Today
Sun 24 January 2021

Stephen Colegrave tracks how Boris Johnson’s administration created the conditions for the worst public health disaster in living memory

This year has been the setting of a health event without precedent in living memory. In the UK alone, ‘excess deaths’ during the Coronavirus pandemic have exceeded 80,000.

Never has it been more essential for a Government to show strong leadership, utilising scientific advice and engendering trust among the public. But, from the very beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in the UK, Byline Times found that all of these features of good governance were lacking.

It quickly became apparent that the failures and the lies of Boris Johnson’s Government were just as unprecedented as the pandemic itself.

The first failing came in the Government’s prevarication and delay in introducing a lockdown, which didn’t occur until 23 March – when the number of COVID-19 cases were already rising exponentially each day. Indeed, the evidence from abroad and at home indicated that a lockdown should have been implemented weeks before. It soon became clear that the indecision had been fuelled by a mistaken, dangerous investment in the idea of ‘herd immunity’ during the initial weeks of the crisis – wasting critical time.

As Byline Times reported in July, the Prime Minister attended his first COBR meeting on the virus on 2 March, where he was told that there were already 11,000 COVID-19 infections in the UK. Imperial College models forecast 250,000 deaths would occur without an immediate and severe lockdown. Johnson ignored this for three weeks.

Contrary to his later protestations, the reason for this delay was the Government’s flirtation with the idea of herd immunity – allowing the virus to pass through the population, supposedly building up immunity, while shielding the vulnerable. On 13 March, the Government’s Chief Scientific Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the Government’s approach to tackling COVID-19 had the benefit of creating herd immunity across the UK.

Early on in the first lockdown, Byline Times began publishing analysis from former regional director of public health, Professor John Ashton. On 3 April, he predicted that allowing large public events in March – namely the Champions League game between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, and the Cheltenham horseracing festival – would later push up deaths from 3,000 to more than 10,000. He reminded us that behind every one of these statistics was a real person and a grieving family. 

Unfortunately, Ashton’s foresight was accurate. Statisticians have argued that, if the Government had instituted lockdown measures just seven days earlier, as many as 27,000 deaths could have been avoided.

One of the most tragic and unforgivable failures was the Government’s lack of protection for care home residents.

In late February, Public Health England (PHE) guidance said that it was “very unlikely” that care homes would suffer widespread infections – guidance it didn’t withdraw until 12 March. Until 2 April, negative tests weren’t required before hospital discharges into care homes – and not until 3 May did the Government launch a national delivery system for personal protective equipment (PPE), which wasn’t operational until June.

Many of the Government’s failings have stemmed from departure from its own dogma – in particular its repeated claim to be ‘following the scienc’. In April, Byline Times’ Secret Scientist explained how Johnson and his team had not followed the science, in part due to the make-up of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), packed with modellers rather than public health professionals.

The real-world consequences of the Government’s failures – masked by mendacity – were soon felt by healthcare staff. Left in the lurch by a lack of testing capacity and adequate PPE, Byline Times soon reported that the UK was on track to suffer the highest number of healthcare worker deaths in Europe. By the time our predictions were updated on 19 May, the UK had overtaken Italy, confirming its criminal neglect of frontline workers.

Meanwhile, Byline Times began reporting in earnest about the billions of pounds awarded in PPE deals to firms with questionable backgrounds – including several with direct links to the Conservative Party.

As the deaths mounted, so did the evidence that people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds were more likely to suffer and die from COVID-19 – a trend that was also seen amongst health workers. Two frontline NHS doctors, Dr Meenal Viz and Dr Nishant Joshi, subsequently wrote a heartfelt article in June about the need to stamp-out the structural racism at the heart of British institutions to prevent any more unnecessary deaths.

Although young people are much less at risk from the serious physical consequences of COVID-19, they were also suffering the effects of poor mental health. In early May, Byline Times called for a concerted effort to deal with this crisis, and compared it to the Government’s botched care home policy.


Mendacity and Mutations

This litany of failures was not accompanied by humility and sorrow on the part of the Government, however. Ministers, led by Boris Johnson himself, contorted and lied in order to shed blame for the country’s “world-beating” public health disaster.

As the Coronavirus pandemic took hold, inequalities further widened and, despite Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s assertion that “we are all in it together”, Byline Times found that the evidence was to the contrary. 

Yet, despite all this – perhaps buying its own campaign of deception – the Government hasn’t recognised the deadly consequences of dither and delay. As revealed by The Sunday Times, amid another wave of the virus in September, Johnson’s head was turned by a group of lockdown sceptic scientists who reportedly persuaded the Prime Minister to refrain from imposing more stringent measures. We are now all suffering the impact of that lack of action.

Indeed, epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani and neuroscientist Hisham Zuauddeen in an article for Byline Times explained how Government prevarication created fertile ground for the emergence of a new Coronavirus variant, B.1.1.7, allowing it to overwhelm London and the south-ast.

In his summary of the year, Professor Ashton also looked ahead to the next – sounding a note of caution over the Government’s vaccine optimism. In the final stages of the pandemic, we are not.

It has been widely observed that a Government led by Boris Johnson, if it is capable of doing anything, is certainly not capable of effectively handling a pandemic. Even if much of the mainstream media has either ignored or downplayed these calamitous failures, that have led to more COVID-19 deaths than anywhere else in Europe, historians will surely be less kind.

By then, however, the damage will already have been done.


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