X Close

Covid is the forgotten issue of the UK election

Mask off. Credit: Getty

June 28, 2024 - 10:00am

After the Sunak-Starmer clash over Covid policy during Wednesday night’s debate, what impact has it had on the polls?

None whatsoever, because it never happened. In fact, the pandemic — by far the most important event of the last five years — has barely featured in this election. Yesterday, Reform UK’s Nigel Farage bucked the trend by claiming that “the second and third Covid lockdowns were the biggest mistake ever made by a British government in peacetime”, but the main party leaders remain reluctant to revisit the recent past.

Not only has the pandemic been broadly ignored, almost every commentator has ignored the fact it’s been ignored. One of the very few exceptions is the comedian Geoff Norcott, who tweeted: “Imagine telling your early 2021 self that the management of Covid would not be a discussion at the next election. Aside from partygate the policies and positions the main parties took just haven’t been discussed. Weird.”

“Weird” is the word. Between March 2020 and May 2023, 227,000 people in this country died with Covid-19 listed on their death certificates. The distinction between dying of and dying with isn’t always clear, but excess death figures show a toll of tens of thousands every year during the first three years of the pandemic. If, say, flooding had killed as many of our citizens, we’d be intensely interested in the adequacy of the political response.

Of course, there’s also the issue of the balance struck between protection and liberty. Lockdown was supported by the majority of the population, but the cost to personal freedoms and wellbeing was extreme, while the economic damage was crippling. Something like £400 billion was added to our national debt, and that’s before the losses incurred by households and businesses.

This campaign, then, would be a perfect opportunity to hold our politicians to account for the life-and-death decisions they made at this time of national crisis. But the media — beyond its dutiful reporting from the slow, expensive sideshow that is the Covid inquiry — seems astonishingly uninterested. Even those who think the vaccine rollout was a massive achievement and still believe that lockdowns and mask mandates were, on the whole, a rational response to the first months of the pandemic must admit the silence around Covid is rather odd. We have every right to ask hard questions about the things that were expected of us and, all too often, taken from us.

For instance, why did ministers allow substantial movement across our borders while restricting our freedoms at home? Was it really necessary to disrupt our children’s schooling to the extent that it was? Could we have opened up society earlier? Above all, what was the origin of the pandemic and how do we stop the next one before it kills millions of people and burns through trillions of pounds?

With our politicians currently begging for votes, why aren’t they facing these crucial questions? After all, Rishi Sunak was chancellor at the time. He was responsible for the massive furlough scheme which is estimated to have cost around £70 billion. Some form of job retention scheme was necessary, but did it need to balloon to that amount? Could we have had more lenient distancing policies and opened up the economy? Regardless, Sunak spent a lot of taxpayer money and the interest on the debt is not cheap.

Sir Keir Starmer led the Opposition during Covid, so where was his scrutiny of the Government’s severe restrictions on civil liberties and personal freedom? We may be charitable and give him a pass for the first six months of the pandemic, but after that he should have been holding the Government to account. Instead, the Labour leader advocated for harsher lockdown measures and all the economic and social costs that came with it.

There will never be a better general election to put the key players on the spot — and yet they haven’t been challenged. It may not be some vast establishment conspiracy, but there is still a collective desire to memory-hole the entire episode. It’s easier to move on with our lives than to admit that some of the sacrifices we made were a waste of time. It’s easier not to delve too deep into the causes of the pandemic, because if the virus did leak from a Chinese lab, what do we even begin to do about it? Perhaps it’s easier to forget the Covid years altogether than to acknowledge that our world is that fragile.

Many of the decisions made during that time were, quite simply, the wrong ones. It’s obvious we haven’t had the whole truth but, then again, do we really want to know?


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

peterfranklin_

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

60 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
23 days ago

Instead, the Labour leader advocated for harsher lockdown measures and all the economic and social costs that came with it.
You’ve just answered your own question. There’s no debate because the two sides’ positions are the same.

Matt Woodsmith
Matt Woodsmith
23 days ago

I don’t think that’s quite right – the issue is that all the bad things that originated from Conservative government policy, ie massive debt, restrictions on freedoms, inflation, incredible damage to children’s education and well being etc etc… Labour wanted even MORE of. Labour simply can’t challenge the Conservatives on these things as it reminds everyone what Labour policy would have been.

John Riordan
John Riordan
22 days ago
Reply to  Matt Woodsmith

Which begs the question, if the Tories know they’re going to lose anyway but are still playing the game to try to stop it being a historic wipeout, why don’t the Tories challenge Labour on this? So what if it reflects badly on themselves too?

Dr Illbit
Dr Illbit
21 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Yes, why dont they…

Turns out that pandemics are quite profitable things. Who knew?

Martin M
Martin M
20 days ago

Exactly. Had Labour been in power at the time, they would have done broadly what the Tories did. There is accordingly no mileage for either in raising the issue in the campaign.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
20 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

No, they would have mandated jabs and kept us locked down for far longer.

Peter B
Peter B
23 days ago

Excellent questions.
And certainly this one:
“For instance, why did ministers allow substantial movement across our borders while restricting our freedoms at home?”
How could that ever have made any sense to have less control and checking on arrivals into the UK than for people resident within the UK ? And when Covid originated outside the UK.
I’m sure the enquiries into Covid will eventually conclude. At enormous expense. And after excruciating delay. And that “lessons will be learnt”.
I’m equally certain that they will be the wrong lessons. And that we’ll go on compounding the errors as a result in a downward spiral of increasing ignorance and self-delusion.
This may be the first election in UK history when *nothing that really matters is being seriously discussed*. Well, not by the major parties anyway.

John Riordan
John Riordan
22 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

No lessons will be learnt, except possibly by those of us naive enough to believe that the Covid inquiry would actually achieve what we think it ought to.

The Covid inquiry is a whitewash. It is being done to provide the illusion of public accountability while ensuring that nobody in government actually gets held accountable for what is certainly the worst policy mistake in peacetime history.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
22 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

If challenged on this, i’ve no doubt both parties would simply cite “the ongoing Inquiry” as a rationale for avoiding the topic.

Complete nonsense, of course.

Pedro the Exile
Pedro the Exile
22 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

The smart question would be to dig out the current and anticpated cost of the (“sic”) “enquiry” and ask our propspective leaders what we’ve learnt and what their position on the WHO treaty is..

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
23 days ago

Is this even a serious question? The last thing any of them want to do is discuss Covid – Tories, Labour and the regime media. They were all on board with lockdowns and mandates.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
23 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

No – that’s the second to last thing they want discussed. The last thing is the excess deaths from MI and all sorts of other things that are still going on and their connection to the mrna vaccine.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
22 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I think that’s true to an extent. But there is also a big ‘memory hole’ effect. Even when I chat with acquaintances, I’m struck by their reluctance to discuss Covid policies. The collective hysteria has turned into collective amnesia.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
22 days ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Absolutely. I should have added it to the list. Your avg citizen doesn’t want to hear it either.

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
22 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Your average citizen was gulled, and thoroughly soaked his/her little pink pants in hysterical terror-wee.
Of course they’d rather forget.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
22 days ago
Reply to  Damon Hager

To be fair, the propaganda and nudging was overwhelming. People were pushed into fear.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
23 days ago

This is like the post-Holocaust memory hole in Germany. Far too uncomfortable for everybody – and that includes me and you, all of us in fact.

Give it about 20 years and some maverick film director will maybe make a ‘challenging ‘ narrative about just what happened but all the suspects will be dead or retired by then.

Matt Woodsmith
Matt Woodsmith
23 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

This is spot on. I’m looking forward to seeing the film already.

Dr Illbit
Dr Illbit
21 days ago
Reply to  Matt Woodsmith

Mines the down vote. Not looking fwd to the film.

David Jory
David Jory
22 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

An aged Andrew Bridgen will be wheeled on and treated with due reverence. Children of the rest of us will ask their parents why they went along with it.
The dissidents will be applauded at last.
A generation or two later similar events will occur as psychopaths try to order the world as they see fit.
I wish we could get all over now.

Martin M
Martin M
20 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

I’d watch it, but I may not be alive in 20 years’ time.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
23 days ago

Distraction from a passive China policy is part of the motivation for sustaining the proxy war with Russia for 2 years too long.

Christopher Peter
Christopher Peter
23 days ago

Great article. It is both bizarre and depressing that such a massively significant issue is only ever mentioned in passing in the campaign, when it’s mentioned at all. And it’s because all the major parties were complicit in the broad consensus around lockdowns, and neither the Tories nor Labour see much advantage in bringing it up – but we all lose from this convenient silence because so many vital questions are not addressed.

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
23 days ago

They may not want to revisit it but the virus is going to revisit them in the not too distant future. Due to the government’s stupidity in promoting these toxic vaccines we will see greater number of deaths. Omicron and it’s ever mutating variants will reek havoc on both vaccinated and the un vaccinated population. Then the bought and paid for useless MRHA will reap the errors of their ways.

Martin M
Martin M
20 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Martin

It is going to “reek havoc”? So there will be a bad smell associated with it?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
23 days ago

Not only has the pandemic been broadly ignored, almost every commentator has ignored the fact it’s been ignored.
There is no choice but to ignore it. The media have no moral authority in raising the question as they were banging the same drum as the politicians.

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
23 days ago

There’s no ‘debate’ because, apart from feeding the media’s desperate thirst for ‘blame’, it would, like the ridiculously expensive and pointless inquiry, serve no purpose. The issue is not the last pandemic, but the next one, and continuing to foster cynicism and distrust of government health advice, the media’s stock-in-trade throughout Covid, will only ensure that the outcomes of the next pandemic are worse. As for the statement that ‘many decisions taken that time were, quite simply, wrong’, how the hell does a hack journalist, any hack journalist, know?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
22 days ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

How do they know? Common sense is one way. The ability to recognize a shift in facts based on the evidence is another. Noticing the rank hypocrisy between the people issuing orders and their own actions is a third. It’s almost like the number of hacks of was legion considering how many laypeople and medical professionals recognized all three of those things.

Robbie K
Robbie K
22 days ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

All the people that harp on about the ‘wrong decisions’ always seem to know how it should have been done, yet can never actually explain what the right ones were in any kind of detail.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
22 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Really? A host of medical professionals wrote this thing called the Great Barrington Declaration that laid out an easy-to-follow road map. For their trouble, they were attacked and vilified. Other medical professionals spoke of ivermectin and HCQ, both decades-long treatments for a variety of things. They, too, were attacked. But, sure; no one can explain things.

Robbie K
Robbie K
22 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Had we followed the Barrington declaration and pursued herd immunity without mitigations I dread to think what level fatalities would have reached – three or four times higher perhaps, like in Sweden? It’s most peculiar that people still back this nonsense.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
22 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

You keep beating this dead horse. Let it go dude. Surely, even you can’t believe that measuring only covid deaths is an appropriate way to evaluate policy.

Robbie K
Robbie K
22 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Ha ha! The things you are led to believe in your cosy echo chamber.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
22 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Nice evasion there. Again, should we only measure the effectiveness of let’s say lockdowns on the number of covid deaths it prevented? Should we simply ignore secondary effects, on the economy, education etc.

Robbie K
Robbie K
22 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Valid questions when there is the time to debate them. Especially in retrospect of course. What’s more important to you Jim? Saving lives or protecting the economy.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
22 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Protecting the economy over prolonging decrepitude for me every time.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
22 days ago

‘… prolonging decrepitude…’, eh? What’s the economy for if not for giving us the means to support and protect the vulnerable?

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
22 days ago

Prosperity is necessary for all aspects pf society to function and not just protecting the vulnerable. Essentially, we prioritised prolonging the lives people with few good quality life years left using a blunt tool that both destroyed economic activity and most likely took more good life years away from many more working age and young people by destroying their physical health, mental health and education. This was backed up with hectoring propaganda and widely reported incidents of police over-reach to shame people into compliance. I’m not saying that the police and media were part of a conspiracy, but they certainly over-stepped the mark on many occasions and people knew about it.
It’s also a false dichotomy that the options were mass lockdowns or mass casualties. We could have looked at prioritising the care of vulnerable people while allowing a greater degree of freedom and economic activity, which would also have reduced the huge debts we now have. In March 2020, with China obfuscating over data and scenes of body bags piling up in Lombardy, the threat seemed very serious indeed. But beyond that, the price of lockdowns seriously outweighed the benefits. It was also clear that lockdowns, initially touted as a tool for eradicating the virus (which to anyone with any biomedical knowledge is twaddle), simply kicked the can down the road in terms of infections.
It was scandalous that old people were released into care homes with no testing, but people don’t go into care homes to live out another few years of enjoyable life. They go there to die because their families can’t or won’t look after them at the end of their lives, often of pneumonia or another infection. COVID precipitated many deaths but cut short far fewer than the stats might have us believe.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
19 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Cmon Robbie. Saving lives or protecting the economy? This is a unserious question and you know it. I don’t know how you generate income, but you support a lot of luxury beliefs, and that tells me it’s not actually tied to economic activity. When the economy suffers, people suffer. People were making these very arguments by the summer of 2020. There was lots of time.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
22 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

All the effects of lockdown, or indeed not locking down, should of course be considered but at the time most of these were unknown. That there would be substantial expense and harms from locking down was clear, but how big would these be?

In the UK the first lockdown was ‘two weeks to flatten the curve’. Two weeks would not have caused anything like as much harm or cost. Of course it didn’t work out like that, and no doubt many on here think that was deliberate, but in my opinion we just ended up with a boiled frog scenario. A path is chosen and then keeps being chosen even when the original reasons for choosing it have been forgotten. It happens.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
20 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Iron law of woke projection strikes again.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
22 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Be careful there. The GBD is a trigger for Robbie.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
22 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

The GBD was attacked because it was based on wishful thinking – it suggested protecting vulnerable people without the means to achieve it.

Martin M
Martin M
20 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

Yeah, but luckily the government was able to protect vulnerable people using the policies they in fact adopted (not).

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
22 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

I think back then knowledge about the virus was limited. Not many knew that it was developed in a lab to specifically attack Humanity. And its done a dam good job and more is to come according to some Immunolgists and Vaccinologists.

Martin M
Martin M
20 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Martin

I can’t help feeling that if it was in fact developed for that reason, then whoever developed it did a pretty bad job. I mean, it wasn’t ebola, was it?

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
22 days ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

Government health advice will be via Big Pharma who own and pay for our agencies and call the tune. MSM are wandering sheep following the herd think. Let there be no mistake whether you like it or not, both the spike protein of the virus and of the vaccine is toxic to our immune system and it will target any comorbidities you may have. It really beggars belief that supposedly grown-up Politicians don’t understand this.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
23 days ago

Sir Keir Starmer led the Opposition during Covid, so where was his scrutiny of the Government’s severe restrictions on civil liberties and personal freedom?
I think a lot of people are going to find out quite soon and in a very painful way precisely what Keir Starmer thinks of civil liberties and personal freedom.

Paul Ten
Paul Ten
23 days ago

I do wonder, though, if COVID forms the entire backdrop to this election. The reasons for much of the ill-feeling towards the government – cost of living, debt, economic stagnation, NHS – have deep underlying causes but were made vastly more acute by decisions made during the pandemic. There might be an argument that we’re dealing with the after-effects of what were worthwhile sacrifices, crucial to see us through that period. But nobody is making it. Perhaps many people have a sense now, if only subliminally, that it was all for nothing. Hence there is a sort of general conspiracy of silence about the pandemic, with people giving vent to their anger in this election. It’s true all political parties were in on it, along with the media and much of the apparatus of state. But that’s the thing about being in government. You get to carry the can.

jay Draper
jay Draper
22 days ago

For all his failings Sunak did advocate for an early release from lockdown.
His action as Chancellor may have cost huge sums but given the circumstances dictated by Witty(et al) and the MSM did he really have a choice?
Starmer is just a spineless but clever, slithering opportunist who sniffs the wind and follows where it leads.

Tharmananthar Shankaradhas
Tharmananthar Shankaradhas
22 days ago

It is convenient for the public and main stream parties to brush Covid under the carpet. I suspect most regret their stance during Covid but there is no kudos for admitting errors as it will require most of us to admit we were wrong too.

Gordon Hughes
Gordon Hughes
22 days ago

I have worked closely with several governments in different countries which found themselves in the middle of acute crises – as bad or worse than Covid. Almost always the decision-makers knew that they could not continue after the crisis was past, even if they were paying for events outside their control. They also knew that hypocrites – aka the Labour Party – would benefit from that outcome. Politics or policymaking is a tough game and often you only get one chance!
But, that is at an individual level. In our current situation I think that a large portion of the contempt and hate focused on the Tories is fuelled by the belief that they destroyed the future of many people for no good reason. It is like the enduring hate for Mrs T, even though she was largely the symbol of forces outside anyone’s control – the decline of industry, currency changes, oil prices & discoveries, the rise of the financial sector, etc.
In that case, the Tories just got away with it – particularly because they jettisoned losing policies and partly because the economy was so strong. The current lot have made a complete mess of everything and will not admit that “the … situation has developed not necessarily to the [UK’s] advantage”.
An election campaign may not be the best occasion to discuss such issues. Still, the refusal of modern politicians ever to acknowledge mistakes or to learn lessons honestly fuels the contempt and worse felt by many people for both politicians and Westminster (or Cardiff or Edinburgh) more generally. It may be the Tories’ turn now but the wheel will come round for the new lot soon enough. I don’t think anyone regards a formal judicial inquiry as anything other than pointless theatre.

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
22 days ago

Er, the media themselves were (largely) cheerleaders for lockdown. So no incentive there for reopening debate over the mad, bedwetting hysteria.
If the media allow the politicians to sweep it under the rug, they’ll be only too happy to do so.
PS “COVID Enquiry”. Yeah, great hopes for that. Sheesh.

Buck Rodgers
Buck Rodgers
22 days ago

It sounds facetious, but one shouldn’t ask a question / launch an inquiry, unless one knows what they’re going to do with the findings – whatever they might be. The stakes on this issue are simply too high, so it cannot be addressed.

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
22 days ago

“It may not be a establishment conspiracy” or it may very well be!

John Holman
John Holman
22 days ago

Neither the current crop of gutless politicians nor the lamentable excuse for a ‘free press’ would willingly encourage a full and honest debate on Covid and the disastrous response and reaction to it. Nor will we ever get any genuine reflection or remorse from our world-class (sic) medical establishment.
If memory serves me correctly, many at Unherd – including perhaps the above writer – were firmly convinced of the efficacy of the measures taken.
I am sure we all saved millions of lives wearing paper muzzles. I am afraid the fact may well be that people do not like to be reminded they were all too willing to fall behind the truly ludicrous measures taken and were absolute mugs to do so.

Dr Illbit
Dr Illbit
21 days ago

An important question!

The question of the psychological fallout from the public simply being desperate for the whole farce to end.

Now, people don’t want to know.

The episode was handled so divisively and draconianly by political “leaders” that when the next pandemic rolls around all these issues will be festering under the surface still and the wound will be re-opened.

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
20 days ago

It may be a collective desire to suppress the memories of all things COVID. Many mistakes were made by government officials at great financial and emotional cost. We will likely never know if a different approach would have resulted in different numbers of excess deaths.

Martin M
Martin M
20 days ago
Reply to  Michael Layman

Exactly. It’s not as if Labour can say “If we’d have been in power, we’d have done things differently”.

Martin M
Martin M
20 days ago

The fact is that the population generally doesn’t want to think about COVID any more. They are just glad it’s over.