Why didn't Boris act sooner against coronavirus?

18 May 2020

9:43 PM

18 May 2020

9:43 PM

It is too easy to become obsessive in whole or partial lockdown. And my obsession for weeks now is why ministers and Whitehall failed to learn the big lesson of the 2007/8 banking crisis – namely that high impact, low probability risks wreak maximum damage, and if they have the potential to destroy your way of life, money and resource should be no object in warding them off.

To start on a more positive note, Boris Johnson seems belatedly to have found the appropriate gauge of risk versus reward. Because although the PM on Sunday conceded that a vaccine may never come to ‘fruition’, he has nonetheless committed £93 million of our money to helping AstraZeneca create a vaccine manufacturing plant that could make 30 million doses as soon as this September.

In normal circumstances, it would be the height of public-spending folly to commit £93 million on a venture knowing that there is a high probability it will be a white elephant.

But if you compare the £93 million with the hundreds of billions of income and tax revenues being wiped out by the epidemic, or the £150 billion-odd being spent by government on supporting jobs and livelihoods, £93 million looks almost like a conservative investment.

One of those involved in the vaccine project put it like this to me: ‘We will have a first sense [of whether the vaccine works] by the end of our Phase I/II early June, especially as it relates to safety. But efficacy will only be proven (or not) by the end of August. We are manufacturing ‘at risk’, i.e. assuming the vaccine will be successful. This is the only way to be ready to supply by the end of September if the efficacy is confirmed at the end of August. We are completely changing the traditional development process where you wait to see efficacy and safety before manufacturing. So it is not without risk. But each dose of vaccine will cost the same as a cup of coffee. The financial risk for government is minimal compared with the economic disaster we are experiencing.’

The point is that because we are living and breathing the worst economic contraction for 300 years, it is completely reasonable to contemplate writing off hundreds of millions of pounds on the pursuit of a vaccine.

There is however a multi-billion pound begged question. Which is why the government did not spend more and much earlier on protecting us against this catastrophe. Now please don’t shout ’20 20 hindsight’ at me.

Johnson and the senior civil service were acutely aware of the risk of a health and economic disaster weeks before the first death and a month-and-a-half before they took evasive action.

To repeat what I’ve already shared with you, on 11 February ministers knew that Covid-19 had the potential to be a health and economic catastrophe worse than anything we’d experienced for a century. I was an eye witness in the sense that a senior member of the government briefed me that:

  • They feared the World Health Organisation was underplaying the gravity of the virus, under pressure from China;
  • They knew there was no immunity in the population and there was a risk 60 per cent of the population would become infected;
  • At a mortality rate of one per cent, 500,000 would die;
  • If there were a pandemic, the peak would be March, April, May.

On the evening of 11 February, I shared all this with senior colleagues at ITV and ITV News, to condition our coverage, as we charted the merciless spread of the virus in our bulletins night after night. I assumed, naively it turns out, that in government money would be no object and that behind the scenes all possible defences would be erected to protect us from this most savage of black swans.

But they weren’t erected, or at least not until the virus had spread so far and so fast that only the most economically expensive of comprehensive national lockdowns was capable of holding its vicious advance in check.

And even after that unprecedented restriction on our freedoms, the prevalence of the virus has been permitted to become so great, there are still so many people infected, that restarting the economy is now that much more distant. Many prophylactic measures could have happened earlier, from the prohibition of large gatherings, to the expansion of testing and tracing capability to the increase in supplies of PPE protective equipment. What went wrong?

As Lawrence Freedman demonstrates in what he calls his ‘mini Chilcot’ inquiry of the available evidence, there was a failure of imagination and an absence of political leadership. The tragic paradox is that the process in February for evaluating the risks through a hierarchy of expert committees with incomprehensible names (Sage, Nervtag, SPI-M, SPI-B) became a substitute for taking evasive action.

There was a Micawberish conviction in government that something would turn up, and that by the sheer force of their intellects the scientists and social scientists would put a virus-repelling force field around the UK. The clinicians, epidemiologists and behavioural scientists never succeeded in conveying to an intrinsically optimistic prime minister that time was of the essence. Boris Johnson simply did not become frightened enough, early enough.

This would be more understandable if it were clear only from the vantage of today. But for those of us who lived and breathed the banking crisis of 2007/8, the failure to connect analysis with action in timelier fashion is disappointing.

To be clear, this is not an ex post analogy. As these world-changing events were unfolding, what was happening in Wuhan felt the epidemiological equivalent of when mortgage-backed securities markets closed in August 2007. Italy’s debacle was Lehman Bros. At the time, when agonising about this with friends and colleagues, I felt like one of those lunatics warning about the end of the world. I wondered if I had gone slightly mad, since the government and life seemed to be chugging on regardless.

The truth however is that there is nothing terribly radical or unconventional about the idea that in a globalised world, there are grave similarities between devastating systemic risks in finance and health (or the environment for that matter).

If anything, it is a bit of cliche, although that doesn’t make it a lie.

So when the public enquiry into all this comes – and it will come – at least one of the questions that must be answered is whether what we’ve lived through is a failure of an early warning system, structural flaws in government, or poor decision-making by the prime minister and ministers, or both.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments