Grenfell, three years on: let us not forget

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Steve Tombs marks the third anniversary of the fire at Grenfell Tower which killed 72 people and changed forever the lives of many more; he does so through the lens of the ongoing health crisis and the renewed critical attention to manifestations of structural racism. Steve Tombs is a Professor of Criminology at The Open University.

Almost exactly three years ago to this day, in the first hour of 14th June, 2017, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block on the Lancaster West estate in North Kensington, west London, killing at least at least 72 people. Almost immediately the atrocity was revealed as no accident. In fact, it had long been foretold by the residents of the tower themselves, via the Grenfell Action Group, most chillingly in the all-too-prescient blog of November 2016, seven months before the fire, which was headed with the warning, KCTMO – Playing with fire! The blog was the latest in a long line of attempts by the residents to have their health and safety concerns taken seriously, not least during what proved to be the fatal refurbishment of their tower-block when the decision was taken to replace fire-resistant zinc cladding in the refurbishment contract “with cheaper aluminium panels to save £293,368”. This cost-cutting measure was to turn the tower into something resembling a kiln when a fire began in a fourth floor flat, most likely as a result of a faulty Hotpoint fridge freezer, on 14th June, 2017.

In the aftermath of the fire, many proclaimed Grenfell as a “never-again” moment. Housing policy, regulation, fire safety, all would change irrevocably. The harshness of neo-liberalism would be shed. White, class power might even recognise the worth of poor, black, minority ethnic and marginalised populations, dumped in poorly maintained social housing. It was a moment upon which the Prime Minster at the time, Theresa May, was to reflect as she resigned her position two years later, not as a result of her palpable failures in the wake of the atrocity, of course, but a consequence of internecine warfare within the Conservative Party. Thus, with no hint of irony, May stated that,

“the unique privilege of this office is to use this platform to give a voice to the voiceless, to fight the burning injustices that still scar our society … And that is why I set up the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower – to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten. Because this country is a Union. Not just a family of four nations. But a union of people – all of us. Whatever our background, the colour of our skin, or who we love. We stand together.”

But now, three years after the fire, commemorated as resistance erupts across the Global North in the face of the most searing manifestations of structural racism and simultaneously viewed through themirror of a pandemic which has, on official figures, taken close to half a million lives worldwide, the shattering effects of class and ethnic inequality which framed Grenfell are more visible and more harshly experienced. In the UK alone, at the time of writing, almost 64,000 deaths in the UK are attributed to coronavirus in the period since ‘lockdown’ began – a disproportionate number of whom are, as we know, of Black, Asian and minority ethnic origin. Just weeks into the pandemic, as the images of health and care workers – the nurses, doctors, porters and cleaners – who had died began to be broadcast, it was already obvious that black and brown faces were on the frontline in the unfolding health crisis.

And in early May, the Office for National Statistics confirmed what we had been seeing with our own eyes. First, the ONS revealed that black Britons were “more than four times more likely to die from the disease than white people, with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis almost twice as likely to die compared to the white majority”. And again death was linked to housing: for these were also people living in overcrowded households – 30% of Bangladeshi, 16% of Pakistani and 12% of black households in England were officially over-crowded compared with 2% of white households. And then days later, further ONS data showed that those in “low paid, manual jobs” were “four times more likely to die from the virus than men in professional occupations, while women working as carers are twice as likely to die as those in professional and technical roles”. Security guards, health and care workers, construction workers, plant operatives, cleaners, taxi drivers, bus drivers, chefs and retail workers – those who were forced to work through ‘lockdown’– were at far greater risk of dying. These are the members of our community who were more exposed, less protected, whose lives didn’t quite count enough – just as one resident who stood outside Grenfell tower had said as he watched it burn, “We’re dying in there because we don’t count.”

Despite formally abandoning their now denied ‘herd immunity’ policy, this Government had clearly decided that some lives are disposable. Viruses, just like fires, do discriminate. And the politics behind the virus-discrimination is not dissimilar to the fire-discrimination which killed at Grenfell. It is a politics of class contempt and of racism. In the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, it is “the state-sanctioned … group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” or, as Friedrich Engels termed it, social murder.

So as we endure the relentless, callous mendacity which passes for daily Government press briefings on the trajectory of the health crisis, interspersed with shrill cries of offence as the trophies of our glorious imperial past are toppled, let us not forget the preventable, mass killing at Grenfell 3 years ago more or less to this day. Meanwhile, three years later, nothing about Grenfell has been settled. Nothing has been resolved. There is no ‘closure’.

So, three years on…

Let us not forget that those who survived the fire have been retraumatised by the fear, loss and discrimination associated with the pandemic and many, too, by the weight of the knee of the powerful pushing down on their necks.

Let us not forget those who, notwithstanding years of broken promises, half-truths and lies from the mouths of the powerful, remain in temporary accommodation, still displaced from their homes, their communities, their lives.  

Let us not forget those who lost their jobs and their businesses as a result of the fire.

Let us not forget the thousands across the UK still fighting to have similar flammable cladding removed.

Let us not forget the inquiry which, two years since it began, is now halted and has barely begun to determine responsibility.

Let us not forget that those who stand accused for their role leading up to or in the aftermath of the fire: the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation and the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government, all of which bore some responsibility for the conditions in which the residents of the Tower were living and for the gross failures in response to the fire; Arconic, Artelia, Celotex, Harley Facades, Kingspan, Max Fordham, Rydon, Studio E and the countless other private sector companies involved in the design, oversight and undertaking of the tower’s refurbishment, as well as Whirlpool, the manufacturer of the fridge freezer which sparked the fire; Public Health England and the Environment Agency for their consistent failures to respond to residents’ concerns about “significant environmental contamination”, including from carcinogens, in the years following the fire; and that long line of politicians of all main parties who had boasted of a bonfire of regulation, as well as Governments which had imposed austerity so that fire services and all forms of local authority oversight were drastically cut-back, while health and social services were so undermined as to be unable to meet the routine needs of a population, let alone respond effectively to emergencies.

Today, almost three years to the day after Grenfell, let us not forget the emotional, psychological, physical, cultural and financial harms that continue to be suffered – often unseen, unspoken, unrecognised, yet intensely felt by thousands of bereaved, dispossessed, scarred men, women and children as a result of what happened on 14 June 2017.

Let us not forget the 72 lives avoidably lost in that fire.

Until there is truth, justice and accountability, let us not forget.

In search of the Covid–secure workplace

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Steve Tombs queries the protections offered by Government regulators to the health and safety of workers as they are forced back into work after the coronavirus lockdown. Steve Tombs is a Professor of Criminology at The Open University.

Whether or not Boris Johnson is a consistent, conscious liar is not perhaps for me to judge – though I do have an opinion. But his tendency to bat away significant and awkward questions with an off-the-cuff response which he knows sounds about right but to which it is clear he has given little or no thought is apparent to anyone who has paid any attention to his political posturings.

So having announced on Sunday that workers who could not work from home would be “actively encouraged” to return to work the following day (later revised to Wednesday), when he was asked about plans to make workplaces safe in the Commons on Monday, his answer was immediate: the Government would publish rules for making businesses “Covid-19 secure” and these would be enforced by the Health and Safety Executive, who would be “having spot inspections to ensure businesses are keeping employees safe”. He then pledged £14m of additional funding to support the HSE for this task. Sorted. Job’s a good ‘un. Johnson stands with working people again. Still got their backs. Still all in this together. Aren’t we?

Well, no. Much could be said but let me add a few observations from the real world of data and evidence to the Government’s fantasises of responsible COVID-secure workplaces overseen by a protective regulatory agency ready “to police workplace practices as the economy gradually reopens

The absence of enforcement capacity

The first thing to say is that the HSE is hardly well-placed to undertake the inspections to which Johnson has pointed. Giving evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee on 4 March 2020, Martin Temple, Chair, HSE, noted that,

“One of the interesting things, just to give you a sense of things, is that the number of inspections we do is relatively small. We do 20,000-odd or something of that order and we have 5.5 million duty holders”.

Just stop there, and do the maths. On the basis of his own figures, 20,000 annual inspections of a regulated population of 5.5 million duty holders, employers who manage and control workplaces, the HSE’s Chair has revealed that the statistical likelihood of any one duty holder being inspected by the HSE in any one year is one in 275. Or, to put that slightly differently, the statistically average employer can expect to see an inspector once every 275 years. Even accepting that some workplaces will include several duty holders – notably, for example, larger construction sites – so that the statistical average is reduced, the HSE Chair’s data makes it hard to see how COVID-compliance is to be furthered by spot checks.

In fact, HSE inspectors – and their local authority counterparts, health and safety Environmental Health Officers (EHOs), who in theory will share a significant burden of ‘ensuring’ COVID-compliance at work – have never seen themselves as a police force for industry, nor really as bodies having or needing to have a significant inspectorial presence. But that presence has certainly declined over recent years. Figures placed in the House of Commons (HoC) library at the end of last month showed that for HSE:

  • total staffing figures had fallen from 3,702 to 2,501 from 2009-10 to 2017-18
  • the number of inspectors dropped from 1,495 to 978

Little wonder, perhaps, that by 2018/19 there were just 361 convictions for health and safety offences, a fall of 40% from 2014/15, this itself following ten years of decline from 2003/04.

All of these clear downward trends are partly, if not wholly, explained by significant reductions in funding for HSE and, through local authorities, for local authority enforcement. For HSE, the HoC Library figures note that funding fell from £239m in 2009-10 to £135m in 2017-18. Local authority regulatory capacities have been even more diminished, to the extent that in my own research I found significant sized Local Authorities such as Liverpool without one single dedicated health and safety inspector.

But this is not just about money or personnel or enforcement actions. We can also look at other reasons why HSE and local authorities are unlikely to be able to protect workers as they are forced back into contaminated workplaces.
Source: GMB, at

Where Law Enforcement is Against the Law

For one thing, changes in the law prevent them from so doing. Two are crucial.

The Primary Authority (PA) scheme – mushrooming across the UK – effectively prevents local authority enforcement actions on health and safety against companies signed up to the scheme. Under PA, a company operating across more than one local authority area enters an agreement with one specific local authority to regulate all of its sites, nationally. This contract buys for the company the absence of effective oversight in the vast majority of its sites. These can be visited in other areas, but any enforcement action needs to be undertaken through the local authority which is the PA. The PA scheme effectively serves as the most robust protection for employers against health and safety law enforcement. It needs to be scrapped.

Further, many workplaces simply cannot be inspected proactively – that is, for the kind of spot checks referred to by Johnson. This is a matter of law. In 2011, the DWP identified whole sectors of economic activity as ‘low risk’ and thereby prohibit proactive inspections at local authority and then at HSE level. No rationale for what constituted ‘low-risk’ was provided, and an analysis by Hazards magazine found that of the 258 reported worker fatalities in the 19 months which followed the change, 53% were in low-risk sectors. This decision must be reversed.

The record so far …

Indeed, the facts are that workers have not been protected throughout the coronavirus outbreak to date. Certainly the HSE has consistently stepped back from even attempting to do so, as Phil James has recently documented.

But as Johnson reminded the house, many groups of workers have had to work throughout the lockdown. Key, essential workers, a group that we now recognise as covering not just health, social care and emergency service staff, but also transport and shop workers, those in the food supply chain, cleaners, posties, refuse collectors, and, albeit less celebrated, workers in consecution, security and the diffuse areas of the gig economy. And these have not been protected by HSE nor local authorities even where social distancing is patently and consistently ignored. Building workers have maintained a heroic ‘shut the sites’ campaign through the seven weeks of the lockdown to seek to protect worker and community safety.

But we learnt only this week that “People in low-paid, manual jobs  … are four times more likely to die from the virus than men in professional occupations, while women working as carers are twice as likely to die as those in professional and technical roles”. Security guards, care workers, construction workers, plant operatives, cleaners, taxi drivers, bus drivers, chefs and retail workers – those who have worked through the lockdown or are being forced back to work now in far greater numbers – are all at a greater risk of dying, according to the Office for National Statistics.

So we know that working people have not been protected through the health crisis – quite the opposite. There is no reason to believe they will be as the virus continues to circulate through our communities. £14 million and the vacuous threat of spot-checks don’t cut it.

Ultimately, it’s a truth that the best protection for workers is the strength of collective action by workers themselves – and it seems likely that coming weeks and months will see further widespread examples of the wildcat strikes and walkouts witnessed during the least seven months, even as the mainstream media have ignored these. But it is crucial for workers to have the law on their side – so we need clear legal protection for workers to exercise their right to refuse to engage in work that threatens the spread of the virus through workplaces and communities.

This was originally posted by the Institute of Employment Rights on 13 May 2020 at

Lessons from COVID-19: How transformative justice and mutual aid can help to address harm in communities

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Julia Downes discusses what mutual aid groups could do to support those made more vulnerable to interpersonal and state violence during COVID-19. Julia Downes is a Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University.

Image credit: Jack Moreh via Freerange Stock.

Download the guide ‘How to Address Harm: A Guide for COVID-19 Mutual Aid Groups’ for information, tools and practical tips to help individuals and mutual aid groups.

When UK government policy swung to a police-enforced lockdown on 23 March we were told that if we ‘stay home’ we would ‘protect the NHS and save lives’. But staying at home does not make everyone safe.  

Police-enforced lockdown measures, including social distancing and isolation, reinforce tactics of coercive control used by abusers to deprive partners, friends, family and household members of social support and routes to safety. The option to report someone to the police for a breach of lockdown measures now exists in the abusive toolkit. For some – particularly working class, Black and minoritised, LGBTQI, disabled people, sex workers, young people and people with insecure immigration status – interpersonal violence is inflated by state violence. Police involvement is much more likely to result in arrest, prison, detention and deportation.  

In the first four weeks of lockdown domestic violence killings have doubled with 13 women and 4 children believed to have been killed. Specialist support services have reported a surge in people accessing help; on 9 April Refuge reported a 700% increase in visits to their National Domestic Abuse Helpline website. Much attention has focused on adequately funding specialist services that have been forced to close or adapt and the promise of new carceral powers (that rely on police and prisons) in the upcoming domestic abuse bill. However, most people who experience violence or abuse are more likely to confide in someone they know and trust, like a friend, work colleague, neighbour or family member, rather than call the police or a helpline. In this moment of lockdown, amid a reported surge in neighbourliness, what is the potential for local community members to intervene?  

Whilst putting victims and survivors safely in touch with specialist support services is crucial, lessons from the transformative justice movement open up the possibilities for creative responses. This involves shifting our imagination beyond carceral responses to gender-based violence that can dominate the work of some specialist support services. For instance, research led by Aviah Sarah Day highlighted how partnerships between women’s sector organisations and the criminal justice system increased the vulnerability of domestic violence survivors with insecure immigration status as well as survivors who are subject to counter-allegations.  

In contrast, transformative justice approaches, as explained by Mia Mingus from the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, seek to build non-punitive responses to violence and harm that do not rely on the state and aim to cultivate community survival, safety, accountability, resilience, and care. With many of us signing up to help people in our neighbourhoods mutual aid has become a buzzword in lockdown Britain. But what could mutual aid groups be doing to support those made more vulnerable to interpersonal and state violence during COVID-19? 

Before the lockdown new local COVID-19 mutual aid groups began to spring up across the country. There are now over 3000 local groups across the UK. These groups point to the power within local communities who can turn to each other for safety and care when the state is unable or unwilling to provide for, or protect, all citizens.  

Cultivating safety and care in this way is not new and, as Dean Spade has argued, mutual aid has been a long-term survival strategy for marginalised communities. For example, in the UK, Queercare have long been providing community care for queer and trans people and Mutual Aid UK is an intersectional support group for the most marginalised people, particularly queer and trans people of colour. Crucially these projects focus on providing care, safety and support outside state institutions due to lived experience of state failures and structural violence.  

However, the emergence of COVID-19 mutual aid groups has brought people together from very different backgrounds and starting points to respond to systemic government failures in pandemic preparations i.e. to provide access to PPEfood and testing. It is not uncommon to find local councillors, police officers, non-governmental and charity sector workers alongside anti-authoritarian organisers and members of marginalised groups, trying to find ways to organise together in online spaces. This is a difficult experiment in which disagreement and conflict over the boundaries of ‘politics’ and ‘ideology’, what is in the ‘best interests’ of others, and harmful impositions of social privilege can lead to the exclusion of the most vulnerable. The learning here is in how we stay in and build community with each other. 

This groundswell of newly emergent mutual aid groups also opens up exciting possibilities for neighbourhoods to work together to navigate disagreement, conflict and harm in new ways right where it is happening: in the street, homes and in local groups. For example, the harms of new policing powers were responded to in a poster, which encourages neighbours to prioritise care and compassion over calling the police to report a suspected breach of lockdown conditions. Cradle Community have developed guidance on how to be an active bystander during lockdown conditions. Sisters Uncut have demystified the question ‘Why aren’t people just staying at home?’ and made a powerful statement about the structural and interpersonal violence that domestic violence victims are facing during lockdown.  

Transformative justice tools, like pod mapping (created by Mia Mingus) offer practical steps to develop a collective response to interpersonal violence. The idea here is for us to identify who our ‘pod people’ are (who we can rely on for help when we are harmed and when we harm others) and cultivate a network or ‘pod’ to address low-level conflicts before they escalate into harm and violence. Transformative justice also encourages us to identify and dismantle the underlying conditions that enable violence to happen in the first place. This is about shifting the social conditions that make some people more vulnerable to interpersonal violence than others. Universal basic income, safe and secure housing, well-funded public healthcare and workers’ rights – all things recognised as essential for collective survival during COVID-19, are crucial in the long-term fight to end gender-based violence. 

The lessons being learned in practices of transformative justice and mutual aid should be at the heart of an intersectional movement to end gender-based violence. Progress has been made to articulate this vision elsewhere, evident in the work of Mariame Kaba and Building Accountable Communities in the United States, Undercurrent in Australia and What Really Makes us Safe? in Germany. However many people do not yet know about this work or how it is being, or could be, done in British neighbourhoods. This is why ‘How to Address Harm: A Guide for COVID-19 Mutual Aid Groups’ has been created. This guide offers information, tools and practical tips to help individuals and mutual aid groups to learn from, centre and stand in solidarity with groups who survive at the intersection of state and interpersonal violence during this moment of COVID-19.  

As Arundhati Roy recently articulated: the pandemic is a portal. The world will never be the same; transformative justice and mutual aid offer hopeful blueprints of a world in which gender-based violence can finally become unthinkable.

This article was originally published on the Transforming Society blog on the 7th of May, at:

Coping in Isolation: Time to Think – insights from Long Kesh for Lockdown 2020

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Gabi Kent discusses the development of the new OpenLearn course, based around the Time to Think archive. Gabi Kent is a Lecturer in Knowledge Exchange at The Open University.

Rainbow Symbols photo © Gabi Kent, 2020

‘People may be on their own, but they are not alone’
(Michael, Irish Republican ex-prisoner, April 2020)

Since January 2020, Coronavirus, or COVID-19, has rapidly defined our ‘new normal’. People worldwide are facing prolonged periods in enforced social isolation or confinement, with no certainty of when this will end. Living in this new normal, you may wonder how others adjusted to enforced isolation and confinement in the past and what solace they may offer.

Coping in Isolation: Time to Think, a new free Open University (OU) short course on OpenLearn, offers insights on coping from OU graduates who studied while imprisoned during the years of conflict in and about Northern Ireland. Such men and women spent many years in isolation and confinement in prison as a result of their role in the conflict. Some lived for years in small political groups in huts in prison compounds. Others spent years in individual cells, including long periods in almost total isolation while engaged in political protests. Many used their time to develop new skills to help create a more peaceful society.

In this short introductory level course, David and Michael, two OU graduates, reflect on the current COVID-19 lockdown and their study experiences while imprisoned in The Maze and Long Kesh prison. Both men offer insights on ways to adjust to the current pressures facing people across the globe. This course also includes resources from the Open University’s digital archive Time to Think. This unique oral history archivecontains the stories of Loyalist and Republican OU students as well as OU tutors and office staff, prison education staff and prison governors reflecting on their educational journeys in British and Irish prisons during the years of conflict. You can explore the archive at this link: Time to Think archive.

A picture containing drawing, fence

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Artwork by David Smyth, 2019

Today Time to Think is both an oral history archive and ongoing collaboration for teaching, research, impact and knowledge exchange between The OU (OU in Ireland, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and The OU Library) and people who participated in the Time to Think archive. I am part of the core Time to Think team.

The idea for this course came from a recent conversation with Jenny Meegan, an OU Ireland colleague and one of the founders of the Time to Think archive. Jenny is retired now and isolating at her home in Belfast. In this conversation, we were reflecting on our feelings about lockdown and on the experiences of Loyalist and Republican participants in the OU Time to Think archive, who lived through confinement in the past. In this context, the term Loyalist refers to those who want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Historically, Loyalists supported the use of physical force where necessary to defend the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The term Republican refers to those who seek to end the partition of Ireland and who wish to bring about the reunification of the island of Ireland. Republicans have also historically supported the use of physical force where necessary to achieve this.

Approximately 15,000 Republicans and between 5,000 and 10,000 Loyalists were imprisoned during the thirty-year conflict (1969 to 2000).  Within this complex conflict Loyalists and Republicans were bitter opponents. A number, however, found points of connection while in prison, including through their OU study, and some went on to play a significant role in the peace process. In 1998 The Good Friday Agreement was signed between Loyalists, Republicans, the British and Irish states and other parties to the conflict, providing a political solution to this long and bloody conflict. Upon their releases, some of these OU students became artists, academics, teachers or community workers. Others are political leaders at community, city/district or governmental level. Many are engaged in conflict transformation and peacebuilding work. Through the Time to Think project and my own PhD research, I work with a number of these Loyalist and Republican ex-prisoners and former OU students.

At the end of our conversation that March morning in the early days of lockdown, Jenny made a bold proposition. ‘Let’s do a course’ said Jenny. ‘Why not’, said I. I wrote a quick proposal and with agreement from of our Time to Think colleagues we approached key people in our Loyalist and Republican ex-prisoner networks to float the idea of a free short course in response to Covid-19. The reply was immediate and positive.  

In a sense this was a timely proposition. We (my OU and Time to Think colleague Philip O’Sullivan and I) were already in discussion with people in these networks about co-producing short courses for the OU, as part of the Time to Think knowledge exchange project. Now we had a topic around which to pilot this idea and to develop our collaborative approach to teaching. The aim was an accessible course, co-produced with archive participants, bringing together and building on learnings from the archive to address contemporary local or global issues.

With support from John D’Arcy (Director, OU in Ireland), the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the OpenLearn team, the Time to Think team embarked on producing this fast turn-around course.  Our co-producers were two OU graduates, Michael, an Irish Republican, and David, a Loyalist, both of whom were imprisoned as a result of the conflict.

David in the Compounds (left) and Michael in the H Blocks (right), by David Smyth, 2020

Between them, David and Michael spent 28 years in confinement or isolation in the Compounds and H Blocks of the Maze and Long Kesh prison. The course draws on new interviews and conversations recorded remotely between David and Michael in April 2020. In these audio recordings they reflect on their past experiences and offer insights and support for people living through isolation under Covid-19 today. David also created the original artwork featured in this course. Both men are contributors to The Open University’s Time to Think archive.

We held regular production meetings via Skype to brainstorm and work through the course structure and content. Our ground rules were mutual respect and kindness! This was a learning experience for us all and we understood that we would have to work quickly and adapt and refine our methods as we went along. We were also conscious of the psychological impacts of living through a pandemic and our responsibilities to our learners. With this in mind we chose a critical reader- Stephen Robinson – from the School of Psychology for his expertise.

Our aim with this course was to provide a free open access resource, that would benefit a wide range of people locally and globally during these difficult times. This is why we chose OpenLearn, The OU’s free learning platform. Coping in isolation is an introductory level course which guides people through the transition from freedom to lockdown or confinement. It introduces strategies and structures for using time in lockdown creatively and constructively, and to reframe this situation to become agents of positive change.  It also offers insights from the stories of David, Michael and a number of other Loyalist and Republican OU students from the Time to Think archive. The course takes 3-6 hours to work through, depending on how much personal reflection you want to do. 

For me, having worked with two people who faced indeterminate life sentences and came out the other side, the lessons that linger are:

  • the creativity and adaptability of the human spirit when faced with extreme situations
  • the power of our imaginations to find new ways of seeing the world and of changing it
  • the importance of positivity and of communal support (in its many forms) when living with uncertainty to help us along the way and to reach the other side.

As David commented during the making of this course: ‘Remember, every road, no matter how long has an end. So, use this time well to prepare for then.’

Why not try Coping with isolation: Time to Think It’s now live at:

This free OpenLearnshort course written by Gabi Kent and co-produced by Michael, an Open University graduate and Republican ex-prisoner, David, an Open University graduate and Loyalist ex-prisoner, Gabi Kent, Jenny Meegan, Philip O’Sullivan, Colette Hughes and Ruth Cammies from The Open University’s Time to Think project. The critical reader was Stephen Robinson, Lecturer and Staff Tutor, School of Psychology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Hannah Parish was our excellent OpenLearn editor. Thanks to Hannah and her team including Gary Windows for all his work on the audio assets and Alma Hales on rights clearance.


This Blog is solely the view of the author.

Artwork courtesy of David Smyth © The Open University’s Time to Think Digital Archive Re-use is not permitted without permission. Contact:

Police and public relations during the COVID-19 outbreak

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Jim Turner and Camilla Elphick discuss the potential for public-police conflict, and the need for mutual public-police trust and solidarity, in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak. Jim Turner is a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology and Camilla Elphick is a post-doctoral Research Associate in Psychology, both at The Open University.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, the UK government has passed the Coronavirus Act 2020. Secondary legislation has also been introduced across the four nations of the UK in the form of Health Protection Regulations for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These laws, which are intended to limit the spread and severity of the Covid-19 disease outbreak, represent a substantial curtailment of civil liberties, particularly the freedom of movement and the freedom of assembly. Although these are health protection laws, not public order laws, it nonetheless falls to the police (as well as certain other relevant authorities) to enforce them. There is also, as is often the case, a certain amount of ‘grey area’ in the new laws. In particular, the sections restricting freedom of movement state that people can only leave their homes if they have a ‘reasonable excuse’, with a list of examples of what count as reasonable excuses. This list, however, is non-exhaustive (the Regulations say that reasonable excuse ‘includes’ the listed activities, not that it is limited to them), meaning that it ultimately falls to the courts, and in the first instance the police, to decide what is ‘reasonable’. This has the potential to bring the police into direct conflict with the general population.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK” by Tim Dennell is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

Public-police conflict

In the first few weeks of the new laws being in place, many such conflicts have occurred, often being reported in the media. Some of these conflicts were clear examples of police over-reach, such as the case of Marie Dinou, who was arrested, convicted in her absence in a magistrates court, and fined for breaching the Coronavirus Act 2020. An appeal court later overturned this conviction, finding that Ms Dinou had been ‘incorrectly charged’ – effectively, Ms Dinou had been arrested and imprisoned by the police for two days for a crime that does not exist in law. Other, less serious, examples include a police officer telling a man in Rotherham that he could not be out in his front garden (despite Section 6 (3) of the Regulations covering England specifically stating that the garden is part of the home), the much-publicised decision by police to try to ban walkers from the Peak District (despite exercise being specifically permitted in the Regulations, with no restrictions given on which locations people can use for exercise), and even reports that officers were trying to stop the sale of ‘non-essential’ Easter eggs.

In other cases the police have acted much more within the spirit, as well as the letter, of the new laws. For example, while the Regulations say that exercise is a ‘reasonable excuse’ they do not say whether or not it is a ‘reasonable excuse’ to travel somewhere for exercise. Police forces have generally taken a fairly moderate view of this, considering short distance travel to be reasonable but taking the view that very long distance travel is unreasonable. It is, of course, important to note that some members of the general public have been breaching the new laws in ways that the police must act against in order to protect public health, such as holding house parties. It is also important to remember that conflicts between the police and the public go both ways, and there have been cases of officers being attacked for enforcing the new laws.

Public-police trust

As the COVID-19 situation goes on, the need for the police to enforce these ‘social distancing’ restrictions will continue. This highlights a tension in the public-police relationship, which is that sometimes the public want the police’s involvement in their lives and sometimes they do not. To give an example: nobody likes to see the police in their rear-view mirror when they’re driving, but everybody wants to see the police arrive on scene after a major incident such as a terrorist attack. Despite the tone of much of the media coverage to date, it is not yet clear whether the COVID-19 restrictions on individual freedoms, and the police enforcement of those restrictions, is welcomed or resented by the general public overall. Concerns about the UK moving towards becoming a ‘police state’ have been raised since COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic, particularly in independent media (e.g. this article from before the new police powers were passed). Never have Peel’s (1929) nine principles of policing felt more relevant, as they propose a philosophy of policing derived from public cooperation with the police rather than fear or force.

Academic research has shown that there is a robust association between the public’s perception of the police as trustworthy and the public’s willingness to cooperate with the police. It has therefore always been in the general public interest for the police to fulfil their roles in a way that engenders trust among the public, but this has become urgent since the spread of COVID-19. Even in usual life, policing efforts can be hampered by things such as inequality, prejudice, or perceived lack of fairness and consistency. These factors can contribute to a lack of public trust in the police and a reluctance to collaborate or cooperate with them. In the current situation, these factors can be seen in issues such as the over-representation of ethnic minority groups in Covid-19 cases, prejudice against ethnic groups (e.g. some racist attacks have been linked to the outbreak), and a lack of clarity in the Regulations (as noted above). Given this context, the difficulties that the police face in enforcing the restrictions might well be amplified.

One way to foster trust is to build shared identities between police and citizens, as this can increase social solidarity between them and encourage citizens to cooperate. Such a shared identity may assist the police in their efforts to keep citizens safe during this time of social distancing. Indeed, this sense of social solidarity is built into Peel’s nine principles of policing: the seventh principle includes the concept ‘that the police are the public and that the public are the police’. This principle does, of course, require both the police and the public to uphold it – and, in a difficult time like this, it could get strained.

’Ello ‘ello ‘ello” by Miles Metcalfe is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (Note: this is a stock image, not a photograph of police enforcing the new coronavirus regulations)

How the police have responded

The College of Policing, in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, have issued guidance to police forces on what they should and should not consider to be a ‘reasonable excuse’ when enforcing the new laws. These guidelines are, of course, not the law – they are an attempt to fill in some of the ‘grey areas’, provide some clarity to both the police and the public, and reduce the likelihood of conflict between the police and the public. By being open with the public in this way, the police can help build the sense of trust and social solidarity that is needed for them to effectively protect the public.

How the public can respond

We suggest keeping in mind two important aspects of the current situation. The first is that, like all keyworkers, the police cannot simply stay at home (unless they show symptoms of illness) and are therefore at increased risk of catching COVID-19 themselves as they continue to work. This means that they have a vested interest in reducing the spread of COVID-19, for their own sake, and the sake of their families, as well as the community as a whole. The second is that, like the police, the general public can take measures to help manage the coronavirus. Simply complying with the Regulations and staying home as much as possible is doing your part to fight the outbreak. Some people may also be able to volunteer to help with specific community needs. Indeed, the overwhelming response to the government’s NHS Volunteer Scheme, which had over 750,000 people signed up at the time of writing this blog (there is now a temporary pause in recruitment), and citizen-driven community support initiatives such as COVID-19 Mutual Aid, which had gained 3434 members at the time of writing this blog, demonstrate many people’s altruistic desire to step up for the common good.

Final thought

In this time of crisis, a shared identity of solidarity in the war against COVID-19 might outweigh any underlying concerns about mistrust. Whilst the police have been given powers that ­could be abused in a police state, and there have been some unfortunate cases of police over-reach, we live in a country where the police are the public and the public are the police. We all of us want the same thing: to get through the COVID-19 situation with as few deaths as possible. Everyone has a part to play, whether it’s enforcing the restrictions in a police uniform, providing medical care in hospital scrubs, or just staying home and watching TV in pyjamas.

Shut The Sites!

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Steve Tombs argues that keeping construction sites open is putting workers and their families at unncessary risk from coronavirus. Steve Tombs is Professor of Criminology at The Open University.

One Law for the Poor …

As Greater Manchester police arrested and threatened with pepper spray a man who said he was delivering food to vulnerable family members,  drones tracked then ‘named and shamed’ cars as they drove through near-deserted Derbyshire countryside and Cambridge police patrolled shopping aisles of non-essential items in Cambridgeshire, there is one place where the lockdown has not taken effect at all – construction sites.

The closure of the non-essential economy ordered as part of the general lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus took effect from 23rd March. As Blacklisted construction union activist and author Dave Smith has noted, “Immediately after Boris Johnson’s speech, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government Robert Jenrick tweeted ‘advice for the housing, construction and building maintenance industries’ which stated that ‘if you are working on site, you can continue to do so.’”

And as I write, more than four weeks after the Prime Minister’s declaration, construction workers are still exposing themselves and their communities to the virus, and possible death, for the sake of luxury flats and retail developments – effectively coerced into working or simply not being paid. Dave Smith and others are engaged in a campaign to Shut the Sites and pay every worker. This is a matter of pressing social justice. It is also a matter of all of our lives.

Source: Dave Smith #ShutTheSites #PayEveryWorker @Daveblacklist 


If we want to understand why a clearly non-essential sector of the economy has been allowed to proceed relatively untouched by the current lockdown it helps to look briefly at its economic power.

The construction industry is probably the last remaining heavy industry of any size in the UK and is integral to its economy – central and local government are the largest customers of construction industry services, and the industry is central to the myriad of local and regional regeneration schemes across the UK, as well as to flagship infrastructural projects like HS2, Crossrail and Johnson’s (probably fabled) new hospital building programme. 

According to a HoC Briefing Paper in Dec 2019,

  • The construction sector contributes £117 billion to the UK economy, 6% of total economic output. 
  • There are 2.4 million jobs in the sector, 7% of UK total; self-employed jobs in the construction sector account for 37% of all jobs, almost three times the proportion in the whole economy (13%).
  • There are 343,000 construction businesses in the UK, 13% of the total.

In short, the sector enjoys structural power. Moreover, this power is augmented by the fact that the UK industry is dominated by a relatively small number of major contractors – in effect, a cartel, not least one which David Whyte and myself have detailed in the past as criminogenic.

Given the size and concentration of the sector, and its centrality to the economy, it is unsurprising that it enjoys privileged access to the political sphere. The major companies – such as Amey, Balfour Beatty, Costain, Kier, Lang O’Rourke, Morgan Sindall, Skanska UK and Sir Robert MacAlpine – are linked into the formal political process in the UK through a series of personal and institutional links, via their numerous trade associations, and no doubt by the fact that construction companies and property developers are significant donors to the Conservative Party.

A Hostile Environment

As a labour intensive industry, labour costs are significant within construction – and this helps to explain why it has never been worker-friendly. It has a long history of anti-trades unionism and attacks on health and safety, since both impede and slow production, adding costs and eroding profits. This antipathy to worker protection and to trades unionism is no better highlighted than in the ongoing Blacklisting scandal.

In 2008, in the UK, it was publically revealed that some 3,000-plus building workers were on a ‘blacklist’, preventing them gaining employment, mostly as a result of trade union health and safety activity. Such practices are far from unknown in the UK – for example, the Economic League had similarly operated as a clandestine anti-union information-gathering unit between the early 1970s and early 1990s.

The latter evidence of a blacklist had emerged first in an Industrial Tribunal initiated by Manchester electrician Steve Acheson. The now collapsed and disgraced building firm Carillion was found to have unlawfully dismissed him from the Manchester Royal Infirmary site.  During the hearings, the head of the company’s personnel department revealed that Acheson had been on a blacklist of ‘known troublemakers’. In 2008, following those revelations, the UK Information Commissioner launched an investigation, as part of which, in February 2009, a search of the offices of a company trading as The Consulting Association (CA), found files which showed that 44 building firms paid between £25 and £28,000 per year for information on the blacklist in financial year 2008-09. This was only the start of a long legal and political battle, during which the staggering extent of state collusion in the maintenance of the blacklist was exposed.

Keeping health and safety activists away from building sites is a very knowing strategy – for the construction sector is consistently the most dangerous in Britain. For example, the most recent statistics by the Health and Safety Executive show that, on a five year rolling average, in terms of numbers of deaths, the construction sector has the highest number of fatal injuries of all sectors in Britain. In terms of the rates of fatal injuries, the rate of fatalities in the sector is three-times the all-industry rate. Meanwhile, construction also has a higher non-fatal injury rate than the all-industry average. And it also has very significant levels of occupational illness – for example, it records a higher number of musculoskeletal disorders than any other sector. It is worth noting that HSE data omits significant numbers and categories of deaths, injuries and illnesses, not least amongst the self-employed. And these make up a sizeable proportion of the construction industry workforce, where there are over a million workers registered as self-employed.  

So historically the sector has been, and remains, one with a very poor health and safety record – and one where employers have sought to bully, often illegally, workers into accepting this state of affairs. Yet historically and even now in the context of the pandemic, workers are threatened or summarily sacked if they speak out about safety on site – risking their future employment.

From Social Distance to Social Murder

Posted on twitter on 17th April by Lee Turner @Lrff3

So we have a very powerful set of companies – hardly known for being law abiding – overseeing an historically dangerous industry. Now added into this toxic mix is the Government’s decision to keep sites open – albeit with guidance that workers ‘socially distance’.

The Construction Leadership Council (CLC), located within the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, and which works “between industry and government to identify and deliver actions supporting UK construction in building greater efficiency, skills and growth”,  has issued three versions of ‘Site Operating Procedures’ since the start of the Government shutdown to ensure “social distancing” on sites.

The most recent, on 14 April, notes, amongst others things, that where “the social distancing measures (2 metres) cannot be applied”, then workers “should work side by side, or facing away from each other, rather than face to face” and “Keep this to 15 minutes or less where possible”. The scientific basis for these no doubt highly protective measures has yet to be published. They would be laughable were they not to be so deadly.

Of course, such social distancing simply cannot be achieved in one of the most labour intensive industries, and our mendacious authorities will know that on sites, in canteens and huts, and as they travel to and from work, construction workers are exposed to, and are unwitting carriers of, the coronavirus. What is more, the Health and Safety Executive, the body which might have helped to oversee compliance with basic health and safety law – which would surely result in sites being shut – has, in the past fifteen years, had its enforcement capacity virtually completely undermined. Instead, in fact, it has signed up to this sham of social distancing guidance for building sites.

Keeping the sites open has undoubtedly added to, and continues to add to, the spread of the virus and so to loss of like, amongst construction workers and their families, and across our communities. In my view, it’s criminal negligence. It’s state-corporate manslaughter. It is the unavoidable and unnecessary cutting short of lives for the sake of profit – or, as Friedrich Engels in his classic 1845 book, The Condition of the Working Class in England termed it, social murder.

Infectious criminalisation: new waves of ‘coronavirus’ criminalisation and zemiology

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Avi Boulki considers the ways in which social harms are proliferating during the Coronavirus pandemic. Avi Boukli is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University.

Spring has struck this year. Food is really expensive. Have you noticed?

Amidst the world-sweeping pandemic, some of us find solace in exercising at home, indulging in [fill in the blank with something you/I can still afford], reading and re-reading the news, zoom-drinking with loved ones. The world has changed. Susan Sontag wrote in 1973 “… a society becomes ‘modern’ when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images…”. Then perhaps a society becomes “unmodern” when, amid lockdown, successions of joggers elbow you at the park, shouting goodbye to the recommended 2-meter distance and your spleen.

Writing in lockdown on criminalisation and zemiology is both a complex and a simple task. On the complex level, with the lens focused on the state-corporate management of the pandemic, this blog post traces some of the relations between criminalisation measures that emerged as a response to the coronavirus pandemic and zemiology. It starts by visiting some criminological insights in relation to crime and the pandemic, before it moves to offer some suggestions as to how zemiology could account for the social harms exacerbated and made visible by the pandemic. It is also simple. Zemiology still enables us to assess what is happening from a political, economic, physical, emotional, and cultural point of view. Amid rapid socio-political changes, zemiology retains its shape and hope.

But let’s trace Ariadne’s thread:

Criminology is fascinating. In his lucid podcast, Manuel Eisner, discusses crime in times of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. He takes a criminological perspective to discuss the social, legal, and political dimensions of a “crisis” but also includes criminological theories that strive to explain the current crime declines and increases, the trends’ highs and lows. The pandemic has raised some crucial fluctuations in crime, Eisner argues. For instance, in NY burglaries seem to be declining, while car thefts are on the rise. Similarly, some variations in crime rates appear in London too: knife crime and burglaries have dropped in the weeks that followed the introduction of social distancing and subsequent lockdown state response to the pandemic. This has meant both a material effect but also a shift in public and media discourse.

But what are the effects of keeping the focus solely on crime and crime control? Firstly, the narrow gaze on crime and crime control, at best, pushes back the perpetuation of social harm on the list of priorities for investigation. At worst, it further silences social harm, supplemented by surreptitious zemia. Particularly, the measures to deal with the “pandemic crisis” are not applied to a pre-existing just and equal society, but spur an authoritarian controlled capitalism that protects corporate interests while “offloading the costs onto the rest of us” . Essentially, vulnerable highly indebted workers, with limited access to benefits and public services are further crushed in the mill of casualisation, while working rights are demolished and layoffs skyrocket, “without concern for due process and as remote working destroys all limits to the working week”. As a result, a wide variety of physical, financial/economic, emotional, psychological, and cultural harms proliferate.

A picture containing outdoor, rock, bird, rocky

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Image of underwater pebbles and seashells, IP: Avi Boukli

Secondly, a sole focus on crime and crime control threatens to conceal the harms perpetuated by criminalisation measures. In the UK, draconian countermeasures are both vague and sweeping simultaneously, allowing the police almost unlimited discretion in exercising ill-defined powers. While they are combined with ever more draconian “feel good” and stay at home “essentials” – foldable table tennis nets (no space-shaming involved), jigsaw puzzles, and flour – are now sold at eye-watering prices for the labour aristocracy, and the wider working class alike. These criminalisation measures did not come in time to curb the deaths inflicted by the pandemic but with a time delay, and with an unequal impact on those of us who live on the streets, in shared accommodation, limited spaces, total institutions, and those of us who have long-term health conditions, which are meant to be paused to avoid further strains on an already overstretched health service. Further, these criminalisation measures do not put pressure on big pharmaceutical companies to develop, let’s say, the fastest and most affordable vaccine against a highly contagious virus, but on individuals to accept responsibility for catching or spreading the virus. Again, structures disappear, and the individual is reborn, Matrix-esque, responsible (“an imminent threat”) and covered in gelatine sociability (subject to “restrictions or requirements”).

As a result of the above, the language of zemiology is helpful in reading critically the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 and the Coronavirus Act 2020, and the collapse of public health into public order. In summary the Regulations make it illegal for: i) a wide range of shops and businesses to open or to sell food or drink for consumption in their premises (Regs 4, 5); ii) a person to leave their house without a reasonable excuse (unless they are homeless) (Reg 6); a person to take part in public gatherings of more than 2 people subject to exceptions (Reg 7).

However, the lack of clarity regarding what constitutes a “reasonable excuse” or a valid “exception” may actually leave room for the usual norms around disability, class, and gender to fill in the blanks left by this “crisis” law. For instance, would a victim of trafficking escaping captivity, have a reasonable excuse on the basis of Reg 6 (m.) and what burden of proof does this involve? And a bit further, who is excluded from business bailout plans? Sex workers? Who is excluded from the category “vulnerable persons”? People with mild chronic asthma who struggle to breathe in spring, people with chronic conditions such as Crohn’s, Colitis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and high blood pressure or an undiagnosed condition at the time when the measures were imposed? Lastly, who is the exception and who is the rule: is homelessness an exception, or is it a sign of vulnerability, or is the “crisis” the Pool of Siloam for political purposes… And equally, who is included? Do the business bailout plans include highly profitable wealthy businesses with large cash reserves? Uneven impacts are not abstract ideas but material realities, made up of bodies like yours and mine. Pre-pandemic we didn’t live in an equal society and it is hard to see how the restrictions imposed are going to mend the harms of these inequalities by collapsing the maintenance of public health into that of public order. As for the cultural harms, there is a concern that a decline in (street) violence in the public sphere, may go hand in hand with a rise in domestic violence.  But, after having being circled by a group of fellow citizens to be coughed at, or experiencing the exacerbation of physical dominance in public spaces by certain bodies over others, I argue, women, LGBTQ people, and men locked in with their abusers experience not just the collapse of public services into public order but, most crucially, the collapse of the public sphere into the domestic sphere and vice versa. Public inequalities are now domestic ones. Drawing on a zemiological analysis seems vital at a time when governments exhorts us to “work together” and focus only on essentials. While reducing infections is clearly crucial, we must not forget to consider who is treated as collateral damage or in need of more repressive state intervention in the name of public health.

On why REF work is ethically compromising in a post COVID-19 crisis: a very personal account

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Jo Phoenix considers ethical questions about the REF in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic. Jo Phoenix is Professor of Criminology at The Open University.

On March 16, 2020, I had a career first as I spent the day paralyzed trying to figure out whether it was morally and ethically right to continue with undertaking REF preparation work – a key aspect of my professional role. I decided it was not, even though I suspected that doing so may disadvantage many of my colleagues. I am responsible – along with another colleague – for the Open University’s Social Work and Social Policy unit of assessment submission to REF2021.

For those who do not know, REF (short for the Research Excellence Framework) is a government led, mandatory audit exercise which, every several years, distributes research funding based upon an assessment of research quality of all disciplines at every HE institution. This type of exercise started in 1986 when Thatcher disbanded the University Grants Committee in order to institute a new ethos and mechanism for research funding allocation: competition with the most money going to the ‘best’ universities and ‘best’ to be determined by a review of research quality (see Salter and Tapper (1994) The State and Higher Education, Routledge for an extended discussion of the relationship between the state and universities from WW2 until the end of Thatcherism).

Three decades later, REF is organised into disciplinary ‘units of assessment’ that assess publications from each academic alongside other measures, like ‘research impact’ (the extent to which research has had a (presumably positive) effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia) and ‘research environment’ i.e. research income, numbers of postgraduate completions and the infrastructure and support given to academics.

My ethical crisis was prompted by an internal Open University deadline for producing the first draft of one key section of the ‘Social Work and Social Policy’ statement. I had set aside the week of the 16th March to write it, along with my colleague. By 18th March, however, I decided that I would put no further energy into REF preparation work and informed University research managers that this was the case. What follows is a personal account of the questions and thoughts I’ve been asking myself and having. But with all things personal, this is also a political account.

Academics and new pressures when ‘working from home’

Working mom” by Ran Zwigenberg, licensed under CC BY 2.0

We know that as serious as the COVID pandemic is, so too are the unprecedented measures that are being taken by governments all over the globe, from ‘lockdowns’ which enforce social distancing and social isolation to sweeping new governmental powers including effectively nationalising the economy and suspending the normal practices of democracy and the rule of law. Courts are not sitting and even parliament has been suspended. One of the measures taken by the government in the UK was to require those who could work from home to do so. Universities were among some of the first tell their staff to work from home. Working from home for many academics is not necessarily something new. However, this time, Universities were asking academics to ‘pivot’ to online provision for teaching. ‘Pivoting’ is extremely resource hungry. Not only does it take time and energy and against a backdrop of exceptionally rapid and deeply traumatic personal and social changes, it is also taking place in the middle of a UCU union action of short of strike that is scheduled to last until the end of April.

Social distancing and working from home may mean that ‘the home’ is becoming overcrowded.  Not everyone has a home study or office. As of 20th March 2020, homes became even more crowded as schools closed and children who would usually be out of the home during school hours are now in need of care. The vulnerability of older people and other ‘at risk’ groups to COVID-19 places even further strains on the resources of ‘the home’ as academics working from home may find themselves having to help their elderly, vulnerable and at risk relatives, family members and partners take the precautionary measure of ‘self-isolating’ for the recommended 12 weeks.

Britain Queues For Food- Rationing and Food Shortages in Wartime, London, England, UK, 1945

As of 23rd March, the time spent obtaining basic groceries in a context of panic buying in supermarkets, new social distancing measures and the collapse of online deliveries has grown exponentially. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that academics have not been immune to the effects of the pursuit of neo-liberal economic policies and the destruction of the welfare state. COVID-19 comes hot on the heels of a protracted industrial dispute between UCU and UUK. The effect is real and visceral as they see their normal monthly salary reduced as a result of their Universities deducting 14 days of salary for taking part in the strike action of February and March. Many, particularly younger academics and those with children, find themselves in communities of high density accommodation which provides one of the preconditions for a viral ‘hotspot’ with all that now means on top of reduced salaries and increased employer expectations.

Across the sector there are many who are willing to ‘pivot’ in order to maintain teaching for, as professionals, we are concerned for our students. The fact that this is an ethical choice ought to be acknowledged. As the sociology of professions teaches us, one of the defining ethical values of professionals is a commitment to altruism and clientelism (Carlen 2012[V4] ). In our work as educators, we serve our students and make decisions based on what is right and good for them. We don’t do this because it serves the (economic) purposes of our universities, or simply because it is in our employment contracts. Most of us will do the work necessary to ensure that our students are able to carry on with their education despite the burdens of the new context of working from home.

REF, The Political, The Personal and The Ethical

For me, the nature of the REF has numbed the critical social science imagination and makes the coming ethical research crises we are facing very real. In an earlier book chapter, Carlen and myself argued (in the context of criminology)

  • that ideals of professionalism and open scientific inquiry were being threatened by a combination of marketisation and corporatisation of research,
  • and that ideologies of ‘the market’ and corporatism, combined with REF, ensures researchers direct their imaginations towards securing large grants and ‘impactful’ research,
  • alternative criminologies (read critical) demand that meanings of crime and justice and their relationship with social justice are constantly called into question and analysed rather than accepted, and
  • it is not possible (or even desirable) to establish in criminology the type of impact beloved of REF whilst critiquing the shifting meanings of crime and justice (Carlen and Phoenix 2017).

I would extend that argument to social science more generally, especially now.

The overriding question I have found myself asking for the last two weeks: what is the research that we do for? Is it there to secure our individual University’s strategic research objectives of success in REF and thereby a larger slice of the Government’s research monies and/or bragging rights that help in the academic marketplace to attract students? If REF went away forever, would we still pursue our individual 5 year personal research plans? How prepared are we to intellectually ‘pivot’ and stand up to what COVID and the anti-contagion measures mean? From my perspective as someone who started as an academic before the first fully audit based Research Assessment Exercise in 1996, two decades of managerialism and audit exercises has changed what ‘doing research’ means for many academics. They see it as something they do in order to fulfil their university’s employment expectations: to progress their careers whilst also playing their part in achieving ‘a good outcome’ in REF. Enter the rise of the instrumental (pragmatic?) academic.

Alongside shifting meanings of ‘research’, I would argue that the meaning of ‘ethics’ in universities has changed. Whereas once ‘ethics’ referred to morality in action, it increasingly refers to risk and liability – or what Carlen and I called “amateur socio-actuarialism”. I’d like to invoke that older sense of the term ethics and suggest that nothing we do at work is ethically (or politically) neutral. In an everyday sort of way, our professional conduct is shaped by and within a set of usually tacit, occasionally explicit agreements between us and our employers (our employment contract) and between us and our learned societies (our codes of conduct or codes of ethics) as well as between us and our colleagues and our research participants. Without wishing to be repetitive, these agreements take place within a further set of normative values about professionalism and scientific inquiry – even if, as argued above, the last three decades has seen an erosion and corruption of these ideals.

My ethical dilemma then: at a moment of extreme global crisis, do I ask my colleagues to continue to work and prepare for the REF? Do I do so when I know that ‘work from home’, ‘social isolation’ and ‘social distance’ means that any former distinctions between private and public life are rapidly becoming utterly meaningless? Do I ask them to press on with collecting evidence of the impact knowing full well that such is likely to come from third sector and governmental organisations who themselves may be overburdened with the coming health crisis? Do I ask my colleagues to carry on, as though nothing has changed except the *how* of what we do? Finally, do I ask the imaginative social scientists who are part of the UoA for which I am responsible to spend their precious few hours and moments of head space to help my university – whose social justice mission I admire – to prepare for an audit that many never come, in a world that may never return to ‘normal’? Particularly where some universities have – historically and contemporarily – created REF managements systems that also serve to discipline the workforce, introduce job insecurity and through an ideology of REF ‘stars’ create divisive hierarchies between professional academics. (How else to we theorise the category ‘research active’?) No. I can’t in all good conscience do any of that.


Events have rather over-taken me and my dilemmas. Research England (the governing body in charge of the REF) have announced a postponement of the exercise in light of the unfolding COVID catastrophe. Yet, still colleagues at the OU and elsewhere are continuing to do REF preparations. It has been suggested to me that people need the routines and discipline of work to continue in this new world. Others have suggested that their disciplines and work have nothing to do with COVID and want to continue with REF preparations, therefore. Still others have suggested that there is only so much teaching and support that can be done, that administrative jobs are at stake or that their roles (as professional academics) are solely about REF. To them I say this: the world is changing rapidly and what it needs right now are critical social scientists who have the skills, knowledge and expertise to understand it, to hold government to account for its (in)actions, and most of all to contribute their time, labour and energy to heading off the human tragedies that are within sight. Or maybe just to survive. This is not a time to do REF preparation work. With that, I’m off to do whatever I can to support my students, get prisoners out of the coming death traps that will be our prisons and women and children out of the prisons of their abusive homes.

Coronavirus and prisons: the need for radical alternatives

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, David Scott and Joe Sim consider the position of prisoners in relation to the Coronavirus. David Scott is Senior Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University and Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University.

Wandsworth prison from the air by Thomas Nugent

Thinking critically about the coronavirus (COVID19) means thinking about the exercise of power and social divisions. While it has been reported that the rich have been jetting off to private islands, and while celebrities have been paying for testing and then unashamedly proclaiming to the world that they are not infected, as ever it is the economically and socially vulnerable who are being harmed by this pulverising virus. The brutal imposition of free market capitalism, and the retrenchment of social democratic states from policing the economic and harmful activities of the powerful, lie at the root of the crisis. It is these processes, and the systemic indifference to their human costs, which are now proving to be the gravediggers of the powerless.

The coronavirus is of greatest danger to the most vulnerable people in society, especially those with underlying health problems and/or living in inadequate social conditions.   The incubation and spread of the virus is hastened by dirty, overcrowded and unhygienic environments with poor ventilation and sanitation.  Close physical contacts in restricted spaces results in what epidemiologists are calling “cluster amplification”. Whilst the virus presents an existential threat to many around the world on the downside of capitalist exploitation, especially those in slums, ghettoes, refugee camps, or among the homeless, the focus of this article is on risks associated with prisons.  Indeed, at the time of writing, the coronavirus already has a presence in a number of prisons England and Wales, with a significant number of prisoners and prison staff developing symptoms and subsequently placing themselves in isolation.  The first prisoner death was reported at HMP Littlehey on 26th March, and later that same day another death at HMP Manchester.  At the time of writing, a new birfucated approach appears to be in the making, with the government apparently on the verge of both introducing mass lockdowns across the penal estate, enforcing 23 hour bang-up for most prisoners, whilst at the same time seriously considering whether pregnant women and remand prisoners could be transferred to bail hostels.

In this article particular attention is given to the position of prisoners. What about their health and safety? How will they be protected physically and psychologically from the ravages of the virus? What about different groups of prisoners? What should a radical response be to this life and death issue for prisoners?  This article considers these questions in relation to England and Wales.

Minimising Disruption or Minimising Harm?

In a remarkably candid account on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the current president of the Prison Governors Association, Andrea Albutt, warned that the transmission and death rate of the coronavirus was likely to be much higher in prisons than the general community.  Despite further warnings from leading epidemiologists that up to 60% of the prison population (approximately 50,000 prisoners) could be infected resulting in a death rate perhaps as high as 2.3%, the government response thus far has been one of containment and situational control.  The prisons minister, Lucy Frazer, in her statement on preparedness to deal with the virus in prisons on 12th March 2020, focused on reassurance and minimising disruption to the existing penal regimes:

Prisons have existing, well-developed policies and procedures in place to manage outbreaks of infectious diseases. This means prisons are well prepared to take immediate action whenever cases or suspected cases are identified, including isolating individuals where necessary.

Basic hygiene is a key part of tackling the virus and good practice is being promoted on posters throughout the estate. Handwashing facilities are available to all prisoners – not just in cells but other shared areas such as education blocks and kitchens. Staff and visitors also have access to handwashing facilities and we have worked closely with suppliers to ensure adequate supply of soap and cleaning materials.

Prison officers are to adopt prophylactic measures (like wearing disposable gloves; fluid repellent face masks; plastic aprons; and disposable face visors or goggles), minimise non-essential contact and try to keep less than 2 metres distance from prisoners.  Alongside this emphasis on ‘protective isolation’, and the payment of prison officer bonuses to cover extra shifts, the the government is also considering a strategy of ‘cohorting prisoners’ (which is grouping people together who have symptoms of COVID19 should there be insufficient isolation. 

Should the numbers of cases in an establishment increase, isolation resources could be under pressure. Cohorting is a strategy which can be effective in the care of large numbers of people who are ill by gathering all those who are suspected confirmed cases into one area (or a limited number of areas where it is necessary to keep some prisoners or detainees separate).

However, these policies have severe limitation, an issue to which we now turn.

The Limitations of the State’s Response

Given that the negative health implications of COVID19 are much more severe for those with multiple exposure to the disease (as evidenced by the deaths of health care workers) the proposed last-ditch strategy of “cohorting” is deeply concerning. Indeed, this policy, if introduced in the coming weeks, could prove disastrous. Prisoners with COVID19 housed together will be subjected to multiple infections of the disease and, especially for those with underlying health problems, this could escalate the seriousness of the illness.  Indeed, the consequences of the cohorting policy may become tantamount to ‘social murder’ – cohorting COVID19 positive prisoners is a political decision that almost certainly will result in social arrangements that are unsafe, harmful and result in premature and otherwise avoidable deaths. But this is not the only limitation of the current policy. The emphasis on social isolation and social distancing, designed to curb the virus, continue to dominate the state’s response are problematic for different groups both inside and outside prisons.  For example, outside prison, they fail to consider women in domestically abusive relationships. How can these policies protect them and minimise harm?.

In prisons, safe quarantine measures are effectively impossible to implement. For decades, the appalling conditions inside, compounded by gross and needless overcrowding, particularly in male, local prisons, have been highlighted by critical academics, prisoners’ rights organisations and by official bodies such as the Prisons Inspectorate. Since the beginning of 2018, the Inspectorate has produced a number of withering reports which have pointed to the abject and soul-crunching conditions in which many prisoners exist. The Inspectorate’s report on Birmingham prison, published in August 2018, was scathing about the conditions inside:

Communal areas in most wings were filthy. Rubbish had accumulated and had not been removed. There were widespread problems with insects, including cockroaches, as well as rats and other vermin. We saw evidence of bodily fluids left unattended, including blood and vomit. I saw a shower area where there was bloodstained clothing and a pool of blood that apparently had been there for two days next to numerous rat droppings. Many cells were cramped, poorly equipped and had damaged flooring or plasterwork. Most toilets were poorly screened, many were leaking and we saw cells with exposed electrics.

The National Audit Office, looking more broadly at the prison estate, also recently found that prisons were infested with vermin, damp, wet, and cold. This evidence of dilapidated prison building seems to stand in stark contrast to the claims of the prison minister about prison hygiene. Given such conditions, the point made by Richard Coker is crucial. As he notes [p]risons and centres of detention are well-recognised ‘epidemiological pumps’. They can spread disease outwards into the community if the internal dynamics of disease transmission are not confronted. This happened in the USA, and the former Soviet Union, when HIV and multidrug resistant tuberculosis infected those beyond the walls. Therefore, reducing ‘unnecessary close contact in closed environments may help prevent large case clusters and superspreading events that seed beyond those confined’. Whilst such ‘bridgehead’ arguments about the spread of diseases alone are not sufficient (they erase the human dignity of prisoners), they do highlight the importance of getting the policies on containing the virus in prison right.

In his annual report published in July 2019, the Chief Inspector of Prisons was blunt: ‘far too many prisoners still endure very poor and overcrowded living conditions’. The physical and spatial restrictions of the prison place also mean that there is more handling and touching of goods and physical objects and there are numerous concerns regarding the spread of contamination through the physical limitations imposed by security measures on preparations for food and drinks. Given current living conditions, security restraints, and the overcrowding which means that many prisoners are sharing cells and ironically are often isolated and locked down in these cells because of the lack of purposeful activity, how can prisoners feasibly be kept safe and harm minimised by the limited policy suggestions of the government in recent days?

Prison landing during lockdown

These issues were further highlighted in a report published by Parliament’s Health and Social Care Committee into prison health care in November 2018. The two paragraphs below provide a clear indication of the state of health care inside:

Even the most basic needs of people detained, such as their diet and living conditions, continue to be compromised in some English prisons. HMIP’s most recent annual report noted that inspections over the last year have identified poor, and even squalid, conditions in several prisons. Prison establishments frequently struggle, according to the inspectorate, to provide meals of sufficient quantity and quality on £2 per day per prisoner. 

Short-staffed, overcrowded prisons severely limit access to healthcare and the ability of prisoners to lead healthy lives. Prisoners spend the vast majority of their time in their cells, limiting their opportunity to move and engage in adequate levels of physical activity, and their access to healthcare, inside and outside prison, is restricted. Only 16% of prisoners report being unlocked for the recommended minimum of 10 hours per day. A third of people detained in local prisons and almost 40% of people held in young adult prisons report spending less than 2 hours out of their cell a day. Low staffing levels, excessive waiting times for some services and inadequate management of prisoners with chronic conditions are three recurrent concerns HMIP and CQC have about the delivery of healthcare in prisons, based on the findings of their joint inspections over the last year (emphasis in the original).

The report also noted that 15% of prisoners have respiratory problems – a condition associated with virus-induced deaths – compared with 8% of the general population.

It is important to recognise that prisoners are not a homogenous group. The population is diverse with complicated health care needs. Elderly prisoners, one of the fastest rising groups in the prison population and of course, the group most vulnerable to the virus on the outside, are confronted by a prison system which even if there was no crisis, does not deal with their needs. There are more than 1,800 prisoners over the age of 70 (219 people in prison are over the age of 80) and more than 60% of prisoners over the age of 50 have disability. According to the Health and Social Care Committee’s report, older prisoners ‘are frequently held in prisons which, even with reasonable adjustments, are unfit for their needs….’.

Other prisoners have specific health issues. For example, what about women in prison who are pregnant? What about the specific health care needs of black and minority ethnic groups?

It is also important to recognise two other issues which have not been addressed so far. First, it is not just a question of protecting the physical health of prisoners. There is also the issue of their psychological health. Being detained in a prison cell waiting for the virus, or simply waiting to hear details about the spread of the virus, and, unlike those on the outside, having very little, if any autonomy, to address negative thoughts about the virus, is likely to have a detrimental impact on the confined. Therefore, it is important to address the particular situation confronting prisoners with respect to the psychology of the virus. The prison makes all prisoners not only physically vulnerable but also psychologically vulnerable. This may also be intensified for those prisoners in segregation. Second, there is the issue of prisoners’ families and the stress that they are likely to experience in not knowing about the physical and psychological health of their relatives. Like prisoners, their families are also often treated as less than human and as less eligible subjects as the often-desperately negative experience of the families of prisoners who die in custody indicate.

The organisation of prisons makes even the most practical policies difficult to implement.  Whilst the UK government claims there are appropriate handwashing facilities in prisons in England and Wales, hand sanitisers, for example are often considered contraband in prison because they can contain alcohol.  Handcuffed or otherwise restrained people cannot cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, sinks often lack soap. According to a recent account by a prison doctor, there is also the issue of getting prisoners to hospital who are ill given the combination of security and staff shortages. In dealing with one prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs she pointed out ‘I knew as always, that I would have a battle on my hands to arrange for his admission to hospital’ (emphasis added).  At Wandsworth, in 2017, two hospital appointment a week were missed on average because there were no officers available to escort prisoners. For Chris Atkins, who served part of this sentence in Wandsworth, ‘[p]rison health care is straight out of the Middle Ages. It wouldn’t have been out of place if they had started dispensing leeches’.

Radical Alternatives

What is the way forward in England and Wales? There are two dimensions to developing radical alternatives to the state’s policies. First, the state should abandon the fallacy that more prisons and prisoners equal less crime. This is palpably untrue, yet has (mis)informed the law and order policies of successive governments for the last two centuries. Instead, the present government could learn lessons from around the world where prisoners are being released in a number of countries such as Turkey, Spain and Iran where 85,000 prisoners have been released.  Different states and cities in America – New York, Los Angeles, Ohio – have followed a similar decarceration path. Ross MacDonald, the chief medical officer for Correctional Health Services in New York, has called on prosecutors and judges to enable prisoners to be released from the state’s jails in response to the outbreak. These countries have therefore begun to think beyond the traditional punitive responses to crime – locking people up in increasing numbers and leaving them to fester in often-deplorable conditions – and have begun to follow the least coercive, dehumanising and intrusive and restrictive policy possible of releasing prisoners.

This policy challenges the physical and psychological harm that prisons engender and which will only be intensified and magnified if the virus takes hold inside. Of course, how long this decarceration policy will last is a matter of conjecture, but at least there has been some movement away from the blind alley of state coercion and control. It is also important to note that in countries where no such action has been taken, such as Italy, there have been, at the time of writing 27 disturbances resulting in 9 deaths. And not all countries are pursuing these policies. For example, prison labour is being used to shore up supplies of face masks and hand gels in Hong Kong Lo Wu women’s prison where 100 prisoners are working six days a week, in shifts of six to 10 hours, including night shifts. Retired or off-duty prison officers – 1200 of them – are also working to produce the masks. The governor of New York announced the state will also be using prison labour to produce 100,000 gallons of hand sanitiser for schools, prisons, transportation systems and other government agencies. 

An image of the March 2020 Italian prison disturbance

However, it is important to recognise that even if such decarceration policies were implemented, there is still the question of the quality of community support prisoners would receive given the decimation of community support networks due to the ‘violence of austerity’. Prisons cost £4 billion annually, within a criminal justice budget of £16 billion. The expenditure pattern is skewed towards security, control, public order policing and the militarization of the state. Therefore, there needs to be a radical redirection of expenditure towards well-funded community alternatives, staffed by well-trained, fully committed staff. Even in pre-virus times this has not been the case.  Allied to this is the fact that the number of ex-prisoners dying in the community is already disproportionately high. An influx of new prisoners into the community will only be detrimental unless radical policies are put in place to respond humanely, urgently and empathically to them.

On March 25th it was reported in the media that one possible option under consideration by the government was the release of some sentenced prisoners (50 pregnant women prisoners), release of a small number of other prisoners on licence and the possible rehousing of remand prisoners in bail hostels.  Whilst these policies are to be welcomed (and are certainly much more humane than the lockdown of prisoners) they do not go far enough.   Commentators such as Eric Alisson and the charity INQUEST have suggested more radical alternatives to the current situation. INQUEST’s proposals include:

a) An immediate release of all those held in immigration detention centres, in line with recommendations made in the British Medical Journal by key health professionals in the field.

b) Relieving the pressures within prison system by closing child prisons (Secure Training Centres and other facilities holding children) as soon as practicable. 

c) Prompt release into the community and relevant support services for women in prison, alongside increased funding for women’s centres and other specialist support services as a priority. 

d) Dramatic reduction of the population across the rest of the prison estate, with consideration of options to release all those who safely and reasonably can be. This should be done with input from (and funding provided to) community and voluntary sector services providing support for people on release. Nobody should be released into destitution or poverty or faced with a lack of health and welfare support. 

Second, there needs to be a radical transformation in how prisoners are regarded, not just in relation to the current coronavirus crisis but when the crisis has abated. For the last two centuries, they have been regarded as less than human, as less eligible subjects who were undeserving of, or entitled to, decent health care services. There was, in effect, no ethics of care. In practice, this has meant that prison regimes have always been inherently unhealthy and demonstrably unsafe for prisoners which, in turn, has had an often devastating impact on the physical and psychological health of prisoners who have remained outside of the social democratic orbit of care, compassion and protection which those on the outside the prison’s walls have as a right, at least in theory. In areas such as deaths in custody, this has led to prisoners being blamed for their own deaths either because they have allegedly had some kind of abnormal characteristics which have propelled them into self-inflicted death or they have died ‘naturally’.

However, as INQUEST has pointed out: ‘no death in prison is natural’ as the ‘failure to treat prisoners with decency, humanity and compassion is a “consistent feature” of deaths [inside]’. In their evidence to the Health and Social Care committee in relation to ‘natural’ deaths in prison INQUEST pointed to ‘serious lapses in the delivery of, and access to, healthcare’. They included, ‘failures to make urgent referrals where it is suspected that prisoners might have cancer or a failure to “review and treat abnormal blood test results.”  The Committee went on to note that it had

…….received similar complaints in response to our call in Inside Time. For example, one prisoner informed us of the death of his friend who complained repeatedly to healthcare services within the prison about pain he was experiencing. When healthcare services finally did help “it was too late, he had cancer and only had weeks to live.” (ibid)

This is a key point not only for critiquing the statistics around deaths in prison but more broadly in the present coronavirus crisis. Health statistics, like all social statistics, are social constructions. Therefore, while deaths may well be put down to the underlying condition of the individual in fact, such deaths may well be caused by institutional structure of power. In short, such deaths are preventable. As an example, on March 17th in an interview in The Guardian, a consultant cardiologist pointed out that in the previous week, a 79-year old woman was admitted ‘for an elective, non-urgent procedure. She was then diagnosed with Covid-19, which, he says, “she almost certainly acquired on our wards”. She was put on a ventilator but died on Monday night. “I’m sure she will go down as an elderly patient with underlying conditions, but she should have lived to 90,” he said’.

Therefore, there needs to be a political, cultural and social shift away from the criminal (in)justice model that current prevails and which has abjectly failed to protect prisoners and indeed the wider society both from conventional crime and also the rampant criminality of the state and the powerful who enjoy a culture of immunity and impunity not afforded to the powerless. This means developing structures of democratic accountability based not on criminal (in) justice but social justice for all. At the same time, the prison system should be be abolished in its present form, the prison building programme should be stopped and the radical alternatives discussed above should be implemented. Coupled with a less hypocritical understanding of what crime is and who the ‘real’ criminals are, and the removal of the rabid social divisions and gross inequalities  in wealth and power that scar the social landscape and destroy lives, these radical alternatives will ensure the health, safety and protection of the whole society, including prisoners and their families.

This blog was first published by New Socialist on 26th March 2020

Coronavirus, the Johnson Government and the ‘Deference-to-Science’

At HERC we publish blog articles covering a wide range of issues that broadly relate to harm, evidence, crime and justice. In keeping with the critical position of HERC, our aim is to highlight all sides of the debate and to facilitate a discussion so that all voices are heard on the issue.

In this article, Steve Tombs considers the early approach taken by the UK Government to the unfolding Coronavirus crisis. Steve Tombs is Professor of Criminology at The Open University.

As I write, new developments unfold almost minute-by-minute regarding the all-encompassing coronavirus pandemic. There is no doubt that by the time you read this, any empirical reference points I might have included here will be out of date – there will be more diagnosed and suspected cases, more deaths, more volatile movements on the stock-markets and central bank efforts to control these, not to mention, across the globe, increasing closures, shutdowns and lockdown of communities, travel routes and mass gatherings amidst news reports of celebrities and leading politicians who have tested positive for the disease. This is so fast-moving that no snapshot analysis of the harms associated with Covid-19 can do justice to what is, in the experience of any of us reading this, an unprecedented global phenomenon.

What is of interest, however, and what may endure for those interested in Governmental responses to social harm is the early approach taken by the UK Government to the unfolding crisis. The latest, and highest formal point in this, came late on Thursday 12 March, when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson followed up the third ‘COBRA’ meeting in a week with another sombre, set-piece press conference. It is to this and what it means for Governmental approaches to harm, evidence and regulation upon which I wish to focus here.

The “worst health crisis in a generation”

In the context of Government interventions in social life across the globe of a kind and on a scale never before seen, the response of the Johnson Government has been, by comparison, at best pedestrian, at worst non-existent. For a Government which only 48 hours ago announced what some had hailed as the most Keynesian budget in a generation, the approach to the pandemic has been distinctly laissez-faire.

Credit: Frederic Lewis / Archive Photos / Getty Images / Universal Images Group; source: Britannica Image Quest

The Johnson Government had spent the day trailing the ‘fact’ that the country had moved from a ‘contain’ to a ‘delay’ phase, the latter being one in which we as a population were being primed for significant disruption. Yet that ground-laying was surprisingly at odds with the concrete measures set out by Johnson. In fact, and in full, these were as follows:

“From tomorrow, if you have coronavirus symptoms, however mild – either a new continuous cough or a high temperature – then you should stay at home for at least 7 days to protect others and help slow the spread of the disease.

We advise all those over 70 and those with serious medical conditions against going on cruises and we advise against international school trips.”

And in his closing statement, the PM reiterated the message of the preceding weeks:

“it is still vital, perhaps more vital than ever – that we remember to wash our hands”.

Such a response seems entirely at odds with the way in which the PM had introduced the press conference, referring to the “worst health crisis in a generation” which had led him to warn: “I must level with you, level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

The appearance of science?

How, then, to make sense of this?

Firstly, we must understand the framing of the approach, typified at the press conference but characteristic of the Government’s response to the emerging pandemic over weeks. In his speech and then in response to questions, Johnson continually deferred to ‘the science’ and ‘the scientists’.

This deference was achieved visually in his being flanked by the government’s Chief Medical Officer, Prof. Chris Whitty, and the government’s Chief Scientist, Sir Patrick Vallance – as had been the case with previous press conferences on the matter earlier in the week. Not just this, but in the brief series of questions that were allowed following the three set-piece speeches by Johnson, Vallance and Whitty, the visuals were also reinforced – or at least that was the attempt – by a frankly somewhat ludicrous ‘sombrero’ type graph. A diagram on a flipchart, this was claimed to represent what an epidemic looked like – a flat lead in with a significant spike which, if not ‘flattened’, it was warned, would  overwhelm the country’s ability to cope and lead to ever greater death and emmiseration.

There was no sense as to what data had been used to construct the ‘graph’. Indeed, although minutes before the press conference, figures of 596 diagnosed cases  and 10 fatalities as a result of the virus in the UK had been released, Vallance estimated at the conference that “between 5,000 and 10,000 people in the UK are thought to have the virus now”, albeit virtually all undiagnosed, and not to be diagnosed, as it was also announced that testing in the community for the virus would from that point be halted. All of which places a great deal of emphasis on the epidemiology and the ’modelling’ to which all three men constantly referred  – and led some to wonder, what is it about UK data, science, epidemiology and modelling which is virtually unique when compared to that of every other country which has dealt with or is dealing with the same disease?

The discourse of science?

Given these discrepancies, the role of ‘science’ in the Governments approach seems at least  questionable. But this science-basis was reinforced discursively, consistently and constantly framing the Government’s approach as a scientific not a political matter. This had been evident for weeks but was perfectly captured in the set piece speeches at the press conference, and then the questions that followed. Thus, in his opening speech there, Johnson stated variously:

  • “the Chief Scientific Adviser will set out the best information we have on that in a moment”
  • “the Chief Medical Officer will set out our lines of defence”
  • “we are not introducing this [school closures and banning large gatherings] yet for reasons Sir Patrick will explain”
  • “ .. the scientific advice ..”
  • “at all stages, we have been guided by the science, and we will do the right thing at the right time”
  • “the scientific advice [on closing schools now] is that this could do more harm than good at this time”
  • “ .. the best scientific advice ..”
  • “ .. we will continue to provide, as soon as we have it, as much clear scientific and medical information as we can ..”

So there is a key framing going on here – that the Government’s position is a-political, driven by, based on, and ‘all about’ the science. But this, of course, is to obscure some two centuries of anti-positivist social science which theorises and describes how science is always an effect of what questions are asked and what data is gathered to answer them,  always to be interpreted in highly value-laden ways, always and unavoidably infected by economic, political and social interests. It is, frankly, a ludicrous way to present ‘data’, not least by a Government in the midst of an unfolding crisis.

Nudges in the right direction?

Photo by Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images; source: Britannica Image Quest

As well as the attempt to root it in ‘science’,  we also have to view the Government’s approach to the virus in a second context, one entirely in keeping with the broader, longer term trajectory in government regulation in the UK. This stretches back at least four decades. It is a  trajectory towards less regulation, less law, less enforcement, less intervention in social life, at least where these might affect the dominant institutions of our society and how these operate – all of which is claimed, perversely, to produce better outcomes in terms of social protection.

Look again at the strictures set out by Johnson to ‘flatten the curve’ as we move into the ‘delay’ phase – to use the quickly commonplace, but quasi-scientific jargon: wash your hands, self-isolate for ‘at least’ 7 days, don’t go on international school trips and avoid cruises if you are over 70. These all responsibilise – they place the primary onus of protection on individuals themselves with what is often banal or imprecise advice. And advice is key: none of this overly prescriptive (no ‘you must’ or ‘must not’), certainly none of it involves regulation nor law, all of it is based upon attempts to nudge people into modifying their behaviour. And here we get to the heart of the ‘other’ aspect of the scientific approach informing the Government here, namely ‘behavioural science’’.

Following, and partly as a consequence of,  the emergence and consolidation of ‘Better Regulation’ (ie less regulation) at the heart of UK governments through the 1900s and 2000s, the idea of nudging people towards more ‘responsible’ behaviour became ever central to Government thinking about regulation. Nudging – as an element of what is known as ‘behavioural science’ – came to prominence with the work of Richard Thaler, the Chicago economist who was to win the Nobel Prize for economics in 2017, and the Harvard economist Cass Sunstein. The latter had worked in the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and his view of state regulation is encapsulated in the title of a 2013 book, Simpler: The Future of Government, which has been characterised thus:

“New principles  … are  transforming government. Countless regulations are being streamlined or eliminated. Transparent review of which rules are working, and which aren’t, is becoming the norm. Citing numerous examples from his years in the first term of the Obama Administration, and projecting forward into a data-driven future, Simpler provides a new understanding of how government can work.”

The approach is one underpinned by an antipathy to state intervention and regulation, as typified in the UK in the work of the Nudge Unit’, established by Cameron in 2010 within the Cabinet Office.  Although now only partly overseen by the Cabinet Office, this has been “working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care in crafting the government response” to Coronavirus. It has been a key influence over  “when to move from ‘contain’ to ‘delay’ phasing. This is based on evidence about duration of compliance.” Public contributions to the issue in the past month have been the blogs How to stop touching our faces in the wake of the Coronavirus (5th March) and Covid-19: how do we encourage the right behaviours during an epidemic? (24th February). This general approach to ‘behavioural government’ – not least on how Government’s should frame messages to the population (hence the focus on scientificity, above) –  is spelt out in a 2019 report, Behavioural Government Using behavioural science to improve how governments make decisions. It will perhaps come as no surprise to learn that Dominic Cummings, the controversial Chief Adviser to the PM, is closely associated with what he refers to as the ‘behavioural and experimental economics’ initiative.


The deference-to-science approach may be a genuinely held commitment by PM Johnson and his Government. Or, it may be an abrogation of political responsibility, with more than an element of political back-covering. It is certainly, compared to approaches to managing coronavirus taken in other countries across the world, including our closest neighbours and our major European comparators, very much a leap of faith. Is it really based upon the best science, epidemiological and behavioural? Or is it an attempt to delay immediate measures which appear on balance more likely to provide social protection but which at the same time may do two things very quickly: expose the frailties of chronically underfunded national health, public health and public services infrastructures, all subjected to severe austerity cuts for over a decade; and bring grinding to a halt business-as-usual, risking further devastating effects to a stock market which on the same day as Johnson’s press conference had experienced its largest single loss since so-called Black Monday in 1987.

Amidst all the uncertainties associated with coronavirus, there is perhaps only one thing we can be sure about in terms of the Government’s approach to its control: only the test of time will judge its efficacy; and we will be the Guinea pigs.