The coronavirus crisis didn’t happen suddenly in the middle of March this year; it crept up on us over a period of more than a decade.
If you’re surprised by that, don’t be; the arrival of the virus and the consequent lockdown of the population is the result of failure by successive Conservative and Conservative-led governments, going back to the moment they took power in 2010.
You see, the UK government has strategies for dealing with events like this. The Cabinet Office keeps a National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies which it must keep up-to-date – and every single copy of this document ever made lists “pandemic flu” as the most probable and devastating threat to the UK.
This means the government has devised strategies to deal with such a threat. The problem is, they are all out of date.
Oldest of them all is the guide to dealing with the fatalities of the pandemic, last published in 2008. This has never been updated since the Conservatives took over responsibility for it.
The last strategy written specifically to deal with pandemic flu was published in 2011 – the same year David Cameron’s Conservative-led Coalition government closed the dedicated government Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Team based in the Department of Health, which was tasked with tackling this type of crisis.
It may explain much that the government’s UK Pandemic Influenza Communications Strategy, the crucial document for getting the right messages across to the public, was written in 2012 and is now wildly inaccurate in its assumptions about how and where people get their information.
In October 2016, David Cameron’s now wholly-Conservative government carried out an exercise to estimate the impact of a hypothetical influenza pandemic on the United Kingdom. Exercise Cygnus showed that such a pandemic would cause the country’s health system to collapse, due to a lack of resources.
The Chief Medical Officer of the time said that a lack of medical ventilators was a serious problem that should be rectified, but in 2017 this advice was ignored by the Department of Health under Jeremy Hunt – because it would cost too much. The government was committed to austerity policies, remember.
Boris Johnson was first briefed about a new virus causing havoc in Wuhan, China, in November 2019. He did nothing.
Current Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned the cabinet in January that other countries (including the UK) might experience this pandemic, but Boris Johnson resisted a life-changing crackdown. He did nothing.*
According to an article in The Times, “there was a lot of talk about how this was just a bit of flu.”
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s senior aide who famously employed a eugenicist as a Downing Street advisor, apparently said the UK would be better able to resist a second wave of the disease next winter if 60-80 per cent of the population became infected and the survivors developed “herd immunity”. This fantasy has since become infamous but Cummings unaccountably remains in his job.
Cummings was paraphrased after speaking at a private engagement at the end of February, in which he said the government’s strategy was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.
And this was the UK government’s plan until mid-March: let pensioners die.
Johnson and his cronies called it mitigation.
So after the editor of The Lancet warned Johnson to take action, in an article on January 24, he did nothing.
The Lancet article warned that “preparedness plans should be readied for deployment at short notice, including securing supply chains of pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, hospital supplies and the necessary human resources”. But this warning was ignored.
Not only that, but the government didn’t follow basic World Health Organisation (WHO) advice. According to Mr Horton: “They didn’t isolate and quarantine. They didn’t contact trace. These basic principles of public health and infectious disease control were ignored, for reasons that remain opaque.”
When Johnson had his first Cobra meeting to discuss the seriousness of the pandemic’s effect on the UK on March 2, he again did nothing.
Medical experts made it clear that “herd immunity” has never been achieved through mass infection; the disease simply mutates in order to infect people again. The only proven way to immunise an entire population is mass vaccination.
(This revelation will be a kick in the teeth for anti-vaxxers who, if they stick to their principles, are facing a very uncertain – by which I mean short – future.)
Perhaps this became clear to him at the SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) meeting on March 12, when Cummings was said to have had a “Damascene conversion” (after St Paul’s conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus). Did he suddenly develop a conscience and realise that a large chunk of the population – above and beyond pensioners – was going to die? Or did he do his sums and realise that the economy was going to suffer, no matter what happened, and it was better publicity for the government to put on a show of caring? I don’t know.
It is the right thing to do. Writing in Byline Times, Mike Buckley stated that the government was right to think “herd immunity” was worth having – but ignored the fact that it has never been achieved through mass infection; it has only been managed via vaccination.
“To attempt to create herd immunity through mass infection for a disease with at least a 1% mortality rate would lead to an unacceptable numbers of deaths, all the more so in a country with a comparatively low number of intensive care beds, ventilators and specialist staff where access to care will be at a premium,” he wrote.
“Given that the UK knew that containment is possible from examples in Asia, to choose to go down this path – being aware that tens of thousands of vulnerable and elderly people would die as a result – is abhorrent.
“What makes the policy even more flawed is that we do not yet know enough about COVID-19 to know that mass infection would equate to mass immunity.”
“Foreign governments, the WHO, teams of scientists and our own NHS professionals have been arguing for weeks that the Government’s strategy would lead to disaster.
“We have lost seven weeks which could have been used to order and make ventilators, testing kits and protective gear for medical and care staff.
“We have lost seven weeks which could have been used to retrain staff and build capacity.
“We have allowed the Coronavirus to spread for seven weeks when we could have held it back.”
He was wrong about losing seven weeks. Much more time had been wasted – and more would be.
This was the point at which the government changed its strategy to suppression – but to describe the way in which it did so as half-hearted is to be immensely charitable.
Johnson advised people to self-isolate if anybody in their immediate family showed symptoms. And he refused to close schools until it became clear that there was no point keeping them open. He just parroted “when the time is right” until the right time had long passed.
In all, Johnson wasted four months between being told about the seriousness of the threat and finally ordering the national lockdown, coupled with attempts to equip the NHS to deal with it.
Expert commentators have speculated that his strategy was an attempt to control the rising number of coronavirus cases, just enough to ensure that the National Health Service his government had starved of resources would be able to treat it.
This has not been possible. The lack of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for health professionals has meant three doctors have died of the disease at the time of writing, and there are not enough ventilators to go around, despite a claim by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries on March 20 that we had plenty. The Lancet (again) has demanded that she apologise to the public for misleading us but that hasn’t happened yet.
As The Lancet‘s editor Richard Horton put it on Saturday (March 28), measures implemented “far too late” have left the NHS “wholly unprepared for the surge of severely and critically ill patients”. As a result, it has been plunged into “chaos and panic”, with patients and NHS staff condemned to “die unnecessarily”.
So ventilators are being rationed on the basis of a patient’s chances of survival. This means people with disabilities are likely to be left to die. Oh… and pensioners.
And patients with other conditions and diseases are likely to be passed over as resources are focused on the coronavirus. Fears have already been raised about people with cancer.
As I write this, the UK has been living in lockdown for nearly a week, and we’ve just been told that we may have to carry on like this for another six months.
If so, it is the product of Boris Johnson’s dithering as his advisors argued that losing a few (hundred thousand) pensioners and cripples would be worth it to keep the money flowing in for rich businesspeople.
That is where their priorities have lain. Or so it seems to me.
* Update April 19: Apparently Johnson wasn’t at that cabinet meeting. He was fooling around with a Chinese dragon: