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Covid – a failure of leadership

 

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Thoughts on …                                                      19 October 2021

 

Covid – a failure of leadership

 

I welcome the thorough report by MPs on the government’s management of the pandemic and agree with much of its content. It correctly identifies many of the serious mistakes that have been made in the hope that this will enable lessons to be learned for the future. We can only trust that this will be the case and that its recommendations are implemented.

 

Unfortunately, so far, I see no signs of any lessons from the mismanagement of the pandemic having been learned. The virus is still totally out of control at present with infections reaching an astronomically high level and the death rate of over 800 a week being not only horrific but unimaginably tragic.

 

We must all take responsibility for the scale of the tragedy that we have suffered in this country. I include myself in the “we” of course. As individuals we have too often been casual, careless and ill-disciplined and collectively we have allowed, and continue to allow, our decision-makers to make the wrong decisions.

 

Given the system of governance we have, however, it is only fair to say that some people have been more responsible than others for what has probably been the worst peacetime disaster in our history. A greater percentage of the population may have died in the widespread plagues of centuries ago, and there was certainly a high death toll in the Spanish Flu pandemic, but, with the medical knowledge and healthcare provision we now have, the Covid crisis should not have been allowed to become such an appalling and catastrophic disaster.

 

Although politicians from all parties must accept responsibility for the disaster the ultimate responsibility lies with the government and especially the Prime Minister. There has been, and sadly still is, a failure of leadership at the highest level and pretending otherwise is self-delusion.

 

The government made three good decisions which saved lives and supported people’s well-being: lockdowns were the right decision despite their delay, not being sufficiently comprehensive and being lifted too soon. The financial support given to individuals and businesses was absolutely right, and the vaccine rollout was excellent initially. I also acknowledge the massive and very impressive organisation that has gone into test and trace, the provision of PPE, communications and many other aspects of national and local government.

 

I am deeply grateful for all the efforts that other people have made on my behalf. We must all be grateful.

 

However, our gratitude should not be allowed to obscure the tragic failures which have resulted in over 161,000 deaths from Covid and the accompanying anguish and suffering this has produced. It is my belief that had the pandemic been managed differently the death toll could possibly have been kept to under 5,000 and the crisis in the UK would have mostly come to an end a year ago. This is not said with the benefit of hindsight as I, and many others, were arguing for a very different strategy from the outset.

I propose there are five key reasons for the overall failure of leadership from the Prime Minister and the present government.

 

1  Saving lives was not made the absolute number one priority it should have been. No one should either have believed, stated or listened to the uncaring view that there was a balance to be struck between lives and livelihoods. There never was a balance to be struck and never will be. Of course everyone was concerned about the damage to the economy, and to the hospitality industry in particular, but livelihoods can be restored, lost lives cannot. It is the first duty of government to protect the lives of its citizens and this it has failed to do.

It was the desire to keep the economy going that was a key factor in delaying lockdowns and restrictions and lifting them too soon.

The latest lifting of restrictions in July in order to restore economic and social activity has resulted in a further huge and avoidable loss of life and created an extremely dangerous sense of normalisation where tens of thousands of lost lives are accepted as the price for living with the virus.

 

2  The Prime Minister and other members of the government have consistently underestimated the severity of the virus and its variants and the ease of its transmission. This also contributed to late lockdowns and their early lifting as well as the bewildering decision in July.

 

3  The Prime Minister and his advisers, perhaps with the exception of Dominic Cummings, have failed in their ability to think clearly, critically and differently. They have been locked into political and social orthodoxies which have been wholly inappropriate for managing a crisis. It has been not so much groupthink as non-think.

Examples of non-think are numerous: not inviting leaders of other parties into a government of national unity which would have brought the country together in a spirit of shared determination to defeat the virus; not fully understanding that the continuing crisis demanded an ongoing restriction of many individual liberties in the interests of collective protection – pub closures, curfews, limited numbers at gatherings, mask wearing and so on; not grasping the vital importance of border controls; not having the vision to see that complete shut downs would be better than lockdowns which were not watertight; not realising that strong and repeated messages were needed to ensure compliance with rules; not being prepared to use the military as Covid marshals; and not being willing to listen and act upon different points of view.

The two most serious examples of this failure to think clearly were first, the insane view that herd immunity was a possible strategy to use against the virus, and second, the unquestioning acceptance that mitigation, not virtual elimination, was the only course to pursue.  

       

4  The character of the Prime Minister will have been a crucial factor in the mismanagement of the crisis. I am not qualified to assess the psychology involved in this but it seems to me that his desire to be seen as a Churchillian figure, leading the nation in defiance of the enemy onslaught and accepting the inevitability of heavy casualties, played a significant part in his thinking. It is ironic that, by allowing infections and mortalities to increase so dangerously at present, Johnson has in fact done the opposite of Churchill and surrendered.

 

5  Finally there is the failure associated with the purpose of the report: the failure to learn lessons. From the beginning of the pandemic this failure has led to mistake after mistake being made. The slowness to lock down initially, as well as not closing borders sooner, were mistakes that could have been avoided if the government had been willing to learn from what was happening in Italy and other countries at the time. The unwillingness to learn from countries that were successfully pursuing a policy of elimination rather than mitigation has proved to be disastrous. And the failure to learn from our own experience has been unbelievable. The mindless decision to relax restrictions in the summer and create a false impression that life was almost back to normal has tragically cost thousands of lives.

 

 

We must all learn from our mistakes but it is essential that those in positions of leadership or influence learn more thoroughly than others.  It is my view, though, that the failings of leadership in managing the pandemic have resulted in such tragic consequences that the Prime Minister, senior members of the government and senior advisers must be replaced as soon as possible as they would be in any other organisation.

 

Whether or not this happens there is, however, one overriding lesson to be learned now. In order to save lives, reduce infections and return life properly to normal there must be a complete revision of the present strategy immediately.

 

People must be very firmly told that the pandemic is not over and the only way to achieve this is not to learn to live with it but to fight the virus together, chase it down and go for virtual elimination. This is not zero covid but what I call nano covid. It is a strategy I urge everyone to support.

 

For more on nano covid see:

https://www.quercuspublications.co.uk/nano_covid.html

 

For posts, comments, letters and tweets on Covid see:

https://www.quercuspublications.co.uk/links_to_coronavirus_comments.html