Captain Blindsight: An excoriating account of the UK government's mishandling of the pandemic.

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Author: Jonathan Bak
Date: Apr. 2, 2021
From: TLS. Times Literary Supplement(Issue 6157)
Publisher: NI Syndication Limited
Document Type: Book review
Length: 1,647 words
Lexile Measure: 1300L

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FAILURES OF STATE

The inside story of Britain's battle with coronavirus

JONATHAN CALVERT AND GEORGE ARBUTHNOTT

432pp. Mudlark. 20 [pounds sterling].

Last week, on March 23, the UK marked the anniversary of its first lockdown. Its Covid-19 death rate per 100,000 people stood at 190, the highest among the G7 economies. The next highest rates were Italy (173) and the US (165). The UK has over 126,000 confirmed total Covid-19related deaths, by far the highest in Europe (Italy's toll is around 105,000; Germany's around 75,000). The UK also experienced the largest economic contraction of any G7 economy last year.

The prime minister will try to squirm free from the grip of these numbers, and he may yet succeed. The Downing Street narrative is that the virus caught the entire world off-guard. Some countries did better at first, but the final analysis will show that those of a similar size and profile to the UK hold a similar record. Only authoritarian or isolated nations will have fared differently, and the UK led the planet in developing and delivering a "world-beating" vaccine. Buoyed by that triumph, the nation should sally forth into a new post-Brexit, post-coronavirus era of forgetful British exceptionalism. "Captain Hindsight" (Johnson's nickname for the leader of the opposition) and his band of gloomsters may want to rake over the past, but where is the patriotism in that?

An urgent public inquiry into the government's handling of the pandemic is needed to establish the facts before they dissolve in this froth. In the meantime, Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott's new book, Failures of State, provides a ferocious, rigorous case for the prosecution, or, rather, the people. After a gripping opening about the origins of the virus, which gives credence to the theory that it may have been cultured accidentally by Chinese virologists, the authors--both journalists at the Sunday Times--set out, week by week, how, where and when the UK government was urged to act earlier or differently but did not. Many of the biggest calls it made were simply and obviously wrong. But, despite Johnson's belated admission last week that "in retrospect, there are probably many things that we wish ... we'd done differently", at no point has the government admitted to any specific mistakes. Indeed, the home secretary Priti Patel declared on the Today programme on December 22, 2020 that it "has consistently throughout the year been ahead of the curve in terms of proactive measures with regard to coronavirus"....

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