Failures of State

Jonathan Calvert & George Arbuthnot, Failures of State: The inside story of Britain’s battle with Coronavirus, Mudlark hardback, 2021. 426 pp.

 Jonathan Calvert is the editor of The Sunday Times’s Insight investigative journalism team; George Arbuthnot is its deputy editor. Failures of State is their account of the disastrously inept handling by the British government – and PM Johnson in particular – of the Covid pandemic.

Failures of State front coverTheir tone is set in the prologue, where they juxtapose Johnson’s portentous ‘You must stay at home’ lockdown speech on 23 March last year with his characteristically preposterous, boastful image of ‘Clark Kent, champion of free market libertarianism’ in a speech he made a month earlier. They go on in the rest of the book to trace the chronology of the British government’s and PM’s failure to act swiftly or decisively enough to stop Britain becoming one of the world’s worst responders to the crisis, with some of the highest rates of infection and death in the developed world as a consequence.

The first chapter explores the obscure origins of the virus in China. Was it, as some believe, the result of an accidental leak from a research lab in Wuhan? This seems more feasible than the ‘bat cave’ source more usually identified – this is hundreds of miles away from Wuhan, where the virus first appeared. Whatever the case, the Chinese seem guilty of attempting a cover-up that resulted in catastrophic delays in the rest of the world’s response to the spread of the virus.

‘Sleepwalking to disaster’ is the title of the second chapter (Jan. – March 2020): despite ominous warning signs from Dec. 2019 and earlier, government failed to take the danger seriously. Johnson missed the first five meetings of Cobra (the national crisis committee), more interested in his own turbulent private life and his obsession with Brexit. He made light (like his chum the then-president of the USA) of this minor ‘flu’ virus. He allowed events like football matches and the Cheltenham horse race festival to take place – these became super-spreader events. Warnings from Sage (the expert scientific advisory group for emergencies) went largely unheeded. They still are today.

Subsequent chapters describe with chilling detail why the first lockdown in March was fatally too late, and this reluctance to take prompt, decisive action was to be repeated several times over the following months. Johnson and his chancellor, Sunak, prioritised the economy over public health. ‘Herd immunity’ was their heartless tactic (despite denials that this was the case). They dithered and delayed, allowing tens of thousands to suffer and die needlessly. Their mantra of ‘stay at home, protect the NHS’ proved just more empty rhetoric – our health service was rapidly overwhelmed.

The then health secretary Hancock was as fond as his leader of making empty, sweeping boastful staments, from creating a ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace system (that turned out to be useless) to claiming he’d put a protective ‘ring of steel’ round older people in care homes; the reverse turned out to be the case. Some 25,000 patients were controversially discharged from hospitals into care homes during the pandemic’s height, many of them ‘without first being tested.’ This had the effect of ‘dispersing the virus into the very place where Britain’s most vulnerable were supposed to have been shielded.’

It is one of the most scandalous facts of the lockdown weeks that hundreds of patients who had tested positive for the virus were also deliberately sent into care homes.

By 17 April 2020 there had been almost 10,000 excess deaths in care homes since the beginning of March. This was, the authors say, ‘another big but unsustainable claim.’ Johnson even told a parliamentary committee in May that ‘every discharge from the NHS into care homes was made by clinicians, and in no case was that done when people were suspected of being coronavirus victims.’ He was either badly informed, say the authors – or using language to obscure the truth: many of those discharged would have been asymptomatic, so even clinicians wouldn’t have suspected them of being infected without testing them. The reality was that there simply wasn’t the capacity to test so many.

There I’d better stop: it becomes to upsetting and infuriating to consider the evidence provided so meticulously in this book of this country’s leaders’ hopeless, dangerous and reckless response. What’s worse, Johnson and co. constantly claimed to be ‘following the science’, when all the data indicates they were not. Their dismal list of bad decisions precipitated the successive waves of infection and economic depression that afflicted this country more disastrously than in any other western country.

It’s dispiriting to read this relentless catalogue of mistakes made by the very leaders who should have been protecting their people. Their blunders and subsequent blustering denials that they’d done anything amiss resulted in millions more Covid cases in Britain than would have been experienced if they really had followed the advice of their scientific and medical advisers. Their decision to protect the economy and jobs instead produced the opposite outcome: Britain’s GDP suffered proportionately far more than most. As the bereaved families for justice group wearily stated, ‘they ignored us and repeated the same mistakes.’

They still are: we are seeing a million new cases a month in this country this autumn, and yet we’re being told to abandon all the protective measures we’d previously been adopting, as we’ve ‘come out the other side’ of the pandemic, as former health secretary Hancock was heard telling constituents the other day. Let’s hope that the public enquiry into these matters, which Johnson will have to face – he can’t keep delaying it indefinitely – will expose those responsible for ‘one of the most scandalous failures of political leadership in British history.’


12 thoughts on “Failures of State

  1. I’m interested in this, but it’s the type of book I would prefer to listen to (via an audiobook) than read, if that makes sense. Radio 4 often cover this kind of non-fiction on their Book of the Week, so I’ll keep an eye out for it there.

    • I doubt it would be aired by R4, as it’s a pretty one-sided critique of the govt’s mishandling of the crisis; the BBC is still obliged to show impartiality in politics, or ‘balance’, so what could they do: broadcast a collection of BJ’s pompous, bombastic speeches?!

  2. The gravity of the pandemic will no doubt be referenced in British history by future generations . It is shocking that the decision making was allowed to continue as the government clearly lacked experience. With the benefit of hindsight i would like to read the most effective way of managing the pandemic taking a wider view.. no doubt there is still plenty to learn.

    • It’s probable that any government would have struggled to deal with this crisis – but many others coped far better. Good to hear from you, Sharon. Thanks for stopping by and taking the trouble to comment.

  3. Oh golly, it’s too soon for me to read this kind of thing – I bought a book on the pandemic in Wales from a lovely indie publisher and had to give it away! I have got one called Pandemic Solidarity that promises positive stories, and of course the pandemic has come into various books I’ve read. So well done you for facing, reading and sharing it.

  4. And here I thought my own government was the worst (incompetent, dishonest & venal) in responding to the pandemic. Odd, isn’t it, that I don’t feel much joy in learning that others were every bit as bad.
    I really can’t read this stuff and admire your fortitude in doing so. It’s so enraging but also frightening; I think many public health experts believe Covid-19 is just the first of what will be future waves of disease, brought on by global warming & habitat destruction. Here in the U.S. public health has become a totally politicized issue and a formidable community of anti-vaccination/public health measures is flexing its muscles (some red states are actually prohibiting requirements that kids be vaccinated for measles & other childhood diseases before enrolling in school). It’s a point of honor in many areas to flout even rudimentary efforts to control the disease, thereby ensuring that it will be with us for a long, long time. Hopefully the U.K. is free of the worst of the anti-vax movement, at least.

    • Our govt’s incompetence continues: our case numbers are as high as ever, but they keep insisting there’s no need to go back to even the most basic ‘restrictions’ (like wearing face coverings in public indoors spaces. We just travelled back from London on a train, a 4.5 hour journey, and nobody wore a mask in our carriage.) There is an anti-vax element here, but fortunately it lacks much force so far. Mrs TD and I had our Pfizer booster jab yesterday, and I’m feeling a bit rough today – had no reaction to the first two. But it’s reassuring to think that we’ll have extra protection – we’ll need it, given our ‘everything is normal again now’ leadership.

      • I’m now living in a red state, where the attitude from the beginning, strongly encouraged by our truly detestable governor (R. deSantis), has been “what pandemic?” I believe it’s illegal for businesses to require their employees to be vaccinated, or to enquire about vaccination status; as for mask wearing — it’s strictly voluntary. That being said, most people in my immediate area are sensible, wear masks and maintain social distance. Not everyone, however. By contrast, the Maryland country where I lived until last year, has a vaccination rate of approx 90% and has been very vigilant regarding mask wearing and social distancing. Infection rates are — suprise! — very low. For the future, I suspect these differing behavior patterns (replicated from sea to shining sea) will translate into pools/pockets of infection, scattered around the country; meaning, of course, that we’ll all have to live with Covid instead of eliminating it.
        I hope you’re feeling better. I received my Moderna booster last week and was quite ill for about a day (I had the same pattern with shot #2). Luckily it passed quickly and, as you say, the minor inconvenience is more than worth it.

        • Our health secretary has threatened to sack any health or care workers who aren’t vaccinated- not the best message to send a sector that’s been exhausted by the numbers of sick people they’ve been looking after. We have around 1000 COVID deaths a week, and 100,000 cases a day by some estimates- nothing to worry about, says BJ our PM. He doesn’t deny there’s a pandemic, like your guy, just wants it to be over so he can be Mr Popular again.

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