What have I done during the lockdown? I have kept a beady eye on the goings-on in Downing Street.
So limp has been the Parliamentary Opposition’s criticism of the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, that we have had effectively a bipartisan approach.
This has meant that public dissatisfaction with the government’s performance was not being adequately voiced in Parliament, so that the PM has been getting away with it.
This augurs badly for the future still in the shadow of the crisis and for the eventual inquiry we have been promised.
In an attempt to pacify the public in the face of horrendous death statistics, the government placed great weight on the daily Downing Street press briefings.
The Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) was meeting frequently and we were constantly reminded that Government policy was “following the science”. This was meant to be reassuring for the public, but it also gave the PM somebody else to blame should things go wrong.
Was the government invariably acting in accordance with scientific advice, or were politicians and scientists sometimes at variance? We do not know and may never know.
Let me recall some of the key steps in this sad saga.
On 30th December 2019, a Wuhan hospital reported a patient with a severe pneumonia and the presence of a new type of corona virus. A corona virus is so called because, when seen under the electron microscope, the spherical body of the particle containing its RNA molecule, is surrounded by spikes which create a halo, or corona, around it.
There are several known corona viruses. One of them caused an outbreak of SARS in 2002-3, which infected over 8,000 people, 10 per cent of them, across 37 countries, dying. In modern times, this is an unusually high death rate and so the appearance of another corona virus should have been a loud alert as soon as the news broke.
The Wuhan doctor who first alerted his friends to this emergency and whose messages leaked out, was gagged by the Chinese authorities and admonished for “spreading rumours”. On the other hand, to their credit, Chinese scientists quickly sequenced the genome of the virus and identified the source as a live-animal market in Wuhan (which was immediately shut down). They developed a test for the virus and preliminary treatments for cases of it. All of this information was shared publicly on 12th January.
The Chinese are not blameless. The iron grip of the Communist Party stymies initiative and makes the people scared to put a foot wrong. The first cases of the illness were recorded in early December 2019, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) was not informed until 31st December. What blocked the information for a month? Probably no Wuhan local Communist Party official was prepared to be the first with the bad news, but Beijing must have known about it and chose to sit on it. Chinese doctors and scientists deserve great credit for their speedy work, which they shared with the rest of the world, but their government, like Trump, was reluctant to admit the seriousness of the situation. When Beijing eventually conceded that there was a pandemic in full swing, they lied about the number of cases and the number of deaths in China, although, paradoxically, they proudly announced their emergency hospital building programme and their capacity to cope with vast numbers of patients.
For the speed and transparency with which they acted, the Chinese were at first praised by Donald Trump. But when the serious implications of the new disease began to put his re-election chances at risk, he quickly changed his tune. Since then, US-China relations have become very sour and our poodle PM has followed in America’s wake.
On 30th January, the WHO issued a serious global alert, signalling the existence of a new virus which can be easily transmitted person-to-person and had already escaped the country of its origin. In other words, we had a pandemic on our hands.
On 23rd January, Wuhan, a city of 11 million (2 million more than London) had been locked down and all of its transport links were cut off. Within a week, 13 additional Chinese cities, with a combined population of 36 million, were locked down. London knew all this, but Heathrow and Gatwick remained open for business and even passengers whose journeys began in Wuhan, were allowed in.
In the first week of February, I wrote to my MP, drawing his attention to an interview on BBC Radio 4, in which a British passenger expressed concern about his trouble-free flight from Pakistan. Neither at Islamabad nor Heathrow was he tested or questioned about his health. He shared that flight with scores of passengers from all corners of the globe. In London He took the underground to Euston and took himself and any virus northwards, perhaps generously sharing it with other passengers.
Chinese doctors were not holding back on the severity of this disease. Some patients had only a mild condition. Others, within a week, suffered acute respiratory distress and required mechanical ventilation in an intensive care unit (ICU) and some would suffer multiple organ failure. The ICUs needed large numbers of trained staff, all in specialist PPE, and needed a lot of ventilation machines. Work would have to begin on ameliorative treatments and a vaccine.
The WHO recommended immediate limits on population mobility, both within countries and between countries; cancellation of mass gatherings; school closures; the institution of working-from-home arrangements; testing, testing, testing; securing supply chains for pharmaceuticals and PPE, and preparing large numbers of hospital places and trained personnel.
The WHO had done as much as it could for the present; it was now up to national governments to do what was necessary.
But Boris and the rest of his brave boys stood dithering.
Other countries had devised testing and tracing systems. Other countries had imposed strict border controls, including complete closure. We, the public, knew about these examples of coping with the pandemic, but our government was still in a trance. There was no excuse for them. Perhaps they were still suffused with glee about their Brexit and General Election victories. There was no excuse for their army of political and scientific advisers, all of whom must have been fully informed of the findings of the 2016 Cygnus Exercise. I knew about it and I am a nobody, who knew about it only from a newspaper report.
Cygnus was a simulation of a flu pandemic affecting up to 50 per cent of the population and up to 400,000 excess deaths. The simulation imagined a new virus, ‘swan flu’, which arrived here from Thailand. What was the state of the UK’s readiness in terms of plans and capability? That is what Cygnus was to find out. The people involved in the exercise were from central and local government, the NHS and emergency services. It was found that government departments and other organisations had their own response plans, but there was no central oversight and provision for shifting resources to meet changing needs and demand for services, for example (interestingly, in light of subsequent real events) in respect of social care beds. Overall, it was found, the UK’s state of preparedness was not sufficient to cope with the demands of a severe pandemic. That was October 2016.
What did the government do, and order others to do between October 2016 and January 2020?
Little or nothing, it would appear.
It is not as if pandemics are an extremely rare, once-in-a-century event.
Here is a little list of recent pandemics, which did affect, or could have affected the UK:
1981 to present, HIV/AIDS
2002 to 2004, SARS coronavirus
2012 to 2020, MERS coronavirus
2013 to 2016, Ebola
2013 to 2019, Chinese avian flu
2015 to 2016, Zika
2019 to present, Dengue fever
2019 to present, New Zealand measles.
The first UK cases of the Covid-19 virus were reported on 31st January.
In light of the Cygnus report and the dire warnings from the WHO, did the UK government immediately leap into action?
Yes, with about the speed of a glacier.
Cygnus had been put on a high shelf and left to gather dust while the government got on with its austerity drive.
A report from the Nuffield Trust states that the UK is in the bottom third of European states in respect of public health capital spending, numbers of doctors and beds per person and bed occupancy. Germany, for example, has more than three times the beds and twice as many nurses per person as the UK.
Where we do exceed the rest of Europe is our death count. And our infection count is second only to Spain.
This year we celebrated an important NHS anniversary and each Thursday we applauded the NHS staff.
Such a bunch of hypocrites we are. While we are partying, we let the government starve the NHS of cash
Socio-economic and racial inequalities have made the impact of the virus deadlier in Britain than in the rest of Europe. A large part of the explanation for that is the ten years of severe austerity under the Tories. A decade during which the rich have got richer and the poor have got more numerous and poorer. Nevertheless, in the 2019 election, socialist policies were rejected and the Tories were given a massive majority. Well, the people have got what they voted for.
The NHS has been hit particularly hard by cuts, losing £1 billion between 2015 and 2020. Under Andrew Lansley, Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock community public health provision had been virtually dismantled, saving money. Care homes were thus left with nobody to defend their interest at national level and they became ‘killing fields’.
As I write this, on 24th July, Boris Johnson is admitting in a BBC interview, that his government acted far too slowly, at a cost of thousands of lives. His plea is that nobody can carry too much blame, because so little was known about the virus, such as that somebody not showing symptoms of infection could nevertheless pass on infection.
He speaks with forked tongue. Even without SAGE and his scientific advisers, there were the briefings and recommendations of the WHO and the example of good practice from several other countries.
No. the British stiff upper lip and our exceptional status in the world put us beyond following the crowd.
We were too easily wooed by the daily press briefings and the emphasis being placed on the centrality of science in the policy-making process. We were never party to the SAGE discussions. Were their conclusions always unanimous? Were there never disagreements among the scientists? The principle scientific advisers are government employees; does this not mean that the scientists could be ‘following the politics’ rather than the other way around? Could the scientists be complicit with the politicians even if the science suggested they were wrong? Why was Dominic Cummings, neither a scientist, nor a politician, but a proven lockdown infringer sitting on SAGE?
On 1st June, Ruth May, the Chief Nursing Officer, who was due to appear at the Downing Street press briefing, was peremptorily dropped from the line-up because at the rehearsal she declined to indicate support for Dominic Cummings in his lockdown-busting 520-mile round trip to County Durham. Was this how the leadership of the Covid-19 response worked? Would the PM brook no dissent?
Trump and Johnson were in tandem. Trump called Covid-19 ‘the new hoax’ and by the end of January claimed the US had the pandemic ‘pretty much under control’. We’ll assume his bleach and Dettol cure was a momentary lapse into delayed infancy. Trump in a tantrum, withdrew the USA and its funding from the WHO. Such an action, in the middle of a pandemic, is a crime against humanity. The USA has become the most infected nation in the world. Let’s hope American voters will have all this in mind at the November election.
Johnson allowed in thousands of Spanish fans to watch a match at Anfield and allowed the Cheltenham Festival, the traditional opening of the high society social season, to go ahead. He went around chumming, joshing and shaking hands as usual, until he went down with it. Reality had at last dawned on him on 27th March. The UK had gone into lockdown on 24th March, 2 days after France and 2 months after Wuhan.
Had the lockdown come earlier, there would have been thousands fewer deaths.
I have not forgotten the lies we were told about that massive consignment of PPE from Turkey. Of course, there has been no apology from Matt Hancock.
Richard Horton, the Editor of THE LANCET, has written a book, The Covid-19 Catastrophe. His preface contains this judgement:
“Every death was evidence of systematic government misconduct ─reckless acts of omission that constituted breaches in the duties of public office.”