In Soho, central London, stands a replica of a 19th-century public water pump without a handle. The missing part is not a result of vandalism but a tribute to John Snow, the physician who correctly surmised that the pump, supplying contaminated water, was a super-spreading device for cholera. Snow mapped case data and lobbied the local parish authorities for the pump’s deactivation.
The coronavirus is a different kind of pathogen (cholera is a bacterial infection), but our understanding of today’s pandemic owes a debt to Snow’s methods. Boris Johnson and his ministers claim to have been led by science over the past year, and mostly they have, but often too late, as well as grudgingly and inconsistently. When evidence has clashed with ideology, the latter has frequently prevailed. Mr Johnson’s fear of upsetting Tory MPs has often seemed stronger than his care for good public health policy.
The cost of those misjudgments is measured in lives lost. More than 100,000 people have died – one of the worst mortality rates in the world. History might record some combination of geographical and demographic factors that exacerbated Britain’s predicament, but only as the backdrop to catastrophic political choices.
When international reports urged fear of the new disease, Mr Johnson was boasting about shaking hands with everyone in a hospital. People were discharged from wards into care homes, where the virus ran amok. Borders were unmonitored. It was clear that lockdowns were a first line of defence and the prime minister was late to accept the necessity, then impatient to lift restrictions. He and his chancellor treated partial success last summer as total victory. They urged people to repopulate high streets, subsidised dining out, and discouraged working from home.
When the second wave came, all the mistakes of the first one were repeated. Mr Johnson rejected scientists’ calls for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown. Mixed messages confused the reintroduction of restrictions. Infrastructure for testing and contact tracing failed to match grandiose promises. The system has been patchy, slow and mired in allegations of cronyism – a profligate sideshow offering false hope.
In December, infection rates soared. The data demanded action before the cause – a mutant strain of the virus – was confirmed. But the prime minister pressed ahead with a seasonal easing of restrictions because he hated to be the bearer of bad tidings. More lives were lost because he lacked the courage to level with the public or to face down malcontents in his party.
Vaccine procurement and rollout stand out as examples of effective administration that are conspicuous for being exceptional. The more consistent pattern has been for ministers to arrive at the right course by thorough exploration of the wrong one. Glib optimism is followed by disappointment, U-turn, and a cynical deflection of blame on to the public for apparently failing to obey the rules. Underlying every tactical blunder is a vast strategic error – the belief that economic recovery and social restriction are in conflict; that public health measures deplete national wealth. Countries with more successful records prove the opposite. Early and thorough suffocation of the virus allows for a more stable restoration of activity. Attempting partial lockdown to get partial recovery ends up failing at both – the British model.
Confronted with that record, Mr Johnson expresses sadness without taking responsibility. He is sorry that so many died, but not for his failure to prevent their deaths. He says lessons will be learned but “now is not the time to reflect”. He will never learn. Lessons were available from the first wave that he ignored in the second one. He has no more interest in an audit of his inadequacy than he has a capacity for sincere contrition. There will one day be a reckoning, and, as Snow’s pump is a symbol of good science, the story of Britain’s pandemic will long serve as a monument to bad government.