Just as our final exit from the EU comes into view, noise from the media and politics about Covid-19 is sounding discomfortingly similar to the furies that erupted around the 2016 referendum.
On one side stands the political right, opposed to lockdown, apparently spurning the advice of experts, and seemingly convinced that a mixture of true-Brit common sense and derring-do will somehow see us through. The left, meanwhile, emphasises the importance of “the science”, and the prospect of disaster. As in the US, it is beginning to feel like any contentious political question will now trigger these polarised responses – not necessarily in the population at large, but certainly among the people whose opinions define what passes for the national conversation.
News coverage of the second wave has so far tended to focus on which places should go in which official tiers, the distinction between pubs and restaurants, and the decision to send students back to universities. What has not been discussed nearly as much is the plain fact that the coronavirus crisis – even more so in its second phase – is all about basic inequalities, and the kind of questions of work, housing and poverty that deep crises always bring to the surface. In other words, Covid-19 is a class issue. That may sound simplistic, but what it actually denotes is an intricate set of considerations that the argument over lockdown is not acknowledging.
Since the start of the crisis, I have been regularly talking to many of the leaders in the north of England whose anger at condescending treatment from Boris Johnson and his colleagues continues to make the headlines. As many of them see it, one reason for the recent increases in infection is that the initial lockdown affected many of their areas differently than more affluent places. Rather than retreating inside to bake their own bread and have work meetings on Zoom, people in such trades as construction, warehousing and care work had to carry on venturing outside and mixing with others in the first wave, so levels of the virus remained comparatively high, even before the summer reopening then took them back to dangerous levels. Clearly, the ability to render yourself housebound is also dependent on whether your domestic environment makes remaining at home either viable or all but impossible. The basic point was recently nailed by the Financial Times writer Anjana Ahuja: “This crisis has broadly separated us into the exposed poor and the shielded rich.”
Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, recently told me about one correlation that highlights this disparity. He said that in a swathe of the country that takes in Greater Manchester, east Lancashire and West Yorkshire, Covid hotspots map on to areas that were the focus of the last Labour government’s so-called Pathfinder scheme: the programme that aimed to replace old housing by bringing in private developers, and left a legacy of unfinished work and huge resentment. “The quality of housing in those areas is still extremely poor,” said Burnham. “Lots of families live intergenerationally. It’s very overcrowded. How would you self-isolate in a situation like that?”
This is a good riposte to the oft-heard suggestion that most people who fail to follow the rules are degenerate “Covidiots”, and further proof that in a society as insecure as ours, trying to stringently control anything – let alone a highly infectious disease – will tend to be very difficult indeed. According to research done at King’s College London, only 18% of people self-isolate after developing symptoms, and only 11% quarantine after being told by the government’s test and trace system that they have been in contact with a confirmed case. Among the factors the study associates with non-compliance are “lower socio-economic grade”, and “greater hardship during the pandemic”. A lot of people, it seems, would like to do what they are told, but simply can’t.
This is the basic point the government does not seem to have grasped – painfully highlighted by Johnson’s claim that infections increased because the public became “complacent”. Threatening people with fines of up to £10,000 if they fail to self-isolate – and, we now learn, passing their details to the police – is an example of the same cast of mind, less likely to persuade people in precarious circumstances to follow the rules than to keep their distance from the authorities. The fact that some people on very low incomes are finally eligible for a lump sum of £500 to cover a fortnight’s quarantine will not solve what is obviously a massive problem; in terms of basic practicalities, it is of a piece with Rishi Sunak’s plan to pay only two-thirds of lost wages to people affected by local restrictions.
But before anyone on the left starts feeling too self-righteous, they also have questions to answer. There is a cold, dogmatic attitude in certain quarters that seems to define itself against anything that smells of Tory laissez-faire. Earlier in the year, it was manifested in rigid opposition to schools reopening, as some people averted their eyes from the inequalities the suspension of education was making worse. Now, some of the same voices stridently argue for strict national measures, as if that proposition is straightforward. It is actually not just complex, but full of potential contradictions. A prime example: given that poverty and precarity are what make millions of people vulnerable to both Covid infection and the life-threatening complications that can come with it, the hardship that any lockdown creates will make those problems even worse. This, surely, is the circuit that desperately needs to be broken, but after so many wasted years it will take a long time to do it.
In the meantime, a daily ritual of political futility goes on. Some people on the right yearn for a return to shrunken government, rugged individualism and the primacy of “the economy”, whatever that is. On the opposing side, people would like us to diligently follow the edicts of a reborn state, but social conditions are too far gone to allow many people to do anything of the kind. To those at the sharp end of this crisis, neither position will sound particularly convincing.
So it is that increasing numbers of people ignore the current political drama, and muddle through as best they can. Parallels with the vote to leave the EU are not only about the divisive arguments that have gripped the political class, but the fact that many of the same places whose experience fed into their vote for Brexit – Hartlepool, Preston, Oldham, Middlesbrough – are also suffering the worst of the pandemic. The inequality they embody remains the essence of the 21st-century British condition: four years on from 2016, this is still a country so imbalanced that it keeps falling over.
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist