“For Unknown Reasons They Waited. And Watched”

Lancet Editor Exposes Devastating Government Failure on Coronavirus

Over the last 20 years, we have documented some shocking examples of journalistic irresponsibility, but the tweet from ITV’s political editor Robert Peston on March 14 was something special. With China, South Korea, Italy, Spain and other countries in shutdown, lockdown and general medical meltdown, with the UK reeling from rising cases and deaths – with the elderly, in particular, facing a terrifying threat that had already claimed thousands of lives around the world – Peston tweeted:

‘Revealed: elderly to be quarantined at home or in care homes for four months, in “wartime-style” mobilisation to combat Coronavirus. Full details here.’

That was that! No comfort, no reassurance, no careful qualification from government spokespeople and medical experts; just a link to an article, which also offered cold comfort for worried readers.

One of us had spent time the previous day reassuring a deeply shaken, octogenarian parent that it was in no way true, as she had read, ‘that old people with symptoms of the virus will be arrested by police, if they go outside’.

On Twitter, media activist ‘leftworks’ made the point to Peston:

‘Releasing unverified information in this manner without appropriate qualification could cause a panic among vulnerable people facing four months alone. Might even cause suicides. All so you can have an exclusive.’

A care worker responded:

‘Try telling my 88 year old Alzheimer’s sufferer client, she has to stay indoors for 4 months, and then just spend 3 hours with her in that knowledge. On completion of that 3 hours, try 8 hours straight, 3 days in a row.’

Such painful, sensitive information simply had to be delivered by government spokespeople in a way calculated not to spread fear and panic. Journalist and writer Charlie Brooker commented:

‘That such life-or-death stuff is being passed to lobby journalists with no scientific background, rather than explained directly to the public by the govt is bewildering and obscene.’

Even the BBC’s leading political interviewer, Andrew Neil, no radical, tweeted:

‘If any of this is true it should be revealed by the PM in an address to the nation, not spun out in an off the record briefing by an anonymous government source.’

In the article linked from his tweet, Peston wrote:

‘People over 70 will be instructed by the government to stay in strict isolation at home or in care homes for four months, under a “wartime-style” mobilisation effort by the government likely to be enforced within the next 20 days.’

Peston did not sugar the pill, noting of chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance:

‘They are deeply worried that some older people will simply die at home from neglect, after they are quarantined, so want to start the quarantine as late as possible – some time within the next five to 20 days.’

Peston talked of delivery companies Uber and Deliveroo ‘taking food to the old and vulnerable when they are put into forced isolation’.

‘Forced isolation’?! Peston’s only other comment was even more chilling:

‘What keeps ministers and officials awake at night is the fear that if the epidemic becomes too great they would have to make appalling decisions, such as that the NHS would stop treating people over a certain age, such as 65.’

To inflict this terrifying version of events so brutally on the most vulnerable sector of the population was sociopathic; as egregious a failure of responsible journalism as we have seen, with terrible real-world consequences.

Peston’s response to an avalanche of criticism on Twitter was unrepentant:

‘My job, which I have been doing for 35 years, is to try and find out what is going on and tell you about it. Slightly weirdly some of you seem to be attacking me for communicating what I find out. For the avoidance of doubt, and you can see this clearly… from the many blogs about #COVID?19 [Coronavirus] I’ve written in recent days – available here https://itv.com/news/meet-the-team/robert-peston/… – what I write is the product of questioning many relevant sources, NOT being spoon fed (as some of you seem to think). And I speak to as many scientists and doctors, as I do officials and politicians. It is my job. I am not saying this defensively but to explain.’

The Science Has Not Changed

While British people were digesting plans for ‘forced isolation’, the Guardian reported the following day:

‘The coronavirus epidemic in the UK will last until next spring and could lead to 7.9 million people being hospitalised, a secret Public Health England (PHE) briefing for senior NHS officials reveals.’

The briefing added:

‘As many as 80% of the population are expected to be infected with Covid-19 in the next 12 months, and up to 15% (7.9 million people) may require hospitalisation.’

The Guardian commented:

‘If the mortality rate turns out to be the 1% many experts are using as their working assumption then that would mean 531,100 deaths. But if Whitty’s insistence that the rate will be closer to 0.6% proves accurate, then that would involve 318,660 people dying.’

It seemed astonishing that such a grave prediction should suddenly appear when the crisis has been building for almost two months. Writing in the Guardian, Richard Horton, editor of the world’s leading medical journal, The Lancet, asked:

‘Why did it take the UK government eight weeks to recognise the seriousness of what we now call Covid-19?’

After all, in January, under huge pressure, Chinese doctors ‘took time to write up their findings… Their rapid and rigorous work was an urgent warning to the world. But medical and scientific advisers to the UK government ignored their warnings. For unknown reasons they waited. And watched.’

UK scientists advising ministers ‘seemed to believe that this new virus could be treated much like influenza’, Horton noted, citing government scientific adviser Graham Medley, who said in an interview on Newsnight just last week that the UK’s approach was to allow ‘a controlled epidemic’ of large numbers of people, which would generate ‘herd immunity’. Medley suggested that, ‘ideally’, we might need ‘a nice big epidemic’ among the less vulnerable. Horton commented:

‘After weeks of inaction, the government announced a sudden U-turn on Monday, declaring that new modelling by scientists at Imperial College had convinced them to change their initial plans. Many journalists, led by the BBC, reported that “the science had changed” and so the government had responded accordingly. But this interpretation of events is wrong. The science has been the same since January. What changed is that government advisers at last understood what had really taken place in China.’ (Our emphasis)

As Horton noted, any numerate school student could work out the catastrophic implications of the government’s ‘herd immunity’ strategy:

‘With a mortality of 1% among 60% of a population of some 66 million people, the UK could expect almost 400,000 deaths. The huge wave of critically ill patients that would result from this strategy would quickly overwhelm the NHS.’

His conclusion:

‘Something has gone badly wrong in the way the UK has handled Covid-19… somehow there was a collective failure among politicians and perhaps even government experts to recognise the signals that Chinese and Italian scientists were sending. We had the opportunity and the time to learn from the experience of other countries. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the UK missed those signals. We missed those opportunities.

‘In due time, there must be a reckoning… There will be deaths that were preventable. The system failed. I don’t know why.’

On Twitter, Horton highlighted the role of Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s notoriously pro-Tory political editor:

‘Laura Kuenssberg says (BBC) that, “The science has changed.” This is not true. The science has been the same since January. What has changed is that govt advisors have at last understood what really took place in China and what is now taking place in Italy. It was there to see.’

Repeating the false claim on the News at 10 (March 16), the BBC’s health editor, Hugh Pym observed of government strategy:

‘It’s a dramatic shift in policy and critics will say it should have happened sooner. But officials here at the Department of Health say it was only today when government scientific advisers predicted a significant escalation in case numbers, requiring radical new measures.’ (Pym’s emphasis)

The extent to which Boris Johnson has failed to comprehend the seriousness of the situation was indicated by a comment he made at a conference on the crisis this week. The website Politico quoted participants clearly shocked by what they had heard:

‘Some participants came away from the conference call less than impressed with Johnson’s own performance. “He couldn’t help but act the clown, even though he was on a call with serious CEOs from goodness knows how many companies,” one participant told my POLITICO colleague Charlie Cooper. This individual said the PM “joked” that the enterprise to build more life-saving ventilators could be known as “Operation Last Gasp.” Ugh.’

Meanwhile, beyond the sickening jokes, earlier this week, Rachel Clarke, a British doctor specialising in palliative care for the National Health Service, shared (and then apparently deleted) deeply disturbing testimony at the request of an A&E doctor in the North of England, who wrote:

‘It is absolute carnage in A&E. Utter chaos. We don’t have any proper PPE [protective gear]. We are being given crappy paper masks, not the FFP3 masks we need.’

‘And not everyone even gets those. Literally the doctors seeing the sickest patients, the ones with suspected heart attacks, PEs [pulmonary embolisms], sepsis – all they have to protect themselves is a bit of paper across their mouth as if that would ever do anything to protect them.’

‘There are all the Covid patients but then there are also all the other severely sick patients. People aren’t stopping having RTAs [road traffic accidents] and heart attacks and strokes and broken hips, are they? It’s all here and it’s utter carnage.’

‘I am in shock. I feel like we are being thrown to the wolves here. Some of us are going to die. We know some will die.

‘And the government just clearly doesn’t give a s*** about us, do they? I mean, we’ve known since January this was coming. WE ALL KNEW IT.

‘But the herd immunity plan was always going to end up with 1000s of sick, infectious people swamping the hospitals.

‘Did no-one actually think about the doctors and nurses who are going to die because of this plan? Did no-one think to start stockpiling PPE in January?

‘Matt Hancock [Secretary of State for Health and Social Care] is totally deluded if he thinks ventilators are what’s key here. What’s the point of ventilators if the doctors and nurses who need to use them are already dead?

‘How can they not be protecting the very people they are asking to look after the patients?

‘I mean even if they don’t give a s*** about NHS staff – and clearly they don’t – don’t they actually want a healthy workforce to care for the patients? Who looks after the patients when the doctors start dying?

‘I feel betrayed, I feel scared, I feel like we are basically lambs to the slaughter. Paper masks and plastic aprons. What a f***** betrayal.’

Horton and Clarke were far from alone in criticising the government response.

On March 14, more than 500 scientists wrote to the government urging them to introduce tougher measures to tackle the spread of Coronavirus. In an open letter, the scientists from UK universities said the government’s ‘herd immunity’ approach would put the NHS under additional stress, ‘risking many more lives than necessary’:

‘By putting in place social distancing measures now, the growth can be slowed down dramatically, and thousands of lives can be spared. We consider the social distancing measures taken as of today as insu?cient, and we believe that additional and more restrictive measures should be taken immediately, as it is already happening in other countries across the world.’

The British government is, of course, not alone in mishandling the pandemic so disastrously. At time of writing, London Underground stations continue to be packed with commuters. The images remind us of photos from the Madrid underground system in Spain two weeks ago. On March 8, there were 589 cases nationally and 17 dead, with 8 in Madrid. By March 19, there were 17,147 cases nationally and 767 deaths, with 498 dead in Madrid.

Conclusion – System Failure

Prime Minister Boris Johnson now says the UK is approaching the ‘fast growth part of the upward curve’ in the coronavirus outbreak. Remarkably, not until March 16, did Johnson finally say that, without ‘drastic action’, deaths would rapidly escalate. BBC News reported blandly:

‘The government is asking for people to begin avoiding all unnecessary social contact.’

And dutifully channelling the official message:

‘ “Now [sic – not two months ago] is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel,” the prime minister says.’

The latest government initiative is a ‘coronavirus action plan’ that would be effective for two years. Among other things, the bill seeks to:

‘enable the government to restrict or prohibit events and gatherings during the pandemic in any place’.

This is draconian legislation indeed. What it means for climate and other protests – required action against the far greater threat of climate collapse – remains to be seen.

It seem clear that, for whatever reason, Western political systems have proven incapable of responding rationally, in time, to the Coronavirus threat. As Richard Horton writes of the government, overwhelming scientific evidence of an advancing threat did not generate the required action: ‘For unknown reasons they waited. And watched.’

For those of us concerned about looming climate collapse, these words are chilling indeed. It has been almost impossible to comprehend that, with inexorably rising carbon emissions, temperatures and extreme weather events, with Arctic sea ice rapidly disappearing (a loss that would quickly raise temperatures by the equivalent of 25 years of current emissions), with 80% of UK insects lost in 20 years (without which we cannot survive), with the Amazon rainforest on the brink, there has not been some kind of serious government action.

Horton’s devastating exposure of the UK government’s failure to respond to a pandemic threat far more immediate and visible than climate collapse, bodes ill indeed for our chances of survival.

On the other hand, amidst the terrible suffering and failures of government, in a curious twist of fate, the virus has generated the kind of dramatic individual and industrial changes of which environmentalists have been impotently dreaming for 30 years. Literally millions of flights are being cancelled (ordinarily, there are hundreds of thousands of flights globally per day), hundreds of millions of road and rail journeys are being avoided as people are forced to work from home. Air quality in California and other places has improved to levels beyond anything anyone can remember. Rarely seen animals are wandering back into populated areas. Given a temporary respite from the human onslaught, nature has bounced back somewhat.

More than that, hundreds of millions of people have been made to come back to themselves, to stop chasing external excitement so feverishly. From what we have seen and heard, many people are benefiting from a sudden, intense experience of a more quietistic, meditative life. Many others, of course, are struggling alone in great hardship.

If nothing else, we are learning that previously unimaginable individual and societal changes are possible. But only if we work together to save ourselves, only if we put people and planet ahead of profit.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.