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Yesterday the death toll from Covid-19 in the United Kingdom passed the grim 100,000 milestone, more than twice the number of British civilians who died at the hands of the Luftwaffe during the blitz of 1940/41. Even more shocking, deaths now exceed the number of British people who have died in any war since 1945, any terror attack since 1945 and of AIDS. 

Before we look more closely at the Government’s response, it seems only fair to get the  mitigation in first, so here goes.

There are those who will argue that Britain has a highly sophisticated and genuinely world-renowned system of collecting and collating official statistics and, with reports based on deaths for any reason but within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test, it is distinctly possible that these numbers are at the high end of any possible variation. In other words, positive test or not, some people would have died within the month anyway.

Next, population density. We know that the virus is at its most potent when people do not keep their distance from one another and, despite its fair share of wilderness and forest, the country – especially England – squeezes a lot of people into a relatively small area. Our population is roughly the same as that of France in an area less than half the size. Unfavourable comparisons have been made with New Zealand where the whole country’s population is just over half that of London alone and not much more than the number of journeys made on the London Underground every day. This, surely, invalidates any meaningful parallel with our Kiwi friends.

Those wishing to excuse the Government may also point to the international nature of how Britain works. Heathrow is the world’s second busiest international airport (after Dubai, where much of the traffic is for stop-overs) and, with Gatwick also in the top 20, the comings and goings for purposes of business, study and tourism vastly exceed those in most countries of a similar size.

Finally, civil disobedience. There is no escaping the fact that too many Brits have ignored official advice, taken an I’m Alright Jack approach, and either not given a shit or actually bought into some of the absurd conspiracy theories floating around the internet. My own next door neighbours have been entertaining friends and family, holding barbecues and throwing parties for the past 12 months as if the pandemic didn’t exist.

All this may be true but none of it is a surprise. Our ports and airports have always been busy, we’ve always had a high population density and there will always be idiots who flout the rules and regs.

The truth is that the government has made a series of blunders that have cost lives: not just the dead but millions of children, parents, colleagues, partners, friends and neighbours who, as you’re reading this, are in mourning. You may be one of them.

It seems clear that the government or, at least, the Prime Minister didn’t take the the pandemic seriously enough in the early days. I recall, at one of his Downing Street news conferences, his proudly averring that he was still intending to shake hands as he went about his prime ministerial business. The fact that, soon afterwards, he was himself laid low with the virus was an irony of which even Alanis Morissette could be fiercely proud. 

While other countries were closing their borders or, at the very least, imposing restrictions on large public gatherings, the government permitted two huge sporting events to go ahead. The first, the Cheltenham Festival, attracted 250,000 horse racing enthusiasts from across the globe. That’s a quarter of a million people standing shoulder to shoulder, drinking, eating, celebrating, exchanging cash with trackside bookmakers and jostling for the exits before congregating once again at airports, railway stations and motorway service stations. 

You’ll remember that the virus hit Spain early and hard, and yet the government allowed a European Champions League football match between Liverpool and Athletico Madrid to proceed. Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC, holds around 53,000 spectators. Enough said.

Next, the messaging. When the penny finally dropped into the government’s consciousness, the initial messaging was loud and clear. The first lockdown was a success and the new Nightingale field hospitals remained untroubled. Then something strange happened: the messaging became confused and muddled: stay home unless you can’t stay home; stay two metres apart or, if not, “one metre plus” apart; something about bubbles. Yet, through all this, the British people remained broadly supportive of a government tasked with solving the unenviable problem of balancing lives, livelihoods and liberty. Then, Downing Street apparatchik Dominic Cummings was caught with his metaphorical trousers down (see my review of his press conference here) and trust seemed to dissipate. I have no doubt that this single example of one rule for us and another for them contributed significantly to some people taking the decision to ignore the regulations.

We cannot ignore the fiasco of Test and Trace, or is it Track and Trace? I don’t think anyone knows. Anyway, it cost billions and never really got going allowing those who might have come into contact with the virus to carry on with their lives and, in so doing, spreading it more widely. Many people, especially the under 30s, would have been asymptomatic so, without an adequate tracking system, would have been completely unaware of the danger they posed to others.

For a government built on Brexit, our administration’s approach to securing our borders has demonstrated a cavalier disregard for basic competence. No testing on entry, this travel corridor, that travel corridor, to quarantine or not to quarantine…it’s been a fiasco which has cost lives. 

The list of failures goes on: spaffing billions against the wall for PPE that never worked, cronyism that would make Donald Trump blush and failure to enforce even the most basic of regulations. Yes, our scientists and medical professionals have been wonderful, but I would contend that this is in spite of rather than because of the government. 

As we exceed 100,000 deaths there are those who are calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation. They have a point, but now is not the time for a Conservative leadership contest or – although very unlikely given the government’s healthy majority – a general election. But when all this is over and the vaccine (the roll-out of which is perhaps the government’s only triumph) has done its job, there needs to be a no-holds-barred independent inquiry – probably a Royal Commission – into the whole sorry tale.

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Rob Harkavy

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