Johnson’s criminal incompetence
By global standards, writes Eddie Ford, the government’s handling of the pandemic has been appalling
Last week we reached the grim milestone of 40,000 officially certified deaths from Covid-19. Given that at the start of the pandemic there was talk of 20,000 being a “good result”, this is a shameful statistic for a supposedly ‘first world’ country.
Of course, we all know that the total numbers of deaths will turn out be considerably greater. We cannot be sure whether the pandemic is beginning to level out or is at the threshold of a downturn that will be followed by a second spike. Therefore it is worthwhile looking at a recent Financial Times study of data from 19 countries.1
The analysis shows that, far from having something to boast about, as Boris Johnson likes to claim, the British government’s response to the pandemic has been truly appalling - coming at the top, or very near the top, in every set of grim statistics. The UK’s excess mortality “remains the highest, whether younger people are excluded or the analysis is limited to pensioners” - registering 59,537 more deaths than usual. This means that the UK has the second highest rate of death for any country - wipe the smirk off your face, Boris. The US comes ninth, behind the UK, Spain, Italy and Belgium.
Regardless, the absolute number of excess deaths in the UK is the highest in Europe, and second only to the US which has a far higher population - 330 million compared to Britain’s 67 million. Having said that, Brazil could well have the honour of coming second to the US, as its statistics are notoriously unreliable (and it is doing everything it can to make them even more unreliable in order to cover up the truth). Jair Bolsonaro himself at the weekend ordered the health ministry to stop releasing its total numbers of Covid-19 infections/deaths and, incredibly, removed whole swathes of data from an official government site.
When it comes to excess deaths compared to the historical average, the UK is the worst in Europe and behind only Peru internationally. Failure everywhere you look.
Remarkably, casting an even dimmer light on the British government’s performance, both Israel and South Africa this year have actually had fewer deaths than you would normally expect. It is actually even more surprising, as it was widely predicted - not without reason - that Covid-19 would have a devastating impact on the ‘third world’. Then there is the example of Denmark, which has seen only very modest excess deaths of 100 people since the beginning of 2020 - a 5% increase on the average - yet it also recorded 500 coronavirus fatalities.2 That means 400 people who did not die from coronavirus are alive now who, in any normal year, would have perished!
The FT study appears to be confirmed by the latest figures released on June 9 by the Office for National Statistics, showing 63,629 excess fatalities. This could include everything from undiagnosed Covid-19 deaths to fatalities caused by not receiving proper treatment in hospitals or GP surgeries for various maladies. Overall, the ONS statistics show that the rate of excess deaths is falling, but it has remained 20% higher than the five-year average for England and Wales - with 1,653 excess deaths in the week to May 29. At the peak of the crisis in mid-April, there were almost 12,000 more deaths per week than normal.
Meanwhile, on average, the continent is returning to normal levels of mortality - effectively having no excess deaths in those countries previously hit the hardest by Covid-19. England, on the other hand, is still ranked as having “moderate excess” by the European Mortality Monitoring Project. Another damning verdict, especially when you consider that it is far from impossible that 100,000 deaths could be reached by the end of the year - if not earlier.
Quite rightly, a number of scientists have spoken out against the British government’s bumbling response to the crisis. One of the latest is John Edmunds, a professor in epidemiology and population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and one of the 100 or so attendees of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which has a culture of semi-secrecy. He came out with the obviously true observation that the government went into lockdown too late - maybe by a week or two - and is now coming out of the lockdown too early. With an “untested” test-and-trace regime, he said, the government is “taking some risk here” - its relaxation of the lockdown being essentially a “political decision”. No disagreements from me on that one.
Many in the scientific community, Edmunds argued, “would prefer to see the incidence driven down to lower levels” before any further easing of restrictions, as there are still 8,000 new infections every day in England - which, looked at internationally, is a “very high level of incidence”. There is disagreement between Sage scientists, with some arguing that contact tracing should start immediately symptoms are reported, whilst others say that “false alarms” could discourage people from complying with the instruction to isolate. The latter group of scientists seem to be in the minority.
Whilst on the subject of contact tracing, the government’s test-and-trace system is “not fit for purpose”, according to the ‘Independent Sage’ pressure group. This is a group of 12 senior scientists, set up to shadow the official Sage and chaired by Sir David King, who was the government’s chief scientific advisor between 2000 and 2007. In a new report, Independent Sage says the virus will only be contained if 80% of contacts of infected people are traced - something it describes as “impossible” under the current system. For them, a radical restructuring is necessary, with responsibility handed over to local public health directors.
Independent Sage is also concerned about the steady erosion of trust in the government, particularly after the Dominic Cummings affair, which in its opinion is likely to have a major effect on compliance - there has been no serious attempt so far to engage with local communities, for instance. This top-down attitude from the government is building up trouble for the future.
Race and class
The Covid-19 crisis has underlined not just the Tory government’s farcical incompetence, but also revealed deep structural problems in the UK state, for which you have to blame Labour governments going back to Tony Blair as well. In short, successive governments had a policy of ‘just in time’ hospitals, running on the basis that they must have at least 94% (or similar figure) of beds filled at all times. This inevitably led to disaster when an unexpected event like Covid-19 came along.
Furthermore, the Tory government ignored the results of Exercise Cygnus in 2016, going back to when Jeremy Hunt was health secretary (although he is now pretending to be some sort of prophet). The exercise dramatically exposed the huge gaps in Britain’s possible response to any pandemic, with the national health service about to “fall over” due to a shortage of ventilators and critical care beds - and, crucially, testing facilities. Exercise Cygnus’s “terrifying” findings have never been officially published - the government criminally choosing not to prepare the country for such an eventuality, leading to the needless deaths of untold thousands. Boris Johnson should be put on trial, with Jeremy Hunt standing right next to him in the dock (and me in the jury, hopefully).
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the charge of racism with regards to black, Asian and ethnic minority (Bame) deaths from the likes of Stand Up To Racism and others, especially in the Labour Party and the liberal media. There can be no doubt that Bame communities have had considerably greater numbers of deaths than the average among the general population. Up to four times higher, in fact, depending on which particularly ethnic group you come from. Then again, a pensioner is 34 times more likely to die compared to a working-age British adult - there have been just 401 deaths amongst those under 45, meaning one death for every 100,000 people in that age group.3
Clearly, the main explanation for the disproportionate number of deaths is class. Bame people on average occupy social positions at the bottom end of the working class. Not an absolute, of course, there are plenty of Bame doctors. On this matter, the Institute of Housing has published a very useful study in its journal, Inside Housing. It found a very close correlation between bad housing and deaths - at the top of the league is Newham, followed by Brent, Tower Hamlets, Camden then Leicester: all places with a very high Bame population. Bad housing essentially means tightly packed living areas with multiple occupancies, meaning you have to share a bathroom or a toilet - which in turn increases your chances of dying from Covid-19. The IoH report also factors in homelessness, which includes ‘sofa surfing’ - going relatively rapidly from one type of temporary accommodation to another, whether a friend’s flat or a hostel. Every time you move, you could be exposed to infection, or to passing on the infection.
The poorer you are, the more insecure your lifestyle is likely to be - therefore the more likely you are to go down with Covid-19, and the more likely to die from it. In other words we are faced with a structural problem, not a problem of attitude or prejudice. So we need to introduce the question of class into the Covid-19 debate: otherwise you will have no real idea about what is going on.