
If the official narratives that have hitherto circulated about COVID-19 are taken at face value, then there should be logically nationwide jubilation about the ONS’s findings. Two quick injections can now supplant all of the arduous personal sacrifices of the lockdown. Why is it, therefore, that such a strange pessimism has lately crept across the UK regarding the immediate future? This is not just a bittersweet sentiment, a solemnity at the many lives that have been lost over the last few months. It instead looks more like a dismay that the lockdown is remaining unnaturally frozen in place, rather like some hideous snowman that refuses to start melting however much sunshine it is bathed in.
On Monday, Boris Johnson had submitted a series of outlandish bureaucratic proposals to the country, which appear to guarantee another, even more exquisite stage of the lockdown rather than announcing its decline. It is almost as though Johnson, originally a chaste libertarian, is now in a risqué flirtation with dystopia and sweet-talking the authoritarians. There are plans for “vaccine certificates,” namely electronic passports that an individual will need to bring up on their phone to access any number of public spaces and venues. Scotland’s devolved administration looks set to pursue an identical policy.
One might dismiss this as being just a ruse to manipulate those who are still hesitant about receiving the vaccine into hurrying up. Yet an attendant plan to offer two lateral flow tests per week to every adult in England, with the results presumably feeding into the passport’s databases, suggest there to be a worrying level of sincerity behind the initiative. These escalating costs of “keeping safe” what are in effect tens of millions of perfectly healthy people will inadvertently violate the most basic tenet of the NHS: that it pools all of our risk in order to redistribute the greatest healthcare funding to the most unwell.
Such is this ballooning irrationality that assumptions that were commonplace mere months ago are today unrecognisable. No longer is COVID-19 a simple chest infection that was only ever said to be dangerous in the days when there was no vaccine available for it. No longer is it commonly assumed that only the tiny minority who are likely to die from COVID-19 (and/or their carers) will need to be vaccinated before normal social interactions can begin again. In a sleight of hand, every adult – however superbly healthy they might be – has been granted some kind of pseudo-constitutional right to be “kept safe” from COVID-19.
What is so offensive is the unconcealed crassness of the stratagem to redefine what we are all being “kept safe” from. As soon as the vaccination programme was working well, we no longer needed to be “kept safe” from COVID-19 itself but from pesky variants of the virus that the vaccine was not yet proven to work against. Some on SAGE were even contending that we should be “kept safe” from entirely speculative or undiscovered variants, of which there is naturally a never-ending supply.
So sweeping has this irrationality become that it has even managed to incorporate a “Little Englander” mindset that has been until recently enormously unfashionable throughout the UK. It is now widely viewed as being morally normal that healthy people in the UK should be prioritised to receive the vaccine over people in foreign countries who are far more likely to be killed by COVID-19. The UK’s bourgeois Left, which is usually so vociferous in bidding each other to “check your privilege!,” has shown itself to be disconcertingly blind when it comes to this indisputable example of real unfairness. But to prioritise the slums of Nairobi over the UK’s spacious suburbia would suddenly mean that those dazzling electronic passports could never be launched, that the testing regime would need to be scaled back, that the infection rate could be no longer treated as a national emergency akin to a terrorist bombing campaign, and that the worst conceivable outcome would befall this managerial class that has grown so empowered of late: it would have to relax.
To be a practising historical materialist is to acknowledge that the lockdown is ultimately a reflection of this exact moment in history. I occasionally wonder how I would have coped with the pandemic had it struck in 2001, when I was the age of the students that I now work with. This line of thought is, of course, nonsensical.
Had the pandemic struck in 2001, then there would have not been the video-messaging technology to allow corporate life to continue largely uninterrupted in employees’ homes. There would not have been the army of home-delivery workers to ensure that every purchasable product could magically sprout on your doorstep. In 2001, a lockdown would have been unthinkable, precisely because its inconvenience would have reached the wealthiest social classes. As a result, the media would have probably not kept a count of the COVID dead. A general knowledge about the pandemic would have been doubtless confined to hospitals and care homes.
Another and much more compelling reason why the lockdown is exclusively a product of our current historical circumstances is borne out by its societal winners and losers. The fervour with which technocrats the world over have exploited the pandemic for their own self-validation only confirms the true vulnerability of the managerial social class. This is an international phenomenon but it has a particular resonance within the UK, where the managerial elite has been lately so demoralised by Brexit.
During the Brexit referendum, the population had been assured that there were no sensible alternatives to managerialism and “expertise”; when these values were unexpectedly rejected, there were three years when the voters were viciously abused for their supposed ignorance by most of the media and political class; and then, when the EU’s abject failure during the pandemic had revealed who had been actually ignorant all along, the misery of these “experts” was made complete.
Since Brexit, the UK’s managerial class has been furious and spoiling for revenge. The lockdown has allowed them to consign an errant demos to house arrest and to lord it over them, with a virtually feudal relish. And this week’s panicked efforts to devise new justifications for “keeping safe” in reality express a desire to keep those who are keeping us safe safe, or to at least shore up their technocratic power a while longer.
A historical materialist will possess a uniquely sane appreciation of how this power is never going to be handed back gladly. Those who are passively waiting for the lockdown to be lifted could be waiting forever. So long as there is a widespread tendency to depoliticise the lockdown, and to accept it in good faith as being an innocent public-health policy, then any pressure to end it will remain disorganised and marginal.
The lockdown will end – it is as temporary in its soul as any other undemocratic regime – but the question is one of how it will end. For it is becoming increasingly apparent that our heyday of managerialism is at once a magnificent, preposterous confidence trick. Lying behind the belief that the spread of an infection can be somehow expertly managed by cool-headed policymakers is the obvious reality of the lockdown’s economic recklessness and its hopeless short-termism. There is such pessimism across the UK at the moment because everybody, down to the smallest child, can see that things are not going to end well.