In which case why on earth did it take so long to recognise and act on the severity of this threat?
One helpful answer is to look at the sequence of events around the turn of the year, given that the first indications of a serious problem in China were already visible in late December. The Economist reports that Taiwan started testing people arriving from Wuhan before the end of the month.
Boris Johnson, meanwhile, was on a ten-day holiday in the Caribbean, not returning to the UK until 6 January. Many senior members of his cabinet also took time off, with junior ministers left to watch out for problems.
By 23 January, there had been 26 deaths and 870 people confirmed with the virus in China, and the rate of spread was accelerating by the day. Cases were already being reported in Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and the US, and health officials in the UK reported that fourteen people were being tested for the virus.
Only on 24 January was there a first meeting of the government’s COBRA emergency committee but, extraordinarily, Johnson did not attend. Eventually, over the following month, some action was taken – invariably after the situation in other European states, especially Italy, had demonstrated all too clearly what was ahead. So it has been right up to late March: only in the past ten days has action been taken that is even remotely commensurate with the requirements existing at least three weeks earlier.
We must hope that it will be possible to limit the loss of life and suffering that lies ahead in the coming months, not just in the UK but right across the world. For the UK, however, there will then be many awkward questions to be asked.
One should be addressed to the security services, especially MI6 and GCHQ. Early in January, when the crisis in China was clear, was MI6 monitoring it, not least through its assets in China, and was GCHQ collecting data from its own signals intelligence? Were MI6 and GCHQ reporting to the government that Taiwan was already testing people from Wuhan back in December? If not, why not, given the importance of this kind of risk as noted in the Biological Security Strategy? If so, was it passed on to appropriate ministries and why did they not act? Perhaps most important, when was such information passed on to the Joint Intelligence Staff in the Cabinet Office?
Beyond these, how can one explain the laid-back style of government in those early days that has proved to be so devastating? Was it partly the self-congratulatory mood in government with its recent election victory? Was it Johnson’s character as leader or was it the dangerous preoccupation with Brexit?
Perhaps most important of all, were these failings partly down to the style of political culture that has taken root in so many countries across the world in the forty years of the neo-liberal era, an element explored in the Oxford Research Group’s new briefing ‘Austerity in the Age of COVID-19: A Match made in Hell?’
Whatever is learned, two things stand out. One is that concern with biological agents should be far higher up the political agenda, not just because of the risk of pandemics but also because we are moving into the era of genetic manipulation for military purposes. Since 1972 there has been a world-wide ban on biological and toxin weapons, but it is one of the weakest of all the arms control agreements of the past sixty years. A hard-headed strengthening of that convention should be one of the most urgent items on the international security agenda.
Finally, if and when we do come through this global crisis it must be recognised that doing so must be a dress rehearsal for the even bigger global threat of climate breakdown. If governments and the wider international community can learn to work closely and successfully together on controlling COVID-19, it could serve as a vitally important guide to this even greater challenge.Print