How Public Opinion and Political Interests Dictated Covid Policy

In Britain, The Telegraph and journalist Isabel Oakeshott obtained some 100,000 Whatsapp messages exposing the then Secretary of Health Matt Hancock and other government ministers during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

These leaks, dubbed “the Lockdown Files,” exposed that the politicians in charge were not all-knowing rulers who “followed the science” in order to protect the people but were in fact self-interested and too often clueless.

These same politicians made it a criminal offense for people to leave their home and see their friends. These same politicians made everyone wear face coverings inside and closed down schools for over half a year. And now it is evident to all that they did not have the best interests of the British public at heart.

Public Choice Theory Proved Correct

The reason why Hancock and other government officials acted the way they did can be explained through public choice theory.

Simply put, public choice theory treats politicians, voters, lobby groups, civil servants and any other political group, not as being selflessly motivated by “the public good” but as being basically driven by self interest just as much as everyone else. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan observed that when their private interests conflicted with the interests of “the public good” they often prioritize self interest.

Pride and Prejudice

For example, Matt Hancock ignored the guidance from Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, that care homes should be prioritized for Covid testing. His reason? Hancock told his advisors that it “muddies the waters” and would get in the way of his self imposed target of 100,000 Covid tests a day.

The Telegraph also reported that Boris Johnson’s most senior adviser told a parliamentary committee in May 2021 that Mr. Hancock instructed officials to “hold tests back” so that he could “go on TV and say, ‘Look at me with my 100k target.’”

It’s clear that at the expense of vulnerable elderly people in care homes, Matt Hancock’s career and ego came first.

Polls Prioritized over Public Health

In June 2020, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson considered ending some lockdown restrictions early, but dropped the idea after he was advised that it was “too far ahead of public opinion.”

Furthermore, despite being told by scientists that the data on death modeling was “very wrong,” Johnson plunged Britain into a second national lockdown that lasted for a month.

It’s crazy to think that the British people’s liberty was stolen for the sake of public opinion and that even though Johnson knew the data was wrong, he still carried through with the draconian policies forced on the British people.

Don’t Upset China!

Furthermore, Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson were also very cautious not to disturb the UK’s relationship with the World Health Organization and China. According to Isabel Oakeshott, Hancock was told to make it clear that any talk of the lab leak was pure “supposition.”

“During tortuous negotiations between Hancock and the Cabinet Office over what he could and could not say in his Pandemic Diaries, officials let slip something quite extraordinary: that they believe the proximity of the Wuhan lab to the first recorded Covid outbreak is ‘entirely coincidental.’ They seem terrified of anyone saying otherwise.”

She goes on to explain that, “Any hint that anyone in government suspects the virus started life in a coronavirus research facility in Wuhan ‘would cause problems,’ officials complained.”

Put Not Your Trust in Politicians

Through the leaked Whatsapp messages, it is now clear that politicians were motivated more by foreign relations, public opinion and their own careers and image than what would be best for the British public when it came to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Throughout the lockdown, Matt Hancock told young people “don’t kill gran” with coronavirus, and emotive ads were put up in order to guilt-trip the public. At the same time, politicians were making rules up as they went along and cared more about themselves than they did about saving lives.

As James Buchanan wrote, “Politicians and bureaucrats are no different from the rest of us. They will maximize their incentives just like everybody else.”

If those incentives are perverse (as they generally are in government), then the behavior of politicians and bureaucrats will be corrupt. The Lockdown Files are a glaring example of that. That is why governments should never be trusted with sweeping power over our health, lives, and livelihoods.

The post How Public Opinion and Political Interests Dictated Covid Policy was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and is republished here with permission. Please support their efforts.

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