Since the announcement that all Covid-related restrictions would be lifted in England, experts have warned of disastrous consequences, ranging from an inevitable increase in cases to the emergence of new variants. We can only hope that the government will eventually recognize the public health risks and reinstate some of these measures. However, power and cronyism – rather than health concerns – are more likely to drive such a decision. The British government’s Covid-19 strategy was never intended to manage the virus, as the last 18 months have demonstrated.

Despite all of the talk about “following the science,” No. 10’s use of scientific evidence has always been tailored to its policy preferences. Despite World Health Organization (WHO) guidance earlier in the year, the effectiveness of masks in preventing transmission was only recognized in the summer of 2020. Despite persistent evidence of aerosol transmission, ventilation was only recently included in public health guidance in England. The UK’s continued emphasis on fever, cough, and loss of smell and taste as coronavirus symptoms clashes with research on asymptomatic infections and emerging evidence suggesting that loss of smell and taste is less common with the Delta variant.

Another piece of scientific evidence that the government has been reluctant to acknowledge is that, while vaccines are very effective at preventing the worst outcomes – hospitalization and death – vaccinated people can still contract and spread Covid-19. This raises serious moral and ethical concerns about the consequences of crowding large numbers of unmasked people into small, poorly ventilated spaces with no social distancing, such as public transportation or nightclubs.

It’s tempting to blame the government’s sluggish public health advice on a lack of clear evidence, the novelty of the situation, or simply “bad luck.” However, this obscures the extent to which the government has also used the uncertainty created by the Covid-19 pandemic for economic and political gain, by cloaking itself in incompetence and narrowing the political options available to the public.

In a December report, the cross-party joint committee on national security strategy chastised the government for “failing seriously to consider how it might scale up testing, isolation, and contact-tracing capabilities during a serious disease outbreak.” However, the report overlooked an important point: the delay in ramping up public testing helped to clear the way for private UK-based firms to enter the market. In January 2020, the UK passed up an early opportunity to create a Covid test using a viral sequence developed by a German lab and made freely available by the WHO. It did, however, award last-minute public contracts for testing, tracing, and the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators to companies with little or no prior experience in similar tasks.

The illusion of incompetence also obscures the government’s role in creating the conditions that led to the crisis in the first place. While other countries were conducting testing, the British government was coordinating with executives at Serco, Deloitte, and other private firms – and instructing individual NHS trusts to refrain from purchasing ventilators or their own PPE until a centralized system run by Deloitte was operational. Subsequent reporting has revealed ties between companies awarded contracts and the Conservative Party.

The government aided the spread of the virus by allowing it to replicate. Nonetheless, this governing approach, which we call “fatalistic liberalism,” allows it to blame a combination of public behavior and natural causes. Risk appears to be the result of personal choice – people can choose whether to wear a mask or get vaccinated – rather than policy decisions made at the top.

Johnson’s statement, “We need to learn to live with the virus,” reflects this fatalistic approach to managing public risk. However, the government’s strategy is not to teach people how to live with the virus; rather, it is to teach people that many of their lives are not worth saving. In this sense, the British people’s choice is not whether or not to live with the virus –it’s whether they want to live with a government that sees them as chess pieces on an invisible board in a game that it pretends no one is playing.