Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is leading the UK towards a historic and deadly disaster over their handling of the Coronavirus pandemic, writes Muhammad Jalal.
The British government is careering into a coronavirus catastrophe, on the scale and intensity Italians are experiencing today. It is a tragedy entirely of its own making. Over the past two months, the government has failed to plan appropriately for the crisis, has failed to follow sound universally accepted scientific advice and has failed to respond to the clear indicators that a disaster is looming. Instead, the hapless, ill-informed, incompetent Prime Minister and his hamstrung Chancellor and Health Secretary move from one press conference to another, unable to respond in any meaningful way to what will now almost certainly be a public health disaster that will cost the lives of thousands. At the same time, the normal modes of accountability; opposition parties, the media and public intellectuals have broadly stuck behind the false consensus, swooning over the Chief Scientific Adviser’s bedside manner and failing to provide any meaningful opposition.
So how did we get here? In January news began to trickle out of Wuhan that a new virus had been detected by Chinese authorities. Initially, the Chinese government tried to contain the problem, by suppressing information and ordering a news blackout. It is believed the first cases of the virus were spotted as far back as early December. However, once containment failed and Covid-19 had spread to other parts of the country, the government changed tack and began a rigorous project to suppress the outbreak by imposing curfews and broadening testing, improving surveillance and embarking upon a meticulous programme of contact tracing, following all connections of known cases and placing these into quarantine.
Where Wuhan failed, Guangzhou succeeded. By ruthlessly tracking its spread, the government was able to contain its reach. For sure the Chinese state utilised extraordinary methods of coercion in this process but to see how to do it successfully, just look at the South Korean approach, achieving the same ends through testing, contact tracing and social distancing without the need to cast the net of a security state over its people. These approaches bought the countries valuable time, to enhance testing processes and procure critical medical equipment before the storm arrived. But it also gave a valuable window of opportunity to the rest of the world to prepare. The Chinese government had tracked the virus genome and released data about its virulence to the WHO and scientific community in January. Its failure and its successes were clear to see. Now the world had to follow suit and prepare.
Britain had these two successful models to learn from. Yet Boris Johnson’s government decided to embark upon a strategy of mitigation not suppression.
Mitigation had never been tried successfully so far, lacked insufficient scientific evidence to prove its success and relied on incomplete datasets. It was debunked by the timely release of the Imperial College report and the work of Professor Neil Ferguson and his team. We were told that 60–80% of the population would inevitably get the virus and suppression was futile, in these circumstances it was better the virus was allowed to “flow through the population”, the Prime Minister indifferently declared on daytime TV and that “many more families are going to lose loved ones”.
On the 12th of March at a press conference, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, spoke of developing ‘herd immunity’, doubling down on his theory, he and the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty launched a public relations blitz across the popular media. Whitty’s comments on the 13th to Radio 4 made it clear that the government’s strategy was not to suppress the virus,
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“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely. Also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease”, he argued.
China, through its singular strategy managed to get the virus spread contained to 81,000 out of a population of over 1bn, that’s 0.005% of the population. Undoubtedly, the Chinese may have hidden the full extent of the illness and many would have contracted the virus without being tested, but nowhere near the 60% Sir Patrick spoke of as inevitable. Vallance argued that by allowing its natural spread, the curve would be flattened, and immunity would be developed and at the same time the government argued this would minimise economic disruption and would ease the burden on the health service. Schools were to remain open, economic life would continue and despite the experience of other countries, somehow British science knew better.
Why did no one question the experts that seemed to be so out of step with the World Health Organisation’s siren call made on the 16 March. That the most effective way to break the transmission was for countries to institute effective testing for anyone that showed symptoms, “test, test and test” was the plea of the organisation’s director, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
As of 9am on 28 March 2020, a total of 120,776 people have been tested a far cry from the South Korean screening programme of some 20,000 tests per day. Remember, Seoul had less time to prepare for the outbreak. Germany has had four times as many COVID-19 cases as the UK, yet less than half the number of deaths, they are now up to 500,000 a week. We should have done the same. Dr Tedros played down the significance of social distancing with a rigorous programme of testing and contact tracing.
To understand this monumental failure, one needs to look at the dysfunction at the heart of the British government. Tim Shipman from the Sunday Times revealed that Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s most senior aide was the most vociferous champion of herd immunity. Those present at a private meeting said the strategy was summarised as “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”. Later the Imperial College report would put a figure to just how many deaths that would be, at least 250,000 of the elderly and those with underlying conditions would perish.
Cummings is a strange misfit whose obsession with overhauling the machinery of state has brought him on a collision course with the civil service. He made his name as the head of the official leave campaign, dramatised in the Channel 4 programme and played by Benedict Cumberbatch. A mercurial figure, Cummings sees himself as a revolutionary, an early convert of the Moneyball philosophy, placing data and expertise at the heart of government and purging Westminster of humanities, English literature and PPE graduates. For Cummings, the British civil service, the bureaucracy of government, played a pivotal role in thwarting every attempt at Brexit under Theresa May’s government and continues to pursue its own agenda, undermining good and effective government. In return, the civil service have tried to weaken Cummings through leaks to the Tory-supporting press and by undermining the prime minister’s key allies such as the even more hapless Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Westminster is not immune to turf wars, but at a time of a looming crisis, a catastrophe on a scale never seen in Britain in peace time, the lack of planning has cost the country two months of joined-up thinking.
Boris Johnson looks like a man without a coherent strategy, a man living through post traumatic stress disorder after the catastrophic reliance upon a select group of experts turned out to be so spectacularly misguided. Self-isolation may describe his current predicament, but more aptly describes Britain’s Covid-19 policy. As a result, Britain has a pitifully trifling supply of ventilators, just under 8000, in the event of a crisis it would need upwards of 20,000. Crucial PPE protective equipment still hasn’t reached emergency workers. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, had two months to procure and direct industry to develop more ventilators, one month if you charitably account for the sorry state of affairs closer to home in Italy, yet he pathetically sent out a tweet last week calling upon industry to help.
Every announcement seems to be off the cuff, playing catch up in the absence of good government. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak received gushing praise for his speech setting out help for workers and employers in an unprecedented expansion of the state. Yet to understand by just how much he underestimated this, six days ago £30 billion was set aside to deal with Covid-19, barely a week later the government said it would borrow £330 billion pounds on top. This figure will certainly rise as the self-employed apply for government grants and gig-economy workers suffer and demands for more state help come. Since the announcement, the government has agreed to, in effect, nationalise the railways for the duration of the crisis. This underestimation is not a surprise, Sunak, from day one, was constrained by Cummings and the number 10 machine. Sajid Javid publicly resigned in January after he was told to sack his special advisers. At the time he blamed the concentration of power to number 10 as an attempt to undermine the lines of accountability within the system. Sunak from the very first day at the Treasury, was a prisoner of the prime minister and his aides.
The machinery of good governance has broken down
Unless a scientific breakthrough is found, the dire consequences will, almost certainly, be felt in the coming weeks especially in London and the Midlands. Whilst Londoners wallowed in the March sunshine on Mothering Sunday and shopped at a flower market in East London, huddled together oblivious to the health risks involved, Boris Johnson ‘advised’ Britons to stay at home unless they really had to go out. It was said he only reluctantly accepted to shut down shops and bars on the Friday before his lockdown announcement after French President Macron threatened to close the border, accusing him of “benign neglect”. Press conference after press conference, confusion abounds. “I want people to enjoy themselves outside” he declares, as if still emotionally wedded to his earlier policy of mitigation over suppression.
At the time of writing, Britain’s death rate rises at the same intensity as Italy, a total of 1,019. The government still only tests the most serious of cases and these do not include frontline doctors and nurses bravely dealing with the crisis. In fact, despite the mixed-messages, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jenny Harries confirmed it is not the intention of the government to broaden testing to the general population. The NHS is getting closer to breaking point. Nurses and doctors are not routinely tested and many have to treat patients without protective masks and aprons, despite repeated assurances from the Health Secretary.
The chattering classes sneer at people stockpiling toilet rolls from the local Tesco, and places of worship callously keeping congregations open, yet people respond to the signals set by government. When instructions are so woefully insufficient, incoherent and contradictory, people respond with a similar level of incoherence.
What is inevitable now is a lock-down may slow the advance of the virus but the colossal failure of policy will be felt in the coming two weeks, when Covid-19 takes effect in the population. Like Italy, life and death decisions will be determined by tired doctors treated like “cannon fodder”. Johnson used to see himself as a Churchill, destined to make his mark on British politics. In the coming weeks, this will be for all the wrong reasons.
Muhammad Jalal is a lecturer in politics in London. He has BA and MA in Politics and History. He is currently writing a book entitled ‘The Islamic World Order’, which is a historical and contemporary look at Islamic international relations. You can follow Muhammad on Twitter @thinking_muslim.