How readers helped the Guardian cover the coronavirus pandemic

It is hard to remember exactly when the penny dropped, when we realised the story we were attempting to cover was not only the story of our lives, but would change all of our lives.

We had started writing about coronavirus at the turn of the year. A scientific curiosity, it seemed, without a name. By the third week of January, our reporters in the region were describing the first “human to human” transmissions.

And then, from the Guardian’s headquarters in London, we watched Covid-19’s inexorable and frightening spread through China and beyond, an unstoppable wave gathering strength and speed.

Work at the Guardian began to change. The international editor, Jamie Wilson, briefed every day by his correspondents in Asia, was ahead of us all, though it seemed a bit over the top when he glued a large bottle of hand sanitiser to his desk and suggested news meetings be held in bigger rooms to make social distancing easier.

He was right, though. We quickly moved to make our newsroom as safe as possible, the vast majority of our journalists heading home to work remotely. And then we set about the kind of work that we knew would be vital in a health crisis like this: hold power to account and publicise errors that might cost lives.

We know that many digital and newspaper readers give us money in the form of subscriptions and contributions for this very reason: to dedicate resources to investigative journalism that digs out mistakes, muddle and malfeasance, and helps us to correct our course.

Our reporters – and our readers – very quickly became aware of all three in the official response to the coronavirus. Sources and members of the public told us in real time of the panic on the frontline in hospitals, the spiralling deaths in care homes; and they have been quick to highlight the inconsistencies, inadequacies and apparent hypocrisies of ministers and their advisers.

Often we have used first-person pieces from people who have contacted us, as we did in the middle of March when a doctor spoke to our health correspondent Denis Campbell and described working on a “red zone” coronavirus ward.

“I am terrified,” he said. “I’m seriously considering whether I can keep working as a doctor.”

Photograph looking across rows of empty desks with computers under strip lights in the Guardian newsroom
The Guardian newsroom in March, soon after lockdown was introduced. It remains mostly empty. Photograph: Mark Rice-Oxley/The Guardian

At the time, there was confusion over personal protective equipment (PPE) – what should doctors and nurses be wearing?

And we were hearing disturbing accounts that suggested the country was running out of the masks, gowns and goggles that would help to keep our medics safe.

It was, and some of the reasons why were revealed in our reports about the management of the PPE emergency stockpile, which doesn’t appear to have been nearly as comprehensive as it should have been.

And it wasn’t as if our emergency planners in Whitehall hadn’t seen this coming. They had, and they had been warning ministers about the measures that needed to be taken for a decade.

It has been the human stories that have resonated, however.

The figures and graphs presented at the daily Downing Street press conferences showed the cold reality of rising death rates and infections, but the tragedy of what was happening in the UK’s care homes came from intimate descriptions such as the one from Julie Roche, who runs a home in Buckinghamshire. She told our reporter Robert Booth about a woman trying to say goodbye to her husband. She wasn’t allowed inside to see him, but would wave through a window.

She passed Roche a bottle of her perfume in the hope of making one final connection with her husband. “She asked me to put it under his chin so, hopefully, he could smell it,” Roche said. “They came, said their goodbyes and told him it was OK to go now. I could see it broke his wife’s heart.”

With the UK death toll still rising sharply, there are countless vignettes; some have been captured in our focus on the victims, which could not have been compiled without the help of relatives and friends of those who have died.

One individual story of Covid-19 has earned more media attention than most: Boris Johnson’s svengali, Dominic Cummings.

The Guardian was the first to reveal he was sitting on Sage – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. This disclosure horrified many scientists. Another revelation about him seemed to horrify most of the country.

When our investigation showed Cummings had travelled from London to Durham during lockdown, and then taken a 50-mile round trip to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, only the most slavish of Conservative MPs, and the government’s supporters in Fleet Street, were prepared to defend the indefensible.

The story dogged Cummings all the way to the exit six months later. But it did not come to the Guardian through contacts in Westminster. It came from readers, who told us what they had seen. Some, like the retired chemistry teacher Robin Lees, were brave enough to have their accounts published.

These kinds of revelations are at the heart of what we do. Without the support of newspaper and online readers, we would have fewer resources for the time-consuming, painstaking news journalism that often takes months to get to the front page. If you are a subscriber, a supporter, a newspaper regular or an occasional contributor, you have done your bit to bring these stories to light.

Throughout 2020, Guardian journalists have worked round the clock to dig out the truth about the pandemic. Because good journalism can help save lives. Support independent media. Support the Guardian.


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