The UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is borrowing £400 billion this year to combat the country’s worst recession in over 300 years. A £4 billion cut in overseas aid and a public-sector pay freeze will be among the early cost savings but the long-term economic damage is expected to last at least a decade.
What has gone wrong? We are assured that this was a natural disaster; that the COVID-19 pandemic was totally unexpected and that the government has done its best in the difficult circumstances.
This is fundamentally wrong.
COVID-19 was a natural hazard not a natural disaster until the government conspicuously failed to respond as it should. The UK was thought to be one of the countries best prepared for a pandemic but turned out to be one of the worst because of government failings right from the start.
For two critical months in January and February there was an appalling failure to respond to what was already known, in spite of continual warnings and many missed chances.
By the time of the first COBRA emergency meeting on 24 January, other countries were already acting with vigour and effect. Indeed, some governments in East Asia had started responding to what was happening in China even before the end of December 2019. By contrast, Johnson did not bother to attend that COBRA session, nor did he go to the next four.
There have been many criticisms of Johnson’s government since March but though these are justified, the real indicator of failure takes us back to the beginning.
Yes, ministers were still in post-election euphoria and enjoying the approach of Brexit Day, but these were minor diversions. If we want to know what really lay beyond the inaction we can do little better than recall Johnson’s Greenwich speech on 3 February, immediately after Brexit.
After bemoaning the slow growth in world trade he went on:
… we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.
And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.
The economy came first and the pandemic second, with superman Johnson ready for the role and leading the way. In fact, Johnson took a half-term holiday shortly after and never could make that phone booth transformation, much as he tried.
It might be argued that the full significance of COVID-19 was only recognised later. If that is the case then Johnson and his government were fully at fault. The UK did have a sound biosecurity strategy, but exercises showed that it was not ready. There was plenty of knowledge and expertise around to say what to do, and the rapid responses in East Asia were already clear: New Scientist reported on the outbreak and the regional precautions being taken right back on 7 January, more than three weeks before COBRA even met.
If the biosecurity strategy had been followed, we would still have had a major crisis – but it would almost certainly have been far less bad than the disaster we now have. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost – the final figure may be over a hundred thousand – and there will be deep long-term health impacts, let alone the economic damage.
Something went disastrously wrong from the start and if Johnson’s Greenwich speech shows anything, that includes the powerful hold of a deeply flawed economic ideology.