Even Tory loyalists admit that the UK mortality figures are dire – and the lockdown has caused massive economic dislocation – to be compounded soon by the little matter of the looming no-deal Brexit. But Victor Hill refuses to blame Boris Johnson.
As I write on Wednesday afternoon there have been just over 5 million cases of Covid-19 recorded worldwide and over 325,000 deaths. By way of comparison, tuberculosis killed 1.5 million people in 2018 and malaria another 620,000 – though nearly all of those deaths occurred in Africa and certainly did not get the attention they deserved. What is so different about Covid-19 is that 40 percent of total global fatalities have taken place in just two supposedly first-world countries: the United States and the United Kingdom.
The USA has recorded 1.57 million cases and 93,542 fatalities; while the UK has counted just around 250,000 cases and 35,341 fatalities. America has a population about five times as great as the UK so in the key comparator – deaths per million people – it comes out at 283 as against Britain’s unenviable 521 – which is just below Italy’s horrendous 532. (Italy was the first European country to succumb to the pandemic and had the least time to prepare for it.) Looking at the other G-7 countries, France stands at 429; Canada at 157; and Germany at 98. But Japan, the world’s third largest economy, has recorded only 6 deaths from coronavirus per million citizens.
The question of why Britain has done so badly in the fight against Covid-19 is one that is not going to go away, even after the pandemic is behind us. In fact, it is likely to colour the UK’s politics for some time to come. In the UK’s largely empty and now partially digitised House of Commons, the Prime Minister faces the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition each Wednesday afternoon for questions. Over the last three weeks Sir Keir Starmer, the new Labour leader, has used the occasion forensically to deconstruct the depressing statistics. It has been like watching a serious-minded GCSE biology pupil carefully dissecting a toad under the gaze of a hushed classroom.
Never before has Mr Johnson looked so defensive; and never before has his trademark buoyancy and good humour been so ineffective in maintaining his administration’s reputation. He is constantly now on the back foot – when he appears in public, that is, which is not often. No doubt there will be a £100 million Royal Commission in due course, tasked with the mission to get to the bottom of what happened. But the main failings of the government’s response are already evident.
What went wrong – and why?
There will be a debate about whether the lockdown was called too late – though I don’t think that was the key error. (Certainly, football matches, concerts and the Cheltenham Festival should have been prevented well before 20 March.)
The key error was that the Johnson government, alarmed by the questionable science of the Imperial College (aka Huawei College, London) model, understood the pandemic to be first and foremost an issue about capacity – in particular the capacity of the National Health Service to cope with hospital admissions. This was reinforced by TV images coming from Italy in mid-March of patients unable to get access to treatment, so overwhelmed were hospitals in Lombardy and elsewhere.
Instead of the NHS protecting us, the British people, we were instructed to protect the NHS. Seven massive Nightingale hospitals were rolled out in England – though, in the event, they were not needed as the arc of infection peaked within one month of the lockdown. Now, only one of those Nightingale hospitals is in use (in Manchester) while the others lie idle. But, more consequentially, hospitals were emptied of longer-term patients – nearly all of whom were elderly (so-called bed blockers) – who were placed in care homes. As I explained last week, there is a growing body of evidence that many of those patients contracted Covid-19 in hospital and then spread it to the residents of the care homes they were sent to. (Forty percent of all Covid-19 deaths in the UK have occurred in care homes). There are even claims by Care England that NHS personnel knew that people were infected but packed them off anyway. That should most certainly be investigated further. There was never a protective ring put around care homes, Mr Hancock.
Again, back in late March and even early April the talk was about how we could get a sufficient number of ventilators into our hospitals. Some readers will recall that Sir James Dyson was going to apply vacuum cleaner technology to the production of ventilators; and then thousands of these devices were shipped in from China. As it turned out there was never a shortage of ventilators, which, by the way, are only required for those who have the most extreme forms of respiratory failure and who have a relatively small chance of survival. (They also do lasting damage and are absolutely a last resort.)
Then there was the decision by Public Health England (PHE) to discontinue random testing for Covid-19 around 12 March and to restrict testing to hospital admissions. Before we go any further, readers are entitled to ask the question: What the Hell is PHE? In England we have the Department of Health and Social Care, headquartered in Whitehall, under Mr Hancock; and we have NHS England under Sir Simon Stevens. In the devolved nations we have NHS Scotland, NHS Wales and Health & Social Care Northern Ireland, each of which is accountable to their respective parliaments.
Public Health England, created by Mr Cameron’s government in 2013, is what Whitehall hacks call an arms-length body – meaning that while the Secretary of State for Health can remove its chairperson, he/she cannot tell it what to do on a day-to-day basis. Its mission is “to protect and improve the nation’s health and to address inequalities” and it employs 5,000 staffers to these ends. Readers will be forgiven for never having heard of its CEO, Duncan Selbie.
For most of its existence PHE has campaigned around issues such as childhood obesity and sugar taxes – and did little harm, even if it occasionally irritated people (myself included). But I certainly didn’t know that it was responsible for viral testing – and I doubt if Mr Johnson knew that either, back in March. The problem here is that for many years politicians, when confronted with issues that they do not understand, create quangos (parastatals if you are American) in an exhibition of virtue-signalling. And yet these weird agencies, because they have to justify their existences (and their substantial budgets), always yield unforeseen consequences. If Mr Johnson wants to send a signal that his government shows remorse he should abolish PHE at the earliest opportunity and send Mr Selbie and his expensive minions packing.
Then there is SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Committee on Emergencies) which, as I shared last week, is entirely lacking in transparency. The government “follows the science” – but the science is secret – like a magic spell in Harry Potter. And last but not least – there is the Cabinet Office: largely a civil service fiefdom presided over by arch-Remainer Sir Mark Sedwill, which has a license to interfere in any department of state for whatever reason. These were the manic Lilliputians who tethered poor Mrs May’s Gulliver in twine during the first two years of the Brexit negotiations. Sir Mark, by the way, moonlights as the PM’s National Security Advisor. And yet he rubber-stamped Mr Johnson’s appalling decision on Huawei.
It is difficult to say whose responsibility it is that fewer than 300 people out of the 18.1 million who entered the UK in the three months prior to the coronavirus lockdown were formally quarantined. The UK borders were never closed as they were in virtually every other country. (New Zealand has not yet even re-opened the air border with Australia.) Even now, air travellers arriving at Heathrow and Gatwick are not systematically temperature-checked.
The record on personal protective equipment (PPE) for clinicians and carers is also pitiful. The spectacle of an RAF transporter being messed around at Istanbul Airport – only to be loaded up with garments that were sub-standard and then binned in the UK – was appalling. Will anyone be shot for that? I doubt it. Fiasco goes unpunished in the British state.
Then there is the matter of devolution. What is clear about Ms Sturgeon’s antics is that the SNP regard the coronavirus pandemic as a God-sent opportunity to create difference between Scotland and England – whether scientifically based or not. In fact, the entire devolution project has been one of artificially creating difference between the nations of the United Kingdom where there was none before and none necessary. Ms Sturgeon will oppose all efforts to loosen the national lockdown on the grounds that conditions in Scotland are “different”. But then she and her administration don’t have to pay the economic consequences of the lockdown. That is Whitehall’s job – despite crippled government finances now in prospect for a generation. This issue of the devolved governments’ power without responsibility must be addressed.
It’s not all down to the venality of politicians – I doubt that Corbyn & Co. would have done better than Johnson & Partners. This emergency has taught us that the organism of British government itself needs open heart surgery in order to unlock the nation’s potential – much more than it needs HS2, or even a third runway for a now tranquil Heathrow Airport.
But is Mr Johnson a skilled surgeon?
Brexit is back!
The British economy will contract by about 14 percent this year according to the Bank of England – the worst recession, we are told, since 1709. The UK government is currently paying the wages of 7.5 million private sector workers. It could be running a fiscal deficit of £350 billion this year…Government finances are unlikely ever to recover in my lifetime.
As if that was not dramatic enough we now face the possibility – nay, probability – of a no-deal Brexit. The talks between the EU and the UK have now, it seems, run into the sand – mostly due to the intransigence of the Europeans, in my view. That means that we shall start trading with the EU on 01 January 2021 on WTO terms – with border checks and tariffs and so forth.
Remain-inclined politicians will hail this as a double catastrophe. But there is another way to look at this. The falling-off-a-cliff Brexit has already happened. Even Phil Hogan, the EU’s trade commissioner, has argued that the pandemic gives Britain the perfect cover for a hard Brexit. The shock waves of the WTO regime will be as little compared to the reverberations from the pandemic-induced recession. In any case, the entire structure of world trade is about to be reformed as countries route their supply chains (especially medical supplies) away from China. I’ll explain shortly why a no-deal Brexit might even give the UK more latitude to survive and prosper in the post-pandemic world.
We don’t want to go out – we want to live in lockdown forever…
The British have embraced isolation with unexpected alacrity – perhaps this was the spiritual retreat that many of us had promised ourselves, and postponed for so long. A chance to read The Upanishads; or Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet; or Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua…Or just to watch Netflix.
Millions of people have been so scared by the pandemic that they will never want to go out again – let alone ever work again. And in that psychosis they are now aided and abetted by most of the British Left – Labour, the SNP, the Greens, the trades unions and all those whose only common purpose is that everyone should now get a Universal Basic Income and that working for a living should be optional.
The lockdowns will not be lifted completely until the mechanics of the test, tack and trace strategy are in place. The government is still trialling the NHS Digital app on the Isle of Wight. There have been teething problems – which I shall examine soon. We are promised a national roll-out in early June. We shall see.
But I’m afraid that there is no guarantee that we shall have a universally available vaccine within 18 months (or whatever is the latest guestimate). The PM admitted as much last week in the Mail on Sunday. The assumption that there is always a medical solution to a medical problem is misplaced. We have to get back to work. And our children have to go back to school, for fear of terrible disadvantage in the decades to come. We have to find ways to live with adversity – as previous generations have.
I agree: the challenge is sobering.
I hear that Chairman Jim of this parish has donated £1 million to Oriel College, Oxford (his alma mater – just on the other side of Oriel Square from mine). The money is to fund research on health resilience in the elderly and will contribute to the work of, amongst others, Professor Lynne Cox. She is leading research into how to reduce the frailty we associate with old age. Why do cells decay? And can we switch off those cellular clocks?
I had the privilege of meeting Professor Cox at one of our Master Investor Longevity events the year before last, held at the Wellcome Institute in London. (As a matter of fact, I was the Chair.) Having coffee with Professor Cox, I formed the view that she is that extraordinarily rare thing: someone who is both humble and authoritative. Watching her lecture (on telomeres) I realised that this is a scientist at the forefront of her field who is also an amazing communicator. She even managed to persuade a non-biologist like me that I understood what it was all about.
When we rightly applaud doctors, nurses and carers on Thursday evenings we should also applaud our world-class medical scientists – and those who fund them.
The news from deep Norfolk. The fish and chip shop has re-opened. One customer at a time, we were forewarned. Yesterday, there was an orderly, socially-distanced queue outside at supper time. And the garden centre in the forest has re-opened too. Baby steps? We bought a mulberry tree there to plant in our herb garden. The vicar is broadcasting her services regularly on Zoom. But things will not be remotely normal until both the church and the pub re-open. How I long for that day.