The coronavirus pandemic afflicting the United Kingdom and the world was not unforeseen. For the past 13 years, the outbreak of such a pandemic has been deemed the greatest national threat by the National Risk Register. In November 2011, the government boasted that the UK was “one of the best-prepared countries in the world” for a pandemic.
Today, however, Britain’s plight has become a cautionary tale: it has recorded one of the highest mortality rates from Covid-19 in the developed world (more than 16,500 people have died to date) and one of the lowest testing rates. Its health workers suffer from a chronic lack of masks, gowns and ventilators, and its care homes have become morgues.
It was on 31 December 2019, as Conservative politicians and commentators heralded the arrival of the new “Roaring Twenties”, that China informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) of the discovery of a new virus in Hubei province. Initially, as part of an attempted cover-up, China denied the possibility of human-to-human transmission (a claim that the WHO naively accepted), as Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, has written on NewStatesman.com. But by late January, when Chinese cities were locked down, the scale of the threat was clear.
Though some commentators dismissed public concern as “hysteria”, others did not. In a New Statesman article published on 22 January, Michael Barrett, professor of biochemical parasitology at the University of Glasgow, warned that the novel coronavirus was “spreading quickly” beyond China, that it was easily transmissible, and that “lessons learned from previous pandemics should be put in place now”.
Yet it was not until two months later (23 March) that a lockdown was imposed in Britain, by which time Covid-19 was spreading with lethal speed among the public. The government protests that it was “guided at all times by the best scientific advice”. However, the job of ministers is not merely to accept advice: it is to exercise their judgement and act.
The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, were apparently influenced by what they deemed to be politically acceptable to Boris Johnson’s government, when other choices were available. After Italy imposed a national lockdown on 9 March, it was absurd for the UK to continue to permit mass gatherings such as Champions League football matches and the Cheltenham racing festival (which attracted 250,000 people over four days).
This misjudgement was compounded by multiple failings of political leadership and government policy. Mr Johnson’s absence at five Cobra meetings dedicated to the virus and his sluggish public response were reminiscent of his slapdash conduct as foreign secretary. “We can send coronavirus packing,” he hubristically declared on 19 March.
In the years before coronavirus, Britain’s health infrastructure and the wider public realm were degraded by austerity and preparations for a no-deal Brexit. The NHS, which Mr Johnson now describes as “our greatest national asset”, endured the tightest spending settlement in its history. Stockpiles of personal protective equipment were allowed to dwindle. The social care crisis progressively worsened, forcing the health service to act as a provider of last resort.
Dr Phil Whitaker, our health columnist, warns on page nine: “The clamant need to empty hospital beds ahead of the [coronavirus] peak has meant that asymptomatic inpatients have been discharged to nursing homes without testing.” Finally, as the Sunday Times’ Insight team reported on 19 April, the needless threat of a no-deal Brexit meant that training to prepare key workers for a pandemic was delayed for two years.
This multifaceted crisis has demonstrated the urgent need for a transformation in Britain’s economic model. The country shall never adequately compensate for the thousands of lives that have been lost in the coronavirus crisis (including at least a hundred front-line healthcare workers). But as it confronts future perils, it can ensure this collective failure is never repeated.
This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb