Johnson and the British state have failed the test of Covid
Hello, I’m James Harding. I’m the editor and co-founder of Tortoise. And this is the last Editor’s Voicemail of the year, of 2020. And the conclusions, at least as I see them, of Tortoise’s Covid Inquiry.
It’s easy to be wise after the event. Not this one. This event – the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 – keeps mutating and it’s certainly not over yet.
It’s tempting to blame people for a cruel act of nature. But let’s remember, it’s the virus that is killing people and ruining lives.
And in a year of fear, grief and frustration, it’s natural to lose sight of the fact that so many people have responded with patience, ingenuity and love.
But the year has been as much one of anger as loss. There has been the sense that the UK failed itself; that, in the Darwinian contest of nations, the country has proved far from the fittest.
The Tortoise Covid Inquiry – months of data and information gathering and three days of hearing the evidence – finds that those feelings are rooted in fact.
Did it have to be this bad? No. Did it have to be so much worse for some people than others? No. Did hopes have to be raised only to be dashed? No.
More than 70,000 people in the UK have, to use Boris Johnson’s own phrase, died before their time in 2020. The UK’s excess death rate was the worst of 23 countries in Europe in the first wave of the pandemic. And the spike in excess deaths itself wasn’t inevitable: countries like Norway, Denmark and Austria have proved that. Cumulative excess deaths per 100,000 people are higher in the UK than in the United States. True enough, the UK’s excess death rate is not much worse than in France, Italy or Spain, but the UK had prided itself on its preparedness: it considered itself at the top of the class for pandemics, yet it ends the year at the bottom.
The UK’s economy has been the worst afflicted, too. But the headline 11 per cent fall in GDP that’s forecast for the year is going to hit some much worse than others. Britain’s inequality problem has taken a vicious turn in 2020: on livelihoods (nearly a third of lower-paid employees lost their jobs or were put on furlough, compared with one in ten higher earners) and on lives (consider: black people have been three times more likely to die than white people; people with learning disabilities four times more likely than those without them).
And the government’s pattern of overpromising and under-delivering was exemplified, but not confined, to the Test and Trace programme: £22bn spent; two out of three people contacted; somewhere between 14 per cent and 38 per cent of people notified within 24 hours in October and November; and inadequate compensation and patchy enforcement has meant that, even when the testing and tracing has happened, some people self-isolated – but many didn’t.
This was not all Boris Johnson’s fault. The government’s on-again, off-again relationship with experts was ill-served by SAGE, which was unnecessarily secretive, insufficiently independent and evidently inexperienced in communicating what it knew, what it didn’t, and where there was disagreement. Economists and social services have not had a seat at the same table to weigh in with their advice. The UK government has seemed incurious about learning real-time lessons from other countries, particularly in Asia.
And this is no time for taboos even in questioning the National Health Service. The efficacy of treatments varied hugely from hospital to hospital. The second-class treatment of social care – both the people receiving it and giving it – has been shameful; worse because politicians have talked about it and done nothing for years. The government scramble in response to the virus was understandable, but the hurried handout of PPE contracts, Eat Out to Help Out, Bounce Back Loans, and Test and Trace consulting deals… it’s been wasteful and, in the absence of penalties for failure to deliver or abuse of public money, it’s been irresponsible.
Still, Britain’s performance has been a measure of Boris Johnson’s failure of leadership. The year has been marked by: his absence on the job in February when the country lost its head-start on Italy; his indecision in Downing Street in March; his divisive choice of people – not a government of national unity or even, for that matter, Conservative unity, but a faction of his own party; his sickness in April, which lasted longer than he admitted, and which was bad luck for him, bad luck for the others who also fell ill in what became known as the “plague pit” of Number 10, and bad luck for all of us, as it exposed the shortage of managerial experience at the heart of government and left the country politically leaderless in his convalescence.
All that before the end of the spring. And then, over the summer, an excess of hopefulness on exams and restarting universities. And, again and again, this optimism bias, most recently in the autumn, as Johnson wished away the second wave in the hope that the economy would have time to recover. To be sure, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has also allowed hope to get the better of his judgment. His interventions have consistently been too little, too late and too short-term; he’s had to come back a week later to top them up; and he bears a good deal of responsibility for the delay to the second lockdown this autumn.
Johnson, as a personality, is well known to all of us. His mischievous optimism led to a landslide election victory just a year ago. His fabulous felicity with language, his gift of good cheer and his tactical instincts are formidable qualities in a leader. But they were unhelpful in a pandemic. It was meticulous organisation, cautious forward-planning and strategic thinking that were needed.
You find out who you are in a crisis and so the country discovered – and, quite possibly, Johnson learned too – the essential characteristic of Johnsonism. His main organising idea, it turns out, is the nation. It has offered little remedy, though, for a pandemic that operates globally and is experienced locally. It has not helped much to talk of stamping the Union Jack on boxes of British-made vaccines, or to trumpet British efforts to build ventilators and develop new testing technologies, or to make Blitz-spirit appeals to British character to defeat the “invisible enemy”. The virus has demonstrated the need for global coordination on everything from supply chains to travel rules to vaccine distribution. And, at the same time, it has made plain the need for a smarter form of localism: the transfer of data to those who actually operate public services in an emergency, and the financial decision-making to those best placed to help local businesses recover.
There is now a changing of the guard in Downing Street. The communications operation has been stuck in campaign mode, veering from sloganeering to waffle. It needs maturity, clarity and empathy. And, across the government, there is a recognition that it’s time to manage expectations and to start engaging openly in the forward planning that would enable people and businesses to look beyond the week to week. The prime minister needs some new people and he knows it.
This year has revealed more than it has changed. The generation gap. The power gap between the centre and the regions. The global gap between East and West. The economic gap and the prospect of worsening inequality in a K-shaped recovery – i.e. one that lifts some and sinks others. And, of course, an ideological gap at the heart of the UK government, a gap between the levelling-up agenda and the dreams of the Brexiteers.
Because this is where the politics of Brexit meet the pandemic government. The promise of Britain’s departure from the European Union was not just the idea of political sovereignty, but a new economic model of regulatory freedom and strategic investment that would foster a more competitive, prosperous country. The pandemic, meanwhile, has highlighted the state of the country as it is now. It’s shown the need to spend to address the unfairness of life chances, the lack of resilience in public services, the overstretched local governments – and all of that now blanketed by debt.
Johnson faces a choice. A deregulated, small-state, free enterprise nation. Or reinvestment in public services, skills and infrastructure, and more devolution. Less spending or more. Less government or more. Johnson’s most famous joke is being in favour of having cake and eating it. It’s funny because we all know that you can’t have both.
The question that had its origins in a wet market in Wuhan is now this: what kind of country will Britain be?
Thank you for taking the time to listen today and through the course of this year. Thanks for your support of Tortoise in undertaking things like the Covid Inquiry: we know that we couldn’t do it without your membership. And I hope that whatever you’ve been doing this year, you’re going to get the chance not to do it, to get a break from it, look up and look around, and return to 2021 a little renewed. I’m going to try to do the same – and I look forward to seeing you at our ThinkIns and hearing from you in our journalism then.