A special issue of the New Statesman, on newsstands 2 July, presents a comprehensive and forensic examination of the British government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Our unique data analysis compares 14 major world economies across more than 40 data points, building a picture of how well countries have dealt with Covid-19. The NS data journalism team finds that, despite being theoretically well-prepared for a pandemic, the UK acted far too slowly – with devastating consequences. Of the countries examined, the UK has taken the longest to bring deaths down from peak levels, and has been left with the highest percentage of excess deaths. Analysing ten years of data, we find that cuts to public health, education and social care services during the period of austerity were almost perfectly tailored to weaken the state in the face of a pandemic.
A survey of more than 500 UK-based business leaders, commissioned by the New Statesman, gave Boris Johnson a net approval score of -1 per cent, the lowest of any member of the government that we asked respondents to assess. Only 25 per cent thought the government responded well. Despite the success of the furlough scheme, the prognosis from businesses was striking in its pessimism: three quarters plan to cut jobs to cope with the effects of the crisis.
For a special symposium leading scientists, including contributors to Sage, give their verdicts on the government’s handling of the pandemic. Ian Boyd, a contributor to Sage, writes the UK was “too slow and indecisive” in its response to coronavirus and that while “all advanced economies have failed to cope with the Covid-19 challenge, the UK should be especially concerned”.
Robert West, a participant in the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours, which advises Sage, writes that “failures have arisen because the government has put political priorities ahead of public health… Each failure has been met with denial, obfuscation and bland reassurance.”
But Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Scottish Government Covid-19 Advisory Group, warns that “we may well find that the cure [lockdown] turned out to be far worse than the disease, devastating though the disease undoubtedly is. I fear that history will judge lockdown as a monumental mistake on a truly global scale.”
In a vigorous essay written for this special issue, Fintan O’Toole argues that Boris Johnson’s obsession with British exceptionalism has cost the public dear. “Almost every policy response was shaped by a refusal to do the obvious thing… The good and bad examples were everywhere: copy the good, avoid the bad. But that would be to admit the one thing that cannot be conceded: that Britain is pretty much like most other countries. The coronavirus had to be seen instead as an opportunity to demonstrate British difference and British greatness.”
Elsewhere in the magazine, Martin Fletcher meticulously charts the UK’s missteps over the past six months, Helen Thompson looks at the schools debacle and the paralysis at the heart of government, the NS international editor Jeremy Cliffe writes on the German model, and the science writer Anjana Ahuja finds lessons for the future in the first two books on the Covid-19 pandemic.
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