Is it time to put our political leaders on trial for ‘social murder’ because of their deadly coronavirus blunders?
A hard-hitting editorial in the UK’s top medical journal argues for bringing criminal charges against ministers for their response to the virus. But is invoking the spirit of Nuremberg helpful, or is this a political blame game?
With case numbers in the UK falling fast and the vaccination programme on track to reach all of the highest-risk groups by mid-February, it would appear that there really is some light at the end of the tunnel of the Covid-19 epidemic. But while the pandemic might be over soon(ish), depending on exactly when ministers and advisers are prepared to open up society, the process of apportioning blame is gathering speed.
There is no doubt that the UK’s governments (plural) have made mistakes. There was complacency that the UK was ready for a pandemic, which only revealed the way in which ‘tick-box’ assessments have taken the place of serious planning. Even as cases took off in Italy, there was little serious action. There wasn’t enough personal protective equipment at the start of the crisis. Community testing was halted early on because there wasn’t the capacity to carry it out. Older people were sent from hospitals to care homes, often without being tested, helping to fuel an enormous death toll.
The development and roll-out of the smartphone app was bungled, and too much store was placed in its ability to solve the problem. There was too much faith in the test, trace and isolate programme to clamp down on infections, but the tests weren’t turned around fast enough and contacts were either never traced or traced too slowly. Most importantly, people who were told to isolate often didn’t, mainly, it seems, because there was too little financial and practical support to enable them to do so.
There is broad agreement on these points. After that, however, things get messier. Some argue that the UK’s governments took too long to impose a lockdown, while others, looking to the example of Sweden, think lockdowns are ineffective, simply delaying infection rather than preventing it, and at huge social cost. Then there’s the question of closing borders, or at least enforcing quarantine. The most successful countries seem to have done that, but is that really a sustainable idea for a major international hub such as the UK? Debates about whether schools should be open or closed continue to rage. In other words, there are many aspects of this crisis where the ‘correct’ answer wasn’t obvious, and still isn’t.
Much of the ‘blame game’ is political, rather than a serious attempt to understand what went wrong. The government in Westminster has taken the brunt of the criticism, yet the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have followed broadly similar policies for much of the crisis, with much less criticism. All the early failings apply to those governments too. Scotland even managed to send older hospital patients who had tested positive back into care homes – an error of jaw-dropping proportions.
A fine example of this epidemic of blame-mongering is an astonishingly overwrought editorial in the British Medical Journal this week. The author, executive editor Kamran Abbasi, accuses governments of murder: “When politicians and experts say that they are willing to allow tens of thousands of premature deaths for the sake of population immunity or in the hope of propping up the economy, is that not premeditated and reckless indifference to human life?” Who is he referring to? One assumes he’s having a dig at UK PM Boris Johnson, but has he or any politician ever suggested that tens of thousands of deaths is a price worth paying?
At the very least, Abbasi argues, we should consider regarding the circumstances of health and social inequality, and the response to the pandemic, as “social murder” – a term first used by Friedrich Engels in the 1840s and echoed by George Orwell a century later. Abbasi even goes so far as to speculate as to whether the pandemic response in certain countries – particularly those led by “populist leaders” – should be regarded as “crimes against humanity”. Is invoking the spirit of Nuremberg really helpful or does it simply illustrate the political leanings, or perhaps the mental state, of health commentators today?
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Other commentators and politicians have turned their fire on ‘lockdown sceptics’, even calling them ‘Covid deniers’. In the past few weeks, there has been a concerted effort to blame anyone critical of the pandemic response for putting out ‘disinformation’. It is true that many lockdown sceptics have clung rather too long to erroneous theories of what is going on, such as suggesting that the cases being seen now are largely a reflection of false-positive tests, without explaining what might have caused so many excess deaths. But it is also true that such sceptical voices have had little impact on government policy or on the behaviour of the vast majority of the population.
We should, of course, have a full public inquiry into the handling of this pandemic. But we must also recognise that no one wanted there to be two million deaths from a new disease. Governments have been in the unenviable position of having to make vitally important decisions in a situation in which information and scientific understanding have always been incomplete. All the major UK political parties are complicit in the mistakes that have been made: the Conservatives in Westminster, Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland and the DUP in Northern Ireland.
The vicious blame game that is emerging is, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, dangerous. What we need is cool reflection, not the settling of old political scores.
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