No, Dominic Cummings CAN’T blame it all on Boris Johnson. No, Covid ISN’T our nation’s worse catastrophe. And no, Britain DIDN’T come bottom of the class: Historian NIALL FERGUSON’s brilliant analysis that puts our woes in perspective
We Britons have a tradition of taking disaster in our stride — and even laughing in its face. In the trenches of World War I, our soldiers sang a parody of a pre-war Salvation Army anthem:
‘The Bells Of Hell Go Ting-a- ling-a-ling,
For you but not for me.’
That defiant gallows humour is all the more astonishing when you recall that roughly one in eight British servicemen lost their lives and nearly a third were wounded between 1914 and 1918.
And we continued to joke about death long after the world wars had receded into the past.
Think of Eric Idle singing Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life in the crucifixion sequence that ends Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, or the scene in The Meaning Of Life when the Grim Reaper, played by John Cleese, breaks the news to three couples at a dinner party that they have all been fatally poisoned by a dodgy tin of salmon.
Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former right-hand man, said the Government fell ‘disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect’
When the novelist Evelyn Waugh visited the United States in 1947 he was struck by the American tendency to wrap death in euphemisms, a difference that inspired his satirical novel, The Loved One, on the funeral business in Los Angeles.
To this day, Americans don’t die — they ‘pass’, a word more usually associated with football here.
And yet the Covid-19 pandemic has been responsible for a serious sense of humour failure in Britain. Footage of wards filled with comatose patients on ventilators and exhausted doctors and nurses struggling to keep them alive at the height of first and second waves were certainly no laughing matter.
Nor are the statistics: almost 128,000 dead — mortality roughly 17 per cent above normal — and an unknown number of people afflicted by ‘long Covid’, to say nothing of one of the worst recessions in our history.
Thanks to an extraordinarily successful effort to develop, procure and administer vaccines, Britain now seems to be emerging from the Plague Year.
And with the latest data indicating that the so-called ‘Indian variant’ may not be as dangerous as initially feared and that the vaccines are effective against it, a post-pandemic summer is tantalisingly close.
But there remains a lingering suspicion that the last year did not need to be this bad.
Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former right-hand man in the heart of government, certainly holds that view, as he made clear in his extraordinary seven-hour appearance before a joint select committee meeting on Wednesday.
Was it all the fault of Boris Johnson, who some would argue has built a career on gambles and gaffes?
In his words, the Government fell ‘disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect’.
True, many countries have fared worse than Britain in terms of excess mortality (the number of deaths during a crisis above what’s expected under ‘normal’ circumstances): notably Armenia, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Russia and South Africa.
In the EU, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland and Slovakia did worse. But the rest did better. And Denmark and Germany have had almost no excess mortality.
In Asia, South Korea has had none at all, while in Taiwan just 15 people have died of Covid.
Could we have done better over the past year? The answer must surely be ‘yes’.
So what exactly went wrong? Was it all the fault of Boris Johnson, who some would argue has built a career on gambles and gaffes — and who Cummings described this week as ‘unfit for the job’ of prime minister — and his Cabinet of largely inexperienced ministers?
And, as ‘Freedom Day’ pencilled in for June 21 remains somewhat uncertain, was the Prime Minister making yet another mistake in February when he declared we were on a ‘one-way road to freedom’?
Let’s begin by putting this disaster in perspective.
There is no question that in April last year Britain had its worst excess mortality in five years. Yet in a longer-term view, going back some 50 years, Britain’s worst week for excess death in 2020 — the week ending April 17 — ranks only twenty-first.
The winters of 1969–70, 1975–76 and 1989–90 all fared far worse than spring 2020.
And nor was last year by any means the worst on record for total mortality figures. Looking at rates relative to a ten-year average, two years in the past century were worse: 1918 and 1940. On an age-adjusted basis, 1951 was also worse.
No prizes for guessing why mortality was elevated in 1918 and 1940 (though in the former the Spanish influenza pandemic probably played a bigger part than the First World War).
But 1951? Who now remembers the influenza epidemic of that year, which was especially severe in and around Liverpool?
The 1951 epidemic was far from the worst in British history, which was surely in the mid-14th century, when we were struck by the Black Death
Reading through the newspapers of the early months of that year, one is struck by the sheer scale of disruption, with eminent people from the King to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden falling ill.
On January 19, 1951, this paper called it ‘the worst winter for illness ever known’.
As that quote illustrates, the current disaster always seems like the worst ever.
In reality, the 1951 epidemic was far from the worst in British history, which was surely in the mid-14th century, when we were struck by the Black Death.
Bubonic plague (borne by fleas on rats) hit England in multiple waves: after the initial and biggest outbreak in 1348–49, a second wave came in 1361–62, followed by a third in 1369 and a fourth in 1375.
The English population was reduced by more than 40 per cent.
And as if that were not enough, a severe cold snap and abnormally heavy rainfall contributed to four consecutive harvest failures after 1347.
Not surprisingly, it was an economic as well as demographic disaster.
According to the Bank of England, the contraction of 2020 was the worst since the 13 per cent contraction of 1709 (due to the ‘Great Frost’, the coldest winter in 500 years). But the shock of 1349 (an estimated 23 per cent contraction) was much worse.
Then, as now, the government seized the opportunity presented by the crisis to expand its power.
In the face of chronic shortages of food and labour, the Crown instituted wage and price controls.
To compensate for lost rents from the royal lands, it raised taxes by a factor of three. And the 1351 Statute of Labourers compelled every able-bodied man to work and imposed novel forms of punishment (such as pillories and stocks) for ‘vagrancy’. Taken together, these measures ultimately triggered the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt.
Many people today argue that Covid has provided the pretext for a modern-day version of this medieval power-grab. Lockdown sceptics insist that there was never any need for drastic restrictions.
And there has been a great deal of criticism whenever the Government has increased its surveillance powers (through launching its contact-tracing app or, more recently, door-to-door check-ups on those returning from abroad), as if this is all leading us to a ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four-style’ state.
Yet it would be entirely wrong to imagine the decision-making process has ever boiled down to Boris Johnson sitting at his desk with two options to choose between — lockdown or herd immunity.
What’s more, it was never the job of a prime minister to determine last year if Britain faced a deadly pandemic and, if so, what ought to be done.
That responsibility lay with the likes of Prof Chris Whitty (Chief Medical Adviser) and my near-namesake Prof Neil Ferguson (or ‘Prof Lockdown’ as he has been dubbed) of Imperial College London, as well as other key epidemiological experts on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which reported directly to Johnson.
And it was the experts who dithered. As late as February 21, NERVTAG recommended keeping the threat level at ‘moderate’. On March 9, four days after the UK’s first Covid death, SAGE rejected the idea of lockdown, saying it would only lead to a ‘large second epidemic wave once the measures were lifted’.
It seems, at this point, the experts were still thinking of the coronavirus as if it were a new strain of influenza.
On March 13, Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told the BBC the Government was aiming to reach herd immunity, but in a managed way, so as to avoid overwhelming the NHS.
Then, too late, the experts panicked. On March 16, Prof Ferguson published data predicting that without both ‘mitigation’ (social distancing) and ‘suppression’ (lockdowns) — maintained until there was a vaccine — there would be ‘approximately 510,000 deaths’.
With public apprehension mounting, herd immunity was belatedly ditched as a possible strategy in favour of an unprecedented shutdown of British social and economic life.
Events then veered between farce and tragedy in the subsequent days.
Inadequate PPE stockpiles led to wasteful panic-buying. Management of infection levels in care homes became a crisis in itself. Ferguson was caught violating the rules he himself had recommended by visiting his mistress, while Cummings was spotted almost 300 miles from his London home at Barnard Castle in County Durham.
The Battle of the Somme is remembered as one of the worst wartime disasters with 57,000 casualties in the British Army on the first day of the offensive
At the same time, analysis of Ferguson’s model by independent computer experts and other epidemiologists called his conclusions about the number of deaths into serious doubt.
To me, the most important point is that serious failures had occurred at the highest level of public health bureaucracy as much as they had at the top of the political tree.
In a pugnacious Twitter thread last week, Cummings argued ‘the Covid plan was supposed to be ‘world class’ but turned out to be part disaster, part non-existent’.
‘One of the most fundamental and unarguable lessons . . . is that secrecy contributed greatly to the catastrophe. Openness to scrutiny [would] have exposed [Government] errors weeks earlier than happened,’ he added.
True, the buck is supposed to stop at the top, with the PM. But the lesson of history is that major disasters often owe much more to mistakes made further down the chain of command.
The Battle of the Somme, for instance, is remembered as one of the worst wartime disasters. On the first day of the offensive, July 1, 1916, the British Army suffered 57,000 casualties, of whom more than 19,000 were killed.
The ensuing four-month attritional struggle resulted in as many as 1.2 million British, French, and German casualties. The Allies advanced, at most, seven miles.
Herbert Asquith was prime minister at the time. But it would be a misreading of history to blame him. Indeed, the failed strategy of attempting to break through the German lines on the Western Front was ultimately the responsibility of the British commander-in-chief, Douglas Haig.
‘Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan,’ was the phrase used by John F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. But in truth, disasters have as many parents as triumphs. Those responsible just don’t want their names on the birth certificate.
Whether it’s a war or a pandemic, disaster fatigue sets in eventually, and rather than conducting inquiries into what went wrong, most of us prefer to look ahead.
As I write, we would all love to believe that the pandemic is coming to an end. But is it? The answer depends on how far we can be bothered to learn from our past mistakes.
True, some 70 per cent of the adult population have received at least one vaccine dose. True, daily death counts from Covid in the UK are now down to single figures, compared with more than a thousand in January.
Life in capitals such as London has rebounded from multiple plagues — not to mention the ravages of Germany’s bombs in the 1940s
But elsewhere in the world, the plague is still raging. More than three and a half million have died globally; the death toll by August could be 5 million, if not higher. And we remain hostage to new variants appearing and spreading.
Unless we achieve a much higher level of vaccination around the world, Covid is likely to be back at some point — perhaps in the recurrent way that influenza comes back each winter, requiring annual jabs and maybe renewed mask-wearing and social distancing.
The recent uptick in infections in places such as Bolton is a reminder that we may be playing Whac-A-Mole with Covid for some time to come.
Nor can we be certain yet about the economic, social and political consequences of this disaster. Some pandemics vanish with almost no trace — like the 1951 influenza. Others leave lasting scars.
The UK economy today is roaring back to life, propelled forward by vaccines, government spending and the loosest monetary policy ever seen in peacetime.
But don’t expect another Roaring Twenties: the central banks are likely to have to hit the brakes within the next year if, as former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has warned, the current policy mix turns out to be overkill, risking a take-off in inflation expectations.
As for big cities, life in capitals such as London has rebounded from multiple plagues — not to mention the ravages of Germany’s bombs in the 1940s. I suspect that, like New York, London will seem to be bouncing back in the coming months — but not to how we once knew it.
We will likely see a significant persistence of working from home well beyond the duration of the pandemic, with Covid revealing that many jobs can be done just as well at home as in an office.
So what lessons can we learn from the Covid disaster? To begin with, we must not continue to mistake the bureaucratic idea of preparedness for the real thing.
According to a 2019 report, the U.S. and the UK were supposedly the two countries best prepared for a pandemic. Certainly, there were pages and pages of plans.
It’s just that none of them worked when it was a novel coronavirus, rather than the expected new strain of influenza, that struck.
Taiwan and South Korea had paid much closer attention to the smaller coronavirus outbreaks of SARS (2003) and MERS (2012), and were therefore able to employ integrated systems of testing, contact-tracing and isolating with impressive speed.
But even then, the right lesson of this disaster is not to prepare meticulously for another, similar one. That would be the equivalent of preparing to fight the last war.
We need to learn from the nimbleness of the Taiwanese and South Korean responses — in particular, their readiness to make use of technology in ways that averted the need for blanket lockdowns. Thanks to rapid testing, rigorous travel controls and strictly enforced quarantines — as well as an efficient app for contact tracing — Taiwan did not have a serious Covid outbreak until this month.
And don’t tell me that such technology would undermine our hard-won civil liberties. Is being confined to our homes for months liberty?
The next disaster probably won’t be a pandemic, anyway. It might not be the much-discussed crisis of climate change, either.
My motivation for writing my new book Doom was to show just how many different forms disaster can take — not only pandemics and wars, but also volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, to say nothing of the new forms of disaster made possible by the internet.
So the right mindset for both the public and private sector should not be meticulous preparation for just one or two adverse scenarios, but general readiness for many.
Finally, perhaps the most imponderable consequence of this pandemic is its reach into geopolitics.
It was already obvious before Covid struck that the United States and China were, as Henry Kissinger said in 2019, ‘in the foothills of a cold war’. Last year, we left those foothills behind and headed for the higher slopes of superpower friction.
China’s mishandling of the original outbreak, and its continued refusal to allow a thorough investigation of what exactly happened in Wuhan — some leading experts are once more considering a ‘lab leak’ as the most likely starting point for the pandemic — are doing nothing to reduce tensions.
Joe Biden shows little sign of dialling back Trump’s tough policy towards Beijing. And I am not alone in wondering when the two sides will come to blows over the vexed question of Taiwan, which Beijing claims to own despite the island’s de facto democracy and autonomy.
The ravages of the Black Death on both sides of the Channel did nothing to stop the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. In the same way, I suspect, Cold War II will continue to escalate, regardless of how long Covid lingers.
As history shows, one form of disaster can lead to another in ways that can strain even the British sense of humour. So, in the post-plague world, we can only hope — like the Tommies in 1916 — that the bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling for someone other than us.
n Niall Ferguson’s new book DOOM: The Politics Of Catastrophe is published by Penguin Allen Lane and is out now. He is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.
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