Herd Immunity Lite: Why Tories Allowed Covid-19 to Attack Pensioners and Disabled People

Content Warning: ableism, eugenics, ageism, racism, mentions of sexual assault

In 2017 the Conservative Party tweeted ‘There will be two million more people over 75 in the next 10 years – we to have a plan to deal with that challenge’. Now, in the midst of a pandemic which the government has done the bare minimum to save elderly and disabled lives, questions must be asked about what they meant by this.

Britain has 14 million disabled people and many of those are elderly. Overpopulation has been an issue for reactionaries since at least Thomas Malthus (1798). And in a heavily stratified society like ours, it’s clear who the ruling class perceives as surplus and who it perceives as essential (themselves!). The poorest, especially the working class elderly and disabled, as far as the ruling class is concerned, are a burden.

Ruling class ideology is fundamentally shaped by concern for profit growth and such ‘unproductive’ sectors of the population have long been a target for cost-cutting. Thus, eugenics (the practice of ‘improving’ the genetic quality of a population, which is inextricably linked to scientific racism) and Malthusianism (a belief in overpopulation myths, which is a short step from population culling) are inescapable factors of capitalism.

Britain was the main ideological developer of eugenics, though the word itself became tainted by association with the Nazis. It ruined Keith Joseph’s chance of becoming leader of the Conservative Party in the 70s, when he argued that ‘a high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and to bring them up. They are born to mothers who were first pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5 … Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment.’ But the killer line was this: ‘The balance of our population, our human stock is threatened’[i]. It scuppered his designs on the role of Prime Minister, but not his role as eminence grise behind Thatcher, who rewarded him with the position of Education Secretary in her Cabinet. Overt eugenics was thus shown to be a dampener on one’s political ambitions, but far from fatal.

Margaret Thatcher & her mentor Keith Joseph

Then in 2020, Covid-19 (C-19) struck – especially lethal to those very groups which the Tories see as a burden. It provided a unique opportunity to ‘solve’ their problem.

Anti-Lockdown and Herd Immunity

It was leaked that right at the start of the pandemic, Dominic Cummings (Johnson’s chief adviser) described policy as ‘herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad’. On March 5th, the same day the government policy moved from ‘containment’ to ‘delay’, Boris Johnson told the media that one approach would be to ‘take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population’, he continued ‘but I think it would be better if we take all the measures that we can now to stop the peak of the disease being as difficult for the NHS as it might be’[ii].

Firstly, though it’s not an explicit endorsement of a complete herd immunity plan, it’s striking how euphemistically he talks about abandoning the nation to a lethal disease which would kill over 150,000. Secondly, it’s not a disavowal – he is emphasising balance between protecting people (what he terms ‘draconian measures’) on the one hand and on the other simply allowing the virus to do its worst – the euphemism for this being ‘herd immunity’. In other words: Tory policy was herd immunity lite and this is borne out in their subsequent policy of doing the bare minimum.

Herd immunity lite was further confirmed on 11th March when Dr David Halpern, chief exec of the government behavioural insights team (or ‘nudge unit’), suggested to the BBC that the government was pursuing the policy outlined in the NHS document seen by the Guardian: ‘There’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows as it will do, where you want to cocoon, to protect those at-risk groups so they don’t catch the disease,’ Halpern said, ‘by the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population’.

And confirmed again on the 13th March, when Patrick Vallance, government’s chief scientific adviser, defended this approach by saying that 60% of the population, 40M, contract C-19 was one of the ‘key things we need to do’.

The day after, Matt Hancock denied aiming for ‘herd immunity’ in a Telegraph article: ‘We have a plan, based on the expertise of world-leading scientists. Herd immunity is not a part of it. That is a scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy’. This was mere hedging. Hancock was spinning the government policy of ‘not total herd immunity’ as ‘not herd immunity’. And the reason for not going for total herd immunity plan was merely to prevent complete collapse of the NHS at that time. Otherwise, allowing the virus to spread was basically fine as far as they were concerned.

This was further reinforced on 23rd March, an NHS planning document included ‘targeted herd immunity’ as a possible government intervention to be modelled via computer simulation. Whatever the government has said, and we know better than to take their word for it, their policy has been in effect, this herd immunity lite one.

Later again the ‘stopping short of total herd immunity’ policy was confirmed on the 7th April when about 2,000 employees of the Passport Office were asked to go back into work because, in the words of Home Office deputy scientific adviser, Rupert Shute, ‘we are working on the assessment that 80% of us … will get the virus … we cannot hide away forever’. He confirmed that government strategy was not attempting to contain the virus, but simply to slow down ‘the rate at which we get this virus [which] has direct impact on the NHS. It’s vitally important that we don’t get it at the same time. But that does not mean we won’t still get it at some point … we’ve got to keep functioning our lives … and go out for work … And that’s why we have the advice of trying to slow down the spread, but not stopping the spread. It’s not possible to stop the spread’.

Downing St reinforced the decision to get Passport staff back in workplaces and refused to disavow the claim of 80% getting C-19. The spokesperson said ‘the government’s focus is on stopping the spread of the disease to protect the health service’ (my italics).

The idea that it was impossible to stop the spread was simply a barefaced lie. There’s no way that senior officials and politicians like this were unaware of successful plans to stop the spread of the virus in many other countries around the world – Vietnam, New Zealand, DPR Korea, Cuba to mention just a few.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and other health experts had attacked the initial ‘herd immunity’ non-plan. Its Director-General said: ‘The idea that countries should shift from containment to mitigation is wrong and dangerous’ and Rob Wallace, a public health expert researching epidemics, gave this indictment: ‘a campaign of active neglect would kill hundreds of thousands of the very vulnerable the Tories claim they wish to protect. But destroying the village to save it is the core premise of a State of the most virulent class character. It’s the sign of an exhausted empire that, unable to follow China and other countries in putting up a fight, pretends, as I wrote, that its failures are exactly the solution’.

The policy was not purely passive, not just refusing to take effective action, but in fact, active: the government discharged 25,000 patients into care homes where the elderly and the disabled live, mostly without testing them, but even forcing care homes to accept patients with positive C-19 test results. In between lockdowns both Tories and Labour have encouraged the public to put their children back in school, to go back to their workplaces, and the government spent over half a billion pounds encouraging people to go out and eat in restaurants.

Bojo and Crew

The herd immunity lite plan is a callous and murderous one and we have a death toll of over 150,000 to show for it, one of the worst death tolls in the world. But where does it come from? Does sheer callousness and murderousness explain it? No. First of all, they believe in hierarchy, and they believe hierarchy is naturally reflected not only in our social stratification, but our very DNA. Sources close to the PM revealed that Boris Johnson simply didn’t believe people like him, with his superior genes, would get the virus. This is why he walked around a Covid ward shaking hands with everyone (He tested positive on 27th March, entered hospital on 6th April and was discharged on the 12th).

As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson told a room full of bankers ‘it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85 while about 2% have an IQ above 130 … the harder you shake the pack the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top’. Hierarchy, for these people, is ingrained and just. Social Darwinism, or the ideology of ‘survival of the fittest’ (propounded by 19th Century British sociologist Herbert Spencer) logically follows.

These views of hierarchy, genes and IQ are inextricably linked to their views on race. As editor of The Spectator, Bojo published an article in which his writer, Taki, wrote ‘On average, Orientals are slower to mature, less randy, less fertile, and have larger brains and higher IQ scores. Blacks are at the other pole, and whites fall somewhere in the middle, although closer to the Orientals than the blacks’. When asked about these remarks, Johnson simply said Taki was a ‘very distinguished columnist’.

The view of racial hierarchy also feeds back into the Malthusian fears (totally unfounded) of overpopulation mentioned above. This makes the concern a global, and therefore, imperialist one. Specifically about Africa, Johnson framed its problems as being that Britain is no longer in charge and called for a second ‘scramble’ by the colonisers to divide it among them. In 2007 Johnson wrote in the Telegraph ‘the world’s population is now 6.7bn, roughly double what it was when I was born. If I live to be in my mid-eighties, then it will have trebled in my lifetime… I simply cannot understand why no one discusses this impending calamity, and why no world statesmen have the guts to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves… we seem to have given up on population control’. Then, along came C-19 and Johnson saw his chance to show he has ‘the guts’.  

These views are unsurprisingly shared by his advisers: Andrew Sabisky, who was appointed by Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, said in 2016: ‘Eugenics are about selecting “for” good things. Intelligence is largely inherited and correlates with better outcomes: physical health, income, lower mental illness’. He has also called for contraception programmes to be expanded to stop the creation of a ‘permanent underclass’, claimed black people were intellectually inferior, and dismissively compared women’s sports to the Paralympics. Sabisky also suggested having children take performance-enhancing drugs which come with health risks was probably worth ‘a dead kid once a year’ for the educational benefits. Though Sabisky had to resign, Johnson refused to condemn any of this. Johnson himself has referred to black people as ‘picaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’.

Then there’s Cummings, who argued that in education ‘a child’s performance has more to do with genetic makeup than the standard of his or her education’. And he is equally keen to discount family wealth, social position and class as factors: ‘differences in educational achievement are not mainly because of “richer parents buying greater opportunity”’.

Cummings’s father-in-law, Humphry Wakefield – an English baronet – declared on a TV show that ‘high things in the tree of life have quality, have skills, they get wonderful degrees at university, and if they marry each other that gets even better … one is the subject of one’s genes, and I like the idea of them being successful genes’. His daughter, and Cummings’ wife, is also an editor at Bojo’s former publication, the Spectator.

Tory and Ruling Class Ideology

This isn’t just a cabal around Boris Johnson imposing a cull policy on a resistant Party and Parliament, pulling the wool over the eyes of a truth-disseminating media. It takes a whole ruling class to get behind this policy, or at least enough of them not object to it, for it to work.

First of all, the Conservative Party: about 70 Tory MPs formed the Covid Recovery Group in November to campaign against any form of lockdown. This section of the Party believe the government has been far too soft, and it’s costing Big Business far too much money. One member, Graham Brady, insisted the government was ‘throwing our prosperity away by shutting down and destroying our economy’.

Another Tory MP, Lucy Allan, tweeted a Telegraph article in late December with the headline ‘More under 60s died on roads last year than those with no underlying conditions from coronavirus’. The subtext here is that people with underlying conditions are fair game. She also falsely claimed C-19 was a ‘virus that has no symptoms and causes no illness in the majority of people that get it’.

These kind of abhorrent and downright mendacious statements emanate from the ideology which holds the Tory Party together: their sense of hierarchy and superiority. In 2012 A group of newly elected Tory MPs who would become cabinet selections by Bojo, brought out their own sort of manifesto called Britannia Unchained (Kwarteng, Patel, Raab, Truss and Skidmore). In it they claimed ‘the British are among the worst idlers in the world … we work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor’, and therefore to compete with the rising economies of India, China and Brazil we need to avenge the ‘dependency culture’.

The ‘Nasty Party’ has long been known for its contempt for the working class in general and in particular the disabled. The Tories are so right-wing that in 2019 Britain First admitted 5,000 of its members had joined the party. Earlier that year Jacob Rees-Mogg blamed the working-class residents of Grenfell for their own deaths, claiming they lacked ‘common sense’. Subsequently, a video of a party, where attendees celebrated the tragedy of Grenfell on a bonfire, went viral. In 2018 Iain Duncan Smith recommended bosses hire disabled people because ‘they often work longer hours’ and forgo holiday ‘because they love the whole idea of being in work’. In 2017 Chancellor Hammond blamed low productivity of the economy on an increased number of disabled people in the workforce. Tory welfare minister, Lord Freud, stated in 2014 that disabled people are ‘not worth the full wage’ and should have £2 an hour. David Cameron’s response to the 2011 riots placed blame on ‘Children without fathers’. And in 2005 Owen Lister, a Tory Mayor (and a GP!), stated that disabled children should get the guillotine.

Nor is the Labour Party exempt, with its long history of espousing eugenics and anti-working class ideology (check out the history of the Fabian Society, for example). David Lammy also blamed working-class parents for the London riots in 2011. Tony Blair described the long-term unemployed as suffering from ‘drug abuse, low aspirations and family instability’. In 2017, under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour MP Frank Field recommended disabled people be paid less than minimum wage. Novara Media, hanging on to the left-most apron-string of the Labour Party, recently platformed a major proponent of eugenics (Peter Singer, who advocates killing disabled babies and argues that sexually assaulting those with cognitive disabilities is actually fine). The fact that a philosopher can hold these views and be lauded as one of the most prominent in the world tells its own story, but for a supposedly left-wing media outlet to promote such a figure in the context of an ongoing cull is all the more sinister. While the Tories put a eugenics programme into practice, they receive ideological justification from their supposed political opponents.

None of this should come as a great shock in a society dominated by the idea of hierarchy, racism, ableism and classism, all of which is institutionalised in monarchy and aristocracy. Thus, a Telegraph journalist made government motives explicit, saying ‘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’. Another journalist, Julia Hartley-Brewer, cited on Twitter official NHS England figures published on 19th November that 96% of C-19 deaths had ‘pre-existing health conditions’ and 92% were aged over 60. She concluded that pandemic response had been overblown – after all, who cares about over-60s (JHB is 52) or those with asthma or diabetes? Similarly, in response to a tweet referencing the ‘unnecessary deaths of 120,00[0] people’, another journalist (Dan Hodges) replied ‘How do you know they were unnecessary’.

None of this ideology, whether in weaker or stronger form, is confined to the Tory Party. It is pervasive in our society and culture, emanating from the ruling class and its institutions. Richard Dawkins was another who offered qualified support for eugenics in February 2020: ‘It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs, and roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology’. This is not a disavowal of eugenics – it’s an affirmation of the premises on which it’s based: that we are a bundle of genes, some with better and some with worse, and eugenics could therefore ‘work’. The word ‘work’ here carries a whole load of ideological presumptions with it – it cannot be neutral. The editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, heartily agreed: ‘When Richard Dawkins says that eugenics would work for humans, he is simply saying what a lot of like-minded people are thinking. Eugenics is back’.

Eugenics never really left. Eugenicist ideology is inherent in much of the Hollywood superhero genre – Marvel and DC movies in particular. Disney’s The Incredibles is a perfect example. Meanwhile, UK aid has been used to fund forced sterilisation of India’s poor. The government pursues eugenicist 2-child limits on child tax credits in Britain and retains enough support to get re-elected. Malthusian charities like Population Matters get vocal support from figures such as David Attenborough. Attenborough is firm friends with the Royals who share his vision of a global cull: Prince Phillip said that if he was reincarnated he’d come back as a deadly virus and Prince William complained that there are simply too many Africans reproducing and using up precious resources which should go to those more deserving. Any attempt to ‘control’ a population, of course, raises the question of who, exactly, is being controlled. The poorer, the darker your skin, the less able-bodied you are, the more likely you are to be its target.

Pre-Covid Policy

The government’s assault on the disabled and the elderly wasn’t from a standing start in March 2020. The default position in our system is that all disabled people are con artists and cheats, and they must, to use a hackneyed phrase, jump through hoops to prove they’re the real deal. They’re being demonised in the tabloids as ‘swindlers’ and ‘scroungers’ on a constant basis. Thus, The Observer revealed in 2016 that 85% of benefit fraud accusations were completely unsubstantiated. The Independent reported that in the previous 2 years 300,000 public tip-offs had been dismissed due to lack of evidence. The press have whipped the able-bodied population up into a frenzy of snitching on the disabled. Supermarket chains like Sainsbury’s get in on the action by spying on disabled customers and grassing them up to the DWP. And the supposed ‘protector’ of the working class, Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has a solid reputation of demonising benefit claimants in his prior career as chief prosecutor.

All of this leads to an increasing amount of hate crimes against the disabled as well as workplace bullying/harassment, as recorded by the trade union GMB. And it leads to a hostile environment for the disabled and elderly where the government can literally get away with murder. A 2017 UN report found that conditions for disabled people were tantamount to a ‘human catastrophe’ and a further 2019 report found Britain’s policies on disability social security in violation of their human rights.

Disability assessments (for example, one disabled woman was forced to crawl up stairs) and Help to Work schemes are 21st century forms of the workhouse. One disabled person, Errol Graham, died of starvation after his benefits were cut off. On average, patients with learning disabilities are restrained every 15 minutes in care, with regular use of ‘prone restraint’ which can be lethal and is against the government’s own guidelines. Even Labour MP, Harriet Harman, described this treatment as ‘inhuman and degrading’.

Then along comes C-19. The perfect solution to an otherwise irresolvable problem for Britain’s ruling class. To further underline the state’s vindictiveness towards this community, look at how they’ve been singled out: 1 in 5 disabled employees had requests to work from home or be furloughed rejected. The government could have given people on the list of clinically vulnerable automatic right to furlough, but refused. The government denied disabled people the same money it was giving other social security claimants during the pandemic because ‘computer says no’. Literally. Universal credit was given a small £20 boost in March, yet those on disability and sickness benefits (approx. 2M) were deprived of the increase, despite the fact that this group in particular has been found to have increased costs as a result of the pandemic. Those in care homes were singled out with blanket ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders, denied access to hospitals, and had C-19 positive patients discharged into their places of residence. We don’t really know the scale of the impact, but a conservative estimate would be that 10%+ of disabled and elderly care home residents have been culled during the pandemic. This is a direct result of the contempt with which disabled people and pensioners are held by the Tories and by the ruling class as a whole.

[i] Welshman, John Underclass: A History of the Excluded, 1880-2000 (Continuum: London, 2006) p108-110

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Jenny @thebrickcastle
11 months ago

That’s a fabulous article, and the first time I’ve seen anyone so brutal and concise about it in 2 years. Horrendously sad, incredibly honest and potentially entirely true.