Creating the Covid-19 story

How to control a pandemic's narrative

There is much to be lost in a pandemic, with Rupert Read recently writing we have an ethical obligation to adopt the precautionary principle. But the Covid-19 story in months and years to come will be told by those who recognise what might also be gained - and act early. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the UK into a post-truth and proactionary state in all but name. Here are some handy definitions of the two highlighted terms that will be useful in what follows:

  • Post-truth: What matters is not whether something is true or false but how the matter is decided.
  • Proactionary: We should approach uncertainty in a spirit of openness, not in terms of what we might lose but what we might acquire, where neither is guaranteed.


As soon as the UK recognized that COVID-19 posed a serious threat, the government began to proceed on two fronts at once. The ‘first order’ battle would be a fight against the virus itself. The ‘second order’ battle would be about defining the field of play in which the fight takes place. The first is a medical war, the second a media war. The government has understood from the outset that it might fare better in the media war than the medical war. More to the point, the media war might be of greater longer term significance in that it might encompass the medical war, especially if the UK ends up developing the first vaccine for the virus.

No doubt, this is a very ‘post-truth’ way of seeing things. It does not deny the truth as such, but it does deny that the truth means much without an agreed context that reveals its significance to all concerned. This point is most easily seen in the ambiguous standing of the numbers associated with, say, coronavirus deaths, tests and ‘personal protective equipment’ available to hospital and care workers. These numbers are bandied about by both friends and foes of the government, each wishing to turn them to their own advantage.

However, the ace that is always in the government’s pocket is that the numbers themselves are indefinitely revisable. This is not because the government is pursuing some diabolical postmodernist agenda, perhaps spearheaded by Dominic Cummings.  Rather, a pandemic is nature’s post-truth playground, and the government is best positioned to track its moves. Thus, as long as the government maintains a solemn demeanour, it can depict its opponents as peddling anecdotes that are unrepresentative of the overall state of play at any given time, while still addressing some of those flagged cases that can be easily handled. Awareness of this point helps to explain the opposition Labour Party’s own strategic decision to function more as troubleshooter than backseat driver during the crisis.

In the end, a diabolical postmodernist is simply primed to capitalise on a post-truth situation that is neither of one’s own making or desire.

After all, the level of morbidity due to COVID-19 will continue to be revised retrospectively as we come to know this new virus through more and better testing, which in turn means that some earlier deaths may have been misdiagnosed and some earlier tests for the virus may not have been accurate. And as for personal protective equipment, the matter can be summed up brutally: Whether its quality and quantity have been ‘adequate’ will be known only after all the bodies have been counted. In the end, a diabolical postmodernist is simply primed to capitalise on a post-truth situation that is neither of one’s own making or desire.

The government’s apparent willingness to turn the uncertainty surrounding the crisis to its advantage marks the ‘proactionary’ side of its approach to the pandemic. Because no one really knows for sure what works and doesn’t, the government has tolerated considerable makeshift efforts at the ground level with relatively little comment, other than to channel them into the larger public narrative about its handling of the pandemic. That narrative centres on protecting the National Health Service (NHS) above all else – even more than the lives of the people serving in and served by it. In effect, the government has turned the pandemic into a literal ‘stress test’ of the system, a living laboratory that would not have been allowed under ‘ethically normal’ conditions.

In short, the rhetoric of ‘protection’ functions as a euphemism for a radical social experiment. This is not a cynical point but a realistic one -- more precisely, a Realpolitik one. It is perhaps no coincidence that one of Boris Johnson’s academic advisors is John Bew, author of a smartly written history of this vital political concept. The narrative of ‘protecting the NHS’ functions on two distinct levels. Logistically, it is about ensuring that the virus-generated throughput of patients in NHS hospitals does not swamp the system’s processing capacity. But in terms of a ‘collective imaginary’, the NHS stands metonymically for social solidarity in a time of crisis. Thus, every Thursday evening at 8 pm, people emerge from their dutiful self-isolation to clap on behalf of the NHS.

This direct narrative linkage of the strategic vision for containing the virus with a novel form of civilian participation (aka ‘social distancing’) has effectively deflected attention away from the ambiguous and not always welcomed numbers attached to deaths, tests, etc. And while much more downbeat counter-narratives are being actively promoted, most of these would be quite familiar to the government, not least because they emanate from the ‘usual suspects’. They centre on a critique of the ‘new public management’ -- aka ‘neoliberal’, aka ‘lean and mean’ -- approach to the funding of the NHS and other public services that started when? Thatcher? Blair? Cameron?  Take your pick.

The rhetoric of ‘protection’ functions as a euphemism for a radical social experiment. This is not a cynical point but a realistic one -- more precisely, a Realpolitik one.

Unsurprisingly, the most articulate producers of these counter-narratives in the current crisis are well practiced, such as Richard Horton, editor of the British Medical Journal. However, their understanding of what is happening on the ground concerning COVID-19 is no better – and very likely worse – than the government’s. Moreover, expert critics such as Horton need to be especially careful not to let their calls for greater government ‘accountability’ tip over into an expression of resentment at themselves not having been included among the government’s scientific and medical advisors. Nobody likes a sore loser from the last game, even if they are destined to win the next one.

Notwithstanding their eloquence, the critics can be politely dismissed – at least for now -- as long as the government’s own public narrative remains consistent. ‘Consistency’ in this sense applies to both medium and message, as epitomised in the daily 10 Downing Street press briefings, which are led by a Cabinet minister, flanked by a scientific and a medical advisor. They are conducted with the ritualistic solemnity of a High Church Anglican service. Regardless of the questions raised by journalists, the answers return to the mantra, ‘Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives’.

This is in striking contrast with the relatively shambolic daily White House press briefings, in which President Trump improvises from a script, the details of which he expects various walk-on officials to complete to the satisfaction of the journalists in attendance. Whereas the London press corps has become exasperated with the UK government’s consistency of focus, their Washington counterparts wait with bated breath as US policy is made up on the hoof.

While the UK government may excel in impression management, its opponents may still have the last laugh. But it will come at the next general election – and here there is precedent. Winston Churchill won the Second World War only to lose the 1945 general election. Thus, we should not underestimate the subtle self-positioning of the very competent but charisma-free Labour leader Keir Starmer to play Attlee to Johnson’s Churchill – but only when the time comes. One bellwether is Starmer’s appointment as Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, who is a noted biographer of both Attlee and Nye Bevan, the rhetorical powerhouse behind the creation of the NHS in the Attlee government. Starmer perhaps shrewdly reckons that the passage of the pandemic is bound to mark some sort of rededication of the welfare state, on which the Labour Party might capitalise to be returned to power.

But that 1945 moment has not yet occurred, and meanwhile the government has come up with its own way to play the long game with the virus. The UK has formally entered a ‘race’ to develop the first workable COVID-19 vaccine in which the US and China are so far the only other declared competitors. If the UK succeeds in developing the vaccine and rolling it out on a mass scale in a timely fashion, all of the government’s perceived shortcomings in handling the crisis to date will be cancelled. Indeed, the UK may be presented as having saved humanity as a whole, a rhetorical framing that echoes previous British breakthroughs in science and technology. To be sure, this particular venture may have less than 50% chance of success. But those chances are high enough to make it worth the toss, in the spirit of ‘high risk, high reward’.

This radical uncertainty is not a source of fear but of hope.

This style of thinking is characteristic of Boris Johnson’s approach to politics more generally. The phrase ‘high risk, high reward’ has recently become familiar as the tagline surrounding the Dominic Cummings’ inspired research funding agency that was proposed in the latest government budget, just days before the UK went into lockdown. It is here that the post-truth meets the proactionary with a vengeance. It is sentiment that was originally crystallized in Virgil’s Aeneid: Possunt quia posse videntur (‘They can because they appear they can’). A modern rendering from both military strategy and American football is ‘The best defence is a good offence’. The common strategy across these fields of play is a version of the self-fulfilling prophecy. You defeat the opponent by deterring them from ever calling your bluff. As Machiavelli recognized, a well crafted threat can more efficiently achieve what might otherwise require a great expenditure of force. In more prosaic terms: You win by looking like a winner.

What makes a vaccine such a good vehicle for a post-truth proactionary approach to the pandemic is that its significance rises with the long term failure of the means currently deployed to tackle the virus, including mass testing, which has so far garnered widespread praise for Germany and South Korea. The gamble is that at some point a vaccine will be not only possible but necessary, and the UK will be the first one to have it. This presupposes that our future relationship with the virus is radically uncertain, notwithstanding any success we may be having in ‘flattening the curve’. However, this radical uncertainty is not a source of fear but of hope – which is operationalised as an opportunity to make a major medical breakthrough.

Underlying the strategy that I have been presenting on behalf of the UK government – which many may regard as reckless – is that even if there is a widespread belief that you’re not winning the war against the virus, there is no reason to self-present as a loser, as long as you can return for another throw of the dice. Such are the ways of the post-truth proactionary condition.

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