The Financial Times reported today that the UK has the worst death rate from Covid-19 ‘among countries that produce comparable data’ (new data from Spain now put it ahead of the UK). The delay to introducing lockdown measures was made worse by shortages of PPE, a chaotic testing policy and a failure to protect care homes. The standard the government wanted to be measured by was ‘excess deaths’ – a public health term meaning the number of deaths above the expected level in any given period – and by this measure its policies have fallen short. ‘The UK has registered 59,537 more deaths than usual since the week ending 20 March,’ the FT says.
The evidence points to a catastrophic mistake. But something worries me about the apparent neutrality of the term ‘excess deaths’. British political culture is very good at making avoidable deaths seem like an unfortunate fact of life, or a matter of personal responsibility.
The public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017, in which 72 people died, is now on hold because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Last November, Jacob Rees-Mogg said that residents should have used their ‘common sense’ and ignored the fire brigade’s advice to stay put as the building burned.
Ninety-six people were killed in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, their reputations smeared by a government-friendly tabloid, and the event is still playing out across public life thirty years later, not fully resolved.
At least 19,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe in the last six years. In October 2014 the Foreign Office said it didn’t want to contribute to a European search and rescue effort because it would be a ‘pull factor’, encouraging people to make the crossing.
An IPPR report last year found that cuts to England’s public health budget played a role in 130,000 preventable deaths between 2012 and 2017.
Between 1899 and 1902, some 48,000 people died in concentration camps established by the British in South Africa. ‘The South African concentration camps had exactly the same mortality rate as existed in Glasgow at the time,’ Rees-Mogg said on Question Time in February 2019 (he was wrong by a factor of ten). ‘They’re not a good thing but where else were people going to live?’
One of the most prominent media personalities currently – and correctly – criticising government spin on the Dominic Cummings affair is a former spin doctor who helped manipulate public opinion to build consent for the invasion of Iraq. A Lancet survey estimated there were 654,965 excess deaths in Iraq between March 2003 and June 2006.
During the VE Day celebrations on 8 May there was no mention of the three million people who died in the preventable Bengal famine of 1943.
Of the 50 to 100 million people who died from the 1918 Spanish flu, 12 to 13 million were in India, under British rule.
The current situation seems intolerable. But it may eventually have its rough edges smoothed away by the government and its allies in the media; criticism will be diverted into a culture war, and demands for accountability treated as politically motivated or unpatriotic. At some point the government may announce a lengthy official inquiry. If we’re angry at what it’s done, perhaps we shouldn’t wait to say so.