The New Observer UK Society Coronavirus has exposed Britain’s fetishes

Coronavirus has exposed Britain’s fetishes

The largely reactive response of the UK government to the coronavirus epidemic has laid bare several fetishes which are important for modern non-rational man.

Schools must be kept open

Keith Starmer (leader of the opposition), the Children’s’ Commissioner and the government all agree. It was Starmer who said that to close schools now (for the second national lock-down) would cause “huge harm” to young people; but we can assume the others agree.

This is a pity because schools and Universities are quite obviously hotspots for transmission of the virus. It can’t be a coincidence that the “second wave” started shortly after schools and Universities started working again. There is no point telling Jane she can’t meet her next door neighbour Mary for a chat over a cup of tea in order to reduce transmission if Jane’s daughter Kathy has spent the day within 2m (and closer of course at break time; they are, after all, teenagers) of Mary’s son Pete at school. If Pete is infected (from his Mum) he will give it to Kathy and Kathy will give it to her Mum. Jane and Mary might as well meet for that cup of tea anyway. That is; the present lockdown which does not close schools is scientifically and medically speaking nonsensical.

Not closing schools and Universities is in fact particularly insane – because in both cases teaching can be moved online. Almost all courses can be taught online. Even practical courses can be at least partly taught online; students could be sent kits to work on at home. And/or the online time could be used to cover the theory. This is the 21st century. Leaders never tire of emphasising the “digital economy”. And yet, at this crucial moment, it seems that they cannot contemplate a shift to online learning.

The idea that not being in the surveilled and controlled institution of school does children “huge harm” is a fetish. There’s no evidence for this. Humanity survived for tens of thousands of years before mass schooling was introduced (in the UK) in the late 19th century. It is a fetish (that is something irrational and primitive) which is going to kill an awful lot of the grannies and grandpas of these children – and that will cause them harm.

Giving money to large private companies

This is a fetish of the current governmental classes in the UK. The fetish is “private industry is more efficient” than the public sector. This is coupled with the idea that the way to solve problems is to deliver a service or product. In this case we have the £12 billion spent on private companies to produce “NHS” Test and Trace. The system has failed completely. It only reaches 50% of contacts. Of those who should be self-isolating (whether reached by Test and Trace or otherwise) less than 20% are doing it properly. Contact tracing carried out by local authorities has much higher success rates. [1]

This is obvious. Are you more likely to self-isolate – a major ask – for 2 weeks in response to an anonymous call from a call centre operative who has been on the job for 2 weeks and who is employed by a US call-centre business or in response to a face-to-face doorstop visit from someone from your local authority’s Health Department? The former is hierarchical and will be experienced as a demand by distant power. The latter, because it comes from a local official, has at least a semblance to it that you are being asked by your community to self-isolate.

Throwing huge amounts of public money at (often US) private companies to “deliver solutions” has become de rigueur for modern UK governments. It hollows out community resource and is extremely inefficient – as this case illustrates.

Behavioural ‘science’

Part of the UK’s disastrous response has been due to the reliance on “behavioural science”. There is no such science. These are simply people who give some degree of systematic thought about how to manipulate people. The key idea is that you will get more “outcomes” if you treat people as objects and manipulate them to produce the desired result rather than talk to them as people (subject to subject). It is the same thinking which drives manipulative advertising. Rather than simply tell people you have a good product and explaining the benefits the manipulative advertiser tries to manipulate people into purchasing the product (by playing with their emotions under the level of their awareness). This kind of “science” is also much loved by modern political class politicians. For example; the Scottish Referendum campaign waged by the government (against Scottish independence) was characterised by manipulative fear-mongering. The Brexit campaign was the same; rather than explain the rational benefits of EU membership the UK government tried to manipulate and frighten people e.g. with threats about how if Britain left the EU it would help Iran develop a nuclear bomb and we would all be dead. (“Rationally” the argument was a reference to the Iran nuclear deal signed by the UK, the US, France and Germany and the idea was that outside the EU the UK would not be able to take part in such international negotiations; but in reality it was a scare tactic). As a result of this love-affair with manipulation of mass populations, sorry “behavioural science”, the government did not seek input from people with actual medical expertise. [2] Apparently behaviour scientists (no doubt anxious to strut their stuff) advised against bringing in an early lock-down because they thought that people would suffer from “lockdown fatigue”. [3]

The government will provide wrap-around insurance

In order to gain legitimacy modern governments have to guarantee wrap-around social security to the population. (This is why liberals hate Trump; he stands for a different ideal; of standing on your own two feet, of individual responsibility). Governments – that is the political classes who comprise them – offer this security as the price of their own privileged position. Like parents spoiling their children to ensure that they are looked after in their old age. in normal times this just means governments “sympathising” with the population, offering people help to buy a house at public expense, and in general making sure that everyone’s needs are met. In this unusual time the government feels it has to “support” people through the epidemic. It was, in the UK at least, apparently necessary for the government to pay 80% of the income of everyone who lost work/employment either directly because of lockdown legislation, or even, apparently, as a side-effect. (Employers could claim furlough income support to send workers home even when their business was not explicitly closed down by the legislation). This really is the proverbial magic money tree. The UK’s debt is now greater than annual GDP. This money will have to be paid back (with interest). The idea that a natural disaster will mean suffering and hardship (i.e. reality) is no longer acceptable to the British public. But this is dreamtime.


“Protect the NHS” was the slogan politicians picked. The NHS has huge resonance with the public. The biggest fear of No. 10 is probably that images of overflowing hospital wards or bodies left piled up in corridors will appear on the Internet. That would finish any government in the UK. It is striking that the slogan was not simply “Save lives”. But the NHS has in fact very little spare capacity and so they killed off 16,000 care home residents – to “protect the NHS”.

A fetish about schooling; a love affair with the “science” of manipulating people and an almost innate tendency to believe that any problem can be solved by giving huge amounts of money to a private company to “deliver” the solution, the NHS as a (the last?) symbol of a decent society. Coronavirus just brings these (in this case fatal) fetishes of the modern era into stark relief.


  1. [paywall] – “Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, said the region’s health officials have found 99 per cent of contacts in local outbreaks, while the national system has reached just 53 per cent in the area. At least 80 per cent of the close contacts of anyone infected with Covid-19 must be traced and isolated within 48 hours for the “test and trace” system to be effective, according to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). However, the latest data showed that just 74 per cent of the 4,966 people who tested positive for coronavirus in the final week of July were reached and asked to provide information about their contacts. “The error was clearly to go to a private centralised system using phone tracing rather than so-called ‘shoe-leather epidemiology’ of using tried and trusted local public health structures to talk to people then knock on doors to get contacts,” said Stephen Reicher, a behavioural scientist who sits on a Sage subgroup.”