Ten days before England locked down too late to prevent tens of thousands of deaths, a senior government official waltzed into No 10 to prophetically declare: “I think we are absolutely fucked. I think this country is heading for a disaster, I think we’re going to kill thousands of people.” In a functioning democracy, you might expect senior journalists briefed by No 10 to have at least questioned what was glaringly obvious to those at the very top – that Britain was disastrously ill-equipped and ill-prepared for a pandemic already sweeping the country.
This did not happen. Instead, government mantras that reflected both Boris Johnson’s denial of the gravity of the crisis and the official lack of preparation were parroted and amplified by senior journalists, and critics were ridiculed. Even as tens of thousands died – “who didn’t need to die”, as Johnson’s former top adviser Dominic Cummings correctly told MPs – as a consequence of the Conservatives’ catastrophic strategy, the official opposition stuck studiously to supporting the government for fear of alienating swing voters. Covid-19 proved a tragic case study in what happens when a national emergency collides with a dysfunctional democracy.
As Johnson apparently dismissed Covid as a new swine flu and repeatedly suggested the chief medical officer inject him with it on national television to prove it was nothing to worry about, the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, took to Twitter to share a video produced by an obscure podiatrist named “footman447”, in which he explained the logic for herd immunity using buckets of water. On social media, Labour’s demands that the government publish its scientific advice were ridiculed by commentators as “hipster analysis”. Critics were denounced for “politicising” Covid. “Firmly and calmly,” gushed one Telegraph editor who later became a government speechwriter, “the UK is leading Europe in the fight against the coronavirus.” This was “Boris Johnson’s Churchill moment”, cooed the Financial Times.
Meanwhile, foreign newspapers stared aghast at a country that appeared to be merrily skipping towards a cliff edge. Nineteen days before lockdown, the New York Times made astute observations about Britain’s looming calamity that were lacking in most of the domestic press, noting a lack of ventilators, “already overflowing” intensive care beds, some health workers buying their own PPE and an austerity-drained NHS. If such questions had been the focus of UK coverage – rather than breathlessly regurgitated No 10 spin in support of the government’s lethal policy of herd immunity – thousands could have been rescued from premature graves.
There have been glaring exceptions – take the Sunday Times’ investigative journalists filleting the Johnson administration’s response, or the BBC’s Lewis Goodall exposing the care home scandal – but Westminster-based lobby journalists all too often saw their role as passing on anonymous briefings from No 10 to suggest there was a method in the government’s madness (as Cummings makes clear, there wasn’t).
Much of Cummings’ testimony already exists in the public domain. He has merely placed it in the context of a Tory psychodrama, allowing him to execute drive-by shootings against favoured targets – not least Matt Hancock – while ludicrously defending Rishi Sunak, who invited lockdown sceptics to Downing Street last September in a successful mission to avert a second national lockdown. For those who treat politics as a soap opera with a less attractive cast, this may quicken the pulse, but it leaves Labour with rather searching questions.
Keir Starmer’s team decided to simply defer to focus groups urging the opposition not to “play politics” with a national emergency. This was quite unlike the Tories’ approach during the financial crash, for example, when they blamed the crisis on Labour’s overspending with such skilful repetition that focus groups soon repeated back these lines verbatim. We already knew herd immunity was official policy; that vulnerable patients were discharged to care homes without a test, allowing the virus to let rip; that lockdown was imposed too late; that handing test and trace to private contractors spelled disaster. England’s pandemic strategy was led by a man who regretted the first lockdown on the grounds that it damaged the economy and thought Covid was a scare story that only killed 80-year-olds (false, in any case).
Yet the Labour leadership declared it would work “constructively” with the government and not be “opposition for opposition’s sake”, even praising aspects of the official response as “an amazing piece of work” a month into lockdown. When one rightwing commentator declared that Starmer’s “definition of opposition is to work out where the Tories are going – and get there first”, he was essentially correct, allowing government attack lines on “Captain Hindsight” to cut through. In January, Labour even took the astonishing position of opposing the shut-down of schools in a new lockdown, only U-turning when it learned the government was imminently going to order it.
As a result, much of the public has concluded that the government was handed a bad set of cards – that sure, they made mistakes, but who wouldn’t in their shoes? – and that Labour would have done little different anyway. Yet Cummings’ testimony underlines a basic truth that would represent Britain’s biggest scandal since appeasement if democracy was working as it should be. Because of Johnson’s incompetence, inhumanity, laziness and hubris, and the entirely avoidable, disastrous decisions made by his team, tens of thousands of people suffered premature and avoidable deaths, without even the comfort of their loved ones to hold their hands in their final moments.
Rather than intensely scrutinising government decisions, many senior political journalists attempted to concoct a rationale for them where none existed. Even as thousands were suffocating in hospitals beds because of disastrous official failings, the opposition threw the government a lifeline by emphasising just how restrained it intended to be. If you are wondering why our governing party has a sustained and apparently unassailable polling lead even after presiding over a death toll more than three times higher than the Luftwaffe achieved in the Blitz, that is why. “Hopefully this is a case study of how to not to handle something like this,” says Cummings; it is also a case study in what happens when national institutions fail in their most basic function of holding the government to account. A healthy democracy is a question of life and death. What a lesson to have to learn at such an unbearable cost.