On 3 March, Boris Johnson cheerily told viewers tuning into a government press briefing on coronavirus that Britain was “extremely well prepared” for an outbreak of Covid-19 and that he saw no reason to stop shaking hands. Seven days later, ministers gave the go-ahead for the Cheltenham festival, an event that saw 250,000 racing fans congregate in Gloucestershire for four days and which, it is now thought, greatly ramped up transmission of the virus at precisely the time Britain should have been locking down tightly. Yet it was only on 23 March that Johnson announced strict social distancing measures and a further week before the government settled on the message “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”. The result, at time of writing, is 40,000 coronavirus deaths in Britain and more than 60,000 excess deaths, the highest of any country in Europe.
How did Britain come to occupy this unenviable position and why, given that we had three months to prepare for the onslaught on our hospitals and care homes, did scientists who advise the government not raise the alert level sooner? Was it because of a misguided sense of British exceptionalism and Brexit-fuelled hubris? Or did scientists and politicians think they were dealing with a type of flu, rather than a novel, bat-derived virus against which no one in the world had immunity? And what explains the failure of other western nations, with a few notable exceptions, to adopt the “test, track and trace” formula applied with such success by South Korea and other Asian countries?
Answering those questions will keep historians and select committees occupied for years, but Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of medical journal the Lancet, is already sure of the answers and so, to a lesser degree, is Debora MacKenzie, a journalist for New Scientist (whose Covid-19, currently an ebook, is published in hardback on 21 July). Both single out complacent politicians, scientists blinded by group think and bureaucrats wedded to pandemic plans modelled on influenza. But whereas MacKenzie ultimately comes down on the side of science, Horton calls the UK response to Covid-19 “the greatest science policy failure for a generation”. As befits the editor of a publication with a history of exposing medical corruption and cant in high places, Horton is properly angry: like a compositor punching out hot type in pre-digital days, his prose is full of steaming barbs. You can almost smell his contempt on the page.
The unfortunately named Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) “looked like a white male club” and was guilty of “elite insouciance”. According to Horton, any authority it may have had evaporated the moment it allowed Dominic Cummings to sit in on its deliberations. Johnson is doubly damned by Horton: first, for failing to act on a 2016 pandemic simulation exercise that exposed the depths of Britain’s unpreparedness and, second, for going on ITV’s This Morning to advocate a “strategy of ‘take it on the chin’ herd immunity”.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, is similarly indicted by the author for failing to offer a proper apology to the son of consultant urologist Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, who died of Covid-19 shortly after appealing for the government to provide health workers with “appropriate PPE”. The result was that far from “protecting the NHS”, Johnson and co sent health workers on a “suicide” mission. Contrary to government propaganda, the NHS did not “cope”.
The fault lies with politicians for not taking the warnings sufficiently seriously
This is a polemic of the first order. However, while Horton’s barbs hit the target, he is not a wholly reliable narrator. According to fact-checking organisation Full Fact, Johnson did not advocate a herd immunity strategy on ITV’s Good Morning; he merely said this was a theory on how to deal with the virus, but it would be better to reduce the burden on the NHS during the peak of the disease. Horton is on firmer ground when he points out that by the end of January, the Lancet had published five papers setting out the risks of a global pandemic and how Sars-CoV-2 could be controlled using track-and-trace measures successfully employed during the first Sars outbreak in 2003. However, given the confusing data coming out of China in January, it is an exaggeration to say that the WHO’s declaration of an international public health emergency on 30 January was the “wake-up call” the world needed, especially as the WHO did not recommend travel bans and waited until 12 March to declare a pandemic.
MacKenzie wisely leaves the specifics of who got what wrong when for another day. Instead, she focuses on the scientists and philanthropists, such as Bill Gates, who tried to alert the world to the threat posed by a putative “Disease X”. One of her heroes is Peter Daszak, a British ecologist who has collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology and who, together with his Chinese colleague Shi Zhengli, warned in 2013 that a virus sequenced from a horseshoe bat from Yunnan province had pandemic potential. We now know that that virus shares 96% of its genes with Sars-CoV-2, making it a progenitor of Covid-19.
Like Horton, MacKenzie thinks coronavirus is a “pandemic that should never have happened”. The fault lies with politicians for not taking the warnings sufficiently seriously and investing more money in pandemic deterrence. But aware that until we repair our injured planet and address the linked issues of globalisation and the disruption of animal habitats, Sars-CoV-2 is unlikely to be the last pandemic virus; MacKenzie also cautions that “hindsight helps you win the next battle, not the last one”.
The present battle is far from won, of course. Just as we watched numbly as the Chinese quarantined whole cities and erected huge hospitals overnight, so we now risk being paralysed by similar indecision as how best to exit the lockdown and what sort of world we wish our children to inherit. Horton’s fervent hope is that it will be a world in which the protection of life is the highest political priority. We can “never go back” to our pre-Covid way of doing things, he says. Unfortunately, the history of previous pandemics suggests we often do.
Mark Honigsbaum’s latest book is The Pandemic Century: A History of Global Contagion from the Spanish Flu to Covid-19 (WH Allen)
• The Covid-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone Wrong and How to Stop It Happening Again by Richard Horton is published by Polity Press (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
• Covid-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened, and How to Stop the Next One by Debora MacKenzie is published by Bridge Street Press (£18.99)