Nobody Saw It Coming
Updated: Mar 15
If this was the response to risk number 1 on the UK Risk Register, just how ill-prepared is the Government to risk numbers 2, 3 or 4?
I distinctly remember sitting in the office of my employer in January 2020 and playing down Covid-19.
At that time, what seemed to me like pearl clutching, doom mongering hysteria had gripped some of my colleagues, or at least the tenor of their discussions about this virus.
At that time, it felt very much like the hyperbolic conclusion-leaping so common on the internet (and all too often in non-virtual spaces, too, for that matter) despite the fact that it was clearly having a very serious impact elsewhere in the world.
Another SARS, surely. Another EBOLA. An awful, horrible, dreadful blight on those unfortunate enough to suffer from it, but one that would be, y'know, over there. Not here. Not in any significant way.
I was very, very wrong.
Hey, who can blame me? I wasn't alone in feeling fairly blase about the chances of if hitting hard in the UK. Indeed, what have we heard so often over these last four or five months? That refrain, oft repeated, on the news, in every programme, every paper, every broadcast and podcast?
Nobody saw this coming.
A deadly, crippling virus shutting down the country was the stuff of speculative fiction, predicted only in television and film, in novels and video games and comic books. I recently reread a Batman comic set in a quasi-apocalyptic future (Batman #666, 'Batman In Bethlehem' 2007) during which an off-panel news broadcast mentions that 'Quarantine restrictions remain, but British air authorities believe flights to and form Heathrow will resume within the next month'
That's how fanciful the prospect seemed, 13 years ago.
And so, much of the analysis of the response has been caveat-ed with the same line over and over; that nobody saw this coming. Many suggestions have been made that we ought to cut some slack on this basis, take it into consideration, be fair, be reasonable.
Yes, the Government weren't fully prepared, but c'mon, nobody saw this coming.
Yes, the NHS was left vulnerable, poorly protected, but be fair, nobody saw this coming.
Yes, the strategy was all over the shop, scientific advice was not followed as early as it should have been and ministers were giving out mixed messages, but be reasonable, nobody saw this coming. You need to take that into consideration.
Turns out, though, that the UK Government doesn't deserve this particular slice of slack.
A pandemic was top of the UK Government Risk Register. 296, 000 'confirmed cases'. 45, 422 'registered deaths'. Daily numbers of infections and deaths still in the hundreds (445 new cases and 110 deaths on 21/07). Second highest death toll per 100,00 in the EEA. If this was the response to risk number 1 on the UK Risk Register, just how ill-prepared is the Government to risk numbers 2, 3 or 4?
Chronic initial delays in crucial PPE. A plane load of it being sent back to Turkey because it was substandard. Hiccups galore with the much lauded Track and Trace app, which has failed to materialise as trailed and failed to live up to the grandstanding product specs. Mixed messages on face-coverings, slow into lockdown, defending Dominic 'The Indefensible' Cummings, rejecting an advised Care Home lockdown, double counted tests, turning vicariously on PHE, Whitehall and even Care Home staff and operators; confidence ought to be rationed with extreme care.
The UK Government has floundered in the face of the pandemic, despite it topping the register of risks, a register that 'aims to provide an effective response where emergencies cannot be prevented from happening.'
Whatever hope one must have for those other risks, for which the UK is presumably less well prepared for, must be punishingly meagre. As for those other risks? Oh, y'know, things like Coastal Flooding, major industrial accidents, attacks on critical infrastructure, inland flooding, attacks on crowded places, attacks on transport, chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear material attacks.
Nothing major, then.
As the Government marches forward undaunted, with grim determination, to re-open the economy and return to 'normal life' no matter what (By Christmas, the PM insists, to the dismay of experts) as they advise people to return to city centres and offices, to pubs and bars, to care homes and holiday parks and airports, as they talk much more about getting the economy 'going' than they do about virus elimination, as they seek to return to their holy mission of Brexit and beyond, it's worth remembering how they responded to a pandemic that they really, definitely should have seen coming.