Sleepwalking into disaster

The government knew for years that a ‘terrifying’ pandemic was coming, says Eddie Ford, yet it did next to nothing to prepare

With around 130,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and the official death toll of hospital deaths exceeding 18,000, there is growing criticism of the government’s criminally incompetent response to the pandemic. Appearing to have no ‘exit’ strategy or plan worth talking about, Boris Johnson is still hunkered down in his Chequers country retreat. But the criticisms are still coming in - spurred on by a Financial Times analysis of the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, which predicts a “conservative” estimate of 41,102 deaths (April 22). Remember when 20,000 deaths would have been a “good result”?

At the moment the controversy is also centred on the literally life-and-death issue of personal protection equipment for health workers - the fact that an advanced capitalist country like Britain can even be talking about running out of PPE is a damning enough verdict. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, is an increasingly beleaguered figure - his credibility draining away by the day. A survey by the Doctors’ Association UK found that 38% of doctors had no eye protection, 47% did not have long-sleeved gowns, even though they are absolutely essential, and 38% who needed NHS-stipulated FFP3 masks (that can block both liquid and solid aerosols) had no access to them - even though there appeared to be plentiful supplies of them at competitive prices on Amazon1, Protective Masks Direct2, Dust Masks Direct3, etc.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow cabinet office minister, said on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that she had been “inundated” with manufacturers who have contacted the government offering to make UK-standard PPE, but had heard nothing back - a situation she called “disgraceful”.

Keir Starmer’s front bench have little trouble combining patriotism with a pro-business stance. But the fact of the matter is that capitalism is by its very nature transnational.

Hence, much to the feigned outrage of Reeves, we have the infectious disease specialists, Landcent, shipping millions of surgical masks to Austria, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. Labour’s narrative is that the government is “prioritising” major fashion and clothing brands like Burberry and Barbour over companies supposedly better placed to deliver what is needed. A dubious proposition. The fact of the matter is that government agents have been signing all manner of highly profitable contracts both here and abroad. The real question, though, is why the UK was so ill-prepared in the first place.

The same goes for testing. Health secretary, Matt Hancock, is coming under intense pressure - having pledged to reach 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month, though it should not be forgotten that Boris Johnson had previously set a target of 250,000 (albeit without putting a date on it). Unfortunately for Hancock, only 19,000 a day were being carried out at the beginning of the week. The Whitehall blame game has started for real, with somebody described as an “anonymous insider close to Downing Street” telling The Daily Telegraph that Hancock’s 100,000 testing target was “made up”. It was an “arbitrary” figure with a “faint irrationality behind it” that would “come back to bite him” - maybe sooner than he would like.

Whilst government officials might still pretend publicly that Hancock’s target is ambitious but doable”, Dominic Raab repeated the claim this week in the first ever ‘virtual PMQs’. Veiled criticism in recent days of several of the health secretary’s key policy decisions point to wider disagreements - one government figure admitting “mistakes have been made” both on PPE and testing. There is no indication that Britain is anywhere near ready to marry testing with a proper contact-tracing programme of the type that has been extremely successful across some parts of east Asia. A government source grumbled in the Telegraph that “we can’t just flick a switch and carry out millions of tests in the community”, as it is a “logistical nightmare that will take months” - Matt Hancock “should have explained this from the start”, not fed unreasonable expectations.

Meanwhile, there will be no end to the lockdown soon, unless the government takes leave of its senses and irresponsibly starts to lift too many restrictions too quickly. Tom Newton Dunn of The Sun - in some respects a shrewd and reliable commentator - has reported that Downing Street has now banned the term “exit” from its own strategy. Instead, it has simply moved to the “next phase” on May 7, with a “suck it and see” approach to tweaking lockdown measures. The pace will be “very gradual”, according to a Whitehall official, as there are effectively “three different epidemics” right now in Britain - with the virus spreading at different rates in the community, in care homes and in hospitals.


Obviously rattled, key government advisors spent an extraordinarily portion of the weekend writing long, line-by-line rebuttals of highly critical articles that had appeared in The Sunday Times and Financial Times. These were posted on the government’s website without any author credit, although it is rumoured that Boris Johnson had a hand in the process.

The Sunday Times ‘Insight’ team argued, quite correctly, that Britain wasted five weeks before fighting the virus due to chronic mismanagement and an excessive focus on Brexit at the very top of the agenda. The complaint was that when the paper criticised the government for allowing 279,000 items of protective equipment to be sent from the UK to China in the early days of the outbreak, it had failed to point out that 12 million items had since come back in the other direction. However, showing a less than impressive standard of journalism, one of those quoted in the government’s rebuttal was Richard Horton - editor of the prestigious Lancet medical journal. Horton himself is now rebutting the rebuttal, accusing the government of “deliberately rewriting history in its ongoing Covid-19 disinformation campaign”.

As for the FT piece about a plan to get private companies to design and build new models of ventilators, government ministers were angered by the suggestion that these firms were confused as to the brief, and that little progress was being made - the UK’s target to secure 30,000 having being downgraded to 18,000, but even that figure has still not been met. Having said that, despite original fears, there has so far not been a shortage of these complex machines - let us hope it stays that way.

But rather than five wasted weeks, it is more like five wasted years - which has turned out to be fatal. In 2016 there was Exercise Cygnus, predicated on the scenario of a pandemic originating in south-east Asia, with a virus similar to H2N2 influenza, which like Covid-19, causes deadly respiratory illness in patients. The scenario envisaged was that after the first cases of the virus had been reported two months earlier, the infection then arrived a month later in the UK via a group of travellers. Under this ‘war-game’, the virus had not yet reached its peak, but the NHS was already “about to fall over” - completely overwhelmed by the pandemic with mortuaries overflowing. The results were deemed “too terrifying” to publish - must not upset the children – and, more to the point, next to nothing was done to prepare the UK for such a pandemic, even though everyone knew it was only a matter of time before some mutated virus struck.

Of course, this exercise was conducted when the then health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was busily cutting the number of NHS beds. No wonder that in an interview with the BBC he said he did not want to play the “blame game” - especially as he bears no small responsibility for the unnecessary deaths that have arisen through failing to act on the results of Exercise Cygnus. The Sunday Times was right when it talked about the government “sleepwalking into disaster”.


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