‘Herd immunity and let the old people die’ – Boris Johnson’s callous policy and the idea of genocide

‘Herd immunity and let the old people die’ – Boris Johnson’s callous policy and the idea of genocide

Martin Shaw

On 17 March, when the extent of the British government’s failure to protect the population from the coronavirus had become clear, the respected political commentator Ian Dunt tweeted, ‘The Conservative party is not composed of genocidal murderers. They are not trying to cull the population’, commenting that it’s ‘depressing that this needs saying. … I’m seeing way too much of this on my timeline.’ In justification he continued, ‘If the Tories were genocidal murderers, then the very last group they would target are older people, because that is their actual voter base.’ A couple of political scientists made the same point.

These comments don’t read so well now that Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief of staff and his principal strategist since the days of Vote Leave in 2016, is credibly reported as having stated at the end of February that the Government’s strategy was ‘herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means that some pensioners die, too bad’; or as summed up even more succinctly by a senior Tory, ‘Herd immunity and let the old people die’. It seems that the voters, or ‘some’ of them, were dispensable after all; there would always be more where they came from, perhaps from slightly younger people grateful not to have had their freedom to consume disrupted to protect the elderly.

But where does that leave ‘genocide’? I work on the topic, and I have to say that even after researching the role of Dominic Cummings in Brexit, and despite his notorious interest in eugenics, I didn’t quite see us getting into a situation where this accusation could be made even half seriously, still less that I would (as an over-70) be part of the supposed target group, probably condemned like many older Italians to take their chances at home (should I get the virus) because the minimal supplies of critical care beds, ventilators and nurses would be dedicated to people in their 50s and younger.

Nevertheless once Johnson said on This Morning on 5 March that ‘one of the theories is, that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures. I think we need to strike a balance’, and this segment of the interview was widely circulated, it was obvious that something was up and that Cummings’ fingers were all over it.

When the head of No. 10’s Behavioural Policy or ‘nudge’ unit, the social psychologist Dr David Halpern, then put the term ‘herd immunity’ into the public domain, I recalled Michel Foucault’s idea of ‘biopower’ and his explanation that in modernity, ‘power is situated at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population’ (The Will to Knowledge, p. 137). Clearly, modern epidemiology in general operates at this level (if we understand ‘race’ as the human race); what Foucault explained was that ‘genocide is the dream of modern powers’ in this condition.

I think Foucault particularly had in mind the rulers of mid-twentieth century totalitarian states, but it seems that, as with the nationalist-racist fantasy of Brexit, Johnson-Cummings also had the ‘dream’ of planning to allow ‘some’ to suffer or in this case die for the good of the race. One hundred thousand deaths might have been acceptable, apparently, even though, in a supreme irony, the Chinese Communist dictatorship, heirs to Mao Zedong – of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ during which between 15 and 45 million died in 1958-61 – had restricted deaths to barely 3,000.

There is a debate about whether the famine which Mao’s policies caused was actually genocidal. Michael Mann argues that there was no genocidal intent in Mao’s fantasy schemes for crash collectivisation and backyard industrialisation which precipitated mass death. The policy was, rather, like Stalin’s earlier ‘terror-famine’ centred on Ukraine, an example of a ‘callous revolutionary policy’ rather than genocide. We might, however, argue that despite these origins, it became genocidal as Mao and the leadership which was in thrall to him doubled down on then policy and allowed the toll to escalate to a level unparalleled in modern history.

‘Callous revolutionary policy’ also sounds about right for Cummings-Johnson (you’ll notice that I can’t quite decided which way round to pair them). But unlike Mao, limits to callousness were obvious from the start. Johnson had gone on from his ‘on the chin’ exposition to state that ‘I think it is very important, we’ve got a fantastic NHS, we will give them all the support that they need, we will make sure that they have all preparations, all the kit that they need for us to get through it. But I think it would be better if we take all the measures that we can now to stop the peak of the disease being as difficult for the NHS as it might be, I think there are things that we may be able to do.’

So the issue was always, how many deaths are acceptable and with what ‘balance’ as Johnson put, with harm to the UK economy? We have subsequently learnt that when the Imperial College study reported that the ‘herd immunity’ strategy would lead to 250,000 deaths with ‘mitigation’, 510,000 without, Cummings realised that the price was too high and became a firm advocate of ‘suppression’ which the Imperial authors clearly showed was the only alternative. The Government then changed tack and their Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, talked of the ‘hope’ that excess deaths would be limited to 20,000. But despite Cummings’ support for suppression, Johnson continued to vacillate, and a University College London study has now shown that we may expect 35-70,000 excess deaths.

It could be argued that the implicit limits, and especially the retreat, demonstrate that there was never any genocidal intent. However Johnson remains determined to tolerate a situation in which tens of thousands of people will die unnecessarily from his policies, despite having had relatively successful examples of early suppression from China, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. The supposed ‘grown-ups in the room’, Vallance and the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Chris Whitty, have been prepared to go along with this strategy, despite knowing of the horror caused by Covid-19 in China, Italy and elsewhere and the depletion of the National Health Service’s resources.

All of this will be the stuff of future research and, surely, public enquiries. The most lenient judgement on those responsible will probably emphasise wilful ignorance and denial of the nature of the disease, over-emphasis on superficial ideas such as that most cases were ‘mild’ (ignoring the fact that in China, the non-severe disease included many ‘moderate’ cases, more serious than seasonal flu); that only the over-70s and those with previous conditions were ‘vulnerable’ and that these could be ‘cocooned’ (ignoring the fact that in Italy, hospitals were full of the under-60s); and that the NHS would cope (despite chronic underfunding and understaffing). The nudge unit’s advice that the population would become bored with restrictions, if introduced too soon, will surely be another focus of attention. Another social-psychological idea, group-think, is likely to play a prominent role in explaining what went wrong.

The baseline for such enquiries should, however, be political. Johnson-Cummings’ primary reason for being prepared to tolerate mass death is not to save the economy, businesses or jobs as such (their Brexit policies have demonstrated their willingness to accept substantial economic damage to achieve their political goals), but to get the political balance which retains the Government’s (suitably modified) electoral base.

Rather than resorting to genocide theory, the study of modern war may provide better clues. There is a parallel here with governments’ tolerance of life-risk in war, which happens to be my other area of expertise. Since the disaster of Vietnam, Western governments’ military interventions have ever more sought to calibrate the life-risk to which they expose both their own citizens in uniform and civilian populations with the political risks they themselves take in pursuing conflict.

The bottom line, we have found, is that while casualties are acceptable if the overall policy aims are widely accepted and the outcomes successful, public opinion is intolerant of failure and above all of unnecessary death. If that is true when the casualties are military personnel who have signed up for life-risks, how much more will it be true now that they are innocent civilians.


Martin Shaw is Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.

Image: Cavernia