There’s no easy way to manage a global pandemic, unless, that is, you are prepared to ignore the scientific consensus about how coronavirus spreads, pretend away the uncertainties about any long-lasting immunity and undermine life-saving public health advice. Enter Nigel Farage.
Last month, three scientists penned the grandiosely titled “Great Barrington Declaration”, which proposed segregating anyone at high risk from coronavirus while letting the virus spread through everyone else as they get back to life as normal, so that at some undefined point in the future the population develops herd immunity and vulnerable people can start reintegrating back into society.
Euphemistically dubbed “focused protection” by its proponents, it has been exposed as wishful thinking by mainstream science. But it seems set to become the central manifesto of Farage’s rebranded Brexit party, despite the fact it would require the older voters with whom it is most popular to lock themselves away for months on end.
It might be tempting to ignore Farage as an attention seeker in search of a new slogan. Opinion polls consistently show that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the English public support the current level of social restrictions; three in five believe that the government introduced this four-week lockdown too late.
But the one in five who oppose it have the potential to grow in number if Farage and associates are given the opportunity to create noise, just as people are struggling with the impact of social restrictions in the run-up to Christmas. It could be the new unholy partnership between the populist and libertarian right that attempts to polarise the debate between “anti-lockdown” defenders of the people and a “pro-lockdown” elite out of touch with people’s lives.
The so-called science of the Barrington plan has been comprehensively debunked by mainstream scientists, including Sage. Between 20% and 30% of the population would be classed as vulnerable, many of them older or with pre-existing medical conditions that mean they rely on professional or informal care. Add in the people who do that, and you’re easily talking 40% of the population.
How on earth do you segregate a huge number of people from the rest of society for months on end? Herd immunity proponents casually toss out proposals such as moving all carers into care homes. Would they do that for months at a time on a minimum wage salary? What about people who receive care from professional carers or family members at home, or who live in multigenerational households with children? What happens when someone vulnerable has to visit a hospital where Covid-19 is running rife? No “focused protection” proponent has ever set out a workable plan for segregating a massive chunk of the population.
There is also no conclusive evidence to support the assumption that the remaining 60% or so of the population would after a while develop a sufficient level of immunity to Covid-19 to make it safe to end the segregation of everyone else. And while the fatality rate may be much lower for people aged under 50, we are only just starting to learn about the debilitating symptoms associated with long Covid. The Barrington doctrine is a surefire way to push up death rates by spreading the virus to older groups and overwhelming the NHS with serious Covid cases, to the extent that they crowd out other critical care.
But Farage’s last project – Brexit – should teach us that debunking a simple but dangerously flawed idea is not enough. “Two things about this are appealing,” says Nicky Hawkins, a communications expert at the Frameworks Institute. “The idea there is an easy way to fix this is very alluring, and it is also a very simple message.” Protect the vulnerable, and everyone else can get on with it. If you are prepared to bend the truth, it’s pretty easy to make political hay when times are tough.
Instead, the government needs to neutralise the potential for Farage to make trouble by communicating its own strategy far better. It must build trust by treating the public like grownups and acknowledging scientific uncertainty, rather than telling us wearing masks is not a good idea before abruptly switching tack in line with emerging evidence. It must be more upfront about what data it is basing its worst-case scenarios on, rather than doubling down when it inevitably gets some things wrong.
It should focus on rebuilding the sense of a collective response to this virus – the idea we are all doing this together for each other to protect our loved ones and the NHS – rather than trying to blame individuals for non-compliance and relying on the threat of punitive fines. And it should be clear that social restrictions come with awful costs for many people, and that it will be doing everything in its power to minimise the need for them until there is a vaccine, and to mitigate their impacts.
The worst response to Farage is to fall into the trap of appearing “pro-lockdown” and to become caricatured as a wealthy elite who can afford to stay at home, when going out and about more than necessary endangers people doing essential jobs. Failing to provide better financial support to people losing their jobs – a decade of cuts have left unemployment benefits at paltry levels – simply plays into this narrative.
Perhaps Farage’s Brexit success encourages us to be overly concerned about the potential for him to sow discord and division in relation to the pandemic. Perhaps an effective vaccine – looking increasingly imminent after yesterday’s news – will cut off his “focused protection” strategy. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he follows other European populist movements into the anti-vaxx space. The lesson of the last five years is surely not to underestimate the lengths to which populists are willing to go in their efforts to consume increasing amounts of political oxygen.