“Britain sleepwalked into disaster.” So concluded journalists from the Sunday Times, investigating the litany of fatal errors made by the Tory government in its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seen in isolation, each of these incidents might have been deemed an honest mistake; the result of a chaotic, unprecedented, and unforeseen situation. But when taken together, a clear picture emerges: one in which the hubris and arrogance of Boris Johnson and his elitist ministers have cost thousands of lives.
These crimes will not be forgotten. They cannot be swept under the carpet, as was done with the deadly decisions that led to the Grenfell disaster. One day - soon - there will be a reckoning for Johnson and the Tories, and the working class will organise to demand justice against these murderers.
Yesterday’s Sunday Times report is clear and unequivocal. This was government failure on a monumental scale.
“Boris Johnson skipped five Cobra meetings on the virus,” the article opens. “Calls to order protective gear were ignored and scientists’ warnings fell on deaf ears.”
“Failings in February may have cost thousands of lives.”
Weeks of potential preparation time were wasted. Expert advice was overlooked. And vital equipment - such as ventilators, PPE, and testing kits - was not procured. Meanwhile, government advisors nervously laughed amongst themselves, knowing that the country was completely ill-equipped to deal with a highly infectious and lethal disease.
According to one anonymous Downing Street source:
“[Government advisors] would joke between themselves, ‘Ha-ha, let’s hope we don’t get a pandemic’, because there wasn’t a single area of practice that was being nurtured in order for us to meet basic requirements for a pandemic, never mind do it well.”
“If you were with senior NHS managers at all during the last two years, you were aware that their biggest fear, their sweatiest nightmare, was a pandemic, because they weren’t prepared for it.”
Inertia and incompetence
Whilst the rest of the world was sounding the alarm, back in Britain, Whitehall and Westminster were paralysed by incompetence and inertia.
Tory ministers appeared nonchalant about the looming threat. After the initial meeting of Cobra - the government’s emergency council - on 24 January, health secretary Matt Hancock declared the coronavirus to be only a ‘low’ risk to the UK. But the disease was already ravaging China, and scientists were comparing it to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed 50 million people.
Almost a month later, on 21 February, UK officials decided to maintain the risk level at moderate. This was despite the fact that the virus was rapidly spreading across the globe, with an estimated 76,000 cases internationally, and 2,300 COVID-19 related deaths in China. The next day, Italy registered 51 cases and two deaths. And, importantly, the UK already had known cases in different areas of the country.
Yet within these weeks, little-to-nothing was done. At every level, urgent decisions were delayed. And calls from scientific advisors to raise the official threat level were ignored.
Scarcity and shortages
Tory austerity, Sunday Times journalists reveal, also played its part. PPE stockpiles had dwindled over the years, as scarce NHS resources were diverted to address more immediate shortages.
Government procurement of key medical equipment, meanwhile, was all based on ‘just in time’ contracts and global supply chains, which quickly evaporated as countries everywhere scrambled to obtain masks and gloves.
Indeed, the UK was even shipping protective equipment in the other direction - to China - in this period, reducing domestic stocks even further below their already dangerously low levels.
Attempts to overcome the shortage of ventilators, meanwhile, were an even more farcical affair. Only late in the day did the Prime Minister acknowledge the problem. But even then, instead of taking control of industry to churn out new machines, he implored manufacturing bosses to join his tactlessly named ‘Operation Last Gasp’.
Weeks later, however, and few of the much-hyped machines have seen the light of day. Tory ministers promised thousands of new ventilators, produced by an array of big business consortiums. But most of the designs and prototypes have been rejected for failing to meet the necessary requirements and standards for use on the ground, leaving the NHS sorely lacking the tools desperately needed to save lives.
Aloof and arrogant
Plans for testing were also ad hoc, at best, and non-existent, at worse. From the outset, officials at the World Health Organisation had screamed for countries to “test, test, test!” in order to identify and contain the disease. But Johnson and the Tories - imbued with an Etonian arrogance typical of the degenerate British ruling class that they represent - wilfully ignored this advice.
Britain has a plethora of laboratories and testing facilities. These could have been utilised to implement a mass-testing programme and isolate outbreaks of the disease. This was done in other countries, such as Germany, where the number of deaths is now a fraction of that in the UK. But the government failed to even contact those in the testing sector.
According to Doris-Ann Williams, chief executive of the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association, which represents 110 UK testing companies, her organisation did not receive an approach from the government for help until 1 April - long after the lockdown was in place, and after the virus had spiralled out of control.
The Tory government is clearly responsible for this foot-dragging. The pandemic strategy they did have in place was wholly inadequate. Existing blueprints were for fighting a flu-like disease - not the far deadlier novel coronavirus. As a result, the now infamous ‘herd immunity’ plan was rigidly being stuck to, long after it was clear that it would lead to a catastrophe.
True, the government’s chief scientists, such as Chris Whitty, endorsed the herd immunity concept. But it is evident that the strategy found fertile ground amongst aloof Tory ministers, for whom the idea of total lockdown and economic paralysis was anathema.
Downing Street Svengali, Dominic Cummings, was said to be a firm advocate of the plan; as were Boris Johnson and his libertarian team, who no doubt wanted to keep business running as usual, in order to protect the bosses’ profits.
Doomed by hubris
As early as 26 February, scientific studies and models were emerging, warning of the need for social distancing measures to be implemented in the UK in order to avoid a death toll numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
In the subsequent weeks, quarantines were being imposed across Europe - with schools shut, restaurants and bars closed, and mass gatherings banned - to protect the public’s health. Yet back in Britain, the official message was still one of ‘keep calm and wash your hands’.
Only on 23 March was the country officially put in lockdown. By this time, with vital days and weeks losts, the disease had already spread like wildfire. As a result, deaths have tragically - and completely unnecessarily - mounted. And the UK is now on course to register the highest number of COVID-19 fatalities in Europe, and the second highest in the world after the USA.
“I had watched Wuhan,” stated one senior official at the Department of Health to the Sunday Times, “but I assumed we must have not been worried because we did nothing. We just watched.”
“A pandemic was always at the top of our national risk register — always — but when it came we just slowly watched. We could have been Germany, but instead we were doomed by our incompetence, our hubris and our austerity.”
Missing in action
So where was Boris Johnson throughout all of this? The Sunday Times report is conclusive: the Prime Minister was missing in action.
Drunk on his December electoral success, and revelling in the Brexit Day celebrations, the PM ignored all the warnings of the impending catastrophe.
Johnson’s complacent attitude is exemplified by his absence from five Cobra meetings on the coronavirus. Only on 2 March did the Tory leader attend his first Cobra committee concerning the pandemic.
But the Prime Minister was not only missing from Cobra meetings. For much of this time, he was AWOL from the centre of government altogether, spending weeks at his Chevening country retreat with his pregnant fiancé, Carrie Symonds.
“There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there,” stated one Downing Street advisor to the Sunday Times. “And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”
Whom the gods wish to destroy
Boris Johnson is no doubt a buffoon; an imbecile; a renowned clown. But the distant and complacent attitude that he has displayed in the face of this historic disaster is not unique. Indeed, every rotten regime throughout history has shown the same hubris and callousness in their final hours.
So it was with Louis XVI and his spoilt wife, Marie Antoinette, who held decadent balls as the revolutionary masses starved and then stormed heaven in France. So it was with the Russian Tsar and the German Kaiser, who exchanged fraternal correspondence on the eve of the First World War. And so it was with the hated Roman Emperor Nero, who is said to have ‘fiddled’ on his lyre in his palace as Rome - and its citizens - burnt in a furious blaze.
But these shared characteristics are not accidental. As the representatives of a system that is long past its sell by date, such figures are consigned by history to appear painfully impotent and out-of-touch at the most decisive moments.
“Indecisiveness, hypocrisy, and lying,” says Leon Trotsky, remarking on the similarities between the ill-fated French and Russian monarchies, “were in both cases the expression, not so much of personal weakness, as of the complete impossibility of holding fast to their hereditary positions.”
“Historians and biographers of the psychological tendency infrequently seek and find something purely personal and accidental where great historical forces are refracted through a personality,” Trotsky continues, writing in his History of the Russian Revolution. “But as the ancients said: whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”
These comments on the ancien régimes of France and Russia are an apt explanation of the depravity and degeneracy of the current Tory government - the defenders of a senile and decaying capitalist system that must similarly be overthrown.
Establishment taking back control
The shocking contents of yesterday’s Sunday Times report has certainly shone a light on the deadly mistakes at the top. And taking their tune from this Murdoch-owned mouthpiece of the capitalist class, the rest of the mainstream media have chimed in with similar investigative pieces outlining the government’s fatal errors.
Similarly, new Labour leader Keir Starmer has recently emerged from his hiding place, and has finally begun to ask more probing questions of the government. Up until now, Starmer has been doing a marvellous impression of the Invisible Man - notable mostly for his absence.
Where ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer has raised his head, it has mainly been to offer his services to the establishment in the formation of a national government. Or, scandalously, to pressure the Tories into discussing a post-lockdown strategy, when the country’s focus should clearly be on saving lives now, and ramping up the provision of PPE, ventilators, and testing.
But the existence of such articles - and of Starmer’s new found line of attack - raises as many questions as it answers. Most importantly, why now? Why are such revelations only being brought to the surface at this point?
After all, even Reuters - the international news agency - was reporting on these same events weeks ago. Indeed, Socialist Appeal has been commenting on the dangers of Tory arrogance since before the lockdown was even in place, following the government’s screeching U-turn and abandonment of its ‘herd immunity’ strategy.
The fact that it is the Sunday Times - a big business broadsheet - that has made such scathing criticisms of the Tory government is significant. It demonstrates that the ruling class does not trust Boris Johnson and his gang of Brexiteers to oversee this crisis. Rather than the current mavericks who occupy Downing Street, they would much rather have a ‘safe pair of hands’ at the helm at this time.
No doubt the establishment would like to clip the wings of Johnson and the Cummings faction. Before the outbreak, these loose cannons were looking to wage war on senior civil servants, attempting to replace ‘the blob’ in Whitehall with an assortment of “weirdos and misfits”. Now the ‘adults’ want to take back control and put the ‘serious’ people in charge.
The question of a national government also comes in here. With Corbyn gone and the Labour right wing regaining their grip over the party, the ground is now paved for an establishment coalition in Westminster.
Such a move would have a number of benefits from the point of view of the capitalists. On the one hand, it would allow the Tories to share out responsibility for any future mistakes. And on the other, it would also allow the ruling class to use Labour as a ‘dented shield’ in holding back radicalised workers, as the class struggle sharpens in the weeks and months ahead.
For precisely these reasons, Labour members must organise and fight against any moves towards the formation of a government of ‘national unity’. Such a step would be a poisoned chalice for the party, tying the labour movement to the interests of the ruling class.
Instead of this reactionary ‘national unity’, Labour must fight for class unity against the capitalists, in order to protect workers from the pandemic, and to demand that the bosses pay for this crisis.
Splits at the top
At the same time, the Sunday Times report is another symptom of the split that has emerged within the ruling class itself. Many of the ‘sources’ in the article, for example, are from inside Downing Street. And tensions in the Tory Cabinet are being openly reported by the main voices of capital.
On the surface, these divisions are over the question of the lockdown - over when and how imposed measures will be lifted. On the one side, ministers such as Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove reflect the pressures of the bosses, who are desperate to reopen up the economy as soon as possible. On the other, Matt Hancock reflects the views of a more far-sighted wing of the ruling class, which can see the political danger of allowing the death toll to skyrocket.
Ironically, Johnson and Cummings have opportunistically aligned themselves to this latter side. After all, Boris ultimately only ever has one interest in mind: his own personal advancement. And the Tory leader knows that he must be seen to be saving lives if he wants to carry on being Prime Minister.
In reality, however, these splits reflect an even deeper crisis for the ruling class. As Trotsky explained, splits at the top are a feature of any pre-revolutionary situation - reflecting the fact that the ruling class can no longer rule as it has done in the past. Whatever they do will be wrong, as they are trying to prop up a system that is dying on its feet.
These splits, in turn, create the conditions for revolution. As the different wings of the establishment tear chunks out of each other, airing their dirty laundry in public, they reveal the cesspit at the heart of capitalism. And this paves the way for a profound questioning of the system, with dramatic leaps in class consciousness.
Prepare for battle
“One day there will be an inquiry into the lack of preparations during those ‘lost’ five weeks from January 24,” conclude the authors of the Sunday Times article. “It will be the politicians who will face the most intense scrutiny.”
The more astute strategists of capital often draw similar conclusions as the Marxists, but from the opposite class perspective. Today, they too can see the explosive developments that lie ahead. The spontaneous strikes and walkouts of workers seen recently against unsafe conditions are a harbinger of this.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Even mainstream economists are predicting a new depression - a return to unemployment levels not seen since the 1930s. With this will come an intense sharpening of the class struggle.
The ruling class want to prepare for these events by cleaning out the Augean stables and putting ‘reliable’ figures in place. We must prepare too - by building up the forces of Marxism.