Today’s Sunday Times article reveals a staggering level of hubris, incompetence and callousness shown by the UK Government and some of its close group of advisors in their handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The report – published by a newspaper that wholeheartedly endorsed the Conservatives at the General Election – is perhaps the most damning article ever written about an UK government. It reveals that the entire response has been a shambles. This is a national catastrophe of a very British sort.
One of the UK Government’s own scientific advisors has said that the UK could end up with the worst death toll in Europe. At least 15,000 people in the UK have already died of coronavirus, and perhaps many more since deaths outside hospitals remain underreported. These are children, grandchildren, parents and grandparents.
And given what we now know about the UK Government’s early handling of the crisis, it’s almost impossible to conclude that their incompetence has not contributed to the death toll.
We now know that back in January, Professor Neil Ferguson, one of the UK’s leading infectious disease epidemiologists and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, warned the government that this virus was potentially as lethal as the Flu Pandemic of 1918.
He highlighted the need for a “60% cut in the transmission rate” — in other words social distancing and lockdown.
But Boris missed five Cobra meetings, not attending his first meeting until March. Cobra is a special committee of ministers, intelligence chiefs and military generals that only meets during times of great peril. Boris didn’t even turn up to the first Cobra meeting on Covid-19. Instead he was at a Chinese New Year celebration. Later that afternoon the UK signed the EU withdrawal agreement.
As the coronavirus crisis grew across the globe Boris spent time at his country retreat, prioratising, among other things, his fractious private life.
By the time Boris went to his first Cobra meeting in March, it was already too late. According to a study from Southampton University, by that point more than 190,000 people had arrived into the UK from Wuhan and other high-risk Chinese cities. Five days after the study, the UK recorded its first case of coronavirus.
A senior advisor to Downing Street told the Sunday Times: “There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there. And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”
Our PPE stocks and pandemic preparedness, at the time of 9/11, were said to be the envy of the world. But since then a decade of austerity has seen our supplies dwindle — to the point where we were unready for a pandemic. Not only PPE supplies, but training to prepare key workers for the likelihood of a pandemic had stopped in the last two years because of No-Deal Brexit negotiations.
The article goes on to say: “The last rehearsal for a pandemic was a 2016 exercise codenamed Cygnus, which predicted the health service would collapse and highlighted a long list of shortcomings — including, presciently, a lack of PPE and intensive care ventilators.”
A source is quoted as saying: “Members of the government advisory group on pandemics are said to have felt powerless. They would joke between themselves, ‘Ha-ha, let’s hope we don’t get a pandemic’, because there wasn’t a single area of practice that was being nurtured in order for us to meet basic requirements for a pandemic, never mind do it well.”
Questions must be asked of not just the government, but also of the scientific advisors. Why didn’t they blow the whistle sooner?
The article is damning of not just the Tories but of Public Health England which “failed to take advantage of our early breakthroughs with tests and lost early opportunities to step up production to the levels that would later be needed”.
The Sunday Times report that Chief Medical Officer for England, Chris Whitty, was focussed on herd immunity, because he believed SARS CoV-2 was like a flu virus. For a flu virus without a vaccine ‘herd immunity’ would be the right policy, it states.
Even with all of these mistakes in their wing mirror, the government could’ve stepped up at any point and started making better decisions. However, we learn from the article that the UK government didn’t make a meaningful approach to testing companies until April 1st. April Fools day, no less. Foolish indeed, but not a joke.
A senior Department of Health insider said: “I had watched Wuhan but I assumed we must have not been worried because we did nothing. We just watched. A pandemic was always at the top of our national risk register — always — but when it came we just slowly watched. We could have been Germany, but instead we were doomed by our incompetence, our hubris and our austerity.”
As previously noted, the Sunday Times has no anti-government agenda here. There is no reason to doubt that any of this isn’t true.
Michael Gove’s claim on Andrew Marr this morning that “there are one or two aspects of the Sunday Times report that are slightly off-beam” is about the weakest rebuttal ever and a confirmation that the entire sorry tale is correct.
People will say that this is a time of national crisis and no time to ‘score political points’. But this crisis is entirely political. In that sense, the Sunday Times’ headline ’38 days when sleepwalked into disaster’ is itself misleading. The government had its eyes open – it had all the facts at its disposal – it simply decided not to act until it was too late.
While Boris Johnson has himself been struck down with Covid-19, and thankfully recovered, that does not give him any immunity to his early handling of the virus.
We all knew Boris was an incompetent buffoon, and this crisis has proven that to be the case. We all know the Tories dismantle the NHS for private profit, and now we find that ten years of austerity meant stockpiles of PPE were run down and pandemic planning was shelved.
The government’s response to coronavirus has been a continuation of the same laissez-faire policy that guides Westminster. It believes in ‘free-markets’ for the wealthy and it believes in ‘herd immunity’ for the masses. None of this is surprising.
Of course, some will say that in our defence Wales did not vote for the Conservative party at the 2019 General Election. The Conservatives haven’t won a majority of the vote here since 1865.
But why then does Wales continue to want remain part of a Westminster system that allows an elite that does not represent our values to cause such wanton destruction?
Despite Wales never voting for them, the Tories will always get back in power. Labour are culpable too because they tow the line and dislike rocking the boat.
Now is the time for us all to say enough. Not just Welsh people, but English people, Scottish people, Irish people. The callous, incompetent upper-class Westminster elite that we allow to run our lives is the problem. They do not represent us.
One day we might re-enter a new union across the islands of Britain, but it will be one based on respect and sovereignty, not deference to an economic elite.
But first, we must declare independence and rebuild a Welsh society that puts people first. If the shambles the UK Government has made of the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t wake us up to that, it’s hard to know what will.