Frederick Engels used the words “social murder” to describe a situation when “the class which at present holds social and political control places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death”.
John Ashton is a well-respected doctor, once in charge of Liverpool’s public health, and in this book, he levels the charge of social murder against the Johnson government for having pushed the UK to the top of the world league table of Covid-19 death rates.
He outlines in easy to understand language the course of the first wave with the sadness of someone who has witnessed at first-hand how public health services in Britain, once the best in the world, were wrecked by Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms of 2012, leaving the UK unprepared for the pandemic.
The Johnson government’s history of the policy failures is clearly laid out. By the end of January 2020, China was already in lockdown, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) had already declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The Lancet had published a paper by the Chinese saying large numbers of patients needed ICU treatment and ventilation.
But as Ashton says, Johnson wasted February because he was pre-occupied with his divorce. The slow burn phase of the epidemic in the UK before the virus spread exponentially was squandered. In contrast, Hong Kong, South Korea and other countries were taking vigorous action quarantining, locking down, disinfecting streets, banning mass gatherings, mandating home working, enforcing masks, and closing schools.
Even after the WHO declared a global pandemic on 11 March, Johnson kept on handshaking and promoting mass events such as the rugby. Contact tracing was not happening and testing was overwhelmed by mid-March.
SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, was under-calling the danger, partly because it did not contain a full range of public health experts, but also because political advisers, including Dominic Cummings, were in attendance.
The government criminally halted community testing, which for an old school public health doctor like Ashton, was like asking public health to fight an epidemic with both eyes deliberately blinded. Instead, the government promoted the callous notion of herd immunity, with no appreciation of the levels of immunity required to stop the spread, and no data to be able to model how many deaths this would cause.
Ashton forensically documents how even when herd immunity was abandoned as a strategy, there were no regional public health laboratories left to do the testing, there was no useable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in store, and rather than admit the lack, ministers downgrades Covid-19 to a lower category of risk so that full PPE for essential workers was not mandatory.
Finally, when lockdown happened on 26 March, three weeks too late, wrong decisions were made, with hospital patients being discharged from hospitals into care homes without having been tested. Lockdown was then ended prematurely on 4 July, with none of safeguards in place that would have prevented a second wave; namely enough testing capacity, a functioning contact tracing system and adequate PPE.
Ashton locates the root cause of all this at the government’s murder of public health. He weeps for its failure. But we need to go further and ask why the disinvestment in public health took place. Ashton hints at the answer at the beginning of his book, when he describes the austerity and privatisation programmes that followed the 2008 banking crash, but the book lacks a proper analysis of how capitalism drives governments in this direction.
Ashton’s dissection of government’s failures and stupidity is incisive, and this book deserves to be read.
Blinded by Corona: How the Pandemic Ruined Britain’s Health and Wealth, John Ashton, Gibson Square,£14.99
A new book by Paul O’Brien