Hancock’s Call to Arms

Rachel Malik

Can a biscuit factory make a ventilator? Can a car plant? In yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that the government was launching ‘a call to arms for a drive to build the ventilators and other equipment the NHS will need ... We now need any manufacturers to transform their production lines to make ventilators. We cannot make too many. If you produce a ventilator, we will buy it. No number is too high.’

Military metaphors and invocations of wartime requisitioning are a key strand of government talk about the novel coronavirus. The old and vulnerable are to be ‘shielded’, Hancock said. The military script chimes well with much of the media: ‘British army brought in as coronavirus spins out of control,’ the Sunday Express shouted. In many countries, the impact of the virus has been compared to a war in its totalising effects, and government ‘war cabinets’ are seeking totalising powers.

In the UK, the tendency is to play up one war in particular. ‘Our generation has never been tested like this,’ Hancock wrote. ‘Our grandparents were, during the Second World War, when our cities were bombed during the Blitz. Despite the pounding every night, the rationing, the loss of life, they pulled together in one gigantic national effort.’ How seamless the shift seems from the battle of Brexit to the war against Covid-19.

Boris Johnson, however, despite his huge admiration for Winston Churchill, seems unwilling to step cleanly into the role of wartime leader – for now at least. The final sentence of his speech at last Thursday’s press conference was anti-climactic:

And lastly of course even if things seem tough now, just to remember, that we will get through this, this country will get through this epidemic, just as it has got through many tougher experiences before if we look out for each other and commit wholeheartedly to a full national effort.

Yes, there is the appeal to the nation in tough times but there have been many tougher ones. And phrases such as ‘looking out for each other’ and ‘committing wholeheartedly’ are more relationship-speak than a call to exceptional action; they mute the effect of ‘national effort’. Seriousness doesn’t come easily to Johnson, but this is more than a matter of personal style.

What is most conspicuous about the British government’s response to the novel coronavirus so far is how little response there has been: very little testing, comparatively; no testing for people who self-isolate (unless they end up in hospital); people self-caring and not bothering medical services unless absolutely necessary; minimal protection for ‘frontline’ medical staff and support workers. Responsibility for financial support for unprotected workers has been outsourced to employers and the benefits system; there is no word yet on how people are to be protected if they can’t pay their fuel bills or rent because they’ve been put on unpaid leave or lost their jobs. Questions about schools, colleges and universities, public transport, public gatherings etc. bounce between various agencies and organisations but no one in government is willing to grab the ball.

The country is facing ‘a gigantic national effort’, but senior ministers have been thin on the ground on the BBC and other media, as they have been since the election. A plethora of ex-ministers, ex-government advisers, ex-civil servants, medical and scientific experts, and journalists are being used to fill the gap. Some of them are clearly briefing for the government, others not so much (Jeremy Hunt and Rory Stewart, for example). Robert Peston is doing his bit. His piece on the ITV news website on Saturday evening gave details of a ‘wartime-style mobilisation’, including a four-month ‘quarantine’ for the elderly and large-scale requisitioning of property and factories – all attributed to a ‘senior Downing Street source’. Some of what he said was verified by Hancock yesterday but none of it has been done yet, whether by law or emergency power. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, made the rounds of studios this morning, insisting that ‘we are just being entirely science-led’. Boris Johnson has said he will hold a press conference this evening; there will apparently be daily ministerial briefings from now on.

Possible future measures, plans that are under discussion and any amount of leaked blue-sky thinking stand in for action. Media reaction to sometimes hyperbolically formulated proposals generates another cycle of reaction, reiteration and modification that further conceals government inactivity. At the post-Cobra press conferences, the careful release of the next stage of the plan, of what may become necessary, but not quite yet, adds to the sense of fear and anxiety. Shapps spoke this morning of deploying ‘different measures at the appropriate time’. It’s hardly surprising that people are panicking, especially when they know from experience how stretched health and social care services are; and, in many cases, how precarious their own existences are.

The most active strand of current government strategy is to tweak the message when it backfires. Much of the coverage of what’s happening in Italy has focused on the shortages in equipment and resources. That’s where Hancock’s talk of ventilators comes from. You can hear the focus group responses in his article, and in all the Sunday interviews. Correcting message misfire was also at work last Thursday, when Johnson addressed older people directly:

Because this disease is particularly dangerous for you, for older people, even though [for] the vast majority this will be a mild to moderate illness, I know that many people will be very worried. And I think we should all be thinking about our elderly relatives, the more vulnerable members of their family, our neighbours, and everything we can do to protect them over the next few months.

In the previous few days, several older and elderly establishment voices (Michael Rosen, Joan Bakewell) had spoken about how it felt to be both more susceptible to the virus and a means of reassuring younger people that they shouldn’t be too alarmed. Again you can hear the echo of focus group responses in Johnson’s speech: I feel that we’re just being talked about … it’s almost as if you don’t care.

No doubt Downing Street was also trying to rub out the notorious article that Jeremy Warner wrote for the Daily Telegraph on 3 March:

In the First World War outbreak there was thus a lasting impact on supply, with many families suffering the loss of the primary bread-winner. This is quite unlikely to occur this time around. Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the Covid-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.

Formulated in semi-technical and anodyne terms for the most part (‘a lasting impact on supply’, ‘mildly beneficial’, neat opposition between ‘bread-winner’ and ‘dependents’), the piece tries to look neutral. But the word ‘cull’ is truly shocking – and resonates in a paper that actively advocates the culling of badgers and deer. The strong association between the Telegraph, Tories and the prime minister must have been vexing for Downing Street. The average age of the paper’s readership is 61.

Hancock’s piece was also trying to row back on the ‘herd immunity’ misfire, which turned out not to be reassuring at all. But the article and all the interviews he did yesterday already seem irrelevant. Military scripts inevitably make a lot of demands or ‘calls’ on different sections of a population. One of them is for ‘sacrifice’. The number of deaths in the UK rose yesterday from 22 to 35. The total number of new cases was 330, up from 264 on Saturday.


  • 16 March 2020 at 6:46pm
    Denis Mollison says:
    "What is most conspicuous about the British government’s response to the novel coronavirus so far is how little response there has been"

    Indeed. We should not be thinking of "herd immunity" - getting to which involves over half the population getting the disease, with hundreds of thousands of deaths - until we have vigorously tried the WHO recommended strategy of targeting cases and their contacts. It is well-put by Pro.f Costello on the guardian webpages:

  • 18 March 2020 at 10:27am
    hag says:
    Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the Covid-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by exposing Johnson's cabal as a machine merely designed for perpetual electioneering of the most base kind, but basically incapable of governing.

  • 19 March 2020 at 9:10pm
    rumtytum says:
    It's even weirder in Australia, where the Prime Minister worships at a church that espouses the "prosperity gospel" and teaches that for the deserving The Rapture is coming. Would one expect these things to somewhat reduce his need to do something? If you believe that the poor are doomed to burn in hell and you're confident that you're going up to heaven on god's golden escalator your pandemic battle plans might not be what the people expect. So they're hoarding toilet paper?

    • 20 March 2020 at 3:22pm
      Graucho says: @ rumtytum
      Rupture more likely than not.

  • 20 March 2020 at 11:49am
    translucentone says:
    Continue Rachel: update please. Very helpful.