Columns

Capitalism 1, Big Government 0

South Korea did testing as we have done food — giving the market its head

It’s an ill wind. And the Covid-19 crisis has been a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theorists, tin-foil hat wearers, 5G phone-mast burners and socialists. Especially socialists. One of the first off the block was Jeremy Corbyn. “I didn’t think,” he declared, “that it would take only three months for me to be proved absolutely right by the amount of money that the government is now prepared to put in — and parliament has just voted through — to deal with the coronavirus crisis.”

Even better, in his Commons statement on the crisis (one of his last parliamentary interventions as Labour leader), Corbyn was able to shoehorn in Syria, the global south, Iran and the “inspirational internationalism” of the doctors from his beloved Cuba who had gone to help fight the virus in Italy.

It was just like old times as “Je ne regrette rien” segued into golden oldies in one gloriously nostalgic medley. And behind “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!” was a backing chorus of the Morning Star, which declared that “only a collectivist approach can solve the Covid-19 crisis” and demanded the “mobilisation” of doctors in private practice; the GMB union, which called for the “requisitioning” of private hospitals; and assorted professors of this and that in more or less obscure universities who, at the sight of a supermarket queue and an empty shelf or two, clamoured for the immediate introduction of food rationing, with the whole panoply of ration books, coupons, a Ministry of Food, compulsory purchase of land for food production and a “national kitchen” chain, mass-producing cooked food in unused school catering facilities. No doubt they would have added Woolton pies (fashionably vegetarian of course), if they’d heard of them.

Some didn’t even wait for the Covid-19 crisis: back in 2013 (remember that distant, pre-viral age?) a Guardian columnist called for food rationing to solve the twin crises of excess and hunger — obesity and foodbanks — exclaiming that “to fix a public health problem … you need big government”.

Well, we certainly have a public health problem. But is big government the only, or indeed the right, way to tackle it? Once again, current circumstances allow for the testing of an abstract idea. Last month I argued that the philosophical debate about the inherent goodness or otherwise of man can be settled because the world wide web has turned the old philosophical conceit of the state of nature from a fiction into a (virtual) reality. Similarly, the Covid-19 crisis has thrown up two parallel consumer shortages, the one of food and the other of testing kit. The former has been left to the supermarkets and red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism; the latter is the jealously guarded fiefdom of the gentleman-in-Whitehall-(or rather Public Health England)-knows-best, state-managed, bureaucratic socialism.

The consequences are already plain to see. After an initial hiccough or two we have food in plenty, in pretty much the staggering variety and quality we’ve got used to. It’s on the supermarket shelves and, increasingly, it’s being delivered, one way or another, to the doorsteps of those whom self-isolation prevents from shopping for themselves. I know: I am one of them.

Testing equipment and facilities, on the other hand, are repeatedly promised, but mirage-like disappear. Worse, the launch of mass-testing for NHS staff descended into outright farce. Drive-through facilities were opened in the car parks of Ikea Wembley and Chessington World of Adventures. The latter was empty; the former overwhelmed with a vast, snaking queue of cars. In charge were the inevitable jobsworths with clipboards and high-vis jackets, who turned away
anybody without an appointment and a confirmatory email. Which almost nobody had.

Public Health England is Big Government personified. Its budget is over £4 billion and it has nine directors

That was early days, on 30 March. The queues have now, it seems, gone away. But, unlike the supermarkets, which also had well-publicised problems to start off with, the goods haven’t yet — to the ill-concealed fury of ministers — appeared on the shelves in the form of usable tests in the quantity needed. The result? Capitalism: 1. Big Government: 0.

Picking the winner is the easy bit. More interesting is to look at tactics of the two sides. The key difference is the attitude to rules. Counter-intuitively (if you believe in Big Government, that is) the crisis has led to the rules governing supermarkets being weakened, not strengthened. Competition law has been suspended to allow the Big Four, normally fierce rivals, to pool staff and share stock-level data, distribution depots and delivery vans. Limits on drivers’ hours have also been relaxed and the ban on single-use plastic bags lifted. There has been extensive stock substitution, as goods usually supplied to the now shut-down restaurant trade have been diverted to the domestic consumer: my free-range chicken, I noticed, was a strange, flat-looking thing as it hadn’t been trussed up with that funny elasticated string. There has been a major recruitment drive for staff. And there have been ingenious coups, like Iceland’s CEO’s purchase of McDonald’s unused supplies of rubber gloves for his staff.

On the other hand, Public Health England (PHE), an “Executive Agency” set up in 2013 under the Lansley “reforms” of the NHS, is Big Government personified. It has a budget of more than £4 billion and 5,500 staff headed by nine directors and a CEO. In 2018-19 six of those directors were paid more than £200,000 a year, including pension contributions, with the others not far behind.

Throughout this crisis PHE has had a simple rule: “no testing is better than bad testing”. And it has stuck to it as rigidly as only Big Government knows how. It began by using only its own laboratory in Colindale, north London, which couldn’t process more than a hundred specimens a day. It devised its own test. And even when other PHE and NHS labs were allowed to use this test, positive results had to be referred to Colindale for confirmation. It is claimed that these rules have been relaxed somewhat. Even so, the increase in uk testing capacity has been agonisingly slow. The prime minister promised 25,000 tests a day on 18 March; almost a month later we had achieved only 18,000.

In the US, the Federal Centre for Disease Control pursued similar policies with similar results. But, unprotected by the British reverence for the NHS and its offshoots, its dog-in-the-manger attitude was quickly exposed and its grip on testing broken. As a result the number of tests skyrocketed: on 27 February there were 200 tests in the US; a month later, once the tentacles of the FCD were loosened, there were more than 400,000 public and private.

So in the right circumstances Big Government can be defeated. But blessed are those countries whose healthcare is not in its grip in the first place. And they include, needless to say, the two where the Covid-19 crisis has been best handled. In Germany, as Dr Christian Drosten of Berlin’s Charité Hospital, explains: “We have a culture . . . that is actually not supporting a centralised diagnostic system . . . so Germany does not have a public health laboratory that would restrict other labs from doing the tests. So we had an open market from the beginning.”

In South Korea, the situation was even more stark: on 27 January, the South Korean regulators summoned the top 20 medical companies to a special meeting to give them one key task: to develop an effective test to detect Covid-19. In other words, South Korea managed its testing as we have done our food supply: by giving the market its head. And it has been as spectacularly successful. The facts are clear and irrefutable. When will we learn from them?

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