The Burner Episode #244: Who Counts?

As the UK death toll passes 50,000 and Black Lives Matter protests continue in the US, James Butler asks: who gets to matter in politics?


Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler, and it is Wednesday June 3. And we are still in lockdown, of a kind.

Images out of the United States overnight show thousands and thousands breaking curfews to continue protests over the police murder of George Floyd in major cities across the country – undeterred by Trump’s truly terrifying speech earlier this week or by the vast deployments and aggression of police forces.

Meanwhile, the many assorted cranks and blowhards who protested passionately and furiously against the partial lockdowns imposed in many cities a couple of weeks ago, have mysteriously vanished in response to the imposition of a curfew.

It’s funny how many of those who warned against the police state when we make faltering steps to equality are the first to lick the boot when something that looks like what a real police state would do.

Actually, turns out here in the UK, the report into black and minority deaths from Covid-19 was published yesterday after some governmental slithering. It initially tried to wriggle out of publication, suggesting [that], in context of the protests in the United States, [it was] bad taste to publish it. Genuinely weird remark that.

What eventually appeared was a rather flimsy document stating effectively what we already knew about unequal risk from the virus and its correlation with particular ethnic backgrounds. As many write-ups note, it’s also clear that the poorest areas of England have been the worst hit and that many of these disparities are social in nature and origin. But what should be done about it? Despite promising otherwise the document is silent on that key question.

Though, the Health Service Journal last night suggested that the government removed a key section of the document reporting the views of the 1,000+ organisations which were consulted before it was published yesterday. Many of those consultation responses mentioned the effects and consequences of racism within and beyond the National Health Service.

Certainly, the document was dumped into the public domain with very little notification at all, as if the government was shrugging off responsibility for it. Though Matt Hancock bored on about levelling up health through the UK and then consigned actually dealing with it to Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister. Expect no action there.

Meanwhile, Neil Ferguson, formerly of Sage – until drummed into resigning for breaking the lockdown, the bonking boffin – told the Lords science committee yesterday that he expects, barring major policy changes, the rate of infection and number of new cases to remain relatively flat until September. And then what happens this winter when respiratory viruses tend to transmit more easily and alongside seasonal flu is, he said, rather less clear.

He also made some very clear statements about his anxiety that care homes could function, or are indeed functioning, as centres for wider transmission back into the community.

But, especially, that he was shocked at how badly Europeans in general, and Britain perhaps in particular, have protected care home populations. I am, I guess, less shocked as the government here has basically been lying and signalling its contempt for people in care homes from the beginning – long before, in fact, the beginning of this epidemic. But he’s right, that we should be shocked… He’s right that it should be a scandal.

As should this: the UK death toll has now climbed over 50,000 people. According to the latest release of figures, the number of deaths registered for England and Wales with confirmed or suspected Covid-19 reached 44,401 by May 22. But adding in more recent figures from the NHS and statistics [from] authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland, that tally reaches 50,032. The Financial Times raises its estimate of total excess deaths higher than that, 62,000.

Listeners may well recall the chief scientists estimate that under 20,000 deaths would be a good outcome. So, what then is this? If you’ve been listening while you may recall this –when we used it as a way of trying to grasp the size of the death toll in the UK just a while back.

[Metronome sound, set per second]

Imagining that we sent a clock or a metronome to tick once every second, and that each tick represented a life. And one of the thousands, therefore, of UK deaths from Covid-19. Each associated with brother, sister, children, parents, friends. Each woven into other’s lives in a particular way, ordinary, but not less important for being ordinary.

[Ticking continues]

And we said at the time, imagine one death each second, and how long it would take to reach the numbers we were then talking about. Imagine, say, you got up and started it ticking at the beginning of the workday at 9am. As the numbers are now – one a second remember? – they blow right through your morning. You sit and eat lunch and it keeps going, one death and then another. And you move through your afternoon and your evening, one after the other.

[Ticking continues]

You don’t hit 50,000 seconds until most of your evening has burned low. It’s 10:30 at night before you hit 50,000. A whole day of individual lives expired and gone. One each second. That’s how many.

[Ticking stops]

The UK death toll is now higher than the other worst affected countries in Europe, Italy, France, Spain. And with a track and trace system, which barely seems to exist here, we’re surpassed in deaths only by the United States. And that the government presides over this – not even through active malice, sheer incompetence and inadequacy – is enough to see it fall.

And I think it should be enough for criminal trials, personally. And certainly, the great wave of support for the government does now seem to be washing back and receding a bit, but instead we’ve entered this kind of twilight torpor where things that shouldn’t be possible together just sit next to each other; 50,000 dead and Matt Hancock’s grinning face on cable early in the morning; 50,000 dead and Johnson promises, just this morning, to personally take charge. Has he been hands off until now? How many is enough?

You know, I was writing copy for this episode this morning and the sheer vertiginous horror of it struck me. Writing something like “James Butler examines the latest death figures” and for it to feel, if not normal exactly, not completely remarkable. And that has a horror of its own, 50,000 dead… How many more, who counts?


I just want to pause briefly on care homes because the numbers that are interesting and maybe tell us who does count at least in government eyes. About 16,000 UK care home residents are believed to have died from Covid-19 and outbreaks across 38% of homes in England, 59% in Scotland.

A major pass with that is likely to have been the discharges from hospitals into care homes in the month or so of the epidemic, before testing became routine. In the space of about a month, 25,000 people were discharged from hospitals into care homes, without being tested as it’s now routine.

And we now know that early on there was block booking of beds for Covid-19 related discharges by NHS England. It’s not remarkable in itself. It was only on April 16 that blanket testing of discharges began. Now, government says that discharges into care home then fell by 40% during the pandemic. And that’s true. You can look at the data, it’s very obvious. That’s partly a result of fewer people seeking medical treatment at all, or having non-emergency surgeries postponed. And it’s partly a consequence of people dying before they can be discharged.

Perhaps the better indication is maybe looking at care home discharges as a percentage of all discharges, which if there were a protective ring being thrown around them – as the health secretary now likes to claim – you might expect to see it fall. In fact, it doubled, year on year, from 2% to 4%. Now there are other possible factors in that rise, of course, but it’s a big hole in the idea that care homes were, or frankly are being, substantially protected by the government.

Perhaps equally important and with sadly too little attention is the number of people with learning difficulties and learning disabilities dying in care. That has more than doubled during this pandemic. CQC data, which is newly released, show 386 people died in the April-May period, 206 of them with Covid-19. That’s a 134% increase.

People think about those in care and instinctively think of the old, but it’s just not the case. It’s wider than that. And includes many people with disabilities, which seem barely at all to figure in the political conversation. Is there some kind of category into which these deaths fall that they don’t matter?


That’s the question that’s been preoccupying me a bit these past few days. Thinking about those deaths or the report published yesterday or the way our culture treats older people in general. And, in a sense, it’s just a very simple political question. One of the fundamental questions of political theory, of state theory. It’s a question so simple that it takes political philosophers a long time to get around to it. Who gets to live and who’s allowed to die?

There are other ways of expressing this question. Who is killable, or if dead who is grievable? That is whose death gets to be recognised as a salient political fact and whose is just natural or should be thought of it as natural. Or, in any case, nowhere near as tragic as the death of someone who really counts because they’re white or because they’re young, or because they’re able-bodied.

And those distinctions, between lives which are politically important and which are not, which count for something politically and don’t, is one way of looking at politics in the United States and United Kingdom certainly, from the turn of the millennium, from war and terrorism, austerity and crisis bailout through to this pandemic.

It’s the question which confronts us over and over through this pandemic, who counts and counts for what? Because he’s obviously unjust that a life should mean less or be entitled less to care and protection, or have less entitlement to justice, less entitlement to survival; to be less grievable, therefore, in death.

To grieve a life is to recognise its significance individually and politically. And yet it is obvious that in the government’s side at least some lives really do count for less. And I don’t just mean the three-fifths rule once part of the US constitution, still part of us politics de facto.

[Ticking resumes]

What if we were to refuse that way of thinking? What if we were to try – and it really does involve intellectual effort – and really think all lives all lives equally?

It would certainly mean upending almost everything and exposing the gap between universal rhetoric – in which declarations of rights and constitutions are written – and actual political reality. What if each of those lives lost, which are relegated almost to background noise, were suddenly, actually, to count?

[Ticking stops]

Because then there are moments when a single death – sometimes for reasons that are mysterious through confluence of public mood and public anger, sometimes because enough really is enough and because it’s the last injustice dropped into a sea of suffering – takes on symbolic proportions. Sometimes, of course, those reasons are not mysterious, as is the case in the US now sparked by the police lynching recorded on video of George Floyd.

But that death becomes a vehicle for all those deaths that should have counted but did not. That seems to me also the double insistence of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States; to insist that in fact, all of these deaths of black people – which are treated as some kind of natural facts, just the way things are – should, in fact, be treated as social facts; things that are changeable, things that are subject to choice and that the choice is political.

And until it changes, everything else should stop. And even more fundamentally, the slogan itself insist on the recognition of black people as equal members in the political community; with lives that count in the same way that white lives already count.

It is so resonant and so powerful a slogan precisely because it’s not even an advanced political demand. It’s a demand about the very basics of political community in the first place, the precondition for doing politics. Solidarity as ever with protestors in the United States.

From the tragic to the fast call now, and just a brief trip back to the British parliament – where yesterday a truly absurd spectacle got underway as the government attempted to force parliament back into operation under new rules; ending the ability to vote remotely with a socially distance voting queue snaking a kilometre back through Westminster. Effectively those new rules passed yesterday and remote voting in turn giving people who have elected MPs, which have caring responsibilities, or who are themselves vulnerable, who may be older – you know, many, there are many criteria here –second class representation. People [representatives] who are unable to turn up to vote because of a risk to health and safety.

There’s some whispering about why this has happened, and it is a curious thing to wonder why it has happened. And it’s important not to discount the sheer stupidity of Jacob William Rees-Mogg here. But there’s some whispering that the government wants to get its Brexit bills through on time and worries about the effect of remote voting and remote debate on that. Some argument that politics actually can’t be done at a distance and certainly, however, a good chunk of it is to boy up the prime minister – whenever he deigns to turn up to the commons – as he looks like a particularly pathetic mess without his usual band of claqueurs behind him.

But perhaps it’s also still going to look pathetic even with these MPs back in the chamber, a kind of bare scattering of them trying to boo and to grumble an otherwise deserted commons.

Meanwhile, the government fails to meet its own criteria for lowering the Covid warning level but presses on anyway. The so-called joint biosecurity centre, which is supposed to govern the warning level, which is currently set at 4 out of a possible 5, doesn’t seem actually to exist yet. The power has therefore been taken over by the chief medical officers. Now, Boris Johnson apparently wanted a reduction in the level to 3 in order to roll on with reopening. But that hasn’t happened. But he’s decided to press on with reopening anyway. Truly led by the science.

Worth just flagging as it won’t necessarily be visible to Anglophone listeners, significant protests in Paris last night sparked by Black Lives Matter in the United States, but also picking up on a long running case of police racism and violence, the Justice pour Adama movement. Thousands in the street there met by police and tear gas. And thousands of protesters are expected for a UK equivalent in Hyde Park this afternoon from 1pm, more on that as the week goes on.

Lots of press furore over the utility of a travel quarantine, which just seem a little too little too late though frankly probably still needed. Maybe a little like a government remembering that it likes to do things with borders in response to any crisis.

The daily mail implores Boris Johnson to save summer holidays. And frankly, I think a lot of Britain is likely to get quite an unpleasant shock on that one. That’s also likely to have some significant and unusual political cut-through.

Prime minister’s question time is of course 12:30 pm today – expect much attention to the claim that Boris Johnson has taken charge of coronavirus. Uh, what was he doing before? [Expect much attention] on the collapse in public confidence.

Keir Starmer, in a Guardian splash this morning, is doing a good impersonation of someone gradually finding a spine.

Okay, as ever, do be in touch please on [email protected].

Otherwise stay safe, mask up, wash your hands, and don’t be a prick.

That’s it for today. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler, and I will see you tomorrow.

À bientôt.

This broadcast is brought to you by Novara Media, go to


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