Book review: Failures of State, by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott

This merciless account of the UK Government’s incompetent handling of the coronavirus pandemic is essential reading, writes Elsa Maishman

Boris Johnson PIC: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
Boris Johnson PIC: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

In April 2020, The Sunday Times’ Insight investigations team published a report on the UK Government’s actions in the early days of the pandemic. “Revealed: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster” was a bombshell that made headlines around the world and became the most-read article in the history of the Times’ website.

It is not surprising then, that Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott, Editor and Deputy Editor of the Insight team, have collected their revelations from that piece – and months of reporting since then – into a book. Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus, is one of the first histories of the ongoing crisis in the UK, and it will undoubtedly be well-referenced in those to come.

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The first part takes us on a fascinating detective journey to find (or in some way get closer to finding) the origin of the novel coronavirus first reported in China in late 2019. The rest is concerned with the British government’s handling of the crisis, a snapshot of one of the most disastrous years in recent history, with ominous chapter titles including “sleepwalk”, “dither” and “disaster.”

Failures of State, by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott

The “inside story” is painstakingly researched, drawing on news reports, experts and anonymous insiders. It is a simmering exhibition of what really good journalism looks like, and a sad reminder that it no longer seems to matter – the most damning revelations have already been brought to light, and while there have been some consequences, these have hardly set heads rolling. The book re-lives all the major nightmares of 2020, crashing from Johnson’s missed Cobra meetings to Dominic Cummings’ Durham jaunt, to delay after delay after delay – in taking the pandemic seriously, in imposing lockdowns, in taking any kind of action.

Failures of State is a look at the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic, and so decisions made in Scotland don’t come under much scrutiny. They are mostly mentioned, alongside the actions of other leaders, as points of comparison against which Boris Johnson invariably falls short.

Tension rises as deaths begin to mount, and Calvert and Arbuthnott relentlessly hammer home their point, juxtaposing the actions and decisions of leaders with comments from incredulous experts, and worse, ordinary people who have lost loved ones. The authors are acerbic throughout, and this bubbles to a head in the final chapters. But amongst the finger-pointing and scathing incredulity at the incompetence of everyone in charge, the real story is ever-present – the hundreds of thousands of people mourning loved ones lost in the past year. If the contemporary reporting on which this book is based is the first draft of history, then Failures of State is the second. It isn’t a book to be read peacefully before bedtime, but it is not one to be missed.

Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus, by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott, HarperCollins, £20

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