Terina Hine, A People's History of Covid (Counterfire 2024)

This second extract from A People’s History of Covid covers the death toll in care homes, the partying in Downing Street, and the legacy of the pandemic 

By the time the country was instructed to ‘stay at home’, infections had mushroomed; a huge wave of hospitalisations were to follow. Beds would need to be freed-up fast, and intensive care unit (ICU) admissions would have to be rationed. The decision to allow mass discharges and clear a third of hospital beds was agreed at the top of government, regulatory requirements for discharging patients were removed and hospitals indemnified against any liabilities that followed. The impact of this policy was possibly the most shameful of the entire pandemic. 

Hundreds of infected and untested elderly people were discharged from hospitals into care homes, leaving the virus free to spread among the most vulnerable. Homes were offered financial incentives to accept patients; some refused, but many did not. The message was clear: the NHS was protecting the young and pushing the old out to die. A full 25,000 hospital patients were discharged into care homes during the pandemic. It was a murderous discharge. With care-home staff frequently operating at multiple homes, with little or no PPE available, infection quickly spread between as well as within homes. Consequently, a third of all care homes declared a Covid outbreak during the peak of the first wave. 

The government did not ‘follow the science’; rather it followed a lethal strategy of herd immunity. It did so in the full knowledge that this would cause hundreds of thousands of deaths, would kill the most vulnerable, would overwhelm the NHS, and lead to rationing of care and an aged-based triage system. 

Covid partying 

It is an interesting fact that of all the crimes committed during the pandemic, it was the Downing Street parties that did it for Boris Johnson. The fact that at the heart of government those who made the laws broke the law with such casual disregard caused more of a hangover than anyone had bargained for. It was not just politicians who were implicated. Top mandarins, the Metropolitan Police, government advisers – including medical ones – were all embroiled in either the crime or cover up. 

The police issued 126 fixed penalty notices to 83 individuals over the events held in and around Downing Street during 2020 and 2021. The complacently and hedonism of the Downing Street clique turned the prime minister’s offices into a Prosecco swigging bubble, more Bullingdon Club than workplace. The team at the centre of the scandal were at the heart of Johnson’s Downing Street and consisted of an over privileged, public-school and Oxbridge-educated elite. They had worked their way to the very centre of power via Vote Leave and the right-wing think tanks of Tufton Street. Their sense of entitlement was as excessive as their alcohol consumption. 

The Partygate scandal covered a period before vaccines and during some of the worst days of the pandemic, a period when the rest of the population was following difficult rules because they believed it was the right thing to do. Thousands missed funerals, missed saying a last goodbye to loved ones, thousands suffered loneliness and isolation and many died alone. Yet those in No.10 felt free to indulge in excess. The nature of the events varied; some were drunken affairs with dancing on desks and vomiting in hallways; others more refined garden soirées. But they all broke the law. 

Partygate cut through in a way political scandals rarely do because it affected everyone so deeply. Every one of us had lived through the same terrible pandemic, cut off from friends and family for months – unless of course you happened to work in Downing Street. The level of entitlement inside No.10 was breathtaking, one rule for us and none for them. They believed they were in a protected bubble, and most shockingly of all, to an extent they were right. The privileged at party central got away with it almost entirely. 

Boris Johnson’s Downing Street during this time of national crisis was a place of chaos, a toxic and dysfunctional mess. When the Allegra Stratton tape first appeared, the country was shocked. As the parties mounted up, the shock turned to disbelief and anger. The convoluted tales of work meetings and ambush by birthday cake fooled no one. It is important not to forget that when they were making merry, the streets of our towns were desolate, Christmas decorations abandoned across city centres, the silence punctuated only by the wail of sirens. Following one party, Johnson’s PPS, Martin Reynolds, messaged staff, ‘We seem to have got away with it.’ They almost did. 

To them that have 

There were some big winners during the pandemic, especially among the world’s super rich. The ten richest billionaires doubled their wealth between 2020 and 2022, from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion, a staggering rate of increase of $15,000 per second. Nine of the ten were Americans, and included Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. According to Oxfam, the two pandemic years saw billionaires’ wealth rise more than in the preceding 23 years combined, and 573 new billionaires were created. At the same time, millions of people across the globe were plunged into poverty. The gap between rich and poor was supercharged. 

Forty of the new billionaires made their money in pharmaceuticals, including Moderna and Pfizer. In early 2022, the two companies were making $1,000 profit every second from their monopoly of Covid vaccines. But the winners were not just Americans and Big Pharma. Here in the UK, there were plenty who used the pandemic to get rich(er) quick. 

The government directly awarded hundreds of contracts to hundreds of suppliers, circumventing the usual safeguards designed to prevent corruption and ensure value for money. In the first six months of the pandemic, £18 billion worth of Covid-related contracts were awarded, most with no procurement process or tender in sight, qualifications merely on a ‘who you know’ basis only. 

Over seventy companies contacted the British Medical Association to say they could supply high-quality PPE but had received no response from the Government. The offers were put forward, but not being in the VIP lane, were ignored. Who you knew mattered. According to the National Audit Office, contracts were awarded disproportionately to Conservative party donors and close contacts. 

Some deals that were made to Tory chums were beyond belief. A vermin-control company valued at £18,000 was given a £108 million contract to supply PPE. The PPE supplied was untested and substandard, but political pressure meant the contract was awarded regardless. Meller Designs Ltd, a fashion company jointly owned by Conservative party donor David Mellor, increased its profit margin seven-fold by supplying PPE. 

Covid spending was opaque. When challenged during the crisis, the government responded saying such challenges were politically motivated, inappropriate during a ‘time of national crisis’. Excessive cost rises were explained by the ‘overheated global market’. Clearly transparency would have proved extremely embarrassing and politically harmful. Instead the harm was to taxpayers and medical personnel. Those responsible were rewarded, not just the profiteers with millions, but those responsible for procurement. The Department for Health’s commercial director, Steve Oldfield, was rewarded in the Queen’s 2021 birthday honours and his deputy and head of procurement received an MBE. 


Post-pandemic Britain has seen public services crumble further, and local authorities, expected to foot the Covid bill and starved of cash, forced into bankruptcy. The NHS, depleted over the decades of austerity, has reached breaking point. Waiting lists are at an all-time high and staff are exhausted and demoralised. The mental-health crisis, already out of control in 2019, has since exploded. Desperately needed investment in education is nowhere to be seen, and much of the educational infrastructure is on the verge of collapse, while thousands of school students are suffering from loss of education and many have never returned to their classrooms since lockdown lifted. 

The economic devastation continues. At no point during the pandemic did the government grasp that protecting lives and controlling the virus was the only way to save the economy. Indeed, Johnson regretted introducing the first lockdown, regardless that it saved countless lives, because of its economic impact. Consequently the country ended up with a huge death toll, massive numbers of infections and a devastated economy. Also, long Covid has resulted in vast numbers of previously employed workers taking long-term sick leave. Many have left their jobs altogether. 

The scars and wounds from the government’s disastrous pandemic response, compounded by its deceit and lies, have led to a further polarisation of politics. Trust in the political class is at an all-time low, and conspiracy theories have multiplied. But while the politicians failed us, the public did not. The heroic role of the medical profession has been well documented. In addition, over 750,000 people volunteered to help in their communities in the early days of the pandemic, well before vaccines were available. The rules, however confusing and convoluted, were followed closely by the overwhelming majority of people, often at great personal cost. Contrary to Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement, there is such a thing as society. 

In the past, great heath crises were met with significant state intervention and investment. The present should be no different. The disparity of death between rich and poor during the pandemic shone a light on the importance of social provision in public health. The great improvements to health observed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were not simply a response to better medical knowledge and improved pharmaceuticals, but were a consequence of political decisions to invest in clean water, drainage, sanitation, housing and poverty reduction. 

This pandemic exposed our government as corrupt and incompetent. It also revealed the extent to which pre-existing inequalities and social divisions impacted resilience to disease, and it demonstrated how the profit demands of global capital took precedence over health. The contradiction between public health and social stability on the one hand, and capitalist accumulation on the other, is long overdue a reset. If we wish to avoid another, possibly deadlier pandemic, we will need to transform our economic system entirely, and with it our relationship with world we inhabit. 

Terina Hine, A People’s History of Covid is available to buy here 

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