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The greatest failure of government in our lifetime

Prime minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing on coronavirus (COVID-19) in Downing Street, London. - Credit: PA

Ian Dunt says this is the most severe and unforgivable example of government failure that we have seen in our lifetime.

The UK Covid death toll now stands at more than 80,000 people. By the time it is over, it’ll almost certainly hit 100,000. Every afternoon, the same terrible bell tolls announcing the number of deaths over the course of the day. And every afternoon, it reaches new unimaginable levels. On January 6, the UK reported more than 1,000 daily deaths for the first time since April. Days later, it was already at 1,325.

The NHS is, in many areas, already overwhelmed. In others, it is getting there. Non-essential medical care, like checks for heart disease, is postponed. Staffing is stretched to handle the ICU intake, leading inevitably to mistakes. Major surgery is cancelled. Ambulances carrying people with serious injuries, or suffering heart attacks or strokes, queue outside hospitals waiting for beds. The prospect of rationing is moving horribly into view: doctors being forced to make impossible moral decisions about who to prioritise for care on the basis of limited resources.

This is the world we live in now, but the full magnitude of it doesn’t quite register. One of the strangest things about Covid is how quiet it is. It is a silent carnage. We are all locked in our homes. We cannot see the families grieving. The NHS keeps its doors firmly shut against film crews, so the horror of what is happening in hospitals is kept well away from the public eye. All we get is that afternoon death announcement: the strangely bureaucratic, lifeless report of vast human suffering.

This is, without hyperbole, the most severe and unforgivable example of government failure we have seen in our lifetime.

The fault is fundamentally one of timing. At each and every stage of this crisis, the government has done what was necessary two to four weeks later than when it was required.

Covid is a two-stage process. Once you are infected, it usually takes about ten days before you need hospital treatment. If you die from it, it is usually around eight days after going into hospital. This means that the fatality stats we see are the results of events which took place around three weeks ago. It is like some terrible star: what we are looking at is the result of events which took place in the past. What we see now is the consequence of policy decisions taken in late December. And the policy decisions taken today will play out in early February.

The government knows this. It is receiving the information from its scientific advisers. The countries which have dealt with Covid successfully, like New Zealand or South Korea, have all acted on this advice firmly and preemptively, aiming at eradication rather than reduction.

But No.10’s decision-making is not based exclusively on the science. It balances scientific advice against political interests – specifically perceived notions of public opinion and the lockdown scepticism of cabinet ministers and members of the Conservative parliamentary party. So instead of taking swift preemptive action as soon as it is advised, Boris Johnson has equivocated and delayed.

This is the pattern of behaviour whose consequences are now playing out in our hospitals. It’s why we went into lockdown two to four weeks too late, on all three occasions. It’s why the tiers system was only adapted weeks after scientists warned it was ineffective. It’s why we witnessed the insanity of allowing certain areas to open up for Christmas only to now see their infection rates spiral out of control.

Timing, however, only partly explains what is happening. The government could have recognised and addressed this problem by now if it was alive to its own failings. It is not. Downing Street is an echo chamber. It does not listen to criticism. Indeed, Johnson purged the party of any moderate Conservatives early on in his tenure as prime minister. All criticism from outside the party is treated as evidence that someone is a political enemy.

This is why you see them making the same mistakes over and over again. The recent delay around shutting schools and imposing a new lockdown was a precise reconstruction of the delay last March over the first lockdown. But months after making the initial mistake, Johnson made it again, almost step-by-step, like a dramatic recreation. He has learned nothing, because he does not care to learn. He has insulated himself against the capacity for improvement. And the people on whose behalf he governs are forced to pay the price.

This is what government incompetence does. It costs lives. And we have the very great misfortune of living under the most incompetent government of our lifetime, right when we most needed leaders who knew what they were doing. The scale of this failure is beyond reasonable comprehension. And anyone involved in it should hang their heads in shame.