Culpable ignorance, political humiliation, and their consequences: the first draft of UK pandemic policy history

Culpable ignorance, political humiliation, and their consequences: the first draft of UK pandemic policy history

Martin Shaw

As the fall-out continues from the UK’s disastrous pandemic policy-making in the first quarter of 2020, which has led to date to 63,000 excess deaths, it is vital that British sociology and politics academics provide accurate critical analyses. Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London and a former member of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, has written a first draft of the history of this process in Survival: Global Politics and Society, focusing on the period before Johnson U-turned to lockdown on 23 March. His aim is to provide a contemporary account of the crisis as material for a seemingly inevitable public inquiry.

It’s a serious contribution, but fundamentally flawed. I’ve written a 6000-word rejoinder which you can read here or download as a PDF. Freedman rightly argues that we shouldn’t just judge with hindsight. His take is that this was a ‘poorly understood’ new disease and that therefore it was understandable that scientific advisers and ministers made mistakes. I show, however, that it was clear – despite the earlier Chinese cover-up – by the beginning of February at the latest that the disease caused by the new coronavirus could pose a very serious threat.

If any doubts remained, a widely-reported Chinese paper on 72,000 cases, published on 17 February – but completely ignored by Freedman – provided information which suggested 20 per cent of cases could need hospitalisation and 5 per cent critical care, which in the case of a large epidemic could overwhelm the NHS; while half of deaths could be of people under 70 and a fifth under 60.

Freedman overlooks the fact that UK policy-makers failed to carefully process this information or draw the relevant consequences. Instead they stressed that most disease would be ‘mild’ and believed that if large numbers of middle-aged and young people got it, the UK could achieve ‘herd immunity’. Three months later, there have been more deaths in British ICUs among the 60-69 and 50-59 age cohorts than the 70-79 and 80+ groups. I argue that the failure to absorb and act on the available information about the nature of the threat amounts to culpable ignorance.

The ‘over-70s’ were designated the core of ‘the vulnerable group’ which also included people with various conditions, and they were to be ‘cocooned’. Certainly, many older people isolated themselves, even before the government belatedly told them to do this, but 430,000 elderly women and men were concentrated in in care homes. The Government notoriously failed to make preparations to protect them, and instructed the NHS to discharge hospital patients – even those who had had Covid – into the homes if necessary to clear beds in hospitals, thus helping to introduce Covid into some homes. In early May, it was estimated that 22,000 had died: 5 per cent of all residents, compared to less than 0.1 per cent in the population at large. Older women were 17 times more likely to die in care homes than in their own homes.

Freedman criticises the messaging around ‘herd immunity’ (while refraining to mention the second half of the phrase attributed to Dominic Cummings and other Tories, ‘and let the old people die’), but not the policy. He appears to accept that protecting the NHS was a legitimate primary aim of policy, rather than an instrumental goal in the protection of the population. He judges the government successful in achieving this aim, rather than a failure for allowing a hugely larger number of deaths than was necessary had protection of lives been prioritised. He even provides excuses for the delay in locking down between 12 and 23 March, widely seen as the fundamental error which cost many lies. He notes the care homes disaster, but doesn’t see how this followed from ‘herd immunity’.

Freedman concludes that ‘[Johnson’s] hospitalisation on 5 April and close brush with death will have left him with no doubts about the nature of the threat and that his [lockdown] decision was correct’, implying that by then the prime minister had corrected his earlier egregious errors. Yet the lockdown has proved a short respite from fundamental criticism for Johnson. Indeed his mixed-messaging around the partial easing of 10 May, now compounded by the crisis over Cummings, reflected the fact that – although the idea of herd immunity has been abandoned – the policy of controlling death only to the extent that the NHS does not crash appears to have survived.

Freedman avoids the fundamental political humiliation which these failures – and their consequences in mass death – have caused Johnson, a humiliation which I compare to that suffered by Margaret Thatcher when Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982 and by George W. Bush over 9/11 – which were both also caused by culpable ignorance of the nature of the threat. Freedman wrote a book on the Falklands crisis which noted Thatcher’s humiliation, but he doesn’t see the significance of the idea to explaining Johnson’s situation, still less explore the questions of how Johnson’s brittle, over-personalised regime is responding to this humiliation and will deal with its consequences in the coming months.

Academics should not pull their punches in writing the provisional history of this period. After all, much independent scientific and medical opinion, referred to only briefly by Freedman, has been damning of the Johnson government’s approach. My own conclusion is that Johnson is likely to seek to prevent a meaningful inquiry. It is important to get a first draft straight now, but other means may have to be found to bring the government to account.


Martin Shaw is Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.