Why can’t Britain cope with Covid-19?

Bryn Jones finds a catalogue of short-term failures combined with the corrosive effects of neoliberal free-marketism and ten years of austerity underline the crisis

Understandably, though tragically, many poor countries are ill-equipped to deal with this coronavirus pandemic. Their government infrastructures, welfare and health services and medical resources are sparse and ill-coordinated. By contrast, rich countries such as the UK and USA have well-established governance mechanisms, sophisticated health services and spending power that should mobilise human and material resources to quell, control and medicate the spread of viral infections. Yet several, particularly the UK, have failed: to curb the spread of the contagion, to conduct essential tests and to provide appropriate facilities and equipment to treat infected patients. Why is this?

Despite marked differences amongst the advanced economies’ success in coping and reacting, those that have most embraced the twin forces of fiscal austerity and neoliberal economics are also the ones that seem to struggle the most. New York City, one of the richest cities on the planet, home to a massive financial complex and wealthy elites, is on the verge of a healthcare collapse. London, its financial alter ego and core of the UK’s recently booming service economy, reports the most pandemic cases and deaths in the country. Even the rapid conversion of the ExCeL conference centre into a kind of military field hospital for 4,000 corona patients may not provide enough beds to deal with the mounting wave of severe infections.

The following list reviews the main failures in the management and control of the pandemic in the UK, and possibly the USA. Several failures can be put down to inept and misguided political perspectives and flawed policies: the US president’s ignorant playing down of the virulence of the disease; the UK Government’s adoption of faulty models of the probable spread of contagion. These have undoubtedly been significant factors. Yet several analysts believe there are more fundamental causes that derive from, or are inherent in, these countries’ dominant system of governance and economic organisation. This neoliberal system of loosely regulated financial and corporate business dominating a hollowed-out government and public sector has created both the conditions for the pandemic and stymied the measures and policies needed to control it. The following catalogue describes the main instances of this systemic failure and how measures have been stalled or slowed by features of the neoliberal market and governance systems.

1. Initial outbreak

Came from a street market in Wuhan city that was poorly controlled by the Chinese authorities. The virus, normally infecting bats, seems to have been picked up by some of the live animals sold there and transferred to market traders or customers.

Key factors: inadequate market regulation; lack of oversight by international governance.

2. Spread

Chinese authorities were slow to acknowledge the outbreak and to implement controls but unrestricted travel was the biggest influence. Within weeks the infection was carried around the world by the all-embracing air travel network. Even when this spreading was recognised and decried, governments and airlines did nothing to prevent travel from the most affected areas. For all their self-proclaimed ‘social responsibility’, airlines would never deter or try to control passenger demand. Nor would governments dream of interfering with the free movement of tourists, business people and potential consumers.

Key factors: market failures, corporate profits priority, laissez-faire government outlook.

3. UK Delays in stopping public events & gatherings

The Cheltenham horse racing festival, the annual Crufts dog show, the Liverpool vs Atlético Madrid football match – they were all permitted when infections were accelerating in the UK and similar countries. These attracted tens of thousands of spectators and participants – the latter two events from corona ‘hot spots’ in Spain and northern Italy. (The government did not block professional football and rugby programmes, which stopped because clubs and their governing bodies realised expensive assets – the players – were becoming infected.)

Key factors: government reluctance to stop prestigious money-making events, likely political influence of organisers, faulty policy advice from in-house experts.

4. Insufficient testing for infection

Despite the evidence from countries which have had some success in controlling the pandemic, such as South Korea, and repeated exhortations from the World Health Organisation, two months into its arrival in the UK authorities here have only tested a tiny proportion of NHS staff, let alone the general population. Reasons adduced for this inertia include shortage of test laboratories and of the chemical reagents needed to process the samples. In response, the obvious questions are why was epidemic/pandemic planning so poor in not preparing emergency test and laboratory facilities and why does the UK not have domestic manufacturers of the necessary chemicals?

Key factors: deindustrialisation of the UK economy, inadequate resourcing of NHS and reliance on international markets and supply chains: the downside of globalisation.

5. Insufficient hospital treatment facilities and medical staff

Look no further than decades of underfunding of basic care so that hospital beds and particularly intensive care units have to be limited by financial and staff resources. A booming private sector that attracts patients and staff from the NHS but does not provide intensive care is also a factor. Only in the last year or so have any recent Conservative governments promised to increase the inadequate numbers of nurses being trained.

Key factors: underfunding due to austerity policies and favouring of a private health sector that cannot or does not wish to cater for public health emergencies.

6. Shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE)

Shortages of basic PPE – gowns, masks and gloves – have handicapped treatment of corona patients and the safety of medical staff. The NHS appears to have had insufficient stocks and the ever-responsive supplier and manufacturing firms seem to have had no contingency arrangements with the NHS. Reliance on overseas markets, ironically often suppliers from China, has proven unreliable.

Key factors: market failure; public sector-private provider split; failed NHS governance.


Of course, this crisis arises in part from the fallibility of politicians, the rapidity and scale of the mass epidemic and flaws in scientific advice. However, the inadequacy of the UK authorities and services to protect most of the public from mass infection stems from systemic flaws in the neoliberal governance ethos and market dependency. This extends to an NHS that has been handicapped in its response by its division into four weakly coordinated tiers of national to local control, driven mainly by financial constraints and incentives. 

The much touted benefits of the global economic system have turned out to be major vices in an international health crisis. Of what real use has been the wondrous financial alchemy that brought mountains of investment into hi-tech gizmos, AI software and online entertainment firms compared to the stunting of funding needed for virological research, diagnostic and drug treatments? As I write I’m hearing of plane-loads of PPE being diverted from France and Brazil by Turkish and Chinese suppliers because other countries like the USA intervened and offered higher prices: the “black magic of the market”. Other vices range from the freedoms granted to global and national businesses to operate as they wish regardless of wider public welfare considerations to the bitter fruits of over a decade of misconceived and politically motivated financial deprivation for our public services. 

All of the above have been maintained by a pro-business, anti-public sector mentality that continues to undermine and restrict government actions. The war-state analogy is repeatedly invoked by government ministers and their public relations allies, and has even inspired patriotic memes for amateur poets. However, it is quite clear that, as presently constituted, the UK’s hollowed-out governance capacity resembles more that of a skeletal, Victorian Crimean conflict than the Second World War leviathan. If a ‘never again’ mood comes to the fore then the public and political agencies need to think about changing our system of political economy to one of human priorities in key sectors, public accountability of key corporations, relegation of financial returns and the kind of international coordination that brought some stability to global governance after World War II.

Bryn Jones
Bryn Jones is the author of Corporate Power and Responsible Capitalism? Towards Social Accountability and co-editor of Alternatives to Neoliberalism: Towards Equality and Democracy., He is a member of Chartist EB.

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