Should we rejoice, or despair, as we embark on a new year following the horrors of 2020?
On the one hand a new, British-generated vaccine against Covid-19 was rolled out amid a predictable government fanfare today. On the other, two bedrocks of our national life – schools and hospitals – are reeling as a highly transmissible new strain of the virus runs rampant.
The R rate is rocketing upwards. The number of reported Covid-19 cases exceeds 50,000 daily, and that is before the inevitable post-Christmas surge takes effect this week and next. The death toll has passed 75,000 – more than all Britain’s civilian casualties in the Second World War – and could reach 100,000 by February. Mental health problems, domestic violence, business closures, debt, unemployment – the graphs are all rising vertiginously.
Hospitals are bursting at the seams. As oxygen, ventilators and beds run short, doctors may have to choose which Covid-19 victims they seek to save. Intensive care units are full, and intensive care nurses are having to deal with three or four desperately ill patients each instead of the normal one. All but the most urgent operations are being cancelled despite the huge backlog from last year. NHS workers are exhausted and fed up, the strain compounded by serious staff shortages as colleagues test positive or self-isolate. The ambulance service is stretched to its limit.
Doctors I talked to over the weekend spoke of certain hospitals resembling “war zones”, of colleagues being “at the end of their tether”, and of their dismay at the government’s failure to order another national lockdown.
Our schools face chaos too. Trade unions and local authorities defied government orders to reopen many primary schools outside London today. It is anyone’s guess whether secondary schools will reopen on 11 January or 18 January, as planned, or whether England will follow the lead of Scotland and Wales and cancel this summer’s GCSE and A-level exams. As the shelf life of Gavin Williamson’s pronouncements grows ever shorter, the education secretary is beginning to rival former transport secretary Chris Grayling for serial incompetence.
Our esteemed prime minister, meanwhile, warned on Sunday of even tougher restrictions ahead. He never learns. If that’s the case, he should have imposed those restrictions immediately. Once again, as in March and October, he was behind the curve, reacting rather than pre-empting, postponing hard decisions.
Boris Johnson is losing the public’s trust at this time of national crisis, and with it his government’s ability to enforce those measures required to check the pandemic while the vaccination programme is ramped up. A country that craves strong leadership, a clear strategy, a sense that someone is planning ahead, is instead fed a diet of fatuous slogans, belated U-turns and headline-grabbing promises that come to nothing. To know what the government will do next, it sometimes seems, you only need to see which demand from Keir Starmer the Prime Minister is rejecting, for he will surely reverse himself within days.
As targets are repeatedly missed, as visions of game-changing apps and “moonshots” prove vacuous, as coronavirus inflation renders Tiers 1 and 2 as worthless as one or two pence coins, as exhortations to “Eat Out to Help Out” give way to the “rule of six” and Christmas is declared on then off again, the sense of unity and common purpose that helped sustain the nation during last spring’s lockdown has vanished as surely as that glorious weather has given way to rain, cold and darkness.
Not all the blame for this sorry state of affairs can be laid at Johnson’s door. Governments everywhere have struggled to counter this fierce pandemic, and having the highly transmissible new variant erupting in the UK first was an additional misfortune.
But it is legitimate to ask this: why has Britain suffered one of the world’s highest death tolls and worst economic recessions despite spending more (nearly £300bn) on countering the virus than almost any other country? Why was the UK so unprepared, not just when the pandemic first erupted last March but again this winter when ministers knew full well there would be a second wave? Why has the government repeatedly imposed lockdowns and other restrictions days or weeks too late? Why has it failed more robustly to enforce rules on social distancing, and on shopping or travelling with masks? And why, despite roughly £40bn of expenditure, is the UK’s “world-beating” test-and-trace system still so inadequate?
Today’s rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is certainly good news, but the government’s record scarcely inspires confidence in its ability to deliver what is now so urgently required – namely the biggest and fastest vaccination programme in the nation’s history at a time when our medical resources are stretched so thin.
Appearing on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, Johnson was disconcertingly vague about supplies, priorities and timetables, and again there are legitimate questions to answer. We knew vaccines were on the way, so why were preparations not more advanced? Why have we not stockpiled huge quantities of the AZ vaccine against the day it won regulatory approval (India’s Serum Institute had 50m doses ready for developing countries)? Why have so few frontline NHS staff received the Pfizer vaccine, which has been in use since 8 December? Who was responsible for the absurd red tape hampering the thousands of retired health workers who have volunteered to help the vaccination programme?
And, more broadly, why is the government not mobilising every possible resource to implement the vaccination programme as rapidly and as widely as possible? The country should be on something akin to a war footing, with private industry, the military, logistics professionals, communications experts and an army of volunteers all boosting the effort. Tony Blair says the government should be aiming for five million vaccinations a week, not two million. Even the Sunday Telegraph, not a natural critic of this administration, called yesterday for “a stronger sense of national urgency”.
A government that decries “experts” may yet be saved by scientists. A prime minister who promised a return to normality by last spring, last summer, last autumn and Christmas may yet be right when he says that things will be “very much better” by this coming Easter. But nobody should underestimate this government’s singular talent for screwing things up.