How the UK has been left in the worst of all worlds over Covid-19

Britain has recorded the highest excess death rate of any country and is forecast to suffer the worst economic recession. 

NS

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On 31 December 2019, the day that China first informed the World Health Organisation of the discovery of a novel coronavirus, Boris Johnson heralded an “exhilarating decade of growth, prosperity and opportunity”. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck Britain, the Prime Minister’s Panglossian boasting appeared unwise. The economy was dangerously fragile and public services had been enfeebled by years of austerity. But as the UK contends with multiple crises, Johnson’s words now seem grimly comic.

Four-and-a-half months after the first Covid-19 cases were confirmed, the UK has recorded the highest excess death rate of any country, with 64,000 more deaths in the period to 29 May (or 955 deaths per million people). This alone would be a matter of shame for the government of the world's sixth-largest economy. But Britain is also forecast by the OECD to suffer the worst recession of any developed country, with a projected fall in GDP of 11.5 per cent this year. In short, the UK may achieve the worst of both worlds. “If we come out of this with the worst death rate and the worst economic crash, that’s a pretty terrible double header,” a senior Conservative told the Sunday Times yesterday. (Chancellor Rishi Sunak has riposted that the UK is also forecast to have “the strongest recovery” of any major developed countries.) 

These are not the only ignominious honours the UK has earned. Voter approval in the government has fallen to the joint-lowest level of any country (alongside Mexico), having plummeted from a peak of 72 per cent on 27 March to 41 per cent. 

For a fleeting moment, as Johnson hailed the NHS as “unconquerable” and “powered by love”, the government seemed capable of fostering a new sense of social solidarity. But this opportunity was squandered by Dominic Cummings’ unpunished breach of lockdown rules and by the government’s calamitous handling of the pandemic. Through his own actions, Johnson has sabotaged the goodwill and consent on which the lockdown still depends.

In a remarkable piece in this week’s New Statesman, the former No 10 adviser Tim Montgomerie paints a picture of an administration characterised by a toxic mix of arrogance and incompetence. “It took six years for Margaret Thatcher’s governments to begin to stop listening to alternative voices,” Montgomerie wrote. “The same patterns had emerged within six months of Johnson becoming Prime Minister, and within six weeks of his general election victory last December.”

As it seeks to manage multiple crises, the UK now faces an unpalatable choice between easing the lockdown to try to stimulate growth, or maintaining it to try to prevent a second wave (infection rates, as Johnson has conceded, have been falling “slower than we wanted”). Even the wisest administration would struggle with such a task. But in response, we can at least observe that one would not have started from here. The government’s woes are, to a significant extent, self-inflicted. 

The high death rate was the predictable consequence of a perilously late lockdown and an administration that was slow to grasp the seriousness of the pandemic. As late as 2 March, almost five weeks after the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in the UK, Johnson boasted: “This country is very, very, well-prepared… we’ve got fantastic testing systems, amazing surveillance of the spread of disease.” He added, with reckless complacency, “it’s very important that people consider that they should, as far as possible, go about business as usual”.

The tragedy is that Britain had time to learn from the experience of other European countries, such as Italy (which locked down on 9 March), but squandered this opportunity by pursuing a de facto strategy of “herd immunity”. Faced with this reality, some Conservatives have already sought to deflect blame on to the government's scientific advisers. On 19 May, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Therese Coffey, remarked: “If advice at the time was wrong, I’m not surprised if people then think we made a wrong decision.” But while it may be true that Sage members originally counselled against stringent measures, this does not absolve the government of blame. As Margaret Thatcher once observed, “advisers advise and ministers decide”. 

Ministers made the fateful decision to allow 25,060 patients to be discharged from NHS hospitals to care homes without being tested for Covid-19. Ministers chose to abandon contact tracing at the height of the pandemic in March. And it was ministers who failed to provide adequate protective equipment for front-line workers (at least 183 health and care workers have died after contracting Covid-19). 

Other errors and misjudgements predate Johnson’s premiership. In the years before coronavirus, the UK’s health infrastructure and the wider public realm were degraded by austerity. The needless threat of a no-deal Brexit meant that training to prepare key workers for a pandemic was delayed for two years. 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 UK’s ability to respond to a pandemic. 

The economy, meanwhile, endured the slowest recovery in recorded history; even before Covid-19 struck, average real wages remained below their 2008 peak. A new living standards crisis began before the last one had ended. GDP growth in the final quarter of 2019 was 0 per cent; the UK was already perilously close to recession. Far worse is now threatened, with unemployment forecast to rise as high as 10 per cent (four million) this year. But while Germany has announced a fiscal stimulus worth 4 per cent of GDP, the UK is once again trailing behind; potential spending increases and tax cuts have been postponed until the autumn. 

Faced with this record, it is unsurprising that Johnson should seek to divert attention by wading into the almost non-existent debate over whether to move Winston Churchill’s statue from Parliament Square. As during the 2019 general election, he and Cummings are most comfortable when fighting a culture war. But as the full scale of the UK’s failures becomes clear, they may yet find themselves with no escape route.

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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