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17 April 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 8:53am

The eleven days that may have tragically cost the UK in the fight against coronavirus

In a personal account, Dominic Minghella recalls the pre-lockdown period in which he and others were spreading Covid-19 across the UK.

By Dominic Minghella

Ask yourself, as I have done, what those 11 fateful days in March cost us. You won’t like the answer. It has kept me up, my mind spinning like it does when I’ve had too much caffeine, half the night.

The days in question are 12-23 March, days in which the government decided to all but give up contact tracing and do, well, nothing. Mass gatherings were still allowed; concerts and racing and Champions League football; pubs and public transport. The over-70s, it must be conceded, were advised to avoid cruises.

Medics in Italy screamed: “Do something!” “Don’t make our mistakes!” “Look at what happens if you leave it too late!” In those 11 days, our government decided there was nothing to be done. We wrestled open-mouthed with the ideas of “taking it on the chin”, “letting it pass through the community” and “herd immunity”.

Then the government realised that this “strategy” might produce upwards of 250,000 deaths in the UK. It woke up. And it locked down – not very firmly, it has to be said, compared with other European countries. But still.

The 11 days during which our government decided there was nothing it could do included the days during which I was asymptomatic with Covid-19. I’m confident I picked up my infection on a packed train from Northallerton to London on 8 March. In the following few days, at maximum infectiousness, I went to King’s College Hospital for a routine ultrasound. A medic there thought all the fuss and fear was unnecessary: “It’s just like flu, isn’t it?” (Remember those days?)

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I went to shops and cafés and took my kids to school. On 12 March, with the government saying there was nothing to be done and abandoning us to the virus, I tried to buy hand sanitiser, but it was all gone. I went to the Post Office to pay £3 for underpayment of postage on a mystery item, which turned out to be a small tin of Love Heart sweets, a late present for my daughter’s birthday. I passed my credit card to the Post Office worker to show my ID. At the pharmacy I signed the back of my prescription using a communal pen tied to the till with string. I went to our tiny, closely aisled Tesco. All the time, I was anxious about catching this invisible virus that was already wreaking such havoc in Italy. I had no idea that my selfish fears were pointless; I had already caught it.

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The very thought of it is chastening. I probably spread my infection to others at the Post Office; through the pen at the pharmacy, the keypad at the Tesco. I made them ill. I had no idea, of course  no symptoms at all  but I may have killed people. I almost certainly infected people, who infected others, who infected still more… “My” viral spreading will have cost some people their lives, some families their loved ones.

But I had no way of knowing. These were the early days of Covid-19 in the UK. It was still a virus that was “over there” and not here. It was still a virus for older people, not healthy-ish guys in their 50s. Towards the end of those 11 days, on 19 or 20 March, I was starting to realise I had a problem. On the day the government finally put the UK into lockdown (23 March), it was already too late for me. I was gasping for breath and (foolishly) resisting advice to go to hospital. 

The next day I was in an ambulance, back to King’s – a hospital that had been completely transformed since my last visit. It was eerily quiet, and apparently entirely given over to Covid. There seemed to be a massive dissonance between the government’s blasé, laissez-faire public stance, and the complete reorganisation of an entire London teaching hospital, impressively ready as the likes of me started to arrive in great numbers. The hospitals knew; they did something. The government must also have known; it did nothing.

What did those 11 days of the government standing frozen in the headlights cost us? How many cases? How many lives lost? If I am guilty of spreading the virus, however unwittingly, how about the government? It knew people like me would be going about their business without symptoms and spreading the virus. It decided to do nothing. How many cases did it, with this knowledge, allow to happen in those 11 days? How many lives did it, with this knowledge, allow to be lost?

Thousands of people suffering, dying and grieving because of those 11 arrogant, stupid, murderous days. Of course, we’d have had cases, come what may – my own included. But had there been a lockdown earlier, I wouldn’t have been out and unknowingly spreading the virus.

So now what? First: be clear about the truth. Hold on to it. If anger ensues – and how could it not? – feel it. Direct the blame. Hold those responsible to account. If anyone tells you not to politicise the issue, or that “now is not the time”, or that you are not an expert so your opinion is not valid, ignore them. They are gaslighting you. This happened; it really happened. Retain your clarity. Focus your rage. Articulate it.

But, of course, we can’t go back, so we must learn from this truth. Learn that our government is incompetent and dishonest. Learn that our government can cost us our’s and our loved ones’ lives. Demand honesty, clarity and – now, right now – transparency about the plan (if there is one) for the future, for moving out of lockdown. Insist, if and when that plan materialises, that it makes sense. Insist that it does not just take us back to where we were in those 11 days, waving a white flag at the virus and hoping it will be kind to us. Do not allow patently absurd policies to be defended by debate-stifling claims that they are based on science. That won’t wash any more.

Those 11 days show us that our government has form. Left to its own bewildering devices, it makes terrible decisions. Even now, it fails daily to deliver on its promises to the NHS. We’re approaching the peak and we don’t have the tests. We don’t have the masks, we don’t have the gloves and we don’t have the gowns. The Treasury talks a big talk on the economy, but only a tiny fraction of its advertised bailout measures have actually been delivered. The daily Downing Street briefings have become a platform not for the dissemination of public health information, but for ministers to defend appalling records and bat away the Skype-garbled questions of journalists, as if this were just everyday politics and not the crisis of our lives.

It is up to us all to challenge, to question, to argue, all day long. It is not “unhelpful” or unpatriotic or whatever else the gaslighters will say. It is our right, our duty. Our lives, our friends’ lives, our families’ lives, may very well depend on it.

Dominic Minghella is a television screenwriter and producer. This piece originally appeared on his blog

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This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb