By Mike Phipps
A week before Christmas, a little noticed report by a committee of parliamentarians made some scathing observations about the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Biosecurity and National Security report by the House of Commons and House of Lords Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy was noticed by only a few media outlets. Its hard-hitting conclusions were all the more significant, because they were agreed unanimously by a cross- party Committee, including Conservatives loyal to the government, and Labour MPs whose leadership has been broadly supportive of the government’s approach.
The arrival of coronavirus, says the report, “offered the opportunity to use it as a test case to assess the strength of the UK’s systems of national security oversight and governance. Regrettably, this test case exposed profound shortcomings in these systems.”
It noted “long-present gaps in the planning and preparation for biological risks.” Despite the 2018 Biological Security Strategy’s emphasis on the importance of detection, the government “failed seriously to consider how it might scale up testing, isolation and contact-tracing capabilities during a serious disease outbreak.”
Furthermore, the pandemic “also exposed vulnerabilities in the UK’s supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) and its ability to tackle false or misleading information online.”
Tellingly, the report points to “a striking absence of leadership of the UK’s biological security as a whole.” It makes a series of recommendations to address the failings, including greater accountability to Parliament in this area, government funding tackling such threats to be ring-fenced and a long-term plan of investment to support front-line organisations.
Giving evidence to the Committee, Professor Paul Rogers from Bradford University called the UK “one of the worst performing states” during the first eight months of the pandemic. Writing later for Open Democracy, he hailed its report as a “remarkable document” giving a verdict on the government’s handling of “the worst direct security threat to British people since the height of the Cold War.”
Some of the evidence to the Committee was shocking. One senior biological research expert said that, despite the government being made aware of the likelihood of a pandemic of this type, Public Health England’s hospital laboratory capacity had been scaled down prior to the outbreak. Others condemned the absence of testing early on in the pandemic.
The report is also highly critical of the government’s inability to ensure sufficient PPE for front-line staff, despite previously having assured the Committee about adequate stockpiles. It failed to anticipate the competition for supplies in the context of an international pandemic.
Speaking after the report was published, Dame Margaret Beckett MP, who sits on the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, accused the government of “negligence”, adding that it “seems to have treated a vaccine as a ‘fix-all’, with little pre-consideration of our capabilities for detecting where the virus is and bringing cases under control.”
The report is focused on the government’s preparation – or lack of it – for the pandemic. It doesn’t touch on a host of other failings associated with the government’s response. These include the outsourcing of testing work to a company with no experience in the field, the backdoor privatisations in the NHS that have accompanied the response and the corruption whereby key contracts were handed to cronies of senior ministers.
In a detailed survey by the New York Times – interestingly no UK paper thought such an investigation worthwhile – it emerges that “roughly 1,200 central government contracts that have been made public, together worth nearly $22 billion. Of that, about $11 billion went to companies either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy. Meanwhile, smaller firms without political clout got nowhere.”
While the pandemic has meant misery for many, it’s been a bonanza for some. As The Observerrecently reported, ten billionaires have seen their collective wealth grow by $400 billion during the crisis.
An uninquisitive media and a lack of rigorous opposition around the government’s mishandling of the pandemic have left unexposed many of the failings in the government’s response. And some if this is not just a matter of mistakes or incompetence.
In the run-up to Christmas, for example, councils that were considering allowing schools to close a couple of days early before the holiday, due to the alarming rise in COVID cases among their teachers and students, were threatened with legal action by the government if they did so. Days later, the government woke up to the severity of the crisis and caved in. But it’s part of a pattern of confronting, rather than working with local authorities, which are far more attuned to the precise situation in their localities than central government can be, and are willing to take critical decisions while the government dithers.
Worse, it’s part of the government’s agenda to demonise educational professionals as a by-product of their response to the COVID outbreak, pitting “selfish” teachers against pupils and parents, with the help of a supportive print media.
The government’s latest “wacky idea,” as Melissa Benn rightly calls it, is that “schools returning in early January must provide for the mass testing of pupils, turning themselves into the equivalent of a field hospital.”
Scotland, she reminds us, has delayed the return of schools after Christmas for two weeks, while “in England heads and governors must supposedly spend their Christmas break sorting out staggered starting times from early January, erecting or otherwise creating special testing centres and coordinating the staff to administer the tests” – something which is not remotely the responsibility of educators.
When this crisis began, the government framed the dilemma it faced as one of prioritising public health or the economy. The longer the pandemic has continued, the more this framing has been exposed as false. Focusing on the economy at the expense of public health – effectively the option pursued by authoritarian governments, for example in the US and Brazil – has also been hugely disruptive.
Here too, the science – and its warnings about exponential increases in the rate of infection – were ignored, in order to focus on the economy and “preserve” Christmas, in particular its commercial opportunities. In the end, by acting too late as usual, the government was forced to U-turn even on that.
It’s the latest in a long series of failings – failure to maintain the NHS, failure to prepare for the pandemic as the Joint Committee pointed out, failure to lock down early enough last March, and again this autumn, failure to provide adequate PPE, failure to properly test and trace and failure to give clear messaging that applied to all.
No wonder public confidence in the government is at rock bottom and infection levels are spiralling out of control. And no wonder Keep Our NHS Public conclude: “Johnson should go and take Hancock with him.”
Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.
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