UK Coronavirus: Government Misinformation Drive
Reporting on the coronavirus pandemic has meant unearthing one tragedy after another. The UK government has messed up spectacularly, ignoring warnings to prepare for such an emergency, and failing to put things right when deficiencies were identified. There has been a series of clearly identifiable failures that could have been rectified had the political will existed to do so. But it didn’t. And then yesterday, things started to get weird; so extraordinary that I fear it signals things are about to get a lot worse.
On Sunday (19th April), the Sunday Times published an article describing the same government failings that many independent, non-mainstream journalists had been reporting on. It’s as scandalous and explosive as anything that I or other independent journalists have written on the topic. All the information in the Sunday Times article was publicly available (indeed, one journalist commented that it represented a thorough knowledge of Google Search), but until now it was only the little guys holding the government to account.
Lobby journalists had asked only weak questions and accepted answers which skirted around the issues, and most newspapers were printing articles favourable of the government’s performance with little scrutiny of the ongoing crisis. Channel4 News gets kudos for actually reporting on conditions in hospitals and care homes, but the BBC and ITV weren’t getting to the heart of the problem — reporting on the crisis as if it was something that just happened, rather than something exacerbated by government inaction.
But, finally, a mainstream paper went for it and published an investigation into the government’s response, from the first discussions of the virus in government in January, to the time they came up with a plan on 2nd March. It is damning. The original Sunday Times article (paywalled) is here:
Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster
On the third Friday of January a silent and stealthy killer was creeping across the world. Passing from person to…
There soon followed a flurry of we-told-you-so’s from the aforementioned independent journalists, and doctors, scientists, and anyone else who had desperately hoped that someone in power would heed their warnings. It’s not about smugness; if only the government had acted differently, tens of thousands of deaths could have been avoided. There were post hoc rationalisations from mainstream journalists minimising their lukewarm reporting over the last few months (and before that, let’s be honest), and there were government ministers attempting to ‘debunk’ the Sunday Times’s article all over social media.
It looked like a government panicking and rushing to cover up its mistakes, which is bad enough. But then a couple of other things happened to show that the government is really rattled by this. At Sunday’s coronavirus press briefing, reported on BBC News, the deputy chief medical officer’s statements sounded like something out of 1984:
The reason for testing, as recommended by the World Health Organisation, was completely mischaracterised in this briefing as if it were only a tool for checking if the virus existed in the country or not, and not for tracing and quarantining anyone who’s been in contact with an infected person.
Dr Harries said “we had, and we still have, a very clear plan”, which is at odds with how it actually played out. “We had a containment phase and it was very successful”, discussing the early testing and quarantining at UK airports which was abandoned within a matter of weeks when resources ran out. It didn’t ‘contain’ the virus at all. Dr Harries went on, “but once you end up with seeding, and cases which we recognised, across the community, our focus has to be — and I still think this the case — on managing the clinical condition of those individuals.” Basically, we missed the boat.
But why not prevention as well as treatment? Dr Harries explains “In an ideal world, perhaps if you have endless resources — and I mean that in terms of people, I don’t mean it in financial terms — mechanisms for following through, testing, contact tracing going on; it’s an important approach to be considered.”
It sure is, and it’s an approach used by other countries, so why not Britain? I guess we don’t live in an ideal world — not that the bar is particularly high. Dr Harries then dismisses comparisons between the UK and other countries, and calls into question the evidence for testing. When asked about the government’s failure to stockpile and source PPE in time, she says “I think perhaps we ought to step back a 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.”
Has it? And what’s happening now is very important, because it’s what we’re dealing with, er, now. In the absence of a properly maintained stockpile, part of the government’s emergency response was to create “a new national supply and logistics network [that] had been ‘created from scratch’ in a matter of weeks to manage supply and demand across the UK.”
That was the right idea, but the reason we needed to resort to this is that we have so much reliance on overseas manufacturers, which are now under pressure to deliver in high volumes in their own countries. And we didn’t manage it very well when we did implement it. The government put a public call out for manufacturers of ventilators and PPE to contact them, issued contracts to unsuitable suppliers, and ignored UK companies that had capacity and supplies available immediately.
That’s the reason why journalists are asking about PPE in the first place — because the government’s response has been inadequate. So the statement from Dr Harries is just defensiveness and distraction, and tells us nothing new. Answering a different question on PPE in the same interview (only available to UK viewers, sorry), she chose to patronise us. “We could perhaps have a more adult, and more detailed conversation about PPE supplies”.
As if medics, journalists and the public are being childish by asking serious questions about the urgent matter of adequately protecting staff and patients from a deadly infection. Unbelievable, and yet another tactic to silence criticism. Speaking of which, none of the lobby journalists (appearing by video link) pushed back on any of these avoidant replies, although I guess they ran the risk of being switched off.
Later on yesterday, the government issued a claim-by-claim rebuttal (on the Department of Health & Social Care blog!) of the Sunday Times’s article that read as if Donald Trump had composed it on Twitter. It is a weird document which seems to have been written by someone straight out of a high school debating society. It relies on contesting irrelevant points to claim that the main issues addressed by the Sunday Times are false, for example:
Alright, you might not have messed up on that particular Sunday; it could even have been a Tuesday for all I know. The problem is that you messed up, not the precise date three months ago! The rest of the blog post is made up of similarly irrelevant self-owning points. It calls the Sunday Times article “sloppy and unscientific” and says it contains “a series of falsehoods and errors”. This is an unprecedented attack by a government official on the media; not something we expect in so-called developed nations, and certainly not in a nation where the mainstream press are usually compliant and pro-government. Someone’s stepped out of line and ministers aren’t happy.
And neither are the experts they used to justify the pushback in that blog. Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, had this to say about the government’s use of one of his earlier statements to justify their dismissal of the Sunday Times article:
Let me just emphasise that: the editor of one of the world’s leading medical journals is accusing the UK government of “deliberately rewriting history”. You can read more about his comments here.
Back to the government’s unhinged tirade. I know you can click the link and read the full post yourself, but I just have to highlight this absolute gem from the treasure chest of splitting hairs that is that embarrassing blog post:
“This anonymous source is variously described as a ‘senior adviser to Downing Street’ and a ‘senior Downing Street adviser’. The two things are not the same.”
Did no-one review this before it was published? Maybe they did. I’m not sure which is scarier. At least our press is just free enough to confirm when our politicians are lying to us, I suppose. And of course it hasn’t stopped there. At yesterday’s (20th April) press briefing, the deputy chief scientific adviser said the suggestion that allowing Atletico Madrid to play in Liverpool on 11th March may have increased spread of illness in Liverpool was “an interesting hypothesis”.
OK, I can see why the government is trying to cover its backside, but this is just slippery. It’s a denial without actually denying it. Looks like there might be something to the Sunday Times’s accusations of government nonchalance. Maybe they’ll stop trying to hide it soon. If they at least had the good grace to lie openly we probably wouldn’t end up with confusing responses like this:
“Professor Yvonne Doyle on PPE. “guidance is very clear. People have to make a judgment about how to interpret it”
Interpret; explain the meaning of.
If it’s very clear, then……..
Is it just me?”
Meanwhile, NHS whistleblowers are being threatened with disciplinary action (although good luck sacking medical workers during a pandemic):
And it has been discovered that a UK government employee set up 128 sockpuppet accounts of NHS workers to spread pro-government views and counter the real concerns and testimonies of actual NHS staff:
It’s like Vote Leave all over again. This type of deception is insidious, and not easily recognisable by large swathes of our population. We don’t know how widespread it is, or what else is being manipulated. And if the government is lying this badly already, what else are they going to hide from us? For now, even the sneakiest of deceptions is identifiable. But how will we know when it isn’t?
The UK is one of the most conservative, pro-Establishment nations. In spite of all that’s happening, the people are still broadly in support of the government, and perceive alternative viewpoints as threatening. But now the UK government poses a danger to its citizens and it’s trying to cover its tracks. We all think “it can’t happen here”, but it’s happening here.
I don’t know what comes next, but it’s not good. And I say that before we know the final death toll — if we ever find out the truth.