It can’t have escaped the attention of anyone who can log in to X (formerly Twitter) or open a newspaper that the Covid inquiry has seen a significant right-wing backlash. What’s driving the backlash? And why are the media so fixated with proving the Covid inquiry isn’t delivering value for money?
The Covid-19 inquiry and the Right
The Covid-19 inquiry formally commenced on 28 June 2022, and is due to publish its report in 2026. When it does finally publish, it will be almost seven years since Covid-19 was discovered. For sheer length and breadth, there are few inquiries to compare it to, apart from the Chilcott Inquiry. Yet for such an important investigation, the Covid-19 inquiry has inspired a remarkable backlash from all sections of the Right; the Conservative Party, the right-wing media and its echo chambers; all are convinced that the inquiry is a waste of time and missing the point.
Sp!ked online has called it “the Remoaner inquiry” and launched accusations of those involved trying to re-fight Brexit. Daniel Hannan in The Telegraph has called the it a “show trial” and accuses the inquiry of failing to put the “true sinners in the dock”. Last week, The Times labelled the inquiry “an expensive blame game”. GB News has issued a denunciation, declaring, “Britain has never recovered from Boris Johnson’s socialism”.
The reasons behind the Right’s ire
What is it about the inquiry which has inspired this opprobrium? All the public critics seem to be focused on one thing above all – lockdown. The temporary, time-limited public health measures implemented in March 2020 have become something of a lightning rod for authoritarian populists. There seems to be unanimity across the Right that the inquiry is insufficiently focused on the negative effects of ‘lockdown’, on children’s mental health, on education and on the overall good health of the nation in general.
It is important to remember that these temporary public health measures were implemented for less than fifteen weeks out of a two-to-three-year pandemic. The two further lockdowns that followed, were less strict and allowed for greater movement. That the Right are still obsessed with these temporary public health measures years later is really striking. Contrary to those who viewed lockdown as a historic infringement on some uninterrupted thread of British libertarianism and ‘freedom’, the inquiry clearly shows that lockdown was a desperate, rear-guard action, which the Conservative government was forced into making.
The government was forced into lockdown due to the catastrophic lack of government preparedness for a public health emergency; years of austerity that had withered away the resilience of the NHS, and the personal qualities of the prime minister, whose prevarication resulted in as many as 20,000 unnecessary deaths. The same PM that, in the 20 years leading up to the crisis, had been lionised by the same media who now decry the Covid inquiry as a waste of time.
Leading up to the inquiry: the rise of ‘authoritarian populism’
Since the banking crisis of 2008, we have seen the rise of what might be termed ‘authoritarian populism’. Notoriously hard to pin down ideologically, it can be said without controversy that the movement’s politics are of the Right, bringing together the disparate strands of racism, xenophobia, economic nationalism, pariah worship, the fetishisation of the military, contempt for ‘experts’, a poorly defined ‘liberal elite’ and identity politics. The rise of authoritarian populism resulted in the elections of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi.
On the campaign trail, these populist demagogues claim to defend civic institutions, orthodox religion and the family, with anti-establishment, blue-collar politics. They attributed everything that was wrong to the ‘liberal elite’ or the forces of ‘globalism’; they blamed the woes that have ailed Western democracies on inappropriate sex education in schools, modern feminism, or asylum seekers who they said were making life a misery for hard-working, working-class voters who have been patronised by a cultured young people with postgraduate qualifications.
Of course, every word from the authoritarian populists was shared by a media echo chamber that was happy to amplify their every bloviation as long as the clicks, shares and likes went up.
The reality of populism in power
But, once in power, the authoritarian populists governed exactly as any other plutocratic oligarch would – as representative of elite forces as those they railed against. One of Donald Trump’s rare legislative triumphs was tax cuts for the rich; Boris Johnson’s government siphoned off millions of pounds to wealthy friends of government ministers in the PPE scandal. Such giveaways to the super-rich exactly tallied with the image these populists portrayed of the ‘liberal elite’, they mocked and scorned on their way to power.
Today, the elected populists, except for Modi, are in trouble. Johnson is out of power. Trump will probably be indicted next year. Bolsonaro is a disgraced ex-politician. So what changed? What changed the weather so rapidly between 2016 and 2023 to alter the fortunes of the authoritarian populists so dramatically? The answer, in short, is Covid-19. The authoritarian populist’s muddled thinking, lack of discipline, impatience with the machinery of government, and contempt for democracy and was cruelly exposed by the global health emergency.
Covid, ‘lockdown’ and the end of authoritarian populist dreams
Since the early days of the pandemic, there has been a fantasy on the right that the pandemic could have been managed with a ‘light touch’ approach to public health. This has gone hand-in-hand with the lauding of the so-called Swedish model and the hatred of the furlough scheme, which has often animated lockdown scepticism. It is an approach that many on the authoritarian populist Right have found very seductive, and the Covid-19 inquiry has caused them a great deal of cognitive dissonance.
The evidence from the government’s leading scientists and civil servants confirm what many already knew, which is that lockdown was inevitable, given the lack of capacity in the NHS, the lack of PPE, the large numbers of multi-generational families living under the same roof and an economy dependent on shopping and services which necessitate mass gathering in town centres.
The populists will say that government scientists should have been challenged. But challenged with what? The evidence presented to the inquiry has been unambiguous: a Swedish-style response would have resulted in an unsanctionable loss of life. Equally, those who say that lockdown didn’t work have been proven wrong.
The inquiry shows clearly that lockdown, while no doubt a testing and difficult time for all, did achieve its primary aim – reduced infection rates – all to the disappointment of those who wish to cast lockdown as part of a culture war. The dangerous absurdity of a ‘light touch’ approach was epitomised by ‘Eat Out to Help Out’. The scheme largely undid the hard work done by the public and the beleaguered health service in the Spring 2020 lockdown, resulting in a second wave of infections and many unnecessary, preventable deaths.
The Covid-19 inquiry has mercilessly exposed the limitations of authoritarian populism in the shape of the Johnson government. Its disastrous handing of the pandemic represents a severe blow to the authoritarian populist’s disingenuous claim to be governing on behalf of ‘the people’. Far from casting good governance, evidence-based decision making, generous public spending and resilient public services as the enemies of the people, the inquiry has confirmed them as essential to the overall good health of us all.
The fact that the prime minister at the time was lionised by the Conservative press has undoubtedly added a personal element to right-wing media. Johnson was, they said, a modern-day Winston Churchill. Having defeated Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in 2019 and getting Brexit ‘done’, Johnson rode high on the hog. He was cast as the hero of the nation, leading the people boldly through the crisis, and he would ‘unleash’ the possibilities of Brexit and launch Britain into that bright new tomorrow promised by Vote Leave. Except, he wasn’t. And the bright new tomorrow turned out to be a relentless nightmare for the victims of Covid-19 and their families.
That exposure, that admission of failure by Britain’s authoritarian populist government and its advisors, the ending of libertarian daydreams that a country like Britain, with arguably the worst performing public services in Europe, could have made a ‘light touch’ approach to the pandemic work, is in short, why the inquiry is so hated by those on the hard-right.