The Burner Episode #220: They Knew

An explosive story over the weekend exposed just some of the government’s failures in dealing with the pandemic. James Butler asks: what did they know? And what do we know?


Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and it is Monday April 20 and we are still in lockdown.

We knew. That, to me, has been the feeling I have had all through the weekend: we knew. It’s a feeling I’ve had on and off while watching this crisis develop and take hold and seeing the news every day as the death toll grew every day.

From its beginning, we have been told that we did not know and that we could not know what was taking hold. Critics of the government had been told again and again that we were wrong, that we were motivated by nastiness, that we were lacking in national spirit and that we were seeking political advantage, or that we were alarmist or that, somehow, some ineffable Britishness [would] protect us from what was going on.

But we knew, and as we learned from a story in The Sunday Times over the weekend, knowing was possible. But, because of a void at the heart of government at the very centre of decision-making, they refused to know and refused to act until it was too late. Now, the story reveals damning failures of government on multiple fronts in the lead time to the current pandemic crisis. It reveals the prime minister missed five Cobra meetings on the coronavirus, failing to attend the emergency meetings until March 5. In that period, despite warnings and despite the growing evidence elsewhere internationally, the government did very little to tackle the unfolding crisis and by March 5 it was too late. Even then, another nine days went by before the government settled on a lockdown strategy.

I have said before that there are weird cycles and stretches of time in this pandemic bubble; of course, the incubation and quarantine periods of the virus itself and and the process of its treatment. But the biggest gap, the thing which stretches out before us and which only looks more and more like an absence as the crisis wears on, is that huge long stretch of time – five weeks – where the UK had time to develop its response and prepare for the wave to hit here and did almost nothing.

There are failures at multiple levels here, and not just at the political level, but [there is] ultimately where responsibility must lie. The questions that keep returning to me are these. When did they know? When should they have known? When did they start taking it seriously?

All too late. We learned from the story that the direst of warnings were given a month earlier (in the scientific committees) than had previously been confirmed. The same questions that we’ve continued to ask him, which had been in our lips since the earliest days of this crisis on PPE, on testing, on ventilator capacity and on lockdown policy. Those ought to have been on the government’s mind as well. They weren’t and I think this is essential. There’ll be a lot of claims that these issues were unknowable in advance. They were not. We knew and we had time to know and to prepare.

That period between the emergence of the virus and the spread of the pandemic is essential; [it] is when failures were predictable [to] anyone who knew a bit about the way the government works in this country would be able to foresee, and many of us feared. They played out in just such a way that we expected.

And while this is a story of government inaction of catastrophic and devastating failure, it is also a story of the failure of our media and our political class as well. The most prominent voices in our political life spent that time chained to their dependable witlessness and lack of curiosity, assuring us, loyal and blinkered, that nothing was really wrong. The government says “everything is well, just fine really, so there’s nothing to worry about here”. And [this failure of our media and political class] continued even while the death toll in Italy and Spain rocketed.

While some of the most dependably vacuous voices in public life ridiculed anyone asking even the most basic questions as performing hipster analysis. It appears briefly as if the press has woken up for a little bit but, as ever, one wonders if they’re just reaching around above the duvet for the snooze button. We will doubtless one day have an inquiry of some sort. But there is no body, no inquiry, no form of investigation which can haul up the failures in another essential part of our democracy; its discursive part, the part which analyses, thinks it, makes issues visible in public and hopes even that by bringing things into the light they might change.

That is, of course, the press. If the pandemic has revealed much about the way the government is weak, rudderless, incompetent, and incapable, if it has revealed the many in longstanding fault lines in the way the country is governed, it has done even more so to the press.

But that long period of five weeks of failure is not the only stretch of time we should be concerned about. As that piece emphasised over the weekend, and as many, including me, have written about as the pandemic took code, it’s not just about five weeks, it’s about the 10 years which preceded them. We read again and again about the failures exposed by the crisis and especially in pandemic planning. But although pandemic plans were once a strong point of British government, both austerity and then planning for a no deal Brexit blew them wildly – that’s even after the simulation exercise Cygnus revealed massive and woeful gaps in NHS preparedness.

A senior department of health official is quoted as saying a pandemic was always at the top of our national risk register always, but when it came we just slowly watched. We could have been Germany, but instead we were doomed by our incompetence, our hubris, and our austerity. And that’s the problem, at least for the government: to talk honestly about the way the government has failed in this crisis; that must haul before our eyes, not just the contingent decisions of the past few weeks [and] what might happen to any government as it collides with an emergency and makes mistakes and errors, but the contingent errors. [Those] always reflect the government’s own weaknesses.

In the conservative case, that is often antipathy and distrust of anything public, a kind of slavish idolatry of the free market weighting of the economy – which is of course identified exclusively with the concerns of businessmen above pretty much anything else – and, perhaps more subtly, a disinclination to actually do anything; a preference not to act where possible. Contingent errors can always be explained away, even if explained badly, as matters of speed and slowness in response [and] blame can be spread around. [But] it’s much, much harder to explain away the systemic problems, which cut to the base of the conservative worldview and their stewardship of the state for the past decade; “austerity above all” should sit firmly in the cross hairs here.

This is not a crisis that was five weeks in the making, but a decade in the making; 15,000 and more credibly we think dead, possibly the worst toll in Europe. Not five weeks but a decade.

A couple of other things on this which I think are important.

The left often likes to talk about systemic failures and structural problems. I think that’s good, generally, not least because it should make us dissatisfied with mere changes in personnel rather than changes in how we actually do things. But it sometimes makes us less sharp on the personal element in politics: leadership, what it looks like and why it matters, especially in a system ever increasingly personalised and reliant on personalised authority. That’s not just super structural frivolity. It has profound impact on what governments do or don’t do, how they work and how they fail.

So this quote from a Whitehall insider is important, I think:

He didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks; he didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive and the local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”

That is, of course, about Boris Johnson.

But it’s not quite right. It’s not as people feared he would be. It’s as we knew he would be. It’s the same approach he took to his tenure in the mayoralty in London, in City Hall; [the] triumph in the annals of inactivity and venality started with these few vast wastes of public money, these eye-catching vanity projects which did nothing to improve public life but had international corporate branding slapped on the side. It’s the same feckless approach he took as foreign secretary; its international fuck-ups followed diplomatic balls-up, [as] in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, of course, but many more every day failures generated, as always predicted, by laziness, by coasting and by failure to prepare and failure to read the briefings. He is who we have always said he is. He is who we have always known him to be: [a] sort of [inaudible] libertarian sociopath, [one] more interested in press adulation than political accomplishment, [one who is more interested] in title and grandeur rather than agonising detail, the pressing challenges, the spiralling crises which press so hard on our future. He lies as easily as he breathes. He’s a hollow man. And he’s prime minister. Not feared, new.

You may wonder why The Sunday times is running with this now and I think it’s important to recognise it’s not just a question of public interest, there’s timing to it as well. It’s instructive to compare the Telegraph front page as well, which is slavering and mesmerised with the health charm of the duce. The Times does not, as a rule, especially like Boris Johnson – after all, he’s a Telegraph man. He’s a former columnist for them, and [is] perhaps a little more chaotic than they like as an administrator of the state, so no wonder they feel free to stick the knife in when they think it’s apposite. [It’s far] better for them perhaps to have Gove, who is a former The Times’ columnist after all, slouching his way towards Downing street.

There’s something quite unpleasant here; to think about our public life as the competition – or deeply structured by the competition – between two billionaire owners of two prominent newspapers. Nonetheless, that is at least partly the world in which we live.

As for Gove… I think it’s perhaps good to think back just a few years ago to the succession contest after David Cameron hit his eject button after the referendum and remember Kenneth Clarke’s, nominally perhaps somewhat consciously, off-camera remarks caught on a hot mic on Sky News:

Kenneth Clarke: I don’t think the membership will vote for Gove. I remember being in a discussion once about something we should do in somewhere like Syria or Iraq, and he was so wild that I remember exchanging looks with Liam Fox – who was much more right-wing than me but we shared views – and Liam was raising eyebrows. I think with Michael as prime minister, we would go to war with at least three countries at once. He did us all a favour by getting rid of Boris. Boris as prime minister would be ridiculous.
[Unknown]: That could have happened…

That’s something to bear in mind.

Much has been made in Britain of Donald Trump’s bizarre press conferences and his attempt to manage the media by literally reading out positive press stories to journalists and his tantrums at the podium. And many have pointed his gutting of the administrative state, the capacity of the state, to even recognise and deal with an unfolding crisis. But [even] if we don’t quite have the pantomime here, too much can be made of the differences in preparedness and capacity.

What has this period been other than evidence? Horrifying, miserable evidence that we too have suffered a tearing of great holes in our safety net. The setting up of failure, a slow boiling disaster, that precisely because it happens so slowly over that decade, so few really care to head the alarms when they’re triggered.

What is the praise of the Big Society, that reheated David-Cameron-microwaved dinner of a concept, [other] than a recognition that people are stepping in where the government has failed?

It’s not just charity, it’s [a] failure [of] exactly where the government should be. Those of you who’ve listened to me over the years know that I have a deep fondness for and interest in Italian political history. And I’ve been continually reminded over this period of a column written by the communist filmmaker pier Paolo Pasolini and his last column in the Corriere della Sera before he was murdered.

The column is almost-universally known as “Io so”, I know. In the middle of the undeclared civil war that was then raging in Italy, [with] huge webs of corruption crisscrossing the Italian state, it was essentially a brilliantly condensed, furious piece of journalism and really an indictment of the entire political culture simply made by saying this thing that so many felt but couldn’t articulate or didn’t articulate or were afraid to articulate: that, actually, it was possible to know. And, indeed, so many already did know who was responsible, even if their exact names were missing, and what was responsible for the state in which they were living.

It also contains a really stunning vision of the ideal form of a left-wing political party and perhaps of the kind that was unique to Italy but which remains a touchstone for me. But just those two words are worth rolling around in your head throughout this crisis. I know, you know, too.

[Woman: I saw you with my own eyes.
Man: Well, who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?]

Headlines today

Ahead of us today, probably some blowback coming from the UK as deputy chief medical officer – the same one who declared and bizarrely continues to declare that World Health Organisation advice on testing wasn’t meant for the UK or other advanced nations or, in her new formula, nations which knew they had a problem already. Not true. Absolutely not true. [However], she added last night that, actually, the UK really was a case of “exemplar preparedness”. It really was quite remarkable.

Jenny Harries: So I think we’ve perhaps ought to just step back a little bit and start from the beginning of this, which is the UK – regardless of the position that we may be in now or commentary – has been an international exemplar in preparedness.

JB: Who are you going to believe indeed?

Across all the front pages news, [all about how] we all knew it was likely that the lockdown measures really are going to stay in place for significant amounts of time, even when they come to be relaxed a bit to ward off any second peak.

But more on The Times this morning on the economic hit, with sources inside the treasury warning of the so-called V-shaped recovery is looking less and less likely and the economic hit may take rather longer to edge out of. You can expect that to fuel tensions in the government, and especially in the cabinet, between those who want the restrictions lifted ASAP to help the recovery and those who think that would be a public health catastrophe. Rishi Sunak, repeated to be on the hawkish side of that question, we’ll e taking the press conference later today. Maybe somebody in the lobby could actually ask him a difficult question or two before he gets on with his contortionist act and gives himself a few congratulatory slaps on his own back?

The government’s furlough scheme opens today and is expected to be inundated. Controversy is also emerging about the government loan scheme and whether those need to be 100%, more than 90%, treasury-backed in order to actually work. Those are two areas it might be worth digging into. The government will continue to throw tantrums about scrutiny – furious as it is about that story over the weekend. But all the rebuttals so far have basically – and actually quite carefully – avoided the question of whether the story is essentially true or not. So you can expect similar gyrations to continue.

And yes, believe it or not, a new round of Brexit talks kicks off today with the government’s still professing they won’t ask for or accept an extension to transition even if they’re offered one. How long really can that position last?

All right. As ever, do be in touch please, with everything and anything. You can get me on [email protected] or you can tweet me @piercepenniless. Otherwise, stay safe, stay home and wash your hands and don’t be a prick. That’s it. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and I’ll see you tomorrow.




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