British people have been slow to practice social distancing despite the threat of COVID-19 looming ever larger. Rapidly growing fatalities in Europe – and a weekend which saw teeming British beaches and parks – forced British PM Boris Johnson to action a lockdown earlier this week. Similar European trajectories of COVID-19 point to a belated decision. Far behind Italy’s figure of over 8000 fatalities (the UK’s death toll currently sits at 578) cases are reportedly doubling roughly every three days making them unlikely to remain at such a comparatively small figure. According to a Cambridge academic, the UK is days away from reaching a trajectory in line with Italy. Yet, the British government was by far the slowest European power to take heed of the lifesaving lessons from its neighbours, both Italy, but also Spain with a death rate of around 4000 (at the time of writing).  

The failure to give a direct and clear message on social distancing measures is unsurprising coming from a Conservative Party government headed by Johnson – a staunch Libertarian whose ideals purportedly reject any form of overt authority or state power. Still, there has been speculation around Johnson’s laissez-faire attitude to the COVID-19 pandemic and whether his liberal values of ‘autonomy’ and ‘freedom’ acted as a proxy to preserve the economic engine of London. Considering the government’s legacy in Britain and track record on care for the most vulnerable their slow reaction bore little surprise.

Justified under libertarian values, austerity is a key tenet in the neoliberalisation of industrialised economies, and a decade of Conservative Party cuts have had a destructive effect on British society. Under the party, the National Health Service has fallen short of beds, doctors and nurses per head in comparison to other industrialised countries. Cuts have left the NHS under-resourced and unable to deal with common winter surges of flu, and at the tip of the iceberg of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are reports the NHS is already struggling to cope. Additionally, austerity has exponentially increased the numbers of vulnerable people in the UK: 1.2 million food bank users, 1.3 million destitute and 320,000 homeless people, and a diminished fire, police, ambulance and army presence, all vital in fighting COVID-19.

Austerity measures haven’t only hollowed-out public services; its legacy has left citizens who are mentally and emotionally ill-equipped to handle social distancing nor social isolation. Depression is the most commonly treated condition in the NHS where (as in many neoliberal states across the world) the harsh economic conditions have long eroded individual’s mental and physical health. In the UK, one in four adults have a mental health diagnosis, making the number of mentally ill people stand at around 16 million nationally. Social isolation is already unpalatable, an unnatural state for social beings, and mental health issues can exacerbate this. Although we cannot conflate the two, mentally and physically vulnerable populations are more likely to struggle with social distancing and social isolation for a plethora of obvious reasons.  

Dating back to the 1980s, the austerity project in Britain began under Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Famously declaring ‘there is no society’  with punitive measure she began to dismantle the British welfare state. Thatcher’s policies were inspired by one of the founding fathers of neoliberalism Friedrich Hayek, whose economic theory dictated the centrality of the market and individuals as conduits of this,  their defining feature being competition. Society was replaced by atomised ‘losers’ or ‘winners’. As described by the late Mark Fisher, a key tenet of this is displacing and managing social suffering through depoliticised and medicalised conceptions of depression or anxiety. This shifts focus from harsh economic policies by perpetuating the belief individuals are responsible for resolving their psychological distress, thus any inability to do so is a personal failure, rather than a valid reaction to conditions of poverty and scarcity.

Unease at negative emotions is particularly felt by a populace under a neoliberal regime. Social isolation necessitates withdrawal from the conventional markers of success, to name a few; busyness, shared consumption and perfectionism. The ideology dictates a denial of sadness, loss, anger and frustration, which are conflated with failure and pathology – to be replaced with relentless positivity. Socially isolating requires slowing down, stopping and withdrawing from the structure of daily life. In spaces of structurelessness and solitude lack of distraction ensures negative emotional states such as grief are unavoidable. When one is conditioned to believe that negative emotions are an inherent sign of failure solitude in a difficult time is untenable. Perhaps this can offer one piece to the puzzle of why social distancing measures were largely ignored in Britain until legally enforced.

Johnson has expressed concern at lockdown measures describing the outdoors as of benefit to people’s mental and physical wellbeing; the irony of his focus on wellbeing is hard to miss after a decade of Conservative Party austerity. His ‘liberal values’ are part of larger rhetoric which prioritises financial capital above all else, particularly mental and physical wellbeing. These values justified a slower lockdown under the guise of ‘autonomy’ and ‘freedom’ – the same guise which justified austerity measures in the UK which have killed thousands. Johnson's slowness to act in the face of the pandemic will cost lives – after a decade of his government’s austerity measures ravaging UK services and citizens’ physical and mental health, there will be far-reaching repercussions when the pandemic hits hardest.

However, Britain remains hopeful. Communities all over the country are mobilising to negate the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic and compensate for the diminished capacity of state-run services. From supporting the NHS with  400,000 people opting to volunteer in one day, and - in a similar act of appreciation to the singing praises of Madrid health workers - millions stepped out of their houses to applaud in recognition of the hard work of NHS workers in the #clapforourcarerscampaign. Local communities have mobilised with creativity and pragmatism to support the growing number of emotionally, physically and financially vulnerable individuals in their midst; from online Coronavirus Support Group for Workers; fliers through doors with offers of help and over 1,000 community Coronavirus Mutual Aid groupsover the country. Despite the persistent economic and ideological attacks on society, the importance of the latter is reiterated in the face of COVID-19. A time of crisis shines a light on who and what is most valuable. We can hope what endures beyond the pandemic will be further disillusionment with competition as an organising principle of human activity.