Our Ministers Didn’t “Do Okay” Against the Coronavirus

Matthew Syed’s latest article in the Sunday Times is titled “Now we know our ministers did OK against Covid, but I hear no apologies”. And while Syed may not have chosen the title (that was probably his editor), he did write this: “The truth is that on the whole, and with only a few exceptions, ministers did their best in unenviable circumstances.”

Syed’s basic argument is as follows. The recent WHO report reveals that, in terms of excess deaths, Britain “is roughly in the middle of the bunch when compared with similar nations”. Therefore, those who slammed the Government for its handling of the pandemic were wrong, and really ought to apologise.

The article isn’t all bad. For example, Syed skewers those unhinged left-wing commentators who accused the Government of pursuing ‘eugenics’ for not locking down sooner, and chides his fellow journalists for asking ‘gotcha’ questions, rather than trying to get useful information out of politicians.

Yet for every swipe he takes at those who say the Government didn’t do enough, he also takes a swipe at those who say the Government did too much. And his basic argument – the one I outlined above – doesn’t work.

Syed writes: “Websites such as Lockdown Sceptics rose up like cancers, metastasising across the internet, sucking rationality from the debate like intergalactic debris into a black hole.” This rather lurid comparison is ironic coming from Syed, who spends much of his article lamenting the “shocking decline” in standards of public discourse.

Hint: if you’re concerned about declining standards of public discourse, you may wish to avoid comparing your opponents to metastasising cancers.

Anyway, why doesn’t Syed’s argument work? To begin with, his premise that the WHO report tells us something we didn’t already know – that it provides “new evidence” – is false. Decent estimates of excess deaths in various rich countries have been available for months.

Ariel Karlinsky and Dmitry Kobak’s estimates were published as far back as January of 2021, and they’ve been continually updated ever since. Likewise, the ONS published estimates for most of the countries in Europe in November of last year; and the rank order of countries hasn’t changed drastically in the interim.

Okay, that’s a minor point. And it’s true that Britain winds up somewhere in the middle when you compare rich countries on excess mortality. But this doesn’t mean our ministers “did their best in unenviable circumstances” – not by a long shot.

Excess mortality is only one metric you can use to evaluate government performance. And on other metrics, Britain did much worse than average.

According to the latest figures published by the ONS, Britain saw the second largest increase in government debt out of all European countries. From Q4 of 2019 to Q4 of 2021, the U.K.’s general government gross debt (as a percentage of GDP) ballooned by 19 percentage points.

Likewise, when the Economist ranked 23 rich countries for overall economic performance during the pandemic, Britain finished second from bottom.

From the very beginning, lockdown sceptics have argued that we can’t just look at Covid outcomes; we have to consider things like the economy, education and civil liberties as well. And this still applies today.

Saying that Britain “did OK” in the pandemic, while ignoring everything other than Covid deaths, would be like saying the U.S. “did OK” in the Iraq war, while ignoring everything other than U.S. military deaths. (Although America lost fewer than 5,000 troops, the war ended up costing almost $2 trillion, and sparked a decades-long insurgency.)

It’s also worth pointing out that our ministers threw the Government’s own pandemic preparedness plan out the window. As you’ll recall, the plan states that attempting to “halt the spread of a new pandemic influenza virus” would be a “waste of public health resources”.

A genuinely praiseworthy pandemic strategy is the one followed by Sweden – which boasts lower excess mortality than Britain, and far better economic outcomes (not to mention greater respect for civil liberties).

If our ministers did “their best”, I’d hate to see what their worst looks like.

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December 2022
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