The Covid crisis and the Johnson government's criminal ineptitude

Winter 2020

”Suddenly, hope” was how The Economist of 14-20 November 2020 greeted the news of an effective vaccine against Covid-19. Yes of course, in Britain and most of the rest of the western world, vaccines were always going to be the way out of this pandemic. And this life-saver will be needed not only to control the virus, but also to save prime minister Boris Johnson’s political neck.

Britain’s official Covid-19 death toll at over 60,000 (4 December) is the highest in Europe. And it is around 20,000 higher, if those with “Covid” on their death certificates are counted! The fifth richest economy in the world has achieved the fifth most Covid deaths in the world, after the USA, India, Brazil and Mexico, in that order. The responsibility for this lies squarely with Johnson and the cabal of ministers and advisors who surround him.

The measures to control the virus were late, ill-judged and chaotic, underscored by a contempt for ordinary people’s lives. Worse, time was lost and resources squandered by the insistence on handing lucrative private contracts for vital testing, provision of equipment, control and monitoring of the virus, to private companies, many with links to Johnson’s ministerial cronies - what has been called his “chumocracy”.

And if the case fatality rate (i.e., the number of deaths per diagnosed case) is a measure of the efficacy of a country’s health system, the fact that Britain has the third highest case fatality (after Mexico and Iran), says it all about the current state of the “heroic” National Health Service (NHS). It certainly had to be heroic, having been so starved of funds and staff.

The dire situation in the NHS when Covid arrived, left even the bungling Johnson government with no option but to preface its anti-Covid strategy with the slogan ”stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives”. If people did not follow the government’s advice, it warned, the NHS would be overwhelmed. And it nearly was. Today, this same threat is the justification for the government’s latest, highly unpopular, 3-tier system of regional restrictions.

In fact the NHS became a Covid-only health service for the first 6 months of the pandemic. Cancer and other life-threatening conditions went undiagnosed and untreated, inevitably resulting in thousands more preventable deaths.

The NHS could not have done otherwise. It has been run down, fragmented and outsourced to the private sector over all of 4 decades, as a way to cut its cost. In 2019, Britain spent 7.2% of GDP on health, well below the OECD average of 8.8%. On the eve of the outbreak it had the fewest intensive care beds out of all OECD countries: just 4,000 (Germany had 16,000). This was increased to 12,000 by converting operating theatres and resuscitation rooms into ICUs and more were to be provided inside the temporary overflow Nightingale Hospitals which were erected.

However the biggest problem in the first few weeks was not the appalling lack of preparation, which meant basic protective equipment like masks, gowns, gloves, or test kits for the virus were missing. No, it was the shortage of trained staff of every kind. So much so, that pensioners were asked to return to work and students (and the army) brought in.

Today the shortage continues to bite: the NHS has 86,000 staff vacancies, a situation not helped by a looming Brexit which has already caused EU migrant health workers (who made up 18% of staff) to return across the Channel. And now with the second wave, over 6% of the workforce is off sick, half due to Covid!

It was for lack of staff, too, that the Nightingale Hospitals were largely unused and remain costly white elephants today. One can only wonder how the government - and indeed Public Health England - made such a fundamental error. Surely they knew that they did not have enough nurses and doctors for these emergency units? Or didn’t they?

On leaving St Thomas’s hospital after being treated for Covid, Johnson for once spoke the truth when he said that the NHS “was run on love”. It has had little else to run on.

From ignorance to “common” sense

SARS-CoV-2 is a virus. It does not have a brain. Yet it seems to have outwitted Boris Johnson and his advisors from Day 1. Whether through ignorance, arrogance, or a Brexiter belief in British exceptionalism - that “it can’t happen here” - the response to the pandemic has been lacking at every turn. It is probably just as well that Johnson caught the virus. Because it is likely that his policy would have been even more cavalier, if he had not personally experienced getting sick and requiring intensive care.

When he lifted restrictions (implemented too late in March and ended too early, in June), he expressed that right-wing libertarian belief that everyone, including his (now expelled) political advisor Dominic Cummings, would use “Good Old British Common Sense”, when it came to Covid. Which in the case of Cummings involved breaking lock down rules, driving hundreds of miles to his parent’s farm in Durham while sick with the virus and then going for a stroll at the now famous, thanks to him, Barnard’s Castle beauty spot.

It is only now, a whole 10 months after the first Covid case was diagnosed that “mass testing” has begun in Liverpool as part of Johnson’s “Operation Moonshot” - meant to provide 500,000 tests a day. But even in this case, the strategy is flawed: a 30 minute lateral flow test is being used which only detects high viral loads and so the accuracy of the tests can be as low as 56%!

If these tests were accurate, it might, finally, have been possible to track the spread of the virus and then isolate those who have it. But by now the government’s anti-Covid policy is so discredited that this is unlikely anyway. It is estimated that at most, 16% (or as few as 10%) of those testing positive, let alone those notified as contacts, will actually isolate themselves.

So much for the government’s laissez-faire policy, which depends on people doing the right thing! It requires public trust. And where there is little trust, rules are abandoned. The government itself was so equivocal over the necessity to wear masks - and for so long - that many still think they are unnecessary. Its guidelines have sown confusion and frustration, especially the latest “tiers system”. All of this renders public health measures virtually useless. And this is the ultimate tragedy of the governmental farce which has played out in front of the eyes of the British public since the epidemic first broke out in Wuhan, 11 months ago.

The catalogue of disaster

How could such a state of affairs have arisen? After all, there should have been ample time to prepare primary measures of prevention.

It is not possible to go through the whole long, sorry, list of the government’s failures, but it is worth looking at those which stand out, to get some measure of this.

First, there was the refusal to heed warnings. The World Health Organisation let it be known on 31 December 2019, that the Chinese government had reported a cluster of SARS-like pneumonia cases and some deaths. By 9 January, Chinese scientists had already shared the genome of what appeared to be a new virus, and British scientists promptly began studying it and devising tests for it. After the first cases were reported of the virus spreading outside China, in mid-January, it was clear this virus was also very, very infectious.

Already by 24 January, Wuhan was completely shut down; all transport and human movement was stopped to control the spread of a virus now named SARS-CoV-2. It was an example to emulate. But Johnson’s government (like most in the West) could not overcome its anti-Chinese stance to see past this, in order to protect the population.

The only “action” was from the Foreign Office, which arranged for “Britons” to be flown back from China (and wherever else there were outbreaks) to bring them, plus any coronoviruses they were carrying, “home”! Even at this point, anyone with non-British Common Sense might have been worried.

As former public health official and current World Health Organisation director, Professor Gabriel Scally said, ”we left the door wide open to the virus”. Only one plane-load of 83 passengers, with special permission to leave Wuhan, was flown to RAF Brize Norton on 31 January and quarantined for 14 days. But no restrictions were imposed on any other returnees, not at airports, nor seaports nor railway stations, although British Airways (but not the other airlines) suspended direct flights in and out of China. Throughout February the virus was thus freely spreading around the country (and indeed, around the world), while the catastrophic outbreak in northern Italy, which everyone “monitored” vicariously on their TV screens, began in earnest at the beginning of March.

But by 1 March there had been only one death and 36 cases identified in Britain. On 3 March Boris Johnson appeared on TV, explaining that there was ”nothing to worry about”. The risk to the public was “low”, according to the expert advice of “NERVTAG” (the “New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group”)!

NERVTAG did however advise people to wash their hands and avoid touching each other... Which was the cue for Johnson’ notorious boast: ”I was in a hospital the other night where I think there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.” Within 4 weeks he was in hospital himself with Covid, needing oxygen.

The public now heard for the first time about the array of scientific advisory committees with such oddly-appropriate acronyms, as if someone was actually having a laugh. In addition to NERVTAG, there was SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and its subgroup, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling and Behavioural Science (SPI-M and SPI-B!). It was like something out of a James Bond movie. And the government line was now that everything it did was “following science”. In other words, if it made a mistake, it was the scientists’ fault.

Carefully selected “mathematical modellers” and epidemiologists gave “expert” opinions on what they predicted would happen. But with poor data to start with (epidemiologists later even admitted they had to use Wikipedia!) and with no expertise in medical science or virology, their advice was bad at best and dangerous at worst. It either did not dawn on them that they could borrow data from China or South Korea or, more likely, they chose not to, for the usual political reasons. In fact this was “science following politics”. There was a conspicuous refusal to learn from anyone else - be it the Far East, Germany, Finland, or even India’s Kerala!

At the initial very carefully staged daily press conferences, throughout the first months of the pandemic, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, “Sir” Patrick Vallance and the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty (or their respective deputies) flanked Johnson or his Health Secretary, Matt Hancock in order to justify government policy. At their second appearance, before the infamous Cheltenham Festival super-spreader event, the SAGE advisors justified allowing returning air travellers to go freely into the community on the grounds that it was ”already too late and the virus was in the community” and at that point, Vallance said that perhaps it was a good idea to allow the population to gain “herd” immunity, something he later denied. But everyone had heard him say it on live TV.

This was not only fallacious, but so obviously dangerous to public health, that very early on, an “Independent SAGE” was set up by medical experts and scientists who were not in the government’s pay, led by David King (a former government Chief Scientific Advisor), which was scathing about Johnson’s strategy, and argued all along for a “zero-Covid” strategy to eradicate the virus, as had been successful in China.

King described the government’s response to the pandemic as a “complete cock-up” and accused it of deliberately allowing the virus to spread. For his pains, he was dismissed as a “Maoist”! It should be remembered that at the same time the government was joining in the US trade war against China, reviving Cold War sentiments and banning China’s 5-G technology, which it had already started installing. This no doubt played a part in encouraging conspiracy theories and the totally batty idea that China’s 5-G mobile phone masts could infect people with Covid or interfere with their immunity, to the point where phone masts were actually being burnt down.

Erring on the side of danger

There were further mind-boggling and drastic mistakes to come. And these have made a lot of people very angry, discredited public health authorities and further reinforced conspiracy theories.

For instance the government’s hand-picked behavioural scientists began to speak about the risks of lock down “fatigue” before there had even been a lock down! Quite obviously, it was the risk to profits which was the big problem, as Matt Hancock put it, restrictions had ”a huge economic and social downside”.

Instead of advising the prevention of all close contact between humans, plus the wearing of masks (there is still a refusal of the obvious science on masks), there was the suggestion that restrictions were only marginally useful at preventing viral spread. SAGE advisors were asked directly if mass gatherings should be stopped. They said no. In fact Vallance (also a former GlaxoSmithKline director), explained that countries like France, which had banned gatherings of over 5,000, were just doing so for “eye-catching” reasons. In his view, there was little risk of spreading the virus in crowded stadiums and what is more, said he, sport fixture bans would just drive people into pubs, where they would be more likely to catch Covid.

Then came those two notorious major super-spreader events: the 250,000 mass gathering at the Jockey Club’s Cheltenham Festival on the 10-12 March and the Liverpool-Atlético Madrid football match on the 11 March. A few hours before kick-off Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer, explained on Twitter, that “expert modellers” had found that large events were “not something that will have a big effect”. This wasn’t her only flagrant dismissal of common sense; it became a regular feature of government press conferences.

In the last week of March, Cheltenham was among the areas with the highest number of cases: there was a severalfold increase in the rate of Covid infection. A landlord whose pub was near the racecourse died of Covid two weeks after the race; several jockeys and racecourse staff also became ill. Why was the festival allowed to go ahead? Was it because Health Minister Hancock and “Baroness” Dido Harding (who later proved incapable of managing “NHS Test and Trace” which she was put in charge of) are members of the Jockey Club?

After the WHO belatedly declared a global pandemic on the 11 March, statistical modellers at Imperial College London warned that NHS critical care capacity would be overwhelmed by an outbreak and 250,000 people could die unless strict social distancing protocols were implemented. But still no lock down was brought in. Johnson did not impose a formal lock down until 23 March.

Today, when asked, the scientific advisors claim they had not realised that travellers from the Alps and northern Italy might have brought Covid back with them. They “never guessed”... Either they were all suffering from a bad case of “advisoritis”, or they were lying and had other reasons to ignore the danger, like having been cautioned not to “upset” the “economy”.

The aforementioned Professor Harries rejected the need for testing, inexplicably claiming that WHO advice to ”test, test, test”, was aimed at “less economically advanced countries”, and was ”not an appropriate mechanism as we go forward”. Her fellow advisor, Yvonne Doyle, bizarrely told the Health Select Committee that the ”ship had sailed” on contact tracing already by mid-March. Perhaps that is the explanation for the deaf ear turned to all those (including the Nobel-prize winner from the Crick Institute, Paul Nurse) who offered to help assemble a system for mass testing by mobilising and co-ordinating existing public and private PCR machines...

Instead, the government mobilised private sector companies like Serco, G4S and accountancy firms like Deloitte, with no expertise whatsoever, but certainly with shareholders they knew and loved, to take on the contracts for organising testing for the virus. They were also contracted, among various others, to acquire the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) vitally needed for hospitals and care homes, which was running critically short. Outrageous scandals concerning these contracts (on which the government has already dished out £56bn to date) are still being exposed every other week. One of the first was over 17.5 million unproven, useless virus antibody tests bought by Matt Hancock.

Nevertheless, Hancock became the government poster-boy for the lock down. In his pink tie, he kept repeating that everything the government did was “for the best, in the best of all possible worlds”, whenever confronted with another cock-up. It was and still is, truly amazing to hear him talking past any and all criticism, as if he was actually hearing it as praise!

The culling of the elderly

The biggest Covid crime perpetrated by the government has been the huge number of deaths in care homes. Over and over, both Johnson and Hancock claimed that they had ”put a protective shield around” them. The opposite was true. Old people occupying NHS hospital beds were discharged into these homes, in panicked preparation for the pandemic, after many had already been exposed to the virus. But no tests were done before their discharge. So they carried the virus into the homes.

Out of a population of around 400,000 elderly in these homes, within the 4 months between March 2nd and June 12th, more than 20,000 had died of Covid-19. And this is an underestimate, because these are only those cases confirmed by test. If several people were sick, only one was given a test, as these were in short supply.

A finger was immediately pointed at agency care staff for spreading the virus. In fact “temps” are the workforce of choice in this setting, allowing rock-bottom labour costs and thus the possibility of squeezing a profit out of elderly care provision. Over the past 20 years, this sector was sold off to private companies/charitable foundations, though still funded partly by local authorities. But council budgets have been slashed so badly that care is provided on a shoestring. Most workers are on casual, zero-hours, minimum wage contracts and move between homes and private residences to offer care by the hour. And of course, they do not normally receive sick pay. In the course of the pandemic there was so much uproar over this, that an extra government fund was established to pay sick care-workers a full wage. However many care homes do not comply, and whether this will continue after the pandemic is over, is another question.

Employment conditions may have been a factor in Covid’s spread. But it is far more likely that the problem was the lack of PPE. Just like the NHS, care homes struggled to obtain protective gear - and when they did get it, it was often inadequate and poor quality.

As far as testing staff for Covid is concerned, it was only this October, 7 months after the peak of the first Covid wave, that routine testing for all care home staff and residents was started.

British common nonsense

When the number of infections began to fall after the first 12-week lock down Johnson said people no longer needed to ”protect the NHS” but could go back to work, while ”staying alert”. He was sure they would show ”common sense” in their interactions with others...

So in June, schools were reopened to facilitate this, although many parents and most teachers were not convinced it was safe. But now large and small manufacturing companies started up again. By 15 June non-essential shops got the go-ahead to open and by 4 July all other lock down restrictions were revoked. The summer holiday season was, after all, a big money spinner for the capitalist class and it could not be missed.

But of course the virus had neither been suppressed nor contained. Local outbreaks in meat packing and food processing plants started occurring. In Leicester clusters of cases in garment sweat shops occurred. So local lock downs were implemented: this was Johnson’s “whack a mole” policy. But of course it still depended on having accurate testing and tracing. Serco, the company contracted to “Test and Trace” for the NHS and which had employed 35,000 contact tracers to do the job by phone, soon discovered this was less than useless. Existing NHS workers on the ground had to take over. So another scandal ensued. It was around this time that the first phone app tracker was dumped and a second one adopted, which to date has only been downloaded by around 40% of the public, half the number needed to help stop the virus spreading. And all credit to Baroness Dido Harding, who apparently used her expertise as a former CEO of mobile network TalkTalk, to oversee this £12bn-down-the-drain fiasco.

By now the second great super-spreader event, the summer holiday rush, was yielding a new spike in infections, aided by the return to school in September and the re-opening of universities.

This second wave looks to be much longer-lasting than the first, even if the number of deaths it is causing is not as high, thanks to lessons learned from the first. But it is due for a boost over Xmas when restrictions are lifted between 23-27 December.

The devolved and the abject

What was also questionable was the separate anti-Covid strategies followed by the 4 devolved regions of Britain: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister and Health Secretary, whose powers cover the whole of Britain, placed themselves in an ambiguous position, because it was not always clear whether they were speaking for the whole “nation”, or just England. This meant that in the period in between the “national” lock downs, policies differed quite markedly between regions, supposedly based on differing rates of infection. But of course, the population constantly circulates between all of these regions. Trains criss-cross them. It made little sense, except for the fact that it suited the aspirations of the devolved powers’ political machineries. However, it has helped reinforce insular nationalism, especially the independence crusade of Scottish National Party leader, Nicola Sturgeon.

It is also necessary to say a few words (but few are all it is worth!) about the Labour Party and its abject bipartisanship throughout the pandemic. There was never any question of deviating from the usual “wartime” mode which it slips into, without question, whenever there is a crisis.

So, regardless of the failure to stop travel across borders, to stop mass gatherings, prevent workers from going to work, or stop buses and trains... as far as the Labour leadership was concerned, it was all OK. One or two questions were asked about government contracts to private companies and the government’s all-too-obvious failure to get testing sorted.

The first real “difference” emerged only when the government’s scientific advisors (very) politely criticised the government after infections started increasing in mid-September. They suggested a short, “circuit-breaker” lock down, but respectfully left the decision to the government, which did nothing until November, by which time cases were rocketing. Only at this point did Labour’s Keir Starmer dare to come up with a retrospective reproach!

Targeting the working class

All through the pandemic, “non-essential” workers were told to carry on working, with or without the sanction of government. Because the definition of “non-essential work” was infinitely flexible. Large construction projects and some industries never shut down. And with the second national lock down on 5 November, workers in all manufacturing were told to carry on working. Covid-secure rules were meant to be in place. But as with all rules and especially those concerning workers’ conditions, there was and is no enforcement. The Health and Safety Executive has long since been rendered toothless by cuts: 46% of its funding was withdrawn in 2010 and has never been reinstated.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced on 23 March that he was “putting his arms around the workforce” (a little hard to visualise) and would pay 80% of wages of laid-off workers in a furlough scheme. This was, of course, a direct grant to employers: what workers got out of it depended on their goodwill. Moreover, only the small and shrinking section of the working class with permanent, tax-registered jobs qualified: the ever-growing number of workers on precarious contracts did not.

Predictably, Sunak boasted that his scheme was the “best in the world”, even if in France or Germany, for instance, workers got up to 87% of wages and were paid directly by the government, rather than at a boss’s discretion.

When furlough was cut between the first and second Covid waves, job cuts, which had already hit the travel, retail and hospitality sectors, began in earnest. “Official” redundancies reached a record high of 314,000, in the 3 months to September and firings continue. Between March 2020, and October, 782,000 fewer workers were on payrolls. The latest 4.8% unemployment figure, vastly underestimates the real unemployed, as does the “claimant count” (2.6m in October), which only counts those workers who qualify to claim benefits. Migrant workers from outside the EU, or new immigrants from the EU, who don’t qualify for benefits, worked right through the pandemic in construction and food processing, where the worst Covid outbreaks occurred.

As to public transport, it is surprising that so little has been said about this. Because it is quite shocking that the government and local authorities never halted buses nor trains to prevent viral spread. Indeed, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, prides himself in having kept the underground trains and bus service running! Which makes him culpable in the deaths of 29 London bus drivers who contracted Covid during the peak of the first wave. Masks were only made mandatory on public transport on the 15 June. And even then, this is not enforced, with “self-exemption” allowed. As a result, the virus multiplies inside buses, coaches and trains and is transported up and down the country.

The other section of workers which Covid has targeted is those in health and social care: 600 had died up to 18 September. In particular, workers from “black and minority ethnic” backgrounds, who are more likely to work in these jobs. But unsurprisingly no measures have been put in place to allow them to shield themselves, on full pay. Despite the reinstatement of the furlough scheme on 5 November, job cuts continue; another million are expected to be lost by mid-2021.

Johnson might lose his corona

The gross mishandling of the pandemic has had political consequences for Johnson. His popularity rating has fallen 12 points since his “landslide” election just a year ago. Within the last few weeks, his Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has pushed ahead of him in the polls for “preferred next leader”. At the time of writing, he has just faced a third backbench revolt by his own MPs, voting against his 3-tier regime which imposes different levels of restrictions around the country depending on infection rates.

This loss of support from his own side coincides with discontent among a section of the population protesting over lock downs and infringement of personal freedom. It is no coincidence that these are mostly the self-same individuals who demanded Brexit, who said “All Lives Matter” during the George Floyd protests and who denounce vaccination.

It is the irony of ironies, that Johnson, who had the support of these far-right-wingers only 11 months ago, when he promised an oven-ready Brexit and was seen as Britain’s Trump, now finds himself facing them as an adversary!

If he gave in to this pressure and revoked restrictions, this could provoke a third Covid wave. But by “following science” and continuing to try to suppress viral spread, Johnson might lose even more of his waning support: the huge majority he won just 11 months ago of 80 seats, could be cut severely if more of his backwoods’ MPs vote against future measures, or fail to ratify a Brexit deal. Johnson’s best hope - in his words, is if ”the scientific cavalry arrives” with enough doses of an effective vaccine in time...

So it was rather miraculous that just one day after that backbencher rebellion, the medicines’ regulatory agency (MHRA) announced it had approved the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine and that enough doses for 400,000 people would arrive within days, with more to follow! How and why the MHRA managed to be “first in the world” to do this, is not entirely clear! Of course there is no guarantee that Johnson and his ministers will not botch up a vaccination programme, as they have botched so much else. All that still remains to be seen.

4 December 2020