The British government’s failure to provide sufficient protective gear was preventable, and two investigations have revealed attempts to cover it up.
“The NHS saved my life, no question,” Boris Johnson said earlier this month, publicly thanking Britain’s beloved National Health Service for successfully treating him for Covid-19 over a seven-day period in early April. “It’s hard to find words to express my debt,” the prime minister said, naming several nurses, and thanking two in particular for standing by his bedside for 48 hours when “things could’ve gone either way.”
Johnson’s speech, which he might have hoped would be lauded for its graciousness, served instead as a reminder that the NHS is a success despite him. When the first cases of Covid-19 in the U.K. were confirmed in late January, Johnson’s Conservative Party government claimed that it was prepared for any eventuality.
That turns out to have been a lie. The government’s failure to provide sufficient protective gear, which has so far contributed to the deaths of at least 114 health care workers in Britain, was preventable. Moreover, two separate investigations have now revealed high-level attempts to cover it up.
Earlier this week, the BBC’s Panorama showed that the British government’s pandemic stockpile lacked key equipment, such as gowns, visors, swabs, and body bags. The government was of course aware of this deficit and yet, even after the pandemic hit the country’s shores, U.K. leaders refused multiple opportunities to bulk-buy PPE. When the lack of supplies became obvious to the public, the government tried to hide the problem by inflating PPE numbers, counting one pair of gloves as two items of PPE.
Another investigation, by the Sunday Times, a decidedly right-leaning newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch that has previously swooned over Johnson, calling him a “rockstar,” showed just how casually the prime minister confronted the pandemic. Johnson had skipped five high-level emergency meetings to discuss the virus, the newspaper reported. He insisted, in a manner reminiscent of U.S. President Donald Trump, that briefing reports be as short as possible. He went on holiday to a country estate, refused to work weekends, and attended a fundraising ball.
After his thank-you speech, Johnson retired to Chequers, the lavish 16th century, 1,500-acre manor house used by British prime ministers, where he was photographed strolling the grounds with his pregnant fiancée and their Jack Russell terrier. (The couple’s baby boy was born on Wednesday.) The world was in the grip of an unprecedented crisis, but the U.K. was without a leader.
Johnson’s NHS caregivers, meanwhile, returned to work immediately, and every day, reports stream in of front-line health workers like them who are forced to combat the highly contagious virus in clinical waste bags and plastic aprons. They are asking schools to donate science goggles. They are adapting snorkels as respirator masks. When UNISON, the U.K.’s largest public services union, opened a PPE alert hotline, it was flooded with calls from health care workers who talked about having to buy their own equipment.
Of the health care providers who have died so far, one, Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, a consultant urologist in London, had written a Facebook post appealing to Johnson to protect him and his co-workers. “I hope we are by default entitled to get this minimal support,” he wrote on March 18, five days before he was hospitalized.
Johnson is responsible for his death, and for the death of every other health care worker in the country.
The first signs that Johnson was out of his depth emerged early on in the pandemic. While repeating that the government was “led by science,” the newly elected prime minister seemed to be pushing a dubious “herd immunity” strategy, hoping that exposure would build immunity among the British public, an outcome that, happily for Johnson, would require no action from his government. The meetings of the prime minister’s scientific advisory board, which strives to impartially inform the government’s response based on science, were attended by his chief adviser. The adviser is said to have actively participated, thereby undermining the neutrality of the process, and raising public concerns that decisions were made to suit political objectives rather than scientific ones.
While Johnson talked about science, his actions were those of a man convinced that he, and by extension, the country he led, possessed the magical ability to escape a disease that had brought much of the world, including neighbors like France, Spain, and Italy, to its knees.
In February, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control had warned that for the most serious cases of Covid-19, health workers would need around 20 sets of PPE per patient per day. The Johnson government was given as many as three opportunities to participate in an EU scheme to bulk-buy PPE. It chose not to. In fact, British officials shipped more than 200,000 units of PPE to China, then lied about choosing not to participate in the EU scheme, claiming they had “missed the emails” despite having attended meetings about the acquisition. In a TV interview, Johnson spoke of how one strategy for confronting the novel coronavirus could be to “take it on the chin.”
In early March, Johnson and his fiancée attended a rugby match. Later, he met with hospital patients, some of whom, he said, may have had Covid-19. He bragged about shaking their hands.
In March, South Korea, Taiwan, and even small Indian states like Kerala had showed how democratic societies, working doggedly, could use a dedicated World Health Organization-approved program of contact tracing, testing, and isolation to contain the virus. Some experts said that given how long it might take to develop a vaccine — as long as five years, perhaps — such a program was the only realistic way forward. New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden and Germany’s Angela Merkel also employed these tools early on; by acting quickly, they saved lives.
These countries’ successful actions were presented to Johnson on a platter. The U.K. had a head start over many others — as much as nine weeks, according to one expert, or the time between human to human virus transmission being confirmed in China and the U.K.’s first known case of local transmission on February 29. But busy with Britain’s departure from the EU on January 31, Johnson ignored every warning and squandered every opportunity to protect his country. Born and bred into the idea that he was exceptional, he endangered himself along with millions of Britons, many of whom imbibed his magical thinking.
On March 16, organizers of the four-day Cheltenham Festival, a horse racing event, cited Johnson’s presence at the rugby match earlier that month as the reason to go ahead with their event, noting that “the government guidance is for the business of the country to continue as usual.” The races attracted some 250,000 people over four days, many of whom have since tested positive for the virus. The hospitals in Gloucestershire, the county where Cheltenham is located, are now among the hardest-hit in the country.
The government also left borders open, allowing flights from Italy, China, and the U.S. without any quarantine restrictions until late this month, long after most other countries had begun to quarantine arrivals. On Johnson’s watch, the U.K. is a staggering example of what not to do.
The rising death toll in Britain, for which Johnson is personally responsible, makes it impossible to believe anything he says moving forward. To believe him could mean endangering your own life and the lives of your loved ones. In the absence of trustworthy leadership, people are being forced to make critical decisions alone. This daily struggle is taking place in the midst of another calamity — an economy that was already severely damaged as a result of Brexit is now crumbling due to the pandemic.
The UK economy will shrink by 6.8 per cent as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, and it will take three years to recover. Despite this, the U.K.’s chief Brexit negotiator has made it clear that he will not seek an extension on the December 31 deadline to reach a trade agreement with the EU. If no agreement is reached, the country will be forced to revert to World Trade Organization terms, making it liable for tariffs and border controls that will further strain the economy.
This is something Britain can ill afford. Just three weeks after the nationwide lockdown began on March 23, more than 1.5 million Britons were facing food insecurity, according to a study; this figure includes 53 percent of NHS workers. The study also said that 830,000 children could be going without the free school meals on which they relied because the government had failed to keep yet another promise — to feed children in need during the lockdown.
The current crisis has been a decade in the making. Johnson and his Tory colleagues have spent years undermining the NHS, using the excuse of austerity measures to cut salaries and reduce benefits, when in reality they appear to have been trying to push the country toward a U.S.-style private health care system.
In 2011, five Tory members of parliament, three of whom are now ministers in Johnson’s government, published a pamphlet advocating for privatization. According to a Guardian investigation, private firms were given contracts worth £15 billion, about $18 billion, a jump of 89 percent since 2015. In the years that followed, Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, scrapped nursing grants, which help nurses with study and living costs, and rejected salary increases, voting to keep nurses’ salaries below the rate of inflation. Johnson, and virtually every other member of the Conservative Party, voted with May and cheered after the votes were announced. May explained the decision to a nurse’s face, saying in her typically bloodless way: “There isn’t a magic money tree we can shake.”
In 2016, the Tory-led Brexit referendum poisoned the atmosphere for EU citizens in the U.K. so much that more than 11,000 immigrant NHS workers, including 4,763 nurses, went back home. “It’s the National Health Service, not the International Health Service,” Matt Hancock, Johnson’s health minister, sneered on Twitter at the time. The outcome of Hancock’s shortsightedness was revealed last month, when he was reduced to begging retired health workers, including those in their 70s and 80s who are most vulnerable to the virus, to return to work to boost staff numbers. (Hancock contracted the coronavirus in March.) One of the emergency hospitals he helped set up to deal with Covid-19 has remained largely empty for lack of nursing staff.
Johnson, for his part, went out of his way to praise the two immigrant nurses who cared for him while he was ill, one from New Zealand and the other from Portugal. A new scheme aimed at boosting staff numbers during the crisis allows foreign doctors, some of whom are living as refugees in the U.K., to join the NHS, but only as support staff, not as doctors, even though they are fully qualified back home.
And all this time, the Tories were steadily undercutting the national medical stockpile, reducing its value by almost 40 percent in three years while also privatizing its management. The last rehearsal for a pandemic, in 2016, had predicted the health service would collapse, according to the Sunday Times investigation. In the years that followed, the newspaper reported, “preparations for a no-deal Brexit sucked all the blood out of pandemic planning.”
The death toll in the U.K. stands at 26,771 as of April 30, according to the government. (The official figures now take into account deaths in private homes and nursing homes rather than only in hospitals.) A Financial Times analysis of data from the Office of National Statistics showed that earlier figures didn’t account for these additional numbers and that as of last week, according to the paper, the true number of deaths was closer to 41,000.
It is tempting to believe that Johnson’s brush with the virus has taught him humility or that the investigations have shamed him into doing his job. But some NHS workers weren’t impressed by his expressions of gratitude.
“This outpouring of emotion helps the government gloss over the shortages,” one health worker told the BBC. “Calling us heroes just makes it OK when we die.”
On Monday, after three weeks away, Johnson returned to work. At a press conference outside 10 Downing Street, he was in a self-congratulatory mood, speaking of “real signs now that we are passing through the peak.” The numbers suggest otherwise, and there was only a passing mention of PPE.
As the U.K.’s death toll threatens to be the worst in Europe, there really is just one choice. Boris Johnson must apologize, resign, and let a real leader take charge.