Things have been changing here on Plague Island recently. It’s not the big changes that we would love to see, such as a decent and compassionate government taking charge, but there are changes nonetheless. The crippling lockdown we have just (re)lived through is incrementally easing and India is now the country leading the news on catastrophic Covid cases and deaths. The mainstream news tells us that we should be shocked by India’s 221,000 deaths so far – and we should indeed be shocked and saddened by this. But we should also remember that their population is about 20x bigger than the UK (most sources agree with this ratio, although there some discrepancies. Regardless, India is a much larger country). Yet, India have not had 20x the deaths we have had here. To date, deaths per million in India is 159; deaths per million in the UK 1,871.
159 v 1,871 (Worldometer). Let that sink in.
Of course, the Indian death rate is accelerating fast, but the phrase, ‘People in glass houses shouldn’t cast stones’ springs to mind.
We’ve been thinking a lot about what’s happened over the course of the past year, and indeed some of the time before. This disaster didn’t just happen in a vacuum and as much as we despise Johnson, he isn’t solely responsible for what has happened. We have been researching and looking at the situation that led to our ill-prepared Covid response in more detail than we have talked about in previous notes.
What we have found goes even further back than Exercise Cygnus in 2016. What we expected to find was a catalogue of incompetence. What we actually found was systematic negligence and ideological decisions: things worse than we’d ever expected.
Before the Pandemic, There Was Planning
(We have taken some information contained below from the book Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus. It is well worth a read).
Code name: Winter Willow is where we will start, in 2007. The then Labour government bought together around 5,000 people from across the NHS/emergency services and local officials to assimilate be a moderate pandemic scenario for a flu-type outbreak.
After the rehearsal, the government published its risk assessment of the devastation a similar pandemic could cause in real life. They found that the death toll could be anywhere ranging from 50,000 – 750,000. The findings added:
‘Normal life is likely to face wider social and economic disruption, significant threats to the continuity of essential services, lower production levels, shortages and distribution difficulties.’
Sounds familiar to 2020, doesn’t it?
The government at that time was led by Gordon Brown. Previously, we had underestimated Brown as a PM: he had been intrinsically linked with Tony Blair and the disastrous Iraq War, and he was the architect of economic policies that led to the financial crash in 2008. So, whilst our sympathies might not be greatly deserved, credit should be given here because the Brown administration took the findings of Winter Willow very seriously.
The UK had suffered an outbreak of Swine Flu in 2009, which must have also contributed to the seriousness with which Brown and his cabinet took the threat of a public health emergency. By 2010, around £500 million had been spent on PPE and the UK had detailed pandemic plans in place:
‘Every minster was briefed on it and trained on it and educated that a pandemic was our top national risk, and that meant something.’ – Downing Street advisor.
Sadly however, it didn’t mean enough to the Cameron administration who won the 2010 election. The economic policy of austerity came into force, paring back on everything deemed to be non-essential, and investment in emergency stockpiles of PPE and ventilators began to be reduced. There had even been plans to introduce mobile phone alert systems prior to the Tories victory, but these were put on hold (i.e. scrapped) in 2014 by the Tories.
Then followed Exercise Cygnus in October 2016, which was another pandemic preparedness exercise conducted by Public Health England and included 950 officials who modelled what would likely happen if a severe flu pandemic hit the UK. The findings were severe, as Exercise Cygnus concluded that the UK was not at all ready to face a severe flu outbreak.
‘We’ve just had in the UK a three-day exercise on flu, on a pandemic that killed a lot of people. It became clear that we could not cope with the excess bodies, for instance. It becomes very worrying about the deaths, and what that will do to society as you start to get all those deaths, [including] the economic impact.’ – Dame Sally Davis, Chief Medical Officer in 2016.
Cygnus revealed that the UK neither had enough ventilators nor PPE. In the event, we would have to acquire the materials somehow as soon as the proverbial storm was on the horizon. Cygnus’ findings recommended that ‘urgent and drastic improvements’ (Failures) needed to be made in the NHS; it was recommended that the government needed to set money aside for this purpose.
The government set no such money aside.
It was predicted that money was particularly needed for the social care sector. Cygnus demonstrated that care homes would be unable to cope with the large numbers of infected elderly people sent back there in order to free-up hospital beds. Tragically, this prediction transpired in 2020.
It’s almost like someone had a crystal ball, isn’t it?
And Then the Planning Was Gone
The stockpiles of ventilators, PPE, etc, that had been abundant just a decade earlier was decaying by 2020. What the government should have been doing was replenishing ageing and outdated equipment; this didn’t necessarily mean disposing of equipment nearing its use-by date – that should have been sent to the NHS, who use this equipment quickly and regularly. Instead, the Tories left the stockpile to rot. More the 200 million crucial items expired in the months leading up to Covid-19 hitting our shores, including 20 million respirators (nearly 80% of our total stockpiled respirators).
Rather than updating the stockpiles, the bastards just put new stickers on with an updated expiry date. The government said they had carried out risk assessments to say that this was okay, but many of the suppliers of this equipment questioned the wisdom and safety of using equipment beyond its expiry date.
Rubber seals around the noses of respirators diminish; straps that hold them to the face weaken over time.
To be clear, we are not talking about things that are ‘just’ out of date: respirators acquired in 2009, with an expiry date of 2012, were re-labelled with an expiry date of 2016. When 2016 arrived, they were re-labelled again with 2020.
Were the Conservatives so arrogant to think that we were immune to a pandemic? Was it that sense of good old English exceptionalism (the kind of thinking that outbreaks happen in other places, but not here) striking again? Perhaps the threat of terrorism had overtaken the threat of a pathogen in the minds of ministers – who knows? We can’t help but feel that it was just a case of cold fiscal management and complacency that allowed our precious pandemic stockpile to disappear in the decade from 2010-2020.
And Then It Came
Cameron resigned in 2016 because of the outcome of the Brexit Referendum. Theresa May followed for a relatively brief and ineffective tenure and resigned in 2019 also because of Brexit. Boris Johnson became PM in July 2019; there was a General Election in December of that year which served him with a significant win, largely due to Brexit. He promised to ‘Get Brexit Done’ and many people fell for it.
We were doomed from the beginning with him. An Eton Old Boy: entitled and workshy with a track record of lying and philandering. In the early weeks of his Premiership, there was significant flooding in parts of The Midlands as the River Severn burst its banks. People were in a desperate situation with some becoming homeless. Johnson said he didn’t visit because he didn’t want to get in the way of the rescue operation. The truth was that he was on a ‘working holiday’ with his latest (pregnant) mistress and he didn’t want to be disturbed.
And then Covid came knocking. We heard it first from afar in Wuhan, but then the knocks became louder once it was in Puglia, Italy. We had urgent warnings from our Italian friends: they tried emphatically to warn all of Europe to take steps to prepare because It. Was. Coming.
Some countries wisely heeded those warnings. The UK did not. Our government downplayed the very real threat of this disease which was overwhelming the very capable Italian healthcare system. Our Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, was confident about our pandemic preparedness – did he not read the findings of Winter Willow and Exercise Cygnus? (I know the findings of Exercise Cygnus have never been made public (only leaked) but surely, he would have had a peek?)
In February 2020, the UK government were claiming that Covid-19 was only a moderate threat. By February 12th, Johnson had missed four COBRA meetings (he would go on to miss one more) because he was so wrapped up in his complex and lurid private life instead. We were beginning to get cases appear, but they were minimised, as were the infection rates. We were encouraged to just wash our hands whilst singing ‘Happy Birthday’ – how insane does that sound now? (It sounded pretty crazy to us at the time, in fairness). The Cheltenham Cup – which draws crowds of thousands – went ahead, as did the Champions League match between Liverpool and Atlético Madrid.
We watched as one death turned into 5, then 20, then 50, then 100, and so on. We watched on the television on the evening when Boris Johnson told us that many of us were going to lose loved ones before their time.
There was no way of truly counting infection rates as we had no track and trace. We had 300 contact tracers for the whole country: it was predicted that 300 were needed for a city the size of Bristol alone. We had no chance against this virus at the beginning.
The government knew that we had got nothing to fight this virus with. They knew the risks identified in the previous TWO pandemic preparedness exercises and did fuck all about it. They let it happen; they let it rip because they were more scared of the exposure of the damage that their underfunding had done to our healthcare provisions and NHS. Covid-19 did not sneak up on us – our government let it in through the front door and offered it a nice cup of tea and a biscuit. They then pretended that they did not know who it was or where it came from, and that they were as surprised as us.
So, when our government tells us that, ‘No-one could have planned for it’, this is simply another lie, because there was once a time when previous governments had planned for it. And then there was the time when these Tory charlatans took the decision to stop planning. They just didn’t care enough about it.
The damaging effects of this pandemic has been amplified by a crippled NHS system – which whilst still performs miracles every day, and full credit to the NHS who do this despite the government – it has been crippled for ideological reasons. That ideology has played its part in our horrendous Covid death toll. This isn’t just about getting rid of Boris Johnson: this is about getting the Tories out of power, because whilst their ideologies exist, the risks remain.
~ L&A 3.5.21 ~
Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott, Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus, (Mudlark), 2021