Bumbling their way to disaster

Published by The i paper (20th April, 2020)

It is 91 days as I write since China confirmed a new virus that had erupted in one of its major cities was transmissible by humans. It is 81 days since the World Health Organisation warned the world it faced a global public health emergency after the novel coronavirus had spread into 19 nations on four continents. Yet it is only 48 days since Boris Johnson bothered to attend his first Cobra meeting on the crisis.

He missed the first five meetings held by this key committee on the epidemic while he focused on Brexit, flooding and his private life. We can now see the consequences of such insouciance, so in keeping with the prime minister’s character as a self-serving bluffer filled with bravado and fuelled by hostility to the ‘nanny state’.

There have been a reported 16,060 deaths from this virus in hospitals – the total figure is far higher – while doctors must tend to dying victims with plastic bags over their shoes and care homes struggle to save lives. It is estimated one in four carers are self-isolating, a problem inflamed by lack of testing.

The situation is so grim the Government circulated lists of medicines and protective gear for our embassies to request from host nations. ‘It is humiliating to be reduced to begging for kit from countries significantly less well off than the UK,’ said a diplomat. This official found one European firm that could supply protective kit – only to be told by the Whitehall co-ordinating committee it would take three weeks to hear back due to ‘a backlog of 7,000 offers of equipment’. Another person in Asia offered tens of millions of masks plus other vital supplies but could not get the bureaucrats to budge over several weeks. So why are there shortages on the front line?

I have seen this complacency for myself. I warned one senior figure privately about looming issues in social care, aware of many potential problems as the father of a daughter with disabilities who is dependent on 24-hour support for daily life. I was told these matters had been discussed at Cobra and they were working ‘very hard’ to resolve the issues, then breezily assured that care minister Helen Whately was on top of everything. Yes, that is the same politician seen smiling on television last week when quizzed over rising deaths.

No doubt scientific advisers share blame for Britain’s dismal response, although it is hard to judge when the key advisory committee keeps even its membership secret. This is such shameful contrast with its Scottish equivalent – which publicises membership and minutes within days of meetings – especially when citizens are locked down and the economy lies shattered due to its decisions. Constant claims of British exceptionalism also wear thin when we can see how much better nations such as Germany and South Korea are performing.

It was these advisory scientists who suggested initially the disease killing people in China should be treated like a type of influenza that could not be contained. ‘This was the key mistake – to see it like flu rather than a very dangerous pathogen,’ said Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at Edinburgh University. Many subsequent setbacks – such as on testing – that may lead Britain to have the highest death rates in Europe stem from this botched start.

Yet, as one politician pointed out to me when I attempted a defence of the Government, it was the Prime Minister who set out down the path of herd immunity despite being warned this might lead to half a million deaths. His job is to test advice before making decisions. Now we are told Johnson is ‘taking back control’ after his own bout with the virus, as if the grotesque repetition of the Brexit slogan is supposed to offer our tormented nation some comfort.

So here comes the Prime Minister who ‘didn’t work weekends’ and ‘didn’t do urgent crisis planning’ as the disease started rampaging around the world, according to an aide quoted in The Sunday Times. One key scientist, defending him to me, admitted he was lazy but argued this meant he relied on experts. Do not forget this is also the leader who boasted that he was shaking hands with coronavirus patients at a time in March when 90,000 people had been infected in 73 countries.

Ultimately, he is responsible also for delaying lockdown, even allowing 250,000 racegoers to converge on the Cheltenham Festival – an act of folly almost as bad as China’s refusal to take measures to slow the spread of the virus when millions of its people moved around the country for lunar new year. Such is the rate of infection a joint British-Chinese study found Wuhan could have cut cases by almost two-thirds if it had acted just one week sooner.

In Britain, we had the advantage of seeing the carnage in Italy and Spain. But we were slower than our European neighbours to impose restrictions, while we also gave up fast on the test-and-isolate strategy that saved lives in countries that endured the 2003 Sars epidemic.

Everyone should be pleased on the human level that Johnson is recovering health. But it is hard to take relief that he is regaining control of the country as our death toll soars, critical care facilities struggle with basic supplies and carers on the forgotten frontline are offered badges rather than life-saving gear.

Every nation, every leader, every health system, has lessons to learn from this pandemic that has struck the planet with such destructive force.But some things are already clear: how little the state cares for old and disabled people; how little it values many essential workers; how responsible most citizens are in an emergency; how badly China’s government behaved. And sadly, as the coffins pile up, how Michael Gove was right when he said back in 2016 that Johnson was not fit to lead a nation.

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