thu 13/05/2021

Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott: Failures of State review - a devastating exposé, slightly mistimed | reviews, news & interviews

Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott: Failures of State review - a devastating exposé, slightly mistimed

Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott: Failures of State review - a devastating exposé, slightly mistimed

Precipitous publication may mean this feat of research fails to make its mark

Calvert and Arbuthnott: two of the most experienced and reputable investigative journalists of the dayHarperCollins

Almost a year ago, in the midst of the first national lockdown, The Sunday Times broke the news that Boris Johnson had failed to attend five consecutive Cobra meetings in the lead up to the coronavirus crisis. The article went viral, reaching 24 million people in the UK and becoming the most popular online piece in the history of the paper.

Almost a year ago, in the midst of the first national lockdown, The Sunday Times broke the news that Boris Johnson had failed to attend five consecutive Cobra meetings in the lead up to the coronavirus crisis. The article went viral, reaching 24 million people in the UK and becoming the most popular online piece in the history of the paper. It was clear that as people lost their freedoms and feared for the lives of their loved ones, the Prime Minister’s reportedly relaxed attitude to the pandemic had triggered public outrage.

The authors of the article, Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott of the Insight investigative journalism unit, expanded their story into a non-fiction book, Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus, a devastating exposé of the response of the UK government to the pandemic. Its conclusions are jaw-droppingly bold, pinning charges on senior politicians not only of mishandling the crisis but of doing so with dishonesty and cronyism to boot. According to Calvert and Arbuthnott, the blame lies at the hands of those closest to the top, predictably Johnson and, more explosively, Sunak.

Jonathan CalvertCharting “Britain’s sleepwalk to disaster” in a feat of research and storytelling, the authors blast apart the suggestion that the government “followed the science” from the beginning. They describe a “demob happy” Boris Johnson in early February, celebrating his eighty-seat majority and Brexit day triumph, “his complicated personal life” the most pressing issue on his mind.

They argue that the judgment of the Brexit-obsessed Johnson was impaired by his ideological position on trade: “there is a risk,” he said in a speech at the Greenwich Royal Naval College in early February, “that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage.” This, according to the authors, is a clue to Johnson’s political motivation for underestimating the level of threat posed by the virus’ emergence in Britain.

They proceed to outline the lack of evidence base for the herd immunity strategy and to highlight the idiosyncratic nature of Britain's laissez-faire approach in comparison to several other European and East Asian countries. They report how scientists warned Johnson that “going for herd immunity at this point does not seem a viable option… more restrictive measures should be taken immediately, as is already happening across the world.” By the time the national lockdown was declared on 23 March 2020, the authors claim that there were already more than an estimated 1.5 million infections in Britain.

They then turn their attention to the situation in Britain's hospitals during the lockdown, suggesting a culture of omerta was enforced in the NHS, punishing medical staff who spoke out on issues ranging from a lack of PPE to the capacity of intensive care units. The authors claim that “the heartbreaking decisions medics would be forced to make over who should be treated was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the lockdown weeks.”

They also examine the curious lack of usage of the Nightingale hospitals and the claim that an overly restrictive triage tool was circulating around certain NHS trusts, leading to elderly people being denied available intensive care facilities. Journeying through the “Reckless Summer and calamitous Christmas of 2020, they describe the horror of New Year’s Eve 2020, when “there were more deaths reported in Britain from the virus in 24 hours than there had been in the whole of Australia over that year.”

George Arbuthnott Calvert and Arbuthnott make the bold conclusion that “history is unlikely to be kind to Johnson and his government’s stewardship of Britain’s response to the pandemic.” Nor do they think it will be kind to Rishi Sunak, the “new golden boy'' who they claim was integral in persuading Johnson that protecting the economy had to be prioritised over restrictive public health measures.

However, given the book was published just at the moment that the highly successful vaccination programme was rolled out, history may be kinder to the political leaders than the authors suspect. In the glow of the return to normal life, the reported ‘blunders’ that are impeccably catalogued in this book may be forgotten. The thousands of people that the authors believe lost their lives due to government recklessness and incompetence may not get the justice they deserve.

The bold and extraordinary claims in Failures of State are made by two of the most experienced and reputable investigative journalists of the day and cut to fundamental questions of democracy. They deserve the most meticulous attention. However, if Failures of State does not successfully generate the attention it demands, the explanation is not any editorial failing, but an error of timing. Perhaps Calvert and Arbuthnott ought to start another book? A year on from the vaccine rollout, questions may begin to be asked about the ‘Plague Island’ where the Cheltenham Races went ahead as the rest of the world locked down. That might be the moment for Calvert and Arbuthnott to make their mark.

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