In the years preceding Covid-19, the United Kingdom was often described as one of the countries best prepared for a pandemic. Yet when faced by a fast-spreading novel coronavirus, the government floundered. Britain has recorded one of the world’s highest excess death rates and is forecast by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to suffer the worst recession of any developed country. Confronted by an apparent choice between protecting lives and protecting the economy, the UK has failed on both fronts. How did it come to this?
The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, insisted on 10 June that it is “simply too early to judge ourselves” and that it is “premature” to identify mistakes. We disagree. As Britain continues to resist Covid-19 (the city of Leicester was locked down again this week) and faces the threat of future pandemics, it is imperative that lessons are learned now.
In this special issue, published six months after the virus was first discovered, we analyse data to provide a cool, sceptical and comprehensive analysis of the government’s response. We have surveyed scientific experts and business leaders, and explain the errors that left the UK so exposed.
It was on 30 January that the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”. Yet two months passed before the government imposed a lockdown, as other European countries had. As our data team note in their analysis on page 32, “It took the UK ten days after its tenth Covid-19 death to cancel public events and close schools – longer than any other country.” By this time, the virus was spreading with lethal speed. “Had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least half,” Professor Neil Ferguson, a former member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told the Commons science select committee in June.
As the UK’s failings have become more obvious, cabinet ministers have sought to use scientists as human shields, insisting that they were merely following their advice. Yet the job of ministers is not merely to accept advice: it is to exercise their judgement and act. Faced with the invidious choices presented by the pandemic, Mr Johnson faltered. He treated Covid-19 first with libertarian insouciance (boasting on 3 March that he “shook hands with everybody” at a hospital) and then with indecision. As Jonathan Powell acidly observes on page 50: “He took the decision on lockdown too late because he couldn’t decide which way to go.”
The late lockdown was compounded by other failings: the lack of personal protective equipment for front-line workers (hundreds of whom died); the abandonment of community testing on 12 March; and, unforgivably, the despatch of 25,060 untested patients from NHS hospitals to care homes. As a consequence, more than 16,000 residents have died from Covid-19 (one in 20), the highest rate of any major European country other than Spain.
Mr Johnson is most culpable as Prime Minister (our survey of business leaders gives him a net approval rating of -1 per cent, the lowest of any government member), but he is far from the only guilty man. In the past decade, the UK’s health infrastructure and the public realm were degraded by austerity (see our audit on page 40). The NHS endured the tightest spending settlement in its history. And senior public health officials warned that the former health secretary Andrew Lansley’s inept reorganisation would severely hinder the ability to respond to a pandemic, as indeed happened.
The government’s performance has not been uniformly negative. The NHS moved swiftly to increase capacity and was not overwhelmed; the government’s furlough scheme prevented a huge rise in unemployment; and British researchers have been at the forefront of the quest to develop a vaccine. Yet someone has blundered, to adapt Tennyson’s line from “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. Worse than this, the government will never adequately compensate for the tens of thousands of lives needlessly lost – but it can act to ensure the public is never again left so vulnerable in the face of a pandemic.
Read more from this week’s special issue: “Anatomy of a Crisis: How the government failed us over coronavirus”
This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis