Burying the dead: the UK media and the government’s response to coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
24 April 2020
On 10 April 2020, the UK government announced 980 people had died in hospital in the last 24 hours because of coronavirus. It was the country’s highest daily death toll so far.
It was exceeded in Europe only by France, where 1,417 died in a single day, though France’s numbers, unlike the UK, include deaths in care homes.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the UK figure: 980. How far back in UK history do we have to go to find 980 early deaths in a single day? World War Two? World War One?
With the bodies of the dead barely cold, the front pages of the newspapers the next day felt like a sick, surreal joke. Barring the Guardian and Scotland’s The National, no national newspaper’s main headline focussed on the record death toll. The BBC News website’s headline on 10 April – after the record death toll had been announced – was ‘Herculean Effort’ To Provide NHS Protective Gear, quoting Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the daily coronavirus briefing. There was nothing, nothing, on the BBC News website’s front page about the unprecedented mortality rate, as journalist Jack Seale noted on Twitter that day.
Incredibly, BBC Radio 4’s 08:00 news on 11 April did not mention the previous days’ death toll, though it did find space to report on the number of dead in the United States and the important news that Paul McCartney’s handwritten lyrics for Hey Jude were being auctioned. BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions also seems to living in a parallel universe, with recent episodes finding the guests engaging in polite disagreements, with gentle questioning from host Chris Mason, while thousands of bodies pile up throughout the country.
“I’m told BBC bosses are warning interviewers not to put ministers under pressure”, former BBC veteran journalist John Humphrys recently noted in the Daily Mail.
The 7 April was also a grim milestone for the UK – the 854 recorded deaths a daily record at that point. The newspaper front pages the next day were again a travesty, with nearly all exclusively focussing on the Prime Minister’s time in intensive care. He Stayed At Home For You… Now Pray At Home For Him, instructed the Sun. We Are With You Boris! shouted the Metro. Only the Guardian published a headline about the UK death toll.
Where is the anger? Where is the outrage? Where is the concern for readers’ welfare? Where is the detailed examination and questioning of government policy?
The collective failure of the media to report on the extraordinary number of deaths is even more frustrating when you consider there is voluminous evidence government inaction has led to this catastrophe.
“Something has gone badly wrong in the way the UK has handled Covid-19… there was a collective failure among politicians and perhaps even government experts to recognise the signals that Chinese and Italian scientists were sending”, noted Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, in the Guardian on 18 March.
Appearing on BBC Question Time a few days later he described the government’s poor response to the crisis as “a national scandal.”
“We knew from the last week in January  that this was coming”, he noted, “And then we wasted February when we could have acted. Time when we could have ramped up testing, time when we could have got Personal Protective Equipment ready and disseminated. We didn’t do it.”
Anthony Costello, Professor of Global Health and Sustainable Development at UCL and a former Director of Maternal and Child Health at the World Health Organization, was similarly scathing about the government’s lack of action. “History won’t look kindly on Britain’s response”, he noted in the Guardian last month.
As is perhaps clear already, the Guardian has published important exposes of the government’s failings, aswell as a number of op-eds very critical of the government’s response to the crisis –from Horton, Costello and Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh.
However, it has also published some potentially dangerous, arguably even reckless, articles. With the government being widely criticised for refusing to implement more radical policies to suppress the outbreak, on 14 March the Guardian’s science correspondent Hannah Devlin published an article titled Which Activities Are Safe And Which Should People Avoid? Quoting experts, the article suggested going to the pub, visiting the gym and attending a sports match were all OK. On the question of visiting elderly relatives, the article quoted one expert saying he would not stop visiting elderly relatives, and another saying “I really don’t think that’s a good idea”. Two days later the Prime Minister urged people to avoid pubs, clubs and theatres, and cease all “non-essential” contact with others.
Another serious error was made by the Observer’s science editor Robin McKie in a piece titled Five Months On, What Scientists Now Know About The Coronavirus, published on the Guardian website on 12 April. “As to the transmission of Sars-CoV-2, that occurs when droplets of water containing the virus are expelled by an infected person in a cough or sneeze”, he noted, apparently unaware that academic studies and news reports, including by the BBC, have shown transmission can happen through talking too.
Reuters should also be congratulated for publishing a hugely important, lengthy investigation into the advice and decisions being made at the top of government. Based on interviews with 20 British scientists, key officials and senior Tory Party sources, and a study of minutes of advisory committee meetings, public testimony and documents, the 7 April report highlights how the government’s “scientific advisers concluded early the virus could be devastating.”
Among the eye-popping findings, is that the SPI-M committee, the official committee set up to model the spread of pandemic flu, published a report on 2 March noting up to four-fifths of the population could be infected and one in a hundred might die – “a prediction of over 500,000 deaths in this nation of nearly 70 million”, Reuters note. Despite these alarming findings, Reuters found “the scientific committees that advised [Prime Minister] Johnson didn’t study, until mid-March, the option of the kind of stringent lockdown adopted early on in China”.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so shocked by the British media’s performance. There are many examples of the propagandistic role the media plays, often showing minimal interest in the deadly consequences and victims of UK government policy, especially during times of national crisis. For example, the 2019 Institute for Public Policy Research study linking 130,000 preventable deaths to Conservative-Lib Dem austerity policies did receive some coverage, but has effectively been ignored since it was published. It has certainly not framed the national political debate as it should have. Similarly, the US-UK-led sanctions that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis between the two Iraq wars were of little concern to our supposedly free and critically-minded media. Ditto the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed during the 2003 US-UK invasion and subsequent occupation, with the media watchdog Media Lens recording how the two ‘Lancet’ studies into the death toll were effectively buried by our Fourth Estate.
Returning to the coronavirus outbreak, it is hard to escape a disturbing conclusion that should shame all UK journalists: the huge and unprecedented official death toll – currently standing at 18,738, though the Financial Times estimates the real number to be 41,000 – is, in part, the result of the failure of the media to hold the government to account for its woeful response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.