“What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could.”
It was a bumbled, throwaway line from Boris Johnson during a Downing Street press briefing in January. Yet it struck me at the time, because it was so discordant with reality: close to a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK was in the midst of a third national lockdown. It had ended 2020 with one of the worst death tolls in Europe and the sharpest contraction in GDP of any G7 country. The prime minister’s suggestion that nothing more could have been done at government level to prevent the scale of the UK’s economic and public health catastrophe was far from accurate, as Australia and other countries have demonstrated.
One day, there must be a public inquiry to determine why we fared so badly, with the exception of a successful vaccine rollout. At that inquiry, Johnson will likely defend his government’s performance along familiar lines: “It was an unprecedented crisis; we were following the science; our opponents criticise us in hindsight, using their ‘retrospectoscopes’, but all they ever wanted was Lockdown ad infinitum.”
Disproportionate emphasis will be placed on Britain’s ageing population, its obesity and population density levels, as well as other non-governmental factors, to explain the UK’s high death toll. But these factors, important though they are, are incomparable to the consequences of government dithering and the early emphasis on ‘herd immunity.’
Kudos then to the Sunday Times’ top investigative duo, Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott, who set the record straight early-on with Failures of State. Their book offers an insider’s account of the extraordinary (in)decision-making among Johnson’s team during the most tumultuous year in modern British history. Its central thesis, that “Johnson’s decisions ‒ in particular the delays to the lockdowns ‒ had a cataclysmic impact on his country,’” is equal parts damning and convincing. The book is meticulously researched, and the authors’ conclusions are corroborated by hundreds of interviews with scientists, academics, doctors, paramedics, bereaved families, care home workers, emergency planners, Downing Street whistleblowers and politicians.
Failures of State does not pull its punches. Over 400 pages, Calvert and Arbuthnott detail the many opportunities in which the UK’s fate could have been avoided, if only a different path had been taken. Some of these missed opportunities were outside the Prime Minister’s remit or predated his premiership. The book opens with an investigation into the origins of SARS-Cov-2, raising serious questions of the Chinese regime. There is mention of the UK government’s 2016 simulation of a pandemic outbreak, named Exercise Cygnus. The rehearsal exposed Britain’s ill-preparedness for the extreme demands of a pandemic, yet little was done. No-deal Brexit preparations “[sucked] all the blood out of pandemic planning,” a Downing Street adviser says. “There should have been a constant watching brief that would have filtered down. But it just fell off.”
At the start of 2020, though, the ball was firmly in Johnson’s court. Covid-19 was ravaging China, then mainland Europe, but as Calvert and Arbuthnott make clear, there was a lack of urgency in Downing Street. PPE was donated to China, weeks before shortages began at home. Johnson missed five consecutive Cobra emergency meetings in January and February, prioritising a photo-op with the Chinese ambassador and, on another occasion, a Tory party fundraiser.
The authors lay bare the failings of decisions that were taken, Eat Out to Help Out being one of them
Enthusiasm for action was there around the cabinet table ‒ Priti Patel wanted the borders closed last March ‒ but this was dampened by Johnson, torn as he was between libertarian ideology and scientific reality. As Calvert and Arbuthnott detail, at various stages this internal struggle would paralyse the Government’s response ‒ with devastating consequences.
The authors lay bare the failings of decisions that were taken, Eat Out to Help Out being one of them. The Chancellor’s costly taxpayer-funded initiative was found to have increased Covid-19 cases between 8 per cent to 17 per cent according to Warwick University researchers, contributing to the start of the second wave. “It just seemed insane,” a Sage source sighs. Quite. It makes for excruciating reading, particularly as such an outcome seemed likely at the time.
Though many of the titular ‘failures’ will be familiar to readers, it is worth having them all pieced together in one volume. The cumulative effect on the reader is powerful. The writing is clinical, the analysis underpinned by facts. The book never strays into polemical territory. That is wise of the authors: let the evidence speak for itself.
It isn’t conclusive. There is no mention of the Prime Minister’s reported “let the bodies pile high” remark, nor does it include allegations of sleaze that emerged after the book’s publication. Whether it can therefore claim to offer the definitive ‘inside story’ is questionable, but as a first draft of history it is a solid attempt.
The whole story will have to come out, though. Failures of State makes an overwhelming case for a fully independent public inquiry into the Government’s handling of Covid-19. Answers are owed of bereaved families, and of those that have lost livelihoods. With Failures of State, Calvert and Arbuthnott anticipate and destroy the likely “not me, guv” defence of Johnson. It is a brilliant and important piece of journalism, and ought to be read widely.
We truly did everything we could? The evidence says otherwise.
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