Dr John Ashton, a former director of public health, provides his take on where the web of deceit being spun at the very heart of Government is going to lead us all.
The publication of a Sunday Times investigation into the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic – and the lengthy rebuttal from the Department of Health and Social Care press team – has begun to flush out the dreadful truths of this crisis and provides indications as to the line that will be taken when it comes to the public inquiry that must follow.
The charges are serious. They are that the Government ignored warnings from scientists and lost five weeks in the fight to tackle the Coronavirus whilst being in a perilously poor state of preparedness for a pandemic. That key parts of the pandemic plan were not implemented, and that training for such an event had been neglected, along with the stockpiling of crucial supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).
However, at the heart of the failure to respond effectively, was the Prime Minister. According to the Sunday Times investigation, Boris Johnson did not attend the first five meetings of the emergency committee COBRA and spent 12 days during this time on a working holiday at a mansion in Kent.
The Government’s response to the investigation, published within hours, is remarkable – not only in its hasty and panicked manner but also in its clumsy, tin-eared and arrogant example of this niche art form. That it lacks the feel of a trained Civil Service pen is apparent and its authorship can only be speculated on.
With its sloppy drafting and lack of properly gathered evidence, it falls back on the flannel of assertion that has become so familiar in the Government’s daily Downing Street press briefings: that it has been “guided by the best scientific evidence”, that “the NHS has been given all the support it needs”, that “the Prime Minister has been at the helm… providing leadership”, that “it is entirely normal and proper for COBRA to be chaired by the relevant Secretary of State”, that “the suggestion that the Government’s attitude was nonchalant is wrong”.
These are indicative of an attempt to drag a trail of mud and confusion over serious allegations and to distract attention from the failure of the Prime Minister, his colleagues and advisors to get a grip early on and prevent thousands of unnecessary deaths.
What a Tangled Web We Weave When First We Practice to Deceive
As somebody who has been trying to draw attention to the impending catastrophe since my first interview on Sky News on 23 January, it gives me absolutely no pleasure to have been proved right by subsequent events.
Having been patronised on BBC Question Time on 12 March by the Government’s Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Steve Barclay, and ridiculed by political supporters of the Government in the face of my attempts to get it to take the crisis seriously only reinforces for me the conclusion that the Sunday Times investigation was spot on. We must all grieve for the victims of the abdication of leadership in the face of emergency.
Having been involved professionally in many serious incidents and emergencies as a director of public health, I am not naive about the reality of these events. It is impossible to get everything right and a degree of chaos is inevitable in the early hours and days. However, from Hillsborough to Grenfell, we have learned that transparency, openness and the complete sharing of information is paramount to minimising harm and the long-term tail of distress and damage when such tragedies occur. Putting your hands up and admitting when you have got it wrong is the only way to get it right. When being economic with the truth begins to shade into outright lies, we are on the road to hell.
What we have witnessed over the past two months has been the shameful co-option of professional expertise in the cause of political laundry. Press conferences have become stage managed political events, at which important questions are never adequately addressed and the public is short-changed on the truth. Claims of future success are offered in place of current delivery whilst the deaths, misery and anxiety continue. The true toll of the Coronavirus deaths in the community, in care homes and in prisons is being hidden behind a mask of waffle and incompetence.
The public deserves better and the victims will deserve truth and justice when the time comes. You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Dr John Ashton is a leading international authority on public health and a member of the Crown Prince of Bahrain’s Corona Task Force.