In the middle of March 2020, as Covid-19 spread rapidly across Britain, the country’s second-most senior civil servant walked into the prime minister’s office and verbalised what was by then becoming clear to everyone in Boris Johnson’s circle. “I think we are absolutely f**ked,” Helen MacNamara said. “I think this country is heading for a disaster. I think we are going to kill thousands of people.”
By this time, much of Europe, including Ireland, had introduced sweeping lockdowns in order to stop the new virus from spreading further and to ensure their hospitals were not overrun. The UK had chosen a different course. Convinced that its people would not accept a lockdown and that attempting to suppress the virus was merely delaying the inevitable, the Johnson government had taken a light-touch, gradualist approach that meant a killer disease was allowed to run rampant.
While people on the European mainland were being confined to their homes, super-spreader events like the Cheltenham festival and a Liverpool v Atletico Madrid match went ahead with capacity crowds. Downing Street had ignored World Health Organisation advice to prioritise testing and tracing – in fact, it had stood down its community testing operations and already given up on searching for asymptomatic infections. As a result the government had no idea how widely the disease was circulating.
When MacNamara made her intervention, as recounted by the former Johnson adviser Dominic Cummings and recorded in a landmark parliamentary report on the British government’s handling of the crisis, other officials could see that the health service was at risk of being overwhelmed. In “simultaneous epiphanies”, as the report puts it, they realised that British policy was wrong, perhaps catastrophically so. Still, it took another 10 days for Downing Street to finally order a lockdown.
The House of Commons report, published this week by two committees chaired by Conservative MPs, gives a scathing account of the government’s mishandling of the crisis. With two notable exceptions – the skill and resilience of health workers and the successful British vaccine programme, which started early and raced ahead of other national schemes before it was eventually overtaken by the rest of western Europe – the report makes for grim reading from start to finish. It describes how the UK had prepared for the wrong pandemic (its planning was inflexibly focused on a flu pandemic, and it failed to learn lessons from the Sars, Mers and Ebola outbreaks); how the country’s test-and-trace operation was an expensive shambles; and how over-centralised, opaque decision-making got in the way of effective action. As in Ireland and elsewhere, inadequate protection for care homes left them more exposed to virus outbreaks.
The crisis response was one of Britain's worst public health failures, the report concludes, contributing as it did to a higher death toll from Covid-19 than in other comparable states. It is those astonishing early failures that will haunt politicians and officials - and fascinate historians - for decades. Had the UK instituted its lockdown even a week earlier than it did, it would have reduced the total death toll by at least half, according to Prof Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London.
The delay was a deliberate policy that stemmed from a fatalistic belief that the disease could only be managed, not suppressed, and a mistaken conviction that the British people would not heed an appeal to stay at home. The government’s scientific advisory body – known, ironically, by the acronym Sage – was seized by groupthink. Driven by a sense of British exceptionalism, it either ignored the experience of other countries or concluded without evidence that their lessons could not be applied to Britain. For their part, government ministers failed to challenge or question their advice.
The report is a partial account that focuses exclusively on England. It also leaves key questions unexplored. It is not clear where the hunch that the British people would be uniquely resistant to lockdowns originated or how it gained such traction. The authors pull their punches, repeatedly criticising "government" without homing in on the individuals, most obviously Johnson himself, who made these disastrous decisions. The prime minister's dangerously misguided public messaging is a striking omission. You will not find reference to Johnson boasting about shaking hands "with everybody" at a hospital with Covid-19 patients on the same day that Sage warned the government that people should be told not to shake hands. Nor will you find reference to how, as the chief medical adviser was warning that 500,000 people in Britain could die of the disease, Johnson advised over-70s not to go on cruises and told the public that many of them were going to die.
In Ireland, the Government has put off an inquiry until after the pandemic, but that point could be years away, by which time the protagonists’ memories will have begun to fade. Flawed and inadequate though it is, the British report shows that the work of understanding the crisis response cannot begin soon enough. It is an essential first step in what will be a long reckoning.