“The job of government is to protect its citizens. It is an indictment of ministers’ actions that the UK state has proved not resilient and strong enough to do so.”
Coronavirus is a disaster that we should have been prepared for, because it was expected. In 2015, the government’s national risk register of potential calamities calculated that there was between a one in 20 and a one in two chance of pandemic influenza hitting the United Kingdom within five years, with catastrophic results. You would not bet against those odds. But we did.
Rather than using the risk assessment to justify major investments, the country stockpiled an inadequate supply of masks, ventilators and gowns in hospitals, and body bags in mortuaries. A dearth of such essentials puts the lives of doctors, nurses and care workers at risk, and causes unbearable sadness. Instead of saying sorry for the shortages, ministers use the shameful evasion of acknowledging their regret if the public feels let down. A sincere ministerial apology is long overdue.
The Sars-CoV-2 virus is deadlier and spreads faster than earlier viral pathogens. The timing of the outbreak could not have been exactly foretold. But it was likely and getting likelier because of climate change, rising population growth and the globalisation of travel. Ministers cannot avoid responsibility for the unfolding catastrophe. They underestimated the resilience of the population to a repressive lockdown, citing modellers’ warnings that this “would result in a large second epidemic once measures were lifted”. Yet within days the government shifted its view. While the advice – and even the advisers – can change, it is the task of those in office to take decisions. Ministers can be guided by counsel, but they cannot hide behind it. To contain the virus, nations must quickly develop a test and use it to identify infected people, isolate them and trace those they’ve had contact with. Two countries with comparable populations to the UK – Germany and South Korea – have done so. We did not. Germany is testing more than five times as many of its citizens as the UK, and its death toll is less than a third. South Korea, a country of 52 million people, has recorded just 217 deaths – 43 times fewer deaths per head of population than the UK, where more than 11,000 have died.
Ministers say they took “the right decisions at the right time”. Yet the evidence is that shutting down Britain earlier would have saved lives. By the time ministers acted, the Covid-19 virus had spread faster and wider than might have been the case, by which point the materials and equipment needed were harder to procure. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, compares his job stocking the NHS with personal protective equipment every week to a task of Hercules. A more apt figure from Greek mythology might be Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to push a rock to the top of a mountain, only for it to roll back down again so he had to repeat the punishment.
Both Germany and South Korea have well-resourced health systems and a political culture of being responsive to their citizens. The UK has spent the last decade rewarding the NHS with the lowest funding settlement for decades and its frontline staff with tiny pay rises. Covid-19 has shown that a well-run and properly funded state is the difference between living and dying. A decade of Conservative administrations, with an antipathy to the public sector, has meant it is safer to be in Seoul than London. The job of government is to protect its citizens. It is an indictment of ministers’ actions that the UK state has proved not resilient and strong enough to do so.