Book Review: Failures of State – The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In general, in the news world at least, there is – at least in pretence – an abhorrence of bias. Reporters and journalists are supposed to be neutral, impartial observers. Of course, in reality, true objectivity is impossible; every writer has a direction from whence they came and another one on which they are traversing.

Nevertheless, a book such as Calvert and Arbuthnott’s – which is unashamedly out to show how Boris Johnson and his government utterly failed during the Coronavirus outbreak in the UK – ought to be one which many of us would shy away from. Surely there’s nothing these two newshounds from The Sunday Times can bring to the table without rejecting it on the grounds that ‘they’re out to get him/them’?

Were this book written by hacks from The Sun or its likes, I wouldn’t even pick it up to toss it aside. But there are some writers who, if they are going to hold an opinion, do so either through solid research, or back it up to the hilt with absolute top-notch evidence. These two authors do both. ‘Failures of State’ is an horrific exposé of the combinations of incompetence and callous disregard for the British people; the evidence is compelling.

The book starts in China and gives detailed evidence of what is known of the origins of the pandemic. I have always been a firm advocate that the story given was true – it came from bat meat in a wild meat market in Wuhan. This is simply because, in my experience, all conspiracy stories are nonsense. There was no attempt to engineer a virus, no secret laboratory creating a bio-weapon. True enough, it turns out. But the authors have persuaded me that the virus did indeed escape from a laboratory.

They don’t even press the point; they certainly don’t present it as their main argument. Instead, they present substantial evidence which is out in the public domain and easily verifiable, stretching back years before the pandemic. Literally, the top experts in China working on coronavirus and studying the closest relative of Covid 19 were doing so in Wuhan – and had done so for years. This is a virus which escaped. It was, in short, a cock up. God only knows how much worse this would have been had the cock up occurred here in Britain because the Chinese – for all the arguable faults of their government – absolutely cracked down on this once they knew they could no longer keep it secret. This was key to their success at eradicating the virus.

From this cock up, the ground is laid for all the cock ups yet to come. We are given a day by day, month by month, chronological account of all that is known about the Johnson government’s handling of the crisis. Using publicly published minutes of meetings, TV interviews and the plethora of official announcements, the authors condemn the likes of Johnson, Hancock et al by their own words and (in)actions. There is also some use of an anonymous insider of SAGE and another anonymous source in the civil service giving us further details which otherwise would not be known, but these sources are kept to a minimum.

What we see, from the failure of Johnson to attend the first COBRA meetings through to the beginning of the third lockdown where the book ends, is incompetence and an utter disregard for scientific advice or the welfare of citizens by the British government. Johnson, in desperately wanting to keep the country open for business in the wake of Brexit, managed to oversee thousands of needless deaths while also utterly failing to protect the economy he had so wanted to preserve. The expression ‘shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted’ couldn’t be truer. Or perhaps, my preferred analogy, like a musician losing their place and playing exactly one note behind everyone else; the result is a hideous cacophony.

The convincer, for me, was that at least 70% of the evidence used by the authors I can remember occurring at the time. From interviews and announcements to tweets from the likes of Prof. Devi Sridhar and others, this is material that is all out there in the public domain that we all lived through. The difference is that where claims and predictions were hard to comment on at the time, after the event we can see just where the government got it wrong, lied or otherwise misled the public and media. Along with updated statistics by the best British experts on how many had the virus, how many were hospitalised and how many died on a month by month basis, the result is an overwhelming conclusion that the Johnson government is directly responsible for tens of thousands of excess deaths and untold suffering.

I do not know if if is slanderous to accuse Johnson of murder – or at least manslaughter – and the authors, perhaps wisely, avoid stating anything so blunt. But it is certain that it wasn’t just ‘a government’ which got it so wrong; it was Johnson. At times, even Gove and Hancock come out smelling clean as the sense of everyone – even his own ministers – telling the man to take certain actions was ignored repeatedly. I lost track how many times it turned out that his announcements were news to the ears of SAGE advisors and government officials alike when something very different had been agreed in meetings.

Johnson has always been like this. This libertarian, fly-by-night nature of the man has endeared him to the nation making him one of the most popular politicians of our day. But his jocular and jingoistic personality has proven deadly in a pandemic. I’d like to say the nation will never forgive him, but I’d be wrong; I know I’d be wrong. We seem so used to lies, empty statements and bizarre antics now that Have I Got News For You joked just before the Hartlepool election “Tories extend lead in Hartlepool by-election after Boris Johnson eats a puppy”. There’s a deeper truth to this quip: we are absolutely sold on every horrid, immoral and lazy thing the man does. He can do no wrong, it seems. What an irony that this joke came from the very TV programme which catapulted Johnson to superlative fame in the first place. If only we knew then what we know now…

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. His third book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, was published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways and Lancashire Life magazine. Currently reviews for Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 5.5 million times.


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