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A government that is able to get away with the avoidable deaths of tens of thousands of its own citizens can get away with anything. In the coming months, the days will become lighter and warmer, and a population that has been through the most severe national emergency since the second world war will be ever freer. Playgrounds will fill with laughing children, rounds will be bought in pubs and friends will hug. As the “before times” come roaring back, the relief will fuse with a desire to scrub the nightmare away from our collective consciousness, and leave it to the history books and future Netflix dramas to unpick.
It should not be either/or: an embrace of our belatedly returned freedoms should not lead to a failure to hold our rulers to account. Covid-19 represents a chain reaction of crises: a public health crisis which triggered an economic crisis and, in turn, a social crisis. What beckons now is a democratic crisis: the failure to hold a government to account for its catastrophic handling of a pandemic and its abdication of that most sacred responsibility, to protect its people from harm and danger. Once this seal is breached, how does accountability – without which there is no functioning democracy – survive? What possible scandal will ever be grave enough to warrant far-reaching political consequences?
As the government seeks credit for the triumphant success of the NHS’s mass vaccination programme, let us recap what it has done. From the very start, Conservative strategy was to prioritise economic interests over human life: a calamity on its own terms, which left us simultaneously with one of the world’s worst death tolls and recessions – because it was always the virus that threatened our economy the most. Years of austerity left Britain with depleted personal protective equipment (PPE) stocks and the government failed to build up testing capacity even as the virus left China’s shores. While health experts such as Prof Anthony Costello warned that “every day of delay will kill”, the government briefed journalists that it would pursue herd immunity and allow the virus to run rampant. The government finally U-turned, but no other major European country entered lockdown with infections so high. An underfunded and under-resourced NHS with 40,000 nursing vacancies was expected to pick up the pieces, while the government was reduced to paying extortionate prices for PPE, some of which was unusable.
Vulnerable hospital patients were discharged without Covid tests en masse into care homes. Arrivals from abroad were not tested or quarantined. Multimillion-pound contracts were splashed on private companies with links to the Conservative party. Instead of building up local capacity, billions were spent on a centralised and privatised test-and-trace system in England which repeatedly failed to meet its targets. When the economy was prematurely reopened – including encouraging people to eat in confined indoor spaces through the farce of “eat out to help out” – it was without a properly functioning test-and-trace system.
Schools and universities were reopened without sufficient precautionary measures, overriding prescient warnings from trade unions. Sage’s call for a circuit breaker lockdown to prevent “catastrophe” in September was vetoed, with a U-turn only coming at the end of October, when infections were spiralling out of control. Boris Johnson mocked opponents for wanting to “cancel Christmas” and encouraged festive family mixing before doing another U-turn. The death rate over the past two months speaks to an incredibly grim and poorly managed winter.
In a healthy democracy, this series of disasters, which caused Britain to suffer the worst death rate anywhere in the world except the small nations of Czech Republic, Slovenia and Belgium, would have toppled the government. Was Neville Chamberlain’s premiership not destroyed less than a year into the war as the fall of Norway underscored the government’s disastrous record? And yet all the signs are that Johnson’s administration will simply get away with it. How? The first culprit, of course, is a supine press which often sees its fundamental role as holding the government’s opponents to account. Our broadcast media, too, acquiesced to the government’s herd immunity strategy by failing to sufficiently and stridently question why ministers were pursuing a policy that seemingly left Britain an outlier – and often failed to adequately criticise the government’s subsequent failings.
Then there is the official opposition, which seems to have abdicated the responsibilities that are rather heavily implied by that title. An opposition that cannot even call for the health secretary’s resignation when a court finds he has acted unlawfully opens itself up to the charge of having essentially given up. By failing to tell a story about why Britain has almost uniquely suffered in the pandemic – unlike the Tories, who weaved a clever but false narrative about why public spending was responsible for the 2008 financial crash – they have left much of the population believing the government did its best with the hand it was dealt, and instead blaming the public for soaring infections. A directionless Labour party is failing to pin responsibility for Britain’s worst peacetime disaster on the government, and weakening our democracy as a consequence.
So yes, sunshine and freedom beckons: our collective joy is deserved and overdue. But nearly one in every 500 of us died in this pandemic. In the years to come, our economy will recover. It is an open question whether our democracy will.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: If the UK government isn’t held to account for its Covid failures, our democracy may never recover | Coronavirus