Calvert and Arbuthnott painstakingly piece together the evidence. Some of their sources are whistleblowers inside Downing Street and the NHS; some are the few members of the public who managed to get on to hospital wards and into care homes to see their relatives. There is much that we already knew, although most of this was revealed by the two journalists themselves, in their Sunday Times pieces through the year. Bringing everything together presents a damning indictment. And the authors go further: delving into the Clinical Information Network to demonstrate that critically ill patients really were denied access to intensive care because resources were so inadequate; exposing how the government originally pursued a policy of herd immunity (which Johnson described as “taking it on the chin”) and, most graphically and incriminating of all, setting out the awful truth about social care.
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 gripping, devastating read. It’s a piece of first-class investigative journalism. Very occasionally, the tone falters. “This was the kind of historic moment that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson believed he had been born for” is speculation, not fact. “The prime minister had been sunning himself” sounds more red-top than Sunday Times. But this is a work of history. It’s witness. It’s also a kind of catharsis. No one can bring back the lives that have been lost, but at a time when government lies appear to be routine, there’s a tiny crumb of comfort in truth.
That time will come, however, and when it does, this book will serve well as the charge sheet. More than that, it reads like the first draft of the report that will one day be delivered by the inevitable public inquiry, even if it is balder and more scathing than those texts, written in mandarin English – indirect, coded, implied – usually dare to be. If you’ve ever wondered what an actual catalogue of disaster might look like, look no further. Failures of State is a Christmas-at-Argos sized catalogue of the government’s errors, page after page filled with its mistakes, misjudgments and even its possibly actionable crimes (it quotes lawyers who believe Johnson could be charged with “gross negligence manslaughter”).