Bio-Politics and Calculative Technologies in COVID-19 Governance: Reflections From England

Document Type : Original Article


1 Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Essex, Colchester, UK

2 Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK


Through the extensive use of public media, the government of England was heavily involved in encouraging and instructing people on how to manage their life during coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). This model of health emergency governance replicates the practice of ‘calculative technologies’ and ‘bio-politics’ embedded in population management. Previous research on COVID-19 governance both in the United Kingdom and beyond provides varied revelations on broader ‘technologies of government’ and bio-politics by numerous governments. However, rarely have any studies explicitly and distinctively highlighted the unique ‘calculative technologies’ mobilised by governments within their bio-politically designed “technologies of government” to compel the populations to manage their lives under their COVID-19 guidance. The paper therefor examines how the UK government deployed “calculative technologies,” as part of its strategies of health governance and governmentality during the first wave of COVID-19 in England.
This study uses document analysis as its data collection method. Its review includes documents, press releases, social media disclosures and health guidance issued by the UK government from March to December, 2020. The data are analysed employing the Foucault’s governmentality and bio-political scholarship.
The paper’s findings reveal the UK government’s use of integrated calculative technologies of self-governance in the form of risk calculations and metrices/statistics (eg, death tolls, infection rates), performance management (eg, two metre social distancing, and hand washing for twenty seconds) and discipline and control (eg, fourteen days selfisolation), in addition to a more conventional top-down, managerial decision-making process adopted in the past. By these newly initiated “calculative technologies,” the government has “bio-politically” governed the behaviours and lifestyles of vulnerable community members, health workers and general public at a distance, inculcating selfmanagement and individualisation of responsibility.
The newly adopted calculative technologies used by the UK government created a multi-faceted discourse of obligations, entitlements and scale of engagement, and facilitated directions about what people should do to protect themselves and others from the spread of the virus. Overall, the overtly and idiosyncratically used calculative technologies resemble a unique ‘art of government’ and produce a set of ‘bio-political’ interventions enforcing the populations to manage their own wellbeing and governing them at a distance during COVID-19.


Main Subjects

  1. Ahmad S, Connolly C, Demirag I. Testing times: governing a pandemic with numbers. Account Audit Account J. 2021;34(6):1362-1375. doi:1108/aaaj-08-2020-4863
  2. Joyce P. Public governance, agility and pandemics: a case study of the UK response to COVID-19. Int Rev Adm Sci. 2021;87(3):536-555. doi:1177/0020852320983406
  3. Ahrens T, Ferry L. Accounting and accountability practices in times of crisis: a Foucauldian perspective on the UK government's response to COVID-19 for England. Account Audit Account J. 2021;34(6):1332-1344. doi:1108/aaaj-07-2020-4659
  4. Morgan M. Why meaning-making matters: the case of the UK Government's COVID-19 response. Am J Cult Sociol. 2020:1-54. doi:1057/s41290-020-00121-y
  5. Makarychev A, Romashko T. Precarious sovereignty in a post-liberal Europe: the COVID-19 emergency in Estonia and Finland. Chinese Political Science Review. 2021;6(1):63-85. doi:1007/s41111-020-00165-y
  6. Gjerde LEL. Governing humans and ‘things’: power and rule in Norway during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Political Power. 2021:1-21. doi:1080/2158379x.2020.1870264
  7. Gjerde LEL. From liberalism to biopolitics: investigating the Norwegian government’s two responses to COVID-19. Eur Soc. 2021;23(Suppl 1):S262-S274. doi:1080/14616696.2020.1824003
  8. Giritli Nygren K, Olofsson A. Managing the COVID-19 pandemic through individual responsibility: the consequences of a world risk society and enhanced ethopolitics. J Risk Res. 2020;23(7-8):1031-1035. doi:1080/13669877.2020.1756382
  9. Marinković D, Major S. COVID-19 and the genealogies of biopolitics: a pandemic history of the present. Sociologija. 2020;62(4):486-502. doi:2298/soc2004486m
  10. Horvath M, Lovasz A. Foucault in the age of COVID-19: permitting contingency in biopolitics. Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture. 2020;17(1):144-153.
  11. Luscombe A, McClelland A. Policing the Pandemic: Tracking the Policing of COVID-19 ACROSS Canada. White Paper. April 9, 2020.
  12. Cheibub JA, Hong JY, Przeworski A. Rights and deaths: government reactions to the pandemic. SSRN Electronic Journal. 2020. doi:2139/ssrn.3645410
  13. Sotiris P. Thinking beyond the lockdown: on the possibility of a democratic biopolitics. Hist Mater. 2020;28(3):3-38. doi:1163/1569206x-12342803
  14. McCarthy M, Murphy K, Sargeant E, Williamson H. Policing COVID-19 physical distancing measures: managing defiance and fostering compliance among individuals least likely to comply. Policing Soc. 2021;31(5):601-620. doi:1080/10439463.2020.1869235
  15. Foucault M. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Vol 1. New York: ‎ The New Press; 1997.
  16. Foucault M. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House; 1977.
  17. Foucault M. The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Tavistock; 1972.
  18. Foucault M. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Tavistock; 1970.
  19. Chatterjee P. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. Columbia: Columbia University Press; 2004.
  20. Rose N, O’Malley P, Valverde M. Governmentality. Legal Studies Research Paper no 09/94. Sydney: Sydney Law School, the University of Sydney; 2009.
  21. Miller P. Accounting as Social and Institutional Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1994:1-39.
  22. Guven-Uslu P, Blaber Z, Adhikari P. Boundary spanners and calculative practices. Financ Account Manag. 2020;36(4):439-460. doi:1111/faam.12266
  23. Rose N, Miller P. Political power beyond the state: problematics of government. Br J Sociol. 1992;43(2):173-205. doi:2307/591464
  24. Miller P, Rose N. Governing economic life. Econ Soc. 1990;19(1):1-31. doi:1080/03085149000000001
  25. Sargiacomo M. Earthquakes, exceptional government and extraordinary accounting. Account Organ Soc. 2015;42:67-89. doi:1016/j.aos.2015.02.001
  26. Sargiacomo M, Ianni L, Everett J. Accounting for suffering: calculative practices in the field of disaster relief. Crit Perspect Account. 2014;25(7):652-669. doi:1016/
  27. Baker CR. Breakdowns of accountability in the face of natural disasters: the case of Hurricane Katrina. Crit Perspect Account. 2014;25(7):620-632. doi:1016/
  28. Walker SP. Drought, resettlement and accounting. Crit Perspect Account. 2014;25(7):604-619. doi:1016/
  29. Lai A, Leoni G, Stacchezzini R. The socializing effects of accounting in flood recovery. Crit Perspect Account. 2014;25(7):579-603. doi:1016/
  30. Taylor D, Tharapos M, Sidaway S. Downward accountability for a natural disaster recovery effort: evidence and issues from Australia's Black Saturday. Crit Perspect Account. 2014;25(7):633-651. doi:1016/
  31. Perkiss S, Moerman L. Hurricane Katrina: exploring justice and fairness as a sociology of common good(s). Crit Perspect Account. 2020;67-68:102022. doi:1016/
  32. Matilal S, Adhikari P. Accounting in Bhopal: making catastrophe. Crit Perspect Account. 2020;72:102123. doi:1016/
  33. Johns Hopkins University. COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE). Accessed July 21, 2021. Published July 21, 2021.
  34. The Economist. How Well Have OECD Countries Responded to the Coronavirus Crisis? London: Economist Intelligence Unit; 2020.
  35. Global Health Security Index. 2019 Global Health Security Index. Accessed August 5, 2020. Published 2020.
  36. The U.S. and U.K. were the two best prepared nations to tackle a pandemic—what went wrong? Time. July 1, 2020; Accessed August 25, 2020.
  37. Razai MS, Kankam HKN, Majeed A, Esmail A, Williams DR. Mitigating ethnic disparities in covid-19 and beyond. BMJ. 2021;372:m4921. doi:1136/bmj.m4921
  38. Silverman D. Doing Qualitative Research: A Practical Handbook. London: SAGE Publications; 2013.
  39. Braun V, Clarke V. Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qual Res Psychol. 2006;3(2):77-101. doi:1191/1478088706qp063oa
  40. Lawless B, Chen Y-W. Developing a method of critical thematic analysis for qualitative communication inquiry. Howard J Commun. 2019;30(1):92-106. doi:1080/10646175.2018.1439423
  41. Coronavirus: Why is the UK's COVID-19 death toll higher than other EU countries? Euronews. May 6, 2020. Accessed July 7, 2020.
  42. Evening Standard. Latest government guidelines on social distancing and self isolation during coronavirus outbreak. Accessed August 2, 2020. Published March 25,
  43. Perls T. Social distancing: What it is and why it’s the best tool we have to fight the coronavirus. Accessed August 2, 2020. Published March 20, 2020.
  44. Coronavirus: Why social distancing works. ITV News. March 21, 2020. Accessed September 15, 2020.
  45. In full: PM's statement on his coronavirus. BBC News. March 27, 2020. Accessed September 19, 2020.
  46. Coronavirus: Should outdoor exercise be banned and parks closed? BBC News. April 20, 2020. Accessed August 15, 2020.
  47. Coronavirus: Testing rolled out for frontline NHS staff. BBC News. March 28, 2020. Accessed September 7, 2020.
  48. Metropolitan Police. Coronavirus (Covid-19) police powers. Accessed October 1, 2020. Published 2020.
  49. The scenes on Bournemouth beach make Britain look like the jackass of the world. Independent. June 27, 2020. Accessed October 13, 2020.
  50. Sanders KB. British government communication during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic: learning from high reliability organizations. Church, Communication and Culture. 2020;5(3):356-377. doi:1080/23753234.2020.1824582
  51. Coronavirus: Protective gear guidance 'to be updated.' BBC News. March 27, 2020. Accessed August 16, 2020.
  52. Coronavirus: Calls for better workplace social distancing guidance. BBC News. March 28, 2020. Accessed September 28, 2020.
  53. Evening Standard. Boris Johnson blasted for 'travesty of leadership' after claiming 'too many care homes' did not follow coronavirus rules. Accessed September 17, 2020. Published July 7,2020.
  54. Coronavirus: No 10 refuses to apologise for PM's 'crass' care home remark. BBC News. July 7, 2020. Accessed September 8, 2020.
  55. Iacobucci G. COVID-19: racism may be linked to ethnic minorities' raised death risk, says PHE. BMJ. 2020;369:m2421. doi:1136/bmj.m2421
  56. Historical racism may be behind England's higher BAME Covid-19 rate. The Guardian. June 16, 2020. Accessed December 15, 2020.
  57. Channel 4. Why is Covid-19 hitting ethnic minorities harder? Accessed December 10, 2020. Published June 9, 2020.
  58. Hoeyer K. An anthropological analysis of European Union (EU) health governance as biopolitics: the case of the EU tissues and cells directive. Soc Sci Med. 2010;70(12):1867-1873. doi:1016/j.socscimed.2010.02.040
  59. Crawshaw P. Governing at a distance: social marketing and the (bio) politics of responsibility. Soc Sci Med. 2012;75(1):200-207. doi:1016/j.socscimed.2012.02.040
  60. Martin GP, Sutton E, Willars J, Dixon-Woods M. Frameworks for change in healthcare organisations: a formative evaluation of the NHS Change Model. Health Serv Manage Res. 2013;26(2-3):65-75. doi:1177/0951484813511233
  61. Renedo A, Miles S, Chakravorty S, et al. Not being heard: barriers to high quality unplanned hospital care during young people's transition to adult services - evidence from 'this sickle cell life' research. BMC Health Serv Res. 2019;19(1):876. doi:1186/s12913-019-4726-5
Volume 11, Issue 10
October 2022
Pages 2189-2197
  • Receive Date: 04 March 2021
  • Revise Date: 27 July 2021
  • Accept Date: 19 September 2021
  • First Publish Date: 20 September 2021