The Burner Episode #225: Disaster, Natural and Man-made

Why are Tory politicians speaking about the pandemic as if it’s just a natural disaster? Will the borders close for good – and what happens where they’re already locked shut? Plus, Dominic Cummings in the room: does it matter?


Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and it is Monday April 27. We are still in lockdown.

I hope your weekend has been at least mildly enjoyable and that you’ve got yourself away from the coronavirus headlines, at least for a little while.

Just at the top of the show here and at the start of the week – when perhaps you’re feeling fresh, as God knows someone has to be – a few requests. What you might think of as housekeeping.

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Right. A quick transit from a glittering glimpse of the future there to the rather less enchanting thought of Priti Patel. Here she is speaking over the weekend:

Priti Patel, secretary of state: Sadly, of those in hospital with the virus, 20,319 have died. That’s an increase of 813 fatalities since yesterday. As the deaths caused by this terrible virus pass another tragic and terrible milestone, the entire nation is grieving. My deepest sympathies and condolences go to those who have lost loved ones and I would like to pay tribute to the selfless frontline workers who have been struck down by this virus. Their exceptional public service and sacrifice will not be forgotten.

JB: The truth of course is that the number could be, and likely is, much higher than the official 20,000 milestone that Patel refers to there. Indeed the Financial Times runs a story this morning that looks at the number of excess deaths globally – the deaths above a four year average from 2015 to 2019 from various countries – and finds that the number could be as much as 60% higher than reported globally.

Certainly in the UK – as seems to mean to be now widely acknowledged – the lack of testing procedures, and what looks like an enormous underreporting in the care sector, means that 20,000 is likely a significant low ball figure. There also seems to have a little political price for that consistent understatement, at least at the moment.

There are a couple of other things I think are important to draw out of Patel’s statement there. She has at least managed to avoid her earlier and rather infamous non-apology apology, in which she professed to be sorry “if frontline workers felt like” there wasn’t enough PPE available to them. One wonders about the Priti Patel coronavirus condolences card: I’m sorry if you feel you have died.

Now, she’s careful to talk about this terrible virus and about passing a tragic milestone, but what’s striking about this is how careful the language is in talking about it as if it is simply some kind of external shock in the face of which the government is merely passive and unable to act and can only stand by and wait until the worst of it is past. It’s being thought of as if it were a natural disaster, like a hurricane or a tsunami or a some freak solar activity. It is not.

First, I think it’s important to keep in mind a saying used by many who work on global development and reconstruction. “There is no such thing as a natural disaster. [Hazzards] are natural events; disasters, however, are man made”. They occur because countries are not prepared to deal with natural events. There is some section of their citizenry, their geography, they seem to regard as not worth properly preparing for protecting from disaster. There are some lives which are simply more expendable than others. In the case of earthquakes or hurricanes, it makes those neglect in the enforcement of building standards or failure to provide adequate shelter or fund forecasting and warning systems. It may also show up in the slowness or weakness of response in international or domestic aid. That is true, not just in the global South, but in the most developed nations in the world as well. Remember this?

Kanye West: “So anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can help—with the way America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible. I mean, the Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of people that could help are at war right now… […] George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

That was, of course, a young Kanye West back in the wake of hurricane Katrina, which exposed how little the US cares for its black citizens, which it left stranded in a flooded New Orleans and derided, scaremongered and demonised on the news. This crisis of course, is different. The timescale spread in duration of a pandemic crisis, especially with its rate of infection and its fatal incubation period, is different to the sudden shock and then subsequent crises of an extreme weather event.

And yet Britain is widely predicted to have the worst death toll in Western Europe. Are we to believe this was somehow baked into the virus itself? Was there some chain of its RNA which said Britain watch out? No, of course not.

Disasters are made disasters by political choices; political choices like underfunding the NHS and gutting preparation, exercising, vitiating stockpiles of PPE, under staffing and under-training emergency response units. And above all, doing nothing. Indeed, worse than nothing, [instead] actively downplaying the seriousness as the pandemic spread across the world and made its way into Britain. Disasters are made, they do not merely happen.

Of course, many of us will share at least some of the sentiments Patel ended on there. Many of us Them. Many of us do admire healthcare workers and many of us are humbled by those who have died while caring for those with the virus. Maybe there’s something that should be extremely striking and humbling about people who die in the service of a cause greater than themselves, ministering to the sick and having done so knowing they were themselves in danger. It’s a reminder, solitary, I think to all of us, simply that there are most such motivations other than mere acquisition and greed. As much as it is anathema to those governing us, the world does in large measure run on such motives.

Such deaths are not natural tragedies. However, we have no culpability. Something to be regretted, mourned, honoured but without blame.Those are not natural, they are not inevitable deaths. They should be laid at the door of the government; for its failure to act, its failure to invest, its failure prepare. It is a man-made disaster and those men and those women who made it have names.

Still, Priti Patel did find something to brag about.

Priti Patel: Now, provisional data from police shows a fall in overall crime during this coronavirus outbreak. Car crime, burglary and shoplifting are all lower than the same period from this time last year.

Does not seem to have occurred to the secretary of state that shoplifting is perhaps down because shops are in fact shut? Some people have seen this as an effort on Patel’s part to distract from a rising death toll by saying something stupid in public. They’ve called it a “dead cat strategy” from Australia political strategist Lynton Crosby’s political dictum that if you throw a dead cat on the table… Well, people won’t be talking about anything other than that.

There are a couple of things to think about that are worth avoiding. First, it’s not always useful to attribute to the government the degree of strategic coherence or capacity to undertake that kind of lateral thinking and messaging. Second, this can always lead people to the insufferable smugness of declaring they’re not taken in by a particular absurdity or outrage. Usually, frankly, rather unwarranted. Third, apply reason that here has never had to be any external prompt for Priti Patels to say something catastrophic be stupid in public. Fourth, if this statement matters at all, it matters insofar is it shows that it continues to be business as usual for this government, at least on some level. It will find positive spin for the pandemic period wherever it can, however risible. Because it remains primarily for the government a question of political narrative and locking in public confidence as much as possible. Last, when thinking about something like this, really don’t discount the possibility that certain government ministers really are not all that bright.

Some rumblings over the weekend over the UK border, with plans becoming clear to instruct all those arriving in the UK – whether UK citizens or otherwise – to observe a strict period of quarantine of two weeks, with substantial fines to be levied if this is broken. This is reported is something intended to take effect during the next phase of the coronavirus response, possibly as some other restrictions are lifted.

This issue, which has puzzled some people, myself included, in terms of the UK’s response. [The response] hasn’t, at any point, really taken seriously the major vectors of transmission, which include primarily commercial air travel – and that is even in the face of real demands from airport chief executives to institute measures seen elsewhere, like checking temperatures of arrivals and instituting serious health checks.

It’s an odd position to be in, I think, for many on the left; to think that some temporary restriction at the borders is probably important, indeed essential, for combating virus. Though, especially that part of the border – which is usually nearly diaphanous and invisible such as it exists for the privileged traveler, the international jet setter, the business traveler and so on – rather than the border as it already exists in its most brutal and punitive form.

Various reports highlight a cabinet split on border restrictions, with notorious cabinet chancer and pseudonymous internet salesman Grant Shapps having opposed any restriction by citing the need for repatriation flights for Britons who are abroad. It’s also reported that the argument against is also being led by the connoisseurs choice of useless blights on public life, [inaudible] Trust, who has articulated – and I use that word with some caution – unspecified concerns about trade.

Now look, it’s pretty clear that Britain should have implemented some test, trace and notify scheme along with commercial travel restrictions at its border some time ago – that we haven’t is puzzling. But it’s not actually this aspect of the story that concerns me the most. I’m more concerned with the bits of the border world which are already shutting down very, very hard indeed. Take for instance, a boat of desperate migrants drifting in the Mediterranean just a couple of weeks ago. It was 63 people in a rubber dinghy. The EU was aware of the boat, but the country which should have been responsible for rescuing it held off until those migrants could be pushed back to Libya. That boat drifted for five days, during which time five people died of thirst – that’s according to the survivors who were on the boat– and another seven people were, were missing, likely drowned. Of course, they’d been pushed back to Libya where enslavement and torture are notoriously rife. The Maltese prime minister is under police investigation, but says quite happy to be under police investigation for that.

But it’s not an isolated instance. Like many political consequences of the coronavirus, it accelerates trajectories and exacerbates tendencies already in place. So, Italy has closed its ports. The US has effectively switched off its entire system of asylum. The UK is refusing to evacuate children with relatives in Britain currently in refugee camps in Greece, places which were already unsanitary and at massive risk of disease even before the pandemic.

My concern here is that these tendencies become locked in as a permanent consequence of the coronavirus crisis. The far right, which is so far broadly failed to capitalise on this crisis as much as they might, might find this fertile territory. But it’s also the case that their more respectable right-wing cousins – their suited, rather than booted end – might use this as an opportunity to make this a permanent turn inward.

As Dan Trilling points out in an excellent guardian piece on all this, the rudiments of a highly nationalists response are certainly already in place. Matt Hancock, of course, campaigned on the claim that it was a national, not an international, health service back in December.

As ever, the danger is in allowing them to frame this period as one of total exception which requires as a consequence not only austerity but the rolling back of universal provision, rather than a period which shows us exactly why socialised medicine is so important and so imperiled. But it’s equally hard, I think, to see how more permanently aggressive and isolationist border policy will be avoided, not just in Britain but across Europe and beyond. The virus does seem a perfect pretext to lock that in.

The big political story, which broke on Friday and has kind of smouldered over the weekend, is over Dominic Cummings’s attendance, alongside one of his Vote Leave data functionaries, at meetings of Sage, the government scientific advisory committee. We talked about Sage and secrecy just a few episodes ago, so it’s maybe worth going back and listening to that one.

I do think this is important. It doesn’t appear just to be a low level advisor sitting in and listening or even raising the occasional question. It’s the government’s highest and most powerful political advisor sitting in. And as oppears from these stories, actively participating in those meetings. There’s been a rapid response both from Downing street and many in the lobby to poopoo this story: “Nothing to see her perfectly normal, do stop being hysterical, normal business of government” and so on and so on. It comes at the point where we’ve already seen major concerns about the nature and makeup of Sage, whether its scientific makeup is right, whether its status as a kind of black box of advice is right, whether it should allow itself to be used by the government is both justification and effective [inaudible] by outsourcing political decisions to “the science” and thereby disclaiming responsibility for them.

Even were Cummings in the room and silent, it would be a disquieting fact. It’s important for those scientific advisors to be able to meet without the weight of government eyes and political responsibility on them during the meeting. The actual participation is, to me, infinitely more disturbing. You might hope the government might be pressed on this today. You might certainly ask the government when it will release Sage minutes, which now seems frankly politically necessary. But I suspect we’ll have to wait until the inquiry for that’s happened, by which point, of course, we will be told off for bringing up something long past and undermining the national recovery effort. Truly, the UK system of diffusing responsibility is a marvel of anti-politics.

Striking, however, has been the response of government cheerleaders and enthusiasts, both those directly employed by number 10 and their proxies in the newspapers. Some have been briefing the entire press is against the blessed Boris and therefore must be destroyed. It is remarkable, I think, how fragile these people are. It does stick in the craw a bit their outrage at insufficient adulation, or even the most cautious and polite questions being asked about government strategy. Imagine how they’d feel if they’re would have been a socialist leader of the opposition.

My point here, by the way, isn’t that media scrutiny is bad. In fact, I think it’s essential. As much as I agree with much of the left on the slanted, unhinged and intermittently defamatory nature of what passed the scrutiny of Labour during the Corbyn period, I still think the media and the scrutiny offers is vitally important to politics. I’d even agree that someone proposing as profound a change as Corbyn and McDonnell did deserves serious and searching scrutiny. Somehow though, all that dirt-digging, deep-diving and document-trolling, [has] rather disappeared when it comes to the actual government. That’s why, alas, I feel this story about Cummings and Sage will likely go nowhere because there’s not really the will to make it a story.

The cherry on the cake for me this weekend. It was revealed that ITV news editor, formerly at Newsnight on the BBC, Allegra Stratton is off to work for the conservatives under Rishi Sunak. I actually do think there is something pretty dangerous in the revolving door between politics and journalism, and especially between political journalism and the conservative party. Especially here broadcast news journalism, which is enough to make one very hostile and suspicious indeed.

Meanwhile, here is Allegra Stratton at the height of the so-called welfare scrounger bashing back in 2012, in an interview with a single mum for news night. The woman was in fact in work at the time, although you’d be hard pressed to know that, from Allegra Stratton’s interview.

Allegra Stratton: So, it’s a choice you’re making and it’s a choice that comes with a price tag attached.
Single mum: Yes, it’s a choice, but at the same time I don’t think living in my mom’s house would have been been constructive.
Allegra Stratton: I mean, we both know people living with their parents [who] don’t have a job. And they have fights. That’s what happens. But they don’t have a financial choice.
Single mum: I think that’s the difference because I’m asking for help to [inaudible] – I’m not asking for a free handout.

Newsnight and Stratton were in fact forced to apologise to the woman they so appallingly stitched up there. A free press, a very good thing. Please let me know when we have one.

Alright, ahead of us today, Boris Johnson’s back and chairing cabinet meetings today. Though he won’t yet be appearing in public at the press conferences. Questions over the lockdown lifting are all over the press, with the right wing press pushing especially hard.

Gove sits in front of the Brexit committee later today. Yes, that is still happening.

Questions over the new normal, that phrase now increasingly popular throughout the government, and what that will look like. Those are all over the press as well.

As ever. Do you get in touch from wherever you are. Otherwise, stay safe, stay home, wash your hands and don’t be a prick. But that’s it. This is The Burner and I’ll see you tomorrow. Bye bye. This broadcast is brought to you by Navarro media. Go to Navarro,


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