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22 February 2022

How will history judge the UK’s Covid-19 performance?

A buccaneering approach to vaccines means Britain’s pandemic record is not as bad as feared – but it isn’t anything to be proud of.

By Andrew Marr

It’s freedom day. On 24 February, as all Covid-19 restrictions end in England, would New Statesman readers please now raise their eyes from the unfortunate shenanigans at Westminster, which so obsess our doomster and (may I say) gloomster media? My friends: it’s time to breathe in, stand taller and allow ourselves a shiver of patriotic delight at the world-beating, corona-stomping courage of the British people and their dishevelled but, as it turns out, rather bold government.

Thus Mr Johnson. I precis, but only just. Forward in freedom. Last week “living with Covid” meant coughing and sweating in a back bedroom and hoping someone would leave sandwiches at the door – or, God forbid, wheezing by yourself in a hospital ICU. Now it’s the name of an official government policy. And ministers are right – at some point we are going to have to move on. Given the £2bn monthly cost of testing, and the struggle to return to economic vigour, the pandemic regime had to end. 

For millions, chucking away the masks, forgetting about testing and travelling around without any extra paperwork will feel genuinely fabulous. People will raise a glass to Boris Johnson for doing it so quickly.

After draining the glass, they may then wonder about the immune-suppressed, the very old, the scared. They may ask, with Chris Whitty, how we will know if a new variant arrives in the country – and what the UK would do then. The most cynical will reflect that Johnson’s local difficulty has a lot to do with the timing of this political victory parade.

But for much of middle Britain, the Tory jibe that this wouldn’t have happened under Keir Starmer will hit home. No, you shouldn’t park your best defender in the final minutes of the game – but frankly, millions will say, it’s time to call time. This miserable pandemic has been going on too long. Let’s get the beers in.

What’s happening this week is a gamble. But then again, much of political life is a gamble. The bigger question is how, as we look back on the Covid-19 years, we think about the Conservative record.

Let’s start by looking at freedom-loving Britain. All the evidence we have suggests that, despite the high-profile antics of anti-lockdown and anti-vax rebels, a remarkably large slice of the country supported restrictions. Polling published by Ipsos Mori last month showed that, of Conservative voters, 88 per cent thought the (at the time apparently controversial) Christmas coronavirus restrictions were either “about right” or “not strict enough”. And, by the way, there wasn’t much difference by party affiliation.

Go a little deeper back into the story of the pandemic and the numbers are even more striking. As recently as last summer, four in ten people told the same pollster they were in favour of maintaining compulsory masks in shops and public transport in perpetuity – regardless of Covid-19. An even higher proportion, 46 per cent, wanted vaccine passports for foreign travel kept – forever.

Around a third wanted people coming in from abroad to be required to quarantine for ten days, again, forever. And a similar number wanted NHS contact tracing apps to be compulsory for pubs and restaurants… forever. Much of this liberty-loving country appears to be not just instinctively rule-taking but delighted by the thought of a little state coercion.

What about British exceptionalism – all that “best in the world” stuff? Let’s go back to the conclusions of last year’s joint inquiry by the Commons Science and Technology Committee and Health and Social Care Committee into the earlier stages of the pandemic. Under two former Tory ministers, the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt and the former business secretary Greg Clark, and written at a time when Britain had the eighth-highest death rate from coronavirus in the world, the report was withering. 

Everywhere they found a lack of preparation. Because of the early, and desperate, shortage of personal protection equipment in the NHS and a lack of testing capacity (“an almost unimaginable setback”), the first lockdown came far too late. That inaction in the first weeks of the pandemic would rank, the MPs said last year, as “one of the most important public health failures the UK has ever experienced”.

Consider, then, the long saga of contracts and jobs for political cronies; the huge loss of public money to fraud during the economic pandemic measures; and the dreadful toll in the care homes (“a tragic scale of loss… among the worst in Europe”). These must be entered on one side of the ledger. I’m not sure there is enough ink or space on that crowded page to add the rule-breaking parties. The facing page, credit against loss, has just one big item – the real, much-to-be-welcomed success of the vaccine roll-out.

The government said this was a result of Brexit. In December 2020 both Matt Hancock and Jacob Rees-Mogg argued that leaving the EU, and hence the European Medicines Agency (EMA), allowed the UK to outpace other European countries. June Raine, the medicine regulator, promptly disagreed, pointing out that under emergency provisions in European law “[we would] have been able to authorise the supply of the vaccine”.

She was right on the facts. But whether, in a parallel universe, a British government inside the EU would have acted in just the same way, working with the EMA while appointing a life sciences venture capitalist, Kate Bingham, to run its vaccine programme, seems unlikely. Setting up a highly effective national infrastructure, and acquiring 350 million doses of six different vaccines, she certainly gave the UK a head start in protecting citizens. During a particularly grim phase of the pandemic, only Israel was doing better.

But even here, the “world-beating”, chest-thumping is no longer right: according to the most recent figures, many countries have caught up and now have higher overall vaccine coverage than the UK. They include France, Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Denmark and Portugal. 

As with comparative death rates from Covid (once among the worst in the world, Britain has fallen down the rankings of failure to 27th), there is something distasteful about comparing different national “achievements” in such a horrible, shared crisis.

[See also: How Covid ends]

Beyond partisan rhetoric, a fair assessment might be that a slow and unfocused early response in the UK was followed by a buccaneering approach to vaccines, which also led more generally to inappropriate contracting, testing failures and a waste of public money.

We did, in other words, exactly as you’d expect from a pro-market, somewhat cliquish but otherwise average European country, run by a leader who made his political career by criticising nanny statehood but who had the glorious boon of inheriting a still popular and functioning national health service. It hasn’t turned out as hideously as it once seemed likely to but it isn’t anything to be particularly proud of, either.

A final point that didn’t feature much in Johnson’s 21 February statement: the pandemic has driven deeper wedges between the constituent national parts of the Union. Scotland, under the SNP’s more risk-averse politics, has not in recent months seen much benefit from that, although the sniping between Edinburgh and London has been relentless. Wales, under Labour’s Mark Drakeford, also diverged from Westminster, taking a more cautious path. It had a higher death rate than England – though it also has an older population, so you would expect that. Northern Ireland, with a lower population density than England, has had a lower death rate.

And so to this week’s cabinet-level fight about allowing free testing for the most vulnerable. It forced the delay of the cabinet meeting itself – just as we entered the pandemic somewhat chaotically, we tried to leave it with an air of shambles too. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s defeat of the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, is hugely significant. It presages much harder fights, and possibly even resignations, as the squeeze on NHS budgets – despite the National Insurance rise – takes centre stage. It shows that the Treasury is still fully in charge. There is much more of this story to come.

And so here we are, more divided than when Covid-19 first headed west from Wuhan – the vulnerable cut off from the rest; rule-takers and rule-shredders at loggerheads; the scientific advice clearly different from the political judgement. This pandemic has not destroyed Boris Johnson, as at some points it seemed it might. But freedom day won’t save anyone either.

[See also: Vulnerable people are effectively being told “go to hell”]

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