The Prospect editorial—Covid-19, one year on

Time to take stock of 12 months of British failure—and distil lessons for the future
January 28, 2021

Some things are bigger than politics—including some very small things. Invisibly tiny bundles of genetic material wrapped in spiky protein coats began pouring out of Wuhan in early 2020, and within weeks had disrupted the world far more than any frenzied leader. 

But politics, or perhaps better to say more broadly “the way things are run,” profoundly modulates how everything else plays out. China rapidly cracked down and locked down; in Japan, people masked up, stood back and watched out; South Korea tracked and traced; and New Zealand bolted its doors. The war against Covid-19 is not yet won anywhere, but these varied approaches have all prevented it from freely marauding through these societies. 

Britain hasn’t managed the same, and the death rate is an order of magnitude—sometimes two orders of magnitude—higher here. The numbers change constantly but, as I write, among the large countries in the world, the UK has the highest toll, with an average of over 1,000 names added daily. For contrast, 2,997 people died in America in the very different circumstances of 9/11. On the raw numbers, we’ve been running at twice that a week.

These dreadful figures should drop very soon, as we move into a vaccinated future. But a year on from the virus arriving on our shores, it is incumbent on a UK-based magazine to take stock of the past 12 months of British failure and—hopefully—distil a few lessons. So science specialist Philip Ball, expert Whitehall watcher Gaby Hinsliff and myself, as the public policy wonk, formed ourselves into a mini “inquiry” and pulled together a report.

None of us envied the ghastly decisions confronting the government, but we got increasingly exasperated as we trawled over events and saw the same pattern of drift and delay being repeated time and again. Some problems are structural, relating to the clunking and contracted-out nature of the British state. Others trace to scientists meeting away from the daylight that is so essential for exposing bad ideas. Ultimately, though, responsibility lies at the top. From the disastrously inconsistent messaging about staying home, eating out and all the rest, to the chaotic new year decision to send children back to mix at school for a single day, an awful lot comes down to the question of leadership.

[su_pullquote]“The UK has one of the world’s worst Covid-19 tolls. Trawling over events, the exasperating thing is the repeated pattern of drift and delay”[/su_pullquote]

On which note, as the wider world draws a sigh of relief at the foul-tempered departure of the 45th US president, Andrew Adonis invites us to get to know the 46th, with the first in his new series of “profiles in power.” Despite—and in some curious ways because of—Joe Biden’s half-century of experience with the compromising realities of power, Adonis thinks he just might be the man who can deliver the comprehensive renewal that a crisis-stricken America so sorely needs. 

Renewal is certainly the order of the day at Prospect, as we double-down on the refresh started in the last issue. New talent is on show in the form of our own David McAllister, who sets out the inspiring story of Scotland’s land reforms, which might hold the key to tackling inequality everywhere. There is a new column for Cal Flyn, who is going be making a philosophical leap into the head of a different animal each month—read it to believe it. Meanwhile, we continue to build Britain’s best home for legal writing, with contributions from the former Supreme Court President Lady Hale (who defends human rights) and the serving Lord Chief Justice as well as regular columnist David Allen Green. It is Senior Editor Alex Dean who has made this space Prospect’s own, and so I am delighted that he has just been honoured by the Bar Council as legal reporter of the year. 

There is much more here, too, on the big themes we have identified, from an inside look at the “beyond borders” knowledge machine of Wikipedia (Barbara Speed), to Rana Mitter’s subtle analysis of the threat to freedom in Hong Kong. Absorb it all while we wait for the not-too-distant days when we can go out and re-engage with the world.