The myth of Great Britain must finally end when our government has failed us so badly over coronavirus

To fix things, we must first know what went wrong. From stretched hospitals and diminished social care, each problem caused by Covid-19 is worsened by the realities of a stripped-back welfare state

Rachel Shabi
Tuesday 14 April 2020 14:57 BST
Government 'doesn't expect' coronavirus lockdown to be lifted this week

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


In the midst of a national emergency, we are mired in a staggering absence of scrutiny. As the UK’s horrifying death toll from Covid-19 exceeds 10,000, politicians and even some journalists now say questions must be asked of the government’s handling of the crisis, but only once it is all over.

As we learn we may face the most amount of deaths in Europe, news presenters are listing the issues to be investigated – not today, but in a future inquiry. As we wake each day to yet more troubling news, the opposition leader, Keir Starmer, says ministers will face “difficult questions” – yet now is not the time for them.

It is an astonishing collective spasm, a writing forward of history while stripping agency from the present time.

With nearly 1,000 daily deaths in hospital from Covid-19 – each loss a spiral of shock and pain for that person’s family, friends, colleagues and community – Britain’s tabloid fronts are love-ins for Boris Johnson who is now recovering from the virus at Chequers after being discharged from St Thomas’ Hospital. As hospitals desperately battle to save lives afflicted with the most appalling symptoms of this disease, we are told more about the films the PM watched from his sick bed in gushing commentaries that would make Saddam’s stenographers blush. And as doctors and nurses lose their lives tending to patients, exposed to infection without vital personal protective equipment (PPE), broadcasters parrot the health secretary Matt Hancock’s “Herculean” efforts to source supplies.

Ministers praise the NHS, yet suggest PPE shortages may be down to staff misusing their protective gear, rather than government failures to provide it. They are patting heath workers on the back while simultaneously punching them in the stomach.

Just weeks ago, we watched in horror as Covid-19 deaths climbed in Italy and then Spain, those unfolding tragedies given more coverage than the one Britain is living through right now. Back then, medics from those countries implored us to act to avoid sleepwalking into the same nightmare. As our death toll soars beyond comprehension, it grows ever more damning that we squandered our precious head start, the extra weeks in which we may have lessened the virus spread.

If there is any doubt that things may now be different, look to neighbouring Germany; it responded more swiftly, deployed mass testing and tracing and has suffered a quarter of the fatalities. Or to Ireland, where the virus has thus far claimed significantly fewer deaths proportionate to the UK. European countries that enforced earlier lockdowns watched in horror as Britain kept open businesses and bars and more than 250,000 people thronged to the Cheltenham festival.

These and other grave mistakes cannot now be unmade. And some criticism is understandably tempered by the need for unity in the face of national crisis. But where course-correcting measures are still possible, they rely upon asking questions now, rather than postponing scrutiny to a future date.

To fix things, we must first know what went wrong, yet there are persistent gaps and elisions in the government’s accounting over protective equipment, ventilators, testing or even the number of coronavirus deaths.

Virologists and epidemiologists I speak with ask why the government does not resume contact tracing, abandoned in mid-March and which the World Health Organisation still says is essential. Meanwhile, international passengers still fly into Heathrow unchecked; bosses in vital distribution warehouses refuse to apply social distancing measures; and non-essential workers crowd public transport, in confusion over who should be staying home – or lacking the financial means to do so.

None of this should obscure a deeper reckoning over political decisions stretching back decades – decisions which left our healthcare system hollowed out, fragmented, under-funded and outsourced. Each shortage or blockage, every gap in capacity or supply has this dismal reality as an underlying factor. From stretched hospitals and diminished social care, through to the sourcing of equipment and a looming shortage in drugs to treat Covid-19 patients, each problem is worsened by the realities of a stripped-back welfare state.

It is an extraordinary feat of PR that Britain has often gleaned international esteem, even begrudgingly. Brand Britain – all gloss, sharp humour and creativity – has camouflaged the real Britain of crumbling infrastructure, miserable neglect and inequality.

Now a similar sleight of hand is playing out across sections of our media: the casting of a brave prime minister, a “Blitz spirit” and soothing messages from the Queen combining to elide failures of government. Shocking death counts that surpass some of our neighbouring countries are cloaked in the illusion of a Great Britain, exceptionally so, even now – a terrible mythology built on inflated pride and lowered expectations.

Bad planning, misjudged strategies, bungled messaging and the shameful treatment of healthcare and other key workers, all of it seems saturated in an acceptance of things as they are, a perception that things cannot be better. Only they can. Even now, there is time to change. And we must not stop demanding more, for everyone.

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