Language matters. Military metaphors and cosy cliches are the currency of evasion and distraction. They are being deployed in overtime right now by a UK government which seeks both to disguise the truth from those it was elected to serve, and to divert attention from its own ineptitude. Another useful tactic has been for “leaders” to solemnly intone that casting eyes backward, or playing the “blame game” is of little use when we should be firmly future focussed. Except that examining the history of the Johnson administration vis a vis the Corvid 19 pandemic, is a very precise clue as to what the future might hold.
First off they ignored the risks and the mounting evidence, then they resorted to soothing platitudes; then they upgraded to outright lies about what had been achieved in terms of protective clothing and virus testing and what would shortly be delivered. The fact that the Prime Minister was felled by this devastating illness should not leave us devoid of the sympathy we would naturally accord any one of its victims. Neither should it blind us to the fact that he boasted about shaking hands in hospitals as late as early March whilst intoning that “our country is extremely well prepared. We already have a fantastic NHS, fantastic testing systems and fantastic surveillance of the spread of the disease.”
When Johnson repeats his favourite adjective it is always a worrying sign. Like Trump and “tremendous”. It is a substitute for bothering to read and then convey the evidence to which their limited attention spans have already been drawn. Johnson, reportedly, is not a stupid man, unlike his grotesque American counterpart. But neither has he proved to be the Churchillian leader of his fantasies The unfortunate fact of his illness has turned many journalists who should know better into cheerleaders and sycophants rather than seekers after important truths. Rather as if this “war” on coronavirus requires everyone to still their questioning voices or be labelled unpatriotic.
But there are insistent questions which demand proper answers if we are not to stagger on towards more needless deaths and economic meltdown or both. You might not know – because nobody told us until a little known news outlet published a handy timeline – that the government actually held a pandemic training exercise last Autumn. It revealed what we now know – that there were huge gaps in preparedness. Allegedly the still unpublished report of this exercise was thought “too terrifying” to share.
The first signs of the new strain was found in China just after New Year. By mid January one of the government’s own advisors called it “serious, very, very serious.” By the third week in January an entire Chinese province was firmly locked down. At this stage many scientific specialists were sounding loud alarms; Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University amongst the most consistently vocal. By the end of the month the World Health Organisation was talking about an international public emergency. The European Union started conference calls in February between heads of government and health ministers. The UK government disdained participating, just as it later did with offers of pooled ventilators. This takes Euroscepticism to new and criminal levels of blind adherence to ideology.
It’s at this early stage all the nonsense about “herd immunity” got an airing from that nice Mr Cummings, and then on national TV – on a soft pedalling sofa show – from the Prime Minister. The shorthand for which is survival of the fittest and hell mend the rest. (But at least the economy won’t catch cold.) Ah yes, “cold” and “flu” and all the other soothing and inappropriate euphemisms for Corvid used by some of the shorter sighted world leaders until the coffin count became too embarrassing to ignore.
Despite a rising tide of voices off stage urging the government to get real and shut down social gatherings, the Cheltenham Racing Festival went ahead, as did the Liverpool Athletico Madrid game, the latter requiring plane loads of Spanish fans to come and cheer on their boys. Madness. So tardy was the cabinet to act that other sporting events “self cancelled” rather than waiting for instructions. Even in early March, with a pandemic being formally declared by WHO, and the editor in chief of the Lancet talking about playing roulette with the nation’s health, the government dithered. The PM assured the nation that the scientific advice they had suggested banning events “will have little effect on the spread.” While the public face of the government science advisory team, Sir Patrick Vallance was still talking about building herd immunity - a view echoed by the head of the disease modelling team.
Yet elsewhere, time served virologists and public health gurus were screaming at the government to get a bloody grip. 200 of them wrote an open letter demanding tougher measures. And Professor Sridhar was asking to see the modelling and be allowed to interrogate the evidence which has been kept under wraps. But why does it take a university professor to demand these answers? Why didn’t the press corps demand to know at the Downing Street briefings (when they finally happened following some chilling predictions of the likely death toll from Imperial College London?)
This delay, secrecy, and obfuscation over starting precautionary measures many weeks after we knew what was happening in mainland Europe is quite bad – lethal – enough. But the scale of the backstage shambles is only now becoming clearer. Dozens of companies have reported offers to make protective clothing and other essential supplies, and are still waiting for a response. One reported that it was exporting all over the world having had no UK government orders. The much promised ramping up of testing is still stuttering – there was a report yesterday of one testing station shutting for lunch (!) whilst others are turning away NHS staff who didn’t have an appointment. If they’re there – just bloody test them!
Testing and contact tracing is utterly crucial as every other stricken country has indicated. Yet Johnson’s deputy chief medical officer said just a fortnight ago that there comes a point in a pandemic “when that is not an appropriate intervention.”
She is pretty well a lone and dangerous opinion in the wider medical community. Yet that view was echoed by her fellow deputy at the beginning of April who called testing “a bit of a side issue.” We need to know – and journalists need to ask – how many scientists and medical researchers agree with these assertions, and on what precise evidence are they based.
Meanwhile the over promising and under delivering continues unabated. Only last week we learn has the UK government gone from every third day to every day dispersal of PPE. The people are the sharp end are being woefully let down.It is tragedy enough that health and social care professionals are facing avoidable risks of death because they are insufficiently protected. It’s beyond offensive that they should be accused of mis-using it (Matt Hancock) or be advised she’s “sorry they feel that way”. (Priti Patel)
Ms Patel has been criticised for being in hiding these last weeks. By far the best place for a woman whose department is still insisting its new immigration policy would exclude the kind of low paid staff who saved her boss’ neck. Because, as we all know, low pay equals low skill. Dear heaven.
Nobody should pretend that everyone needing everything at once is not a logistical nightmare. But neither should we close our eyes to all the many weeks of underplaying the problem and serially ignoring bright, flashing warning lights.
I can see why there is both a financial and political imperative for the Scottish government to maintain a semblance of a united front with team Johnson. But when it comes to matters of life and death, which is where we are right now, I’d like to think devolution of decision making is at the max.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NATIONAL 13.4.20