The Covid-19 blunders drive home a harsh truth: the state has failed us | Opinion

One day, when the face masks are stashed away and normal life is resumed, there will need to be a public inquiry into the disaster that befell the United Kingdom, and its constituent parts, during 2020.

Provided it is not an attempt at a whitewash, the report, when it eventually arrives, will make grisly reading. The facts are already known: the UK has one of the highest death tolls per head of population in the world, and will have seen its economy shrink by 10% in a single year, cancer patients left untreated, a surge in domestic abuse and a rise in mental illness.

Covid-19 has accentuated Britain’s deep class and generational divisions. While the middle classes have been safely working from home, the working classes have been at far greater risk by driving the buses, delivering parcels and keeping the supermarket shelves stacked. It is the children of the poor who have suffered most from being at home during lockdowns. Meanwhile, the under-25s have been far more likely than older workers to lose their job or be furloughed, even though they are the group least at risk from the virus.

It would be easy to blame all this on Boris Johnson and his ministers, but a proper inquiry into what has gone wrong needs to dig deeper than that. True, the government was ill-prepared for the global pandemic when it arrived on these shores earlier this year but so were plenty of other countries. Johnson was not the only world leader to be caught unawares.

Yet seven months after announcing the first lockdown, Johnson was forced to announce a second in England. As in March, the concern was that rising infection rates would overwhelm the NHS. For the more charitable among us, the first lockdown might just about have been excusable. A second is not.

This is not simply a question of ministerial incompetence, although there have certainly been blunders galore. Saying Johnson is not up to the job is true but misses the point. Nicola Sturgeon has not faced anything like the criticism aimed at Johnson, and indeed has won plaudits for the way she has performed, but Scotland’s infection rates are not much lower than England’s.

A more searching probe into what has gone wrong has to start with the ability of any government – not just this benighted one – to perform its basic tasks properly: ensuring that the health and social care systems can cope in a crisis; providing an adequate welfare safety net; responding quickly and effectively to a pandemic; having a long-term strategy for economic regeneration rather than just spraying money around.

There has been much talk over the years about how the UK’s manufacturing base was hollowed out in the 1980s, with profound social and economic consequences. What Covid-19 has shown is that the state too has been hollowed out, with what were once its core functions – planning and organising public services – outsourced to consultants and private contractors.

There are copious examples of this, at both local and national level. The government had the whole summer to get an effective track-and-trace system up and running but lacked the capacity to do the job itself. It spent £12bn on something that was going to be world-beating, but doesn’t do the job. A small fraction of this sum – £563,400 to be precise – was trousered by McKinsey for advice on the “vision, purpose and narrative” of test and trace. To the extent that this drivel means anything, it means “kerching!”. There was a time when governments didn’t have to call in consultants to advise them on what the purpose of key policies should be: ministers and officials worked it out for themselves.

‘The tip of the iceberg’: Starmer accuses Johnson of wasting public money at PMQs – video

In some ways, of course, the state has grown bigger and more powerful, as shown by its willingness to curtail personal freedom in ways never previously seen before in peacetime. But putting people under a form of house arrest is a sign of fundamental weakness and of a culture in which PR is copiously used to cover up the inability of the state to do its job properly.

Here, the future public inquiry will have plenty to get its teeth into: the NHS supply chains that collapsed under pressure; the imported PPE equipment that wasn’t fit for purpose; the contracts awarded to Conservative party donors; the £670,000 spent on spin doctors by Kate Bingham, the venture capitalist put in charge of the UK’s vaccine taskforce and who just happens to be the wife of the Treasury minister Jesse Norman; the admission by Dido Harding, the head of NHS test and trace, that there was a failure to predict demand when schools and universities went back in the autumn.

Given the above, the government’s expensive spin doctors should be asked how best to cover up the cronyism, the chiselling, the incompetence and the drift towards a police state. Britain has government by diktat and bullshit.

So while it is welcome news that a vaccine could be available by Christmas, the notion that the process will be hitch-free is the triumph of hope over experience. Matt Hancock is already talking about the logistical challenge, which sounds like getting your excuses in early.

The hollowing out of the state has been going on for years, but it has taken Covid-19 to expose what has happened. In truth, the last taskforce that really mattered was the one sent to recapture the Falklands in 1982 and it is no accident that the army has been called in for the testing programme in Liverpool. The military is the one part of the state apparatus that can still be relied on to do things properly.

Larry Elliott is the Guardian’s economics editor

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