Britain Risks Cementing in Power a Corrupt and Incompetent Government in Undeserved Gratitude for the Vaccine

Photograph Source: Matt Brown – CC BY 2.0

“No more f**king lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands,” Boris Johnson is reported as saying last October as the second wave of the Covid-19 epidemic got underway.

Many will view his callous words, which he vehemently denies uttering, as an ill-chosen figure of speech, but they may fail to realise the grim truth that what he said was a largely accurate forecast of the consequence of his misjudgements. His only inaccuracy was in saying that the bodies would pile up in their thousands, while the correct number turned out to be in the tens of thousands.

What happened was not only predictable but had already been predicted. Sage said on 21 September that “a package of interventions including a circuit breaker will be needed to prevent an exponential rise in cases”. The recommendation was backed by Dominic Cummings, Matt Hancock and Michael Gove, but was rejected by Johnson.

We can now estimate with some precision the number of fatalities that resulted from his actions at this time. In the five months between the end of October 2020 – the month when the prime minister was speaking – and 31 March 2021, some 87,049 people died in Britain from laboratory-confirmed Covid-19, according to the Office for National Statistics. The death toll was so high because of the government’s disastrous on-off approach to lockdowns that gave the virus long periods of free range.

Johnson and the Conservatives hope that by claiming exclusive credit for the success of the vaccination programme, they can make people forget about last year’s multiple failures. They may well be right in this, given the universal relief at being freed from the threat of a nasty death or debilitating illness. Play their cards right and this could be their “Falklands War moment”, keeping them in power for a decade or more.

Whatever lies were or were not told about who paid for what and when in the redecoration of Johnson’s Downing Street flat, they appear absurdly petty in comparison with these life-and-death issues.

The true authors of success may well be the expertise of the scientists and the strength and experience of the NHS, but Johnson was at the helm and can credibly claim to have delivered victory.

But it is a mysterious victory since everything else the government has initiated – such as the £37bn test and trace fiasco and the shady £8bn VIP fast track for PPE procurement – were characterised by chronic ineptitude and allegations of corruption. Attempts to stall transmission of the virus around the country failed dismally. Studies showed that the poorer part of the population, likely to have many social contacts at home and at work, might have liked to quarantine if tested positive, but could not afford to do so. In one poor neighbourhood of Liverpool, the proportion willing to get tested was only 4 per cent.

The Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is being pilloried this week for his calamitously premature ending of the lockdown in his country, but his mistakes differ little from those committed by Johnson in Britain last year.

This is not just ancient history. A danger is that Britain will cement in place a prime minister and a government of unprecedented sleaziness and incapacity in a surge of undeserved gratitude for them bringing the pandemic under control. This makes it important to discover the extent to which they deserve that gratitude and how far it exaggerates their real contribution.

Prior to the pandemic, Britain was regarded by international health bodies as being one of the countries in the world best prepared to cope with an epidemic. What we are seeing now with the vaccination programme is a much-expanded version of a health system that already worked pretty well and not any fast-track innovation.

Nobody expressed surprise in past years at the annual rollout of flu and other vaccines for millions of people, but ministers speak today as if it is only through their tireless efforts that this is happening at all.

No doubt the focus of questions to the prime minister’s former chief of staff Dominic Cummings when he appears before the parliamentary select committee on 26 May will be about the serial blunders over lockdowns that he alleges were committed by Johnson. But it will be equally important to find out what role Johnson actually played in the vaccine programme and how far he deserves credit for its success.

As for the high death toll, Johnson and his defenders claim that he could not have foreseen the precipitous rise in infections and deaths in the second half of last year because it was caused by the super-infectious Kent variant of coronavirus, otherwise known as B117, which was only identified in mid-December when it swept through Britain and the world. But this argument is disingenuous since coronavirus, regardless of the toxicity of its variants, always needs human contacts.

Johnson’s rejection of scientific advice and ministerial urging to impose a lockdown in September ensured that these contacts were many. The number of Covid-19 cases quadrupled from 128,000 in September to 483,000 in October. Johnson’s preferred option –  the regional lockdowns and tier system – was shambolic, assuming that the virus would show a touching respect for municipal boundaries.

The Kent variant was first identified near Canterbury, most probably in Margate 15 miles away, from a genetic sample taken on 20 September. Its superspreading capabilities were only recognised 10 weeks later in December. But this is not an alibi because an earlier and tighter lockdown could have prevented the original deadly mutation that required a high infection rate to provide sufficient trial-and-error opportunities to create a variant better at attacking its victims.

The largely unfettered social contacts then meant that B117 could transmit easily and sweep along the north Kent coast on the south side of the Thames Estuary into London and beyond. “The new variant went from an estimated 3 per cent of cases in England at the end of October to 96 per cent at the start of February,” according to the ONS.

As the bodies did indeed pile up, a single day, 19 January, saw a record 1,368 people die of Covd-19. Johnson’s responsibility for the vaccination campaign is shaky, but his culpability for these mass deaths is not in doubt.

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).