Failures of State by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott

The inside story of the UK’s response to the pandemic from the Insight investigations unit at The Sunday Times

Mudlark, Harper Collins| 18 March 2021| 422 pages| My own copy| 4*

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but this year I have been reading more than usual. This book caught my eye in August and although I’ve watched countless TV programmes and interviews and read numerous articles about the coronavirus pandemic I just had to read it.


Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus recounts the extraordinary political decisions taken at the heart of Boris Johnson’s government during the global pandemic.

Meticulously researched and corroborated by hundreds of inside sources, politicians, emergency planners, scientists, doctors, paramedics and bereaved families, along with leaked data and documents, this is the insider’s account of how the government sleepwalked into disaster and tried to cover up its role in the tragedy – and it exposes one of the most scandalous failures of political leadership in British history.

In the eye of the storm was Boris Johnson, a Prime Minister who idolised Winston Churchill and had the chance to become a hero of his own making as the crisis engulfed the nation. Instead he was fixated on Brexit, his own political destiny and a myriad of personal issues, all while presiding over the UK government’s botched response to the global coronavirus pandemic. After missing key Cobra meetings, embracing and abandoning herd immunity and dithering over lockdown, Johnson left the NHS facing an unmanageable deluge of patients. His inaction resulted in the deaths of many thousands of British people and his own hospitalisation at the hands of the pandemic, yet further reckless decisions allowed a deadly second wave to sweep across the country in the autumn months with the economy on the brink of collapse.

With access to key figures at the top of government during the most tumultuous year of modern British history, Failures of State is an exhaustive and thrillingly told story – and one of the most essential pieces of investigative reporting for a generation.

My thoughts:

The book covers the period from 24 January 2020 – 23 January 2021, with a Prologue covering the period from 24 April 2012 – 23 January 2020. Since it was written time has moved on and further information has become available, but this book is a reminder of how it started and described what subsequently happened. So, much of it was what I already knew, especially about the steps that were taken in the UK to cope with the situation.

In considering the two phrases ‘we were following the science’ and ‘we have taken the right steps at the right time’ they ask was this in fact what happened? They used many sources as described in the blurb and their research gave them the answer ‘no’.

In particular, they question why the government failed to act more swiftly, what the scientists told ministers, whether Britain was equipped to fight a pandemic and what were the consequences. I’m a cautious person and I remember being anxious that not enough was being done at the time and thought that we should have locked down earlier than we did. Reading this book makes me think that I wasn’t being over-cautious. I am also a bit cynical about what I read in the papers and what I hear and see being reported, so I viewed this book with caution too. Many of the sources are named in the book, but many are not.

I am appalled at what this book reveals. I am appalled by the corruption, outright lies, obfuscations, misinformation and incompetence they report – worse than I had thought at the time.

But most of all I am utterly appalled by what is revealed about the NHS and the restrictions that were imposed on reporting what was taking place in hospitals. The NHS had limited capacity to deal with the pandemic and the public were not made aware of the selection process that was used in deciding who could be given intensive care. If it had been reported there would have been widespread panic, terror and outrage. It is appalling that so many people were not given intensive care, and that so many had died who could otherwise have survived.

It is a shocking account of a terrible year – words fail me.

One thought on “Failures of State by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott

  1. This sounds like a powerful read, Margaret. It’s always so upsetting when we learn some of the things that went on behind the scenes (and are still impacting our response to Covid). It is, indeed, appalling.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.