Testimony to failure
Covid-19 highlights criminal levels of state dysfunction and inequality, writes Eddie Ford
Keeping up with the rising number of deaths has become a grim daily ritual. So far the number of official coronavirus fatalities in the UK is well over 12,000, with almost 94,000 confirmed cases - beating Spain now in terms of the daily death toll. And it could be a while before we hit the peak, let alone start to ‘flatten the curve’, with a vaccine still a long way off.
Only a few weeks ago, though it feels a lot longer, Stephen Powis - the medical director of NHS England - said that keeping the total number of coronavirus deaths below 20,000 would be “a good result” for the UK, compared to the projected quarter of a million or more if the government had kept to its initial ‘mitigation’ approach, based on ‘herd immunity’ reasoning. Unfortunately, that now seems hopelessly optimistic, as we all know that the real toll is going to be much higher, as government statistics have only covered hospital deaths - not deaths in the community or, most pressingly, care homes. In the words of one Conservative peer, elderly people are being treated “like lambs to the slaughter”.1
Chris Whitty, the UK government’s chief medical advisor, asserted on April 14 that there had been coronavirus outbreaks in one in seven care homes in England - the Office for National Statistics claiming on the same day that 237 people died in such establishments in the two weeks to April 3. Yet this seems to be airbrushing out an extremely large number: Four Seasons Health Care, MHA and HC-One - three of the largest chains of private care-home providers - have reported 620 Covid-19 deaths in recent weeks. This can only mean that the toll is going to exceed 1,000 without a blink, as these operators account for less than 5% of all facilities.
Making things worse, there is increasing concern about the impact of Covid-19 patients being discharged by hospitals into homes filled with the frail and elderly in order to free up beds. Questions are being asked about why this is happening, given, for example, that the Nightingale hospital in Docklands has received only a tiny number of patients - reported to be just 19 at the weekend - when it has capacity for up to 2,900 intensive care beds. Then, of course, you have to factor in those who died at home and other places.
Giving you a sense of just how far out of sync with reality the government’s daily figures really are, as of April the department of health and social care reported 4,093 coronavirus deaths in England and Wales. But the true figure was at least 52% higher than was known at the time. If things carry on at this rate, or get far worse - which is virtually inevitable, as we have not reached the top of the curve - then a ‘target’ death toll of 20,000 or less seems more and more like a sick joke. If you double the official death statistics, then add some more, you might possibly get nearer the true figure - assuming, of course, that the curve will finally begin to flatten over the next few weeks and we do not get a second wave of the pandemic, as happened with the so-called Spanish flu of 1918.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle has predicted that there will be 66,314 UK deaths from Covid-19 by August 4, with a peak of nearly 3,000 a day - an average taken from a large estimate range of between 14,572 and 219,211 fatalities.2 Naturally, these figures are disputed by the scientists whose modelling of the likely shape of the UK epidemic appears to drive government policy. Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, said the IHME figures on “healthcare demand” (including hospital bed use and deaths) were twice as high as they should be. This writer knows who he is more inclined to believe, faced with a government - or state - that is clearly dysfunctional. UK PLC is not fit for purpose.
As constantly reported on every news channel, there is also the ongoing scandal over the lack of personal protection equipment (PPE). This is massively adding to the death toll and helps to explain why the UK will become the worse-hit country in Europe - along with general economic deprivation and poor-quality, overcrowded housing.
The Doctors’ Association UK, which has had to launch a crowd-funding effort to secure its own supply of PPE, said nearly half of its members carrying out high-risk procedures were unable to access the long-sleeved gowns needed to do their jobs safely. It warned that supply “has faltered to the point where many trusts may soon run out”. The Royal College of Nursing has told its members that they may have to refuse to treat patients altogether as a “last resort” if they cannot guarantee their own safety. Monstrously, PPE might have to be reused if the situation does not improve drastically - as revealed in a Public Health England document leaked to the BBC, which shows that some hospitals have begun laundering what are supposed to be single-use gowns.
The government likes to respond to such criticism by reciting figures about the millions of PPE items delivered to hospitals. For instance, NHS England excitedly informed us in an April 15 Tweet that “over 17 million PPE items were delivered to 179 trusts and organisations yesterday - including 10 million gloves, two million aprons, over 250,000 surgical masks and 780,000 eye protectors”. These statistics might sound impressive, but they are essentially meaningless - even if true - because they give you no indication of what is actually needed, which could well be 10 or 20 times the numbers recited. The scandal has only been exacerbated by persistent stories - strongly denied by the government, of course - that English-based providers of PPE are not supplying care homes in Wales and Scotland, or at least prioritising England. Different parts of the UK are effectively competing against each other in a deadly race.
But the fact that medical staff have not been provided with basic protection can only be described as criminal - at the end of the day the same can be said for bus drivers, delivery drivers, postal workers, supermarket workers, etc. Some NHS staff and care-home workers have resorted to cutting up curtains to make gowns, and using bits of scavenged plastic as makeshift masks - not to mention those covering themselves with bin bags.3
Another criminal feature of the crisis has been the almost inexplicable lack of testing - you could almost be led to believe that this results from ideological prejudice against it and ‘big government’ in general. There has been much talk about testing 100,000 NHS staff a day by the end of the month, which looks like a pipedream at the moment - the level of preparation here has been appalling. Government claims that no-one knew such an epidemic was coming are absolute nonsense.
In October 2016, the government. NHS and local authorities conducted Exercise Cygnus, which ‘war-gamed’ a pandemic coming from east Asia. The only significant difference between the test drill and the pandemic we now face is that Cygnus was assumed to be the H2N2 influenza virus, while Covid-19 is a coronavirus - both spread rapidly and kill by causing acute respiratory illness. You can guess the result, which saw the NHS becoming quickly overwhelmed - a senior former government source with direct involvement in the exercise said the findings were “too terrifying” to be published, whilst others cited “national security” concerns. Nevertheless, instead of actually planning for what was inevitable - even if you could not predict the exact nature and behaviour of the virus - nothing took place except a cover-up. Calling such complacency criminal is a chronic understatement.
When it comes to the global picture, despite the fact that Covid-19 is supposed to be “the Chinese virus”, the US now proudly leads the world in coronavirus deaths - over 600,000 confirmed cases and almost certainly 30,000 deaths by the time you read this article.4 For advanced societies, the figures coming out of the US and UK are testimony to years of underfunding and neglect and not just under the Tories or Donald Trump: both the Democrats and Labour have also presided over this deterioration. The basic idea was that to achieve ‘efficiency’ you must have ‘just in time’ hospitals that are always on the knife-edge of coping. As we have seen, however, once you get a large-scale emergency or something unexpected, then you are immediately crippled - the funding and infrastructure are simply not there.
There has been needless suffering and misery on a staggering scale. But this condemnation of the US and UK is not intended to let China off the hook - it was very slow off the mark, going at first into an auto-Stalinist state of denial. But, as the truth sunk in, it went very fast into lockdown and mass testing - which turned out to be incredibly effective. The fact that China could do it, yet Britain and US cannot, tells you a lot about the nature of these societies. And the fact that Trump has cut off funding to the World Health Organisation for “severely mismanaging” the spread of the coronavirus and “bias” towards China tells you a hell of a lot about the sociopathic personality of the American president.
The pandemic brings out in a very stark way the class divisions and gross inequality in countries like the US and UK. Millions of people trapped in tiny flats with no garden, which they have to share with family members - or rent with friends or even strangers - whist they are supposed to stay inside isolating themselves and keeping a strict physical distance from others. For many, this is asking the impossible.
Meanwhile, the latest news tells us to be delighted that Boris Johnson is now out of intensive care and has retired to Chequers, his country house, to recover - with 10 bedrooms and around 1,500 acres of land at his disposal. Very nice. Elizabeth Windsor has done the same thing: going to her Windsor Castle bolt-hole, whilst her son, Charlie, has shot up to Balmoral in Scotland - an estate that covers an area of approximately 50,000 acres. The rest of us, on the other hand, are criticised if we sit on a park bench - when the police are not inspecting our shopping for “non-essentials” or sending out drones to spy on people who might be exceeding their daily exercise allowance, or even enjoying the sun in their front garden if they are lucky enough to have one.
Whilst bovine commentators and the tabloids witter on about the “Blitz spirit”, a study by the Food Foundation has found that 1.5 million people in Britain are sometimes going a whole day without food - either because they have been laid off or are having problems receiving universal credit, which was malfunctioning (to put it mildly) before the pandemic and is now under immense strain. Some three million people in total were in households where someone had been forced to skip some meals and more than one million people reported losing all their income because of the virus. The Covid-19 lockdown has had a swift and devastating impact on the ability of the most vulnerable sections of the working class to access sufficient food - they are being hammered in a vicious circle of poverty and self-isolation. We’re all in this together, are we? Yeah, right, tell that to the hungry or the doctors and nurses dying because of the above failures.
Boris Johnson has presided over nearly 13,000 deaths, the vast majority of which were unnecessary if the proper preparations had been put in place - including mass testing, which enables you to follow and trace each infection. Yes, anybody can get Covid-19, whether a monarch, prime minister, nurse or bin collector. But, when it comes to the conditions you are expected to lock down or recover in, then you are talking about something radically different - sometimes the difference between life and death. We have had to endure the spectacle of Tory ministers praising NHS “heroes” despite having run down the health service for years and years. For instance, Exercise Cygnus took place under Jeremy Hunt, whilst he was health secretary - he decided not to do anything about it. In the same way, the government has been preaching to us about keeping our social distance, which is the correct thing to do, but they clearly have not been practising it themselves - what hypocrites.