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Timeline of the Plague Year: An Extract

Rupert Read and Ian Sinclair dissect the Government’s woeful response to the country’s worst public health crisis in a century

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: JULIAN SIMMONDS/Daily Telegraph/PA Archive/PA Images

Timeline ofthe Plague YearAn Extract

Rupert Read and Ian Sinclair dissect the Government’s woeful response to the country’s worst public health crisis in a century

A year ago, Rupert Read and Ian Sinclair published in Byline Times a timeline of the genesis of Britain’s COVID-19 crisis. A year on, they have kept their timeline updated – and are now publishing it, today, as a free ebook.

Here, in an exclusive extract from the book’s Conclusion, Read explains why the evidence should be enough to end the careers of those who have been at the helm of the UK Government during modern Britain’s worst-ever peacetime casualty figures.

This conclusion is a brief reflection on what I see the timeline that Ian Sinclair and I wrote, that began its life here in Byline Times, as telling us about our lives together, about the future of UK politics and governance, and maybe about the future of human life on Earth even.

I’d first emphasise that we really do think that the timeline very largely speaks for itself. We think what it says is devastating. The clearest way to comprehend this is via international comparisons.

Other island nations have come through the COVID-19 pandemic far, far better than the UK. The best comparator is Taiwan. Very internationally connected, with a population of 23.8 million and double the population density of the UK. Its coronavirus death toll, at time of writing?


I had a very interesting conversation with perhaps New Zealand’s leading epidemiologist, Professor Michael Baker, last Spring. Baker told me of how, in late January and early February 2020, New Zealand looked for leadership, in the emerging crisis situation, to much larger Anglo nations, as it had done traditionally. But New Zealand then started to realise: there wasn’t going to be any.

So instead, it did something it was less used to: it looked to East Asian nations for that leadership. It sought advice and inspiration from Taiwan, South Korea, and, to some extent, from Vietnam and China (which, after its disgraceful initial cover-up and inaction, switched tack to rapidly contain the pandemic within its borders). Under Jacinda Ardern’s decisive political leadership, New Zealand moved to adopt a precautionary stance on COVID-19. (Their total death toll from COVID-19, to date? 26).

What can be seen in clarity and detail in our timeline is: How austerity and the steady degradation of our emergency frameworks created what turned out to be a deadly backdrop to an emerging threat.

How Brexit was a fatal distraction.

How the UK failed utterly to be precautious; how, instead, it led the world on recklessness vis-a-vis the pandemic. How this recklessness was despite the Government being advised clearly and in no uncertain terms, throughout February 2020, of the magnitude of the tsunami of death and destruction that was liable to come, if precautions were not taken, swiftly and at scale.

I know this not only because of what emerged at the time and since about what the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and the other official scientific advisory bodies were telling ministers but also because, as documented in the timeline, I myself was raising the alarm by speaking to minsters at the very top of Government about how urgent the need for precautionary action was. But it turns out I wasted my breath. And then many started to breathe their last, as a result of the failure to listen.

How, despite, ironically, having come to power on the back of antagonism towards large-scale immigration, the UK Government refused to control the movement of people into this country at the one time when it was actually critically necessary to do so: at the onset of and during the first wave (and since).

How it toyed dangerously, repeatedly, with a ‘goal’ of achieving herd immunity via potentially deadly infection, ignoring the obvious risk of utterly overwhelming the NHS, not to mention more silent risks such as that now playing out, of an epidemic of Long COVID. In particular, Boris Johnson’s Greenwich speech, a key milestone in our timeline early in 2020 (see especially 3 February), may well be a defining moment in what will surely be a crushing judgement that history makes against the criminally negligent rulers who shepherded us into mass death.

How it systematically counterposed ‘the economy’ to adequate action on the virus: ignoring the truth that, even on their own terms, their failure to control the virus was and is economically disastrous; those countries that have aimed for zero-COVID-19 have fared far better, economically, than those (the UK, the USA, Brazil) that have not.

How care home residents – very vulnerable old people – were in their tens of thousands sacrificed on the altar of ‘protecting’ the NHS.

How NHS staff themselves were not protected adequately.

How ‘Test and Trace’ was initially abandoned at the very moment when it was direly needed; and how the resurrected Test and Trace system has been a ghastly, almost unbelievable failure, in part due to its centralised and yet simultaneously privatised nature.

The vaccine rollout in the UK is going well, thank goodness. And the Government seems finally, to some extent, to be learning the lessons from its previous, appalling ideologically driven failures: as I write, they are seeking to ensure that this ‘last’ lockdown does NOT get lifted prematurely, and that we open-up in a five-week-rhythm, in a step-wise fashion, so that the effects of each set of opening measures can be evaluated. 

But we must never, ever forget why the vaccine rollout in the UK has been so desperately needed: because for a whole year the UK Government profoundly failed to protect us. Nor should we cease from pointing out that it is still making pretty huge – and still ideologically driven – errors: for instance, the way that it has kept most factories, not to mention construction-schemes such as HS2, operating throughout the pandemic shows clearly where its priorities lie. A key reason why so many have died, and why deaths have disproportionately afflicted working-class people, is this vicious (not to mention self-defeating, in its ludicrous short-termism) insistence on ‘keeping the economy going’. 

This long last lockdown is partly necessary, with its attendant harmful effects on social life and mental health, because of this choice of economy over society. A choice that is incomprehensible to people from other European countries that chose to be much more serious in their interpretation of what ‘non-essential’ meant, vis-a-vis the economy, and so have not had to be so harsh for so long in reducing ordinary socialising. 

I hope that the main body of our timeline will prove useful in the full public inquiry that must come, into how catastrophically the UK botched this pandemic. That inquiry should, in my judgement, on the basis of the plague-year’s timeline that we have put together here, prove career-ending for all those at the epicentre of it in Government: most notably, Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Rishi Sunak. They and their colleagues have ‘managed’ a completely unnecessary massacre. They are in effect complicit in the manslaughter of many tens of thousands. Their cheerleaders and apologists in the media too should be gone forever. 

In my opinion, the effect should be like that upon the careers of mid-late 1930s appeasers: straightforwardly career-ending, in the midst of a paradigm-shifting. The parallel is actually reasonably exact. The UK Government has as it were sought to appease the virus. Rather than confronting it.

Moreover, there is nothing in our politics right now more important than that the lessons from this pandemic be deeply learned, and soon. For the terrifying truth is that ecosystem-destruction and the rising tide of global overheat threatens a genuinely enormous increase in the number of pandemics, this century. It is likely that the uptick in epidemics and pandemics that we have already seen recently (Sars, Zika, COVID, etc) is the early stage of that.

So I hope that our timeline will be read by the disaster-planners of the future. By aspiring politicians. By thoughtful scientists and civil servants. And by those in the media.

I think our timeline shows very clearly that COVID-19 has been the worst national scandal since appeasement, at least. It turns out that the Government that we have had – Brexit-fixated, ideologically prone towards a cod-libertarianism (while simultaneously centralising in a fashion that prevented rapid, smart responses), ideologically biased against state-action (and in favour of very-short-term corporate-friendly action), practising de facto cronyism and corruption, incompetent, opportunistic, hungry for publicity and unserious about follow-through – the Government we have had during this crisis has, tragically, been probably the least suitable Government in the UK in all modern times for the crisis. 

There are certainly going to be more such crises, probably worse ones, because of the rising tide of climate disasters (and COVID-19 is itself a partly climate-caused disaster, it is part of the emerging long eco-emergency). We are not yet out of the woods of this pandemic, not by a long shot: for example, it is quite possible that the high percentage of vaccine take-up required (about 80%) for safely achieving herd immunity from the ‘Kent variant’ (which the world calls simply the British variant) and for potentially moving thereby towards a zero-COVID future will be unachievable, given misguided portions of the population who may refuse the vaccine. If we do not achieve herd immunity, then that provides another opportunity for future variants to arise, which may reinfect huge numbers of us.

And, of course, reinfection is always possible from countries such as the USA which, because of their dire ‘libertarian’ political culture, are very unlikely to extirpate the virus.

But even if we get out of these woods, there will be more. Very probably, more (including worse) pandemics, because of our eco-recklessness; and certainly, epochal disasters of other kinds coming from the same basic root-causes. From our extreme perturbation of the global ecosystem, and from our attrition against woods, forests, jungles, and so forth.

You can download Rupert Read and Ian Sinclair’s free ebook here

The fragility of the UK system (and the US) to COVID-19 raises a prospect that should break us all out of our complacency, if we are complacently assuming that future crises, and in particular climate disasters, will certainly affect us in the UK less badly than ‘frontline’ states. Who would have guessed, 18 months ago, that death rates would be orders of magnitude higher here than in Sierra Leone, Vietnam, and many other ‘developing’ countries? Perhaps what the Coronavirus crisis has revealed is a fragility not just in our politics and governance but in our very culture, which is less communitarian than in the countries (notably, those in the Far East) which have shown actual leadership in this global crisis. Perhaps our society, despite or even because of its wealth (and complexity), is liable to collapse before these others, which superficially might look much more vulnerable than us.

If we can learn that lesson, or at least consider that possibility, then we will at last be getting someplace. 

Like most Brits, I know people who have died from COVID-19: two old, dear family friends. And one of my closest friends (who is much younger than me) has a crushing, debilitating case of Long Covid. The personal is political. It fuels us, with a sense of reality. With passion, energy. Sometimes, with rage.

But in the end the most important thing that COVID-19 has taught us is closer to love than to rage. It has taught us something profound about our vulnerability. It’s incalculably important that the teaching be absorbed and remembered. For this may be our last big learning-opportunity before the climate decline (and the unleashing of a likely larger wave of eco-driven pandemics) that our species has set in motion becomes unmanageable.

Any decent memorialisation of the hundred thousand of unnecessary-dead in the UK needs to include a profound determination to learn the lessons implicit in our timeline – and to move decisively to stop history ever repeating itself.

You can download Rupert Read and Ian Sinclair’s free ebook here

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