Britain’s Covid-19 nightmare

Foreign Policy, June 2021

Late last year, the New York Times christened the United Kingdom “plague island.” In recent months, that epithet has lost some of its edge. The country’s COVID-19 vaccination program has been hugely effective. Just over 28 million Brits — almost half the country’s population — have been fully dosed against the virus; death and hospitalization rates have plummeted. Prime Minister Boris Johnson promises spring and summer will be “seasons of hope,” with social distancing rules relaxed and economic restrictions lifted. 

But in a devastating, blow-by-blow account, investigative reporters Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott argue that nothing the Tory leader says about COVID-19 can or should be taken at face value. Despite the striking turnaround exhibited by the vaccine rollout, Calvert and Arbuthnott contend in their recent book, Failures of State, that policies implemented throughout the pandemic failed to prevent Britain’s grim absolute mortality figures (the highest in Europe, in absolute numbers) and the severity of its recession (the deepest in the G7). 

Drawing partly on anonymous sources inside the U.K. cabinet office, as well as on the first-hand testimonies of bereaved family members and frontline health workers, Failures of State presents a damning account. Some of the material amassed by Calvert and Arbuthnott will be familiar to an international audience. Much of it won’t be. By the end of the book, readers are left with the image of a politician woefully ill-equipped for the demands of high office. Johnson’s pandemic decisions had a “cataclysmic impact” on the United Kingdom, Calvert and Arbuthnott write — even if they have had little bearing on his party’s standing in the polls.

The rap sheet set out in Failures of State is extensive and stretches back to the earliest stages of the crisis. On Jan. 31, 2020 — the day Brexit formally commenced — Johnson gave a set-piece speech in Greenwich, London, extolling the benefits of his country’s openness to global trade. At that point, the virus was already working its way through the United Kingdom (it may even have been present in the country in December 2019). In January and February 2020, Johnson missed five meetings of his national emergency committee, COBRA—a revelation initially made by the authors in a 2020 Sunday Times article that went viral. At the start of March, he was still attending mass sporting events and boasting about shaking hands with patients in hospital wards. 

Johnson’s refusal to tighten British border controls as the virus swept across the globe would become one of the hallmarks of his government’s botched response to COVID-19. In the spring of 2020, 190,000 people are thought to have flown into Britain from Wuhan — the epicenter of the outbreak — and other high-risk Chinese cities. “Up to 1,900 of these passengers would have been infected,” Calvert and Arbuthnott estimate. On Mar. 23, in a somber televised address delivered two months after coronavirus had first been detected on British soil, Johnson announced a full national lockdown. Shortly after, it was announced that he was himself dealing with the disease. On Apr. 7, he was moved into an intensive care unit at a top London hospital, where his chances of survival were cited at just above even

Johnson’s overarching approach to COVID-19 took root during those first, critical weeks of the pandemic. When case rates dipped during the summer of 2020, Johnson rushed to reopen the economy. Faced with rapidly rising infection rates that fall, he imposed a half-baked ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown before attempting yet another re-opening in time for Christmas. The results were predictably deadly. By late January of this year, more than 1,000 people were dying in British hospitals, at home, and in care facilities per day. Britain’s official COVID-19 death toll now stands at just under 130,000. Only Peru, Brazil, Mexico, India, and the United States have lost more citizens, in absolute terms, to the virus. Johnson’s mantra-like insistence that he was simply “following the science” doesn’t stack up, Calvert and Arbuthnott argue. The prime minister was repeatedly warned by his own scientific advisers that only aggressive virus suppression policies — school closures, social distancing, draconian travel constraints — would keep Britain safe in the long run, the authors write.

How to explain such stunning complacency in the face of an all-consuming global health crisis? Calvert and Arbuthnott believe Brexit is part of the story: Johnson wanted Britain’s exit from the EU at the start of 2020 to be a moment of national triumph and renewal — without disruption or derailment. Ideology may have shaped the Johnson administration’s response, too. According to Calvert and Arbuthnott, the Tory government’s early “laissez-faire” strategy was framed by a fleeting libertarian embrace of herd immunity — the idea that the coronavirus should be allowed to spread through the younger parts of the population while older, more vulnerable Brits were sequestered away at home or in nursing-shelters. The Conservative government denies herd immunity was ever part of its plan. But that denial has been contradicted by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief political adviser, who insists Conservative politicians were ready, in March and April of 2020, to let the virus rip across the country. Cummings left Johnson’s government in November under acrimonious circumstances, and clearly has an axe to grind against his former boss. Still, the testimony he gave to a House of Commons inquiry hearing last month was incendiary. Cummings told parliament on May 26 that the prime minister is “unfit for the job.”

Questions over Cummings’ personal credibility aside, there is no doubt that the United Kingdom was painfully slow to react to the threat of COVID-19 — nor that the government’s decisions after the initial shock appeared heavily improvised. On Mar. 11, the U.K. Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced $42 billion worth of economic emergency support as part of his scheduled national budget. Six days later, he set out a fresh spending package, this one worth $470 billion. 

Calvert and Arbuthnott single Sunak — a rising star of Conservative politics and prospective Johnson heir — out for particular criticism. Throughout 2020, he lobbied against lockdown restrictions based on the belief that a prolonged shutdown would inflict irreparable damage on the U.K. economy. The 41-year old Chancellor invited Anders Tegnell, the architect of Sweden’s controversial light-touch COVID-19 strategy, to push the case against lockdown to Johnson. In the end, though, Britain’s economic slump has been steeper than that of any other nation in the G7 group: In the second quarter of 2020, the country’s GDP contracted by more than 20 percent, compared to a 13.8 percent contraction in France and 10.1 percent in Germany.

Calvert and Arbuthnott piece their narrative together with the pace and style of a thriller; the book powers along from one crunch point to the next. Their reporting is richly furnished with details from unnamed sources deep inside Whitehall – some of whom sound plausibly like disgruntled Conservative ministers and ex-government advisers. The political gossip is balanced out by flashes of human suffering. “They should have shut down the country as soon as the scientists said to,” Jane Wellington, whose 19-year-old son Cameron died of the virus last year, tells Calvert and Arbuthnott at one stage. “We followed the rules and it still got us.”

One slightly jarring feature of the text is the way it skirts broader questions of British governance in favor of a singular focus on Conservative dysfunction. Would the country have fared better under a less chaotic and preoccupied cabinet? Or is there something deficient in the British state that made this disaster inevitable? The evidence, according to Calvert and Arbuthnott, offers a clear answer: Much of the pain could have been avoided. Research published by senior British scientists last year estimated that 21,000 British lives could have been saved had the United Kingdom locked down even one week earlier at the outset of the pandemic. In March of this year, the Resolution Foundation, a London-based think-tank, estimated that the stalled implementation of lockdown measures over Christmas may have cost an additional 27,000 lives. 

But Calvert and Arbuthnott do think Johnson’s missteps were compounded by Britain’s underlying lack of preparedness for a global health emergency of this kind. After years of Conservative-imposed spending cuts, they write, the country’s PPE stockpile had been left to rot and dwindle, leaving National Health Service staff fatally exposed to the disease. (More than 600 British health workers have died from COVID-19 over the past 14 months.) Similarly, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that COVID-19 exposed the fundamental inadequacy of Britain’s administrative elites. Johnson, who completed two terms as mayor of London and has previously served as U.K. foreign minister, should, theoretically, be primed for public service. Instead, his short tenure at No. 10 Downing St. has been marked by extraordinary negligence and misconduct. This suggests Britain’s problems are more entrenched than Calvert and Arbuthnott are prepared to concede.

Now, 18 months into the pandemic, the United Kingdom’s vaccine program is continuing apace — but the country isn’t out of the woods. Case rates are once again going up, fueled by the so-called Delta variant, which has devastated India. Experts say it may be 40 percent more transmissible than other strains. Some scientists are warning that Britain may be on the cusp of a coronavirus third wave. Once again, however, Johnson has lagged. In April, the prime minister waited 17 days before placing India on the ‘red list’ of countries requiring mandatory hotel quarantine; Conservative health secretary Matt Hancock insists the delay had nothing to do with Johnson’s planned post-Brexit trade trip to India. (The trip, scheduled for April, was eventually canceled due to the scale of new infections on the Indian subcontinent.) 

On Jun. 14, Johnson announced that England’s public reopening, scheduled for Jun. 21, would be delayed for a month, to give the government time to tackle the latest stage of the outbreak. Jul. 19, he now ominously insists, will be the “terminus date” for the lifting of all English restrictions. On Jun. 16, the Daily Mirror reported that Britain had the worst infection rate in Europe, with 107.33 cases per million, calculated on a rolling seven-day average. Failures of State is a vital journalistic first draft of the United Kingdom’s COVID-19 catastrophe, with Johnson cast, dismally, in the main role. Subsequent drafts may be just as unforgiving. Whether this book generates any lasting political consequences for the prime minister is a separate question.

This is a review of Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus by George Arbuthnott and Jonathan Calvert. Read the original piece here.

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