Class war by other means
Heather Hallett’s enquiry gives no grounds for optimism that the next pandemic will be handled better, but its exposure of the failings of the system and its hired servants is a lesson to be learned, writes Ian Spencer
Most will be aware that Boris Johnson’s government displayed a cynical disregard for public health and safety, while public accountability was regarded as just a bit of a nuisance. Throughout his career as a journalist and politician Johnson has been exposed as a liar. Yet the very high UK mortality rate from Covid 19 is portrayed by much of the mainstream media as the consequence of a government faced with an unforeseen circumstance in which they, as Johnson repeatedly said, “tried their best”.
Instead, the management of Covid is best seen as a moment in the decline of capitalism - one in which the indifference to tens of thousands of deaths is now commonplace. Phrases like “Let the bodies pile high”, or “Let it rip - they’ve had a good innings”,1 used by Johnson when facing the possibility of another lockdown, put death in its place, behind profits. Boris Johnson’s term in government will serve as an allegory for the inability of the ruling class to mitigate a global catastrophe, while showing enough low cunning to realise an opportunity to transfer a vast amount of wealth to the very richest.
The Covid enquiry is chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett, a retired appeal court judge and crossbench peer. It is likely to take years before it publishes its final report, but the aim is to produce interim publications of its ‘modules’ sooner - although probably not before the next election.
One of the advantages of public enquiries is that they can compel witnesses to attend and to hand over documents. However, when Johnson was asked to explain why 5,000 WhatsApp messages were missing from his government-issued mobile phone, he suggested that it was “something to do with the app going down”. Apparently, he had inadvertently deleted them, on the basis that he could not possibly have known that causing a mobile phone to revert to factory settings might cause that to happen. It seems that Rishi Sunak had the same problem - funny that.
Johnson began his testimony with an apology calculated to manage the headlines and included his assertion that “I understand the feelings of the victims and their families”. Representatives of the bereaved families were wise to his attempt to manipulate the media and disrupted his apology by protesting, and were consequently ejected from the hearing.
The former prime minister has tried to portray himself as someone who got the main things right, such as vaccines and lockdown. But the inquiry has shown that Johnson was out of his depth, with little interest in the unfolding global catastrophe. For example, he missed five meetings of the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (Cobra), finally attending one at the beginning of March 2020. It was clear by December 2019 that Covid was a disease with a high mortality rate - the World Health Organisation declared it a public health emergency of international concern on January 30 2020.
Rishi Sunak, dubbed “Dr Death” by professor Dame Angela McLean in a WhatsApp message, introduced ‘eat-out-to-help-out’ - an £840 million subsidy to the hospitality industry - without consulting the government’s chief medical advisor and in so doing increased the spread of the virus and the death rate, thus helping to ensure a further lockdown.2
Worldwide, Covid is estimated to have killed nearly seven million people, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in history.3 In Britain, the number of people killed by Covid is over 232,000.4 In the build-up to the first lockdown the government tried to portray itself in a favourable light with reference to its place in the ‘league table’ of death with other countries. But that did not last long, as the UK quickly became one of the deadliest places in Europe. Of comparable developed western countries, only Italy suffered worse.
The assertion by Johnson that the Covid pandemic was a “once in a 100-year event” was an admission of breath-taking ignorance. Sars was first identified in China in February 2003 and quickly spread to four different countries. Mers was identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.5 In contrast with the UK, South Korea had learned the lessons of these infections and became a model of how to manage the crisis. Korea has features which make it broadly comparable with England. It has a population of nearly 52 million but with a greater population density. However, it had far fewer deaths (around 36,000) and a much lower fatality rate (0.1%, compared to England’s 2.88%6). Jeremy Hunt during his testimony before the inquiry admitted that the UK had failed to learn the lessons of Korea’s handling of Covid - most government planning had assumed that the next deadly pandemic would be influenza. Despite this, lessons clearly had not been learned even from the government’s own flu pandemic exercises.
Johnson’s ignorance extended beyond the history of respiratory viral infections. He repeatedly voiced his doubts about the existence of long Covid, drawing a spurious parallel with ‘gulf-war syndrome’. Even the most superficial study of chronic fatigue syndromes shows a well-documented relationship between viral infections and chronic fatigue.7 But ignorance is something of a studied feature with Johnson. He told the Covid enquiry that he had “almost no memory” of reading any of the minutes of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
Among the most egregious decisions of the former health secretary, Matt Hancock, was discharging patients back to care homes, which ensured its spread to the most vulnerable in society. Hancock - described by Johnson’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, as a “proven liar” - also made a point of not reading the minutes of SAGE meetings.8 Aamer Anwar, solicitor for the Scottish Covid Bereaved Group, described the decision as having “turned our care homes into killing grounds for the elderly, who were treated as toxic waste”.9
Care home workers were among the worst affected. Many were infected, in a sector that usually only pays statutory sick pay. By contrast, the owners of care homes did rather well. During the first year of the pandemic profitability in care homes increased by 3%. In a two-year study into the financial impact of Covid on the UK care home sector, led by the Warwick Business School, it was found that a quarter of the 460 companies in the study paid out £120 million in dividends - an increase of £11.7 million (or 11%) on the previous year. A group of 25 companies, which had received £21.7 million in government grants, paid out a combined £30.6 million in dividends. Care homes reduced their staffing costs during the pandemic, with workers generally working longer hours with vacancies unfilled.10
As with almost every disease, the poorer you are, the more likely it is you will suffer serious effects. Mortality rates from Covid were 2.6 times higher amongst the most deprived areas, compared to those least deprived. Low social economic status and poverty mean that among the poorest 20% of the population many live in overcrowded conditions, making transmission of the infection more likely.
Manual workers are far less likely to be able to work from home, or be ‘furloughed’. They continued working in areas of high exposure to the virus, such as the care and health sectors, retail and transport. Poor housing, with limited outdoor space, makes social distancing more difficult. Those with unstable work conditions, such as zero-hours contracts, were far more likely to see a serious shortfall in their income. This had an impact on nutritional status and mental health.
Similarly, stress is a known factor in weakening the immune system due to the actions of hormones, so you are more likely to catch the virus and less able to fight it when you do. There is also a significant class gradient in type-two diabetes, heart disease and hypertension - all significant factors for a worse outcome from the Covid infection. Outcomes are also worse if treatment is sought late, and there is a well understood ‘inverse care law’, where, the poorer you are, the less likely you are to seek or be given appropriate treatment.11
At the height of the pandemic in the UK, between 2020 and 2022, the mortality rates for black and minority ethnic groups were significantly higher than for the white population. Significantly, those Bame groups that are generally the poorest, such as those of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, black Caribbean and black African origin, were the worst affected.
An investigation published in The New York Times found that half of the UK central government contracts made public went to companies run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party.12 The extent of the alleged cronyism will perhaps surprise nobody, but the Good Law Project has shown that the UK government spent £3.8 billion on personal protective equipment alone - much of it purchased through the VIP lane for rapid procurement, which was set up by the Johnson administration to make up for the woeful pre-pandemic preparation. The VIP route meant that bids were not subject to competitive tendering and less (if any) scrutiny. In some cases, this meant that some of the PPE was worthless.
In a deal brokered by Liz Truss, £145 million was wasted on unusable surgical masks. On average, PPE purchased by this route was 80% more expensive than standard NHS suppliers. This meant that the government overpaid around £925 million. An indication of how this came about is illustrated by the fact that a standard surgical gown normally costs the NHS £5.87. One provided by Meller Designs, a fashion company, cost £12.60. The company is owned by David Meller, an associate of Michael Gove, who has donated nearly £70 million to the Tories since 2009.13
Covid has also played a role in transferring wealth on a global scale to the richest.14 Oxfam, drawing on research from Forbes, has calculated that the world’s billionaires have added $5 trillion dollars to their wealth during the pandemic.15 Moreover, Covid adversely affected emerging economies far more than economically advanced ones.16 The scene is set for a greater exacerbation of global inequality.
Disease does not transform society: people do that. However, epidemics in general and pandemics in particular tell us something about the nature of the society and can accelerate a pre-existing tendency to decline. The arrival of malaria in Italy accelerated the decline of the Roman empire; the black death of the 14th century accelerated the decline of feudalism.
The 20th and 21st centuries have seen some of the most devastating pandemics in history. The so-called Spanish flu of 1918 killed 50 million worldwide, Aids has killed an estimated 35 million and Covid has claimed the place of the fifth most deadly pandemic in history. Large sections of the world’s population have been impoverished and many people have little or no choice but to migrate, creating the conditions for future pandemics.
While nothing in the Covid enquiry gives grounds for optimism that the next pandemic will be handled better, its exposure of the failings of the system and its hired servants is a lesson well learned.
Quoted from the notes of the chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance.↩︎
S Wessely Chronic fatigue and its syndromes Oxford 1998.↩︎