For four years, the town of Wootton Bassett bore the sad duty of receiving the repatriated war dead from Afghanistan and Iraq. It did so with dignified compassion. For 345 men and women, the town’s people lined the streets reverently. They comforted the bereaved. They remembered the soldiers’ service. The oak of the coffins and the brass of the fittings were polished to a mirror sheen and wrapped with union flags on their final journeys. When the town’s duty was discharged in 2011, it was granted the title Royal Wootton Bassett to show the nation’s gratitude for its quiet service.
A mile north of Royal Wootton Bassett, cars speed along the M4. If all of the 108,000 who died in Britain from Covid-19 in the last 10 months were placed in coffins end to end in single file on the hard shoulder, the brass fittings chinking against each other in the breeze, that sad line of coffins would stretch 190km along the M4 from London past Bristol. We passed the 100,000 mark last week. Another 15km of coffins have been filled since then.
How can we grasp such a scale of loss, let alone give them the mourning that they deserve? We can picture 345 dead servicemen and women, imagining a crowd of faces. But how do we picture 108,000 people? If we devoted a second to think of each of them, it would take 30 hours to think of them all: the House of Commons gave them a minute’s silence this week. Far more people have died of Covid-19 in the UK than were civilian casualties in the Second World War (the total number of Covid-19 deaths in the UK is now nearly a third of all UK military deaths in the Second World War). They number more than all the road deaths in Britain since 1988. But the scale of this catastrophe is just too much for our intellects.
The government has benefited from this human failing. Because to date Britain has done exceptionally badly. If we look at Covid-19 deaths per million, Britain has done worse than every country other than San Marino, Belgium and Slovenia. If Britain had done as well as France, a country that has performed relatively poorly in the pandemic, something like 30,000 people in Britain would not have died with Covid-19. If it had done as well as Germany, that figure would be something like 60,000.
You might say that “excess deaths” is a more useful measure. But Britain has performed poorly by that measure too. Spain, Poland, the USA, Chile, Belgium and Czechia have performed worse than England & Wales. There seems to be a high correlation between dysfunctional government and the murderousness of the pandemic.
Some of the worst mistakes have been made recently. Half the deaths date from after mid-November. The government rejected SAGE’s advice for a circuit-breaker in 21 September, preferring to listen to the arguments of lockdown-sceptics. It belatedly imposed a four week lockdown on 31 October, 6,000 deaths later. It was the same story in December, when the government resisted – in the face of clearly accelerating case numbers – tightening up Christmas arrangements until well past the last minute. How many of the more than 30,000 people who died in January would still be alive if the government had acted more promptly?
Apologists for the government claim that it is too early to judge. The Prime Minister reiterated last week his view that “there will be a time when we must learn the lessons of what has happened. I think that moment is not now.” This is utter nonsense. In the long run we all die. (The government seems to have been determined to prove for some of us that the long run may not be that long.) The bodies continue to pile up and they do so precisely because the Prime Minister is so determined not to learn the lessons of what has happened. We have quite enough of a track record and quite enough evidence to make judgements.
Simultaneously, and wholly inconsistently, apologists for the government point with great enthusiasm to the government’s excellent performance procuring vaccines. And indeed, the government seems to have done really well on this front. This does not, however, absolve it from its past grievous mistakes. Those past mistakes were unconnected with the success in procuring vaccines. The dead will not spring like Lazarus from their graves.
The Prime Minister told the nation that he took full responsibility. But he hasn’t resigned. He doesn’t think he did anything wrong. He’s not going to do anything different. No one has been sacked for failures in this national catastrophe. Quite what he means by taking full responsibility is a mystery.
From past experience, we can in practice expect most of the culprits to get ennobled in due course. Boris Johnson has already put Daniel Hannan in the House of Lords after he had praised South Dakota’s laissez-faire approach to Covid-19 (one in 500 South Dakotans has now died of Covid-19).
The government and its supporters are determined that it should avoid accountability as long as possible, even though its failures have led to a colossal death toll and one that to a considerable extent could have been avoided. It is all of our civic responsibility that the dead should not be forgotten. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. We must.