It is not yet a year since Sir Patrick Vallance, sitting in one of the poorly ventilated committee rooms in the House of Commons, declared that keeping the coronavirus death toll below 20,000 would be “a good outcome”.
That the whole world has faced down the Covid-19 pandemic together has made indices through which to compare one’s own country’s performance very easy to come by, even if they are usually misleading.
But as the UK passes, with a stupefying lack of anger, the awful milestone of 100,000 deaths, those words offer some vague measure through which to quantify the scale of our own failure, judged only against ourselves.
It has not been a good outcome. Fully five times from it, and the counting carries on. According to the Office for National Statistics, Covid-19, a word all but unknown 12 months ago, has now been written as the cause on 104,000 death certificates.
A glib comparison to some football stadium or other hardly does the number justice, not least as there isn’t one big enough. A town the size of Lincoln, or Wakefield, or Worcester. People of all ages, races and religions. The names alone would take as long to read as an 800-page novel.
A million people – a million, at an absolute bare minimum – have in the last 10 hideous months grieved a Covid death.
For as long as the deaths keep coming, which they will, there is nothing ignoble about making the same point over and over again: that it isn’t right to become inured to all this. That, yes, it may well be true that a great many of those who have died may not have lived long hereafter. But this rapacious virus, which should never have been so rapacious, may have taken from many people only a comparatively small proportion of an otherwise long and happy life, but it has also taken from them what is as close to an inalienable human right as it gets – a decent death.
Half a million people die in the UK every year. Life, of course, reaps its own death toll. The usual, dreary band of denialists have done their sophistic best with Microsoft Excel to show how this is all scarcely out of the ordinary. They have been hopelessly found out. But even at the most generous interpretation, no graph of excess deaths records the manner of the deaths in question. Even if the appalling numbers were lower, they would not lessen the outrageous fact that these deaths have for the most part been lonely and isolated.
The scale of the failure isn’t properly understood. That will have to wait for the public inquiry, by which point, with any luck, public interest may have moved on.
Should the prime minister have locked down sooner in March? Well maybe, but it’s not merely that his scientific advisors didn’t seem to think so. On that same day, in that same room, back in March, Sir Patrick Vallance also made clear that the panel of advisors – Sage – didn’t agree on the best course of action, even among themselves.
Rory Stewart appears to have been vindicated, in hindsight. He was calling for a complete lockdown when the death toll was as low as four. But that was before we ever knew whether there would be a workable vaccine. No one can be proved right, in such matters, without a healthy dose of luck. And it’s far easier to roll the dice when it’s not your money on the table.
Come the second wave, the prime minister appears to have ignored his scientists. The consequences have been deadly. Public opinion appears to be that he should have known to ignore his advisers first time round, and to heed them the second. Perhaps he should have done.
It is a somewhat jarring reality that this number should be reached at a point at which the UK is outperforming other nations, specifically at the vaccine rollout. Boris Johnson will of course hope that by leading the UK out of the pandemic in something of a blaze of glory will cover for its dismal performance elsewhere. He may be right. That may yet happen. But even on the most optimistic schedule, the UK’s vaccination programme will not be complete before midsummer. It is unlikely that its slight edge over its European rivals in getting started will still be counting for all that much by then.
And more to the point, as the US chief immunologist, Dr Fauci, has consistently warned, unless the vaccination plan is truly global it will not succeed. A pandemic is precisely as the word describes – it is everywhere. Humanity is a single herd. Rich countries won’t get by for long in a Covid apartheid world where new vaccine-obliterating variants will certainly appear.
That is not an insurmountable problem, far from it, and the UK, with its cheap vaccine and leading role in genomic sequencing, has a huge contribution to make to it.
There is cause for optimism, perhaps even celebration. But it should not be allowed to be sufficient ever to forget that miserable six-figure number, that should never have been so high.