George Arbuthnott: “The Prime Minister’s handling of the pandemic has been one of the most scandalous failures of political leadership in British history”

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Boris Johnson missed five Cobra meetings before lockdown. This was the story that The Sunday Times ran in April 2020. The Prime Minister’s absence was labelled a key failure, one of many crucial government errors that meant Britain had “sleepwalked into disaster”.

One of the journalists who uncovered this story was the paper’s deputy Insight Editor, George Arbuthnott, a Durham Economics alumnus (2005-2008). Since that piece, Arbuthnott has written Failures of State, an investigative exposé focusing on the British government’s response to the pandemic, and the (many) errors that were made. Profile interviewed Arbuthnott about his career in journalism, and the government failings that he has examined.

You’ve described The Mail on Sunday as ‘pretty old school … still believes in shoe-leather and door knocking’. How different was this from your experience working for the Glasgow Herald and the Sunday Times?

To be fair all three newspapers deploy that kind of journalism. My first job was at the Glasgow Herald and because it was a daily paper I was required to produce multiple stories a day. That meant there was less time to use those old school techniques.

Working for the Insight Team at The Sunday Times is different because we are given far longer to produce stories. We don’t have the daily pressure, but when we do deliver a story it has to expose significant wrongdoing and be worthy of the front page. To achieve that we not only use door knocking and source building, but also data journalism techniques and undercover work.

In your book, Failures of State, you outline the errors that the government made in their response to Covid-19. Were you surprised that these errors were made? How could these failings have been avoided?

At the start of the crisis, Britain ranked second in the world for its pandemic planning yet we’ve ended up with Europe’s worst death toll and more economic damage than any other G7 country. To try to understand how that happened we spoke to hundreds of inside sources, including politicians, scientists, economists and doctors. And what is absolutely crystal clear is that by far the most important reason for that disastrous outcome is Boris Johnson’s three late lockdowns.

On three occasions, the Prime Minister was advised to act swiftly and decisively but each time he dithered and delayed until hospitals were so overwhelmed that people were left to die without life-saving care. That led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths and longer more economically ruinous lockdowns. It left Britain in the worst of all worlds with Europe’s highest death toll and more economic damage than any other country in the G7.

The government’s own experts said making the same mistake once is bad enough, but making it three times was unforgivable.

By failing to act decisively over Omicron, Johnson has allowed the NHS to be overwhelmed for a fourth time and many more seriously ill patients are not receiving proper treatment as a result. It provides more proof, if it was ever needed, that the prime minister’s handling of the pandemic has been one of the most scandalous failures of political leadership in British history.

Matt Hancock claimed that the vaccine strategy was influenced by Contagion. Do you think that the government should have taken any other movies into consideration when planning their response to the pandemic?

I thought the recent Netflix film Don’t Look Up was a good metaphor for the prime minister’s handling of the pandemic. In the film, a world leader is repeatedly warned by scientists that a meteor will strike earth and destroy humanity unless it is shot down. Yet the leader doesn’t take it seriously and prioritises their own interests ahead of the public they are supposed to be serving, which leads to delay after delay after delay. As a result, the meteor strikes and everyone dies.

What questions would you like to be asked in the upcoming Covid inquiry, and do you think these questions will be asked?

These are questions for Boris Johnson:

1.     How did you come to underestimate Covid-19 to such a degree in February 2020 that you allegedly told colleagues you wanted Chris Whitty to inject you with the virus live on TV?

2.     Dominic Cummings, your closest adviser at the time, said you later expressed regret at bringing in the first lockdown despite it saving an estimated half a million lives. Why, on earth, would you regret a move that saved so many lives?

3.     You were allegedly told by your chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser in the summer of 2020 that hospitals were so overwhelmed during the first wave that many people suffered horrific deaths without adequate treatment. However, your government later publicly claimed that everybody received the care they needed. Why were the public misled over such a grave matter?  

4.     You were told in September 2020 by the country’s most eminent scientists and your closest adviser that thousands of people would die unnecessarily and longer more economically damaging restrictions would need to be imposed for a second time if you did not learn from the mistake of the first wave and bring in an immediate circuit breaker lockdown. Once again, however, you ignored the advice. As a result, the UK had an even worse outcome than the catastrophic first wave – 95,000 people died and Britain ultimately had to be locked down for almost six months during the second wave. Why did you fail to heed the advice of your own scientists and make the same mistake twice?

5.     You allegedly said you would prefer to see “the bodies pile high” rather than bring in the second lockdown. What is your message to the thousands of bereaved families whose loved ones’ bodies tragically did pile high because of your inaction?

I certainly hope the questions get asked. The prime minister has chosen the person heading up the inquiry and he is helping to set its terms of reference. That gives cause for concern. 

How would you describe Boris Johnson’s leadership during the pandemic?

Human rights lawyers acting for the Covid-19 bereaved families say Johnson’s conduct during the pandemic may amount to the criminal offence of gross negligence manslaughter. I don’t disagree.

You’ve written extensively about the scale of the doping scandal in athletics. How did you come across this story?

I was contacted in 2014 by a source involved with British athletics who expressed concern about unethical performance-enhancing practices within the elite UK endurance running squad. It led me to investigate Mo Farah’s coach Alberto Salazar.

Around that time I began working with a German investigative journalism named Hajo Seppelt. In 2015, a source gave us access to a leaked database containing the blood test results of every major athlete in the world.

We had it analysed by world-leading blood testing experts who found it revealed an extraordinary level of cheating in and world championship events, particularly by Russian athletes. A few months after we broke the story, the head of world athletics was arrested for covering up athletes’ positive drug test results in return for cash. Not long after, Russia was banned from the Olympic Games for running a state-sponsored doping programme. Salazar was banned years later too. 

What’s the biggest myth about working in journalism?

That you can never trust a journalist. Journalists rely on their sources. Betraying a source’s trust damages a journalist’s reputation and therefore their ability to get stories in the future. So it’s just not in a journalist’s interests to do that. 

Image: Ray Wells

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