Last week it emerged that the Conservative government are prioritising mass testing as a response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Ideally, the entire country would be tested on a weekly basis, and then cleared to carry on with the normal lives. It’s ambitious, not least because the means to actually do it don’t exist yet. It is expected to cost £100 billion, and with typical overstatement Boris Johnson has named the moon landings and the Manhattan Project as comparable exercises.
There are other ways you could see it. One is as an exercise in disaster capitalism. The plans for Johnson’s moonshot have been developed behind closed doors, and we only heard about it when it was leaked to the British Medical Journal. At the time they became public, scientists, health officials and the general citizenry had not been consulted on the idea. But corporations had, and informal partnerships had already been established with GSK, AstraZeneca, and our old friends G4S and Serco. The £100 billion in question won’t be going to Britain’s public health system, but to shareholder corporations. It would be saving Britain from coronavirus on a strictly for-profit basis.
There’s something else going on here too. At the end of JFK’s moonshot, Americans had set foot on the moon. At the end of the Manhattan project they had harnessed the atom. For better or worse, these were threshold moments for humanity, and the world was not the same afterwards. At the end of Boris Johnson’s big project, there’ll be people commuting to the office and maybe taking in a football match. The world will be exactly the same. That is the point. The specified aims of this project are “to support economic activity and a return to normal life”.
In other words, it’s a huge expenditure to avoid a threshold moment for humanity. Is this ambitious and bold? I think it might be the opposite. It is a £100 billion flight from the reality that coronavirus challenges our way of life, and a desperate clinging to “economic activity” as the ultimate measure of all that is good and worthwhile in the world.
The sad thing is that the pandemic is a golden opportunity for transformative change. As the Build Back Better campaign and advocates of a Green New Deal have been relentlessly saying, we have every incentive to use the crisis to fund clean energy, efficiency measures and retrofitting, sustainable transport and a green economy. This is where the future lies. Johnson’s moon rocket is facing in the wrong direction.
Given the competence shown so far in delivering a reliable testing regime, it would be a brave person who would bet on the success of this scheme. Scientists and doctors remain unconvinced, though of course the corporations expecting a slice of the pie are ready to support it. Whether it works or not, when the money is spent the green transition will still need funding, and the money will have to be found with greater levels of debt and the challenges of Brexit to contend with.
None of this is an argument against bold action on coronavirus, by the way. But if we’re going to sign off eye watering expenditures, let’s do it openly and transparently, with an eye on sustainability and the public good. And let’s do it with human health and wellbeing as the first priority. And let’s raise our imaginations beyond getting back to a ‘normal’. We can do better than that.