Part memorial, part indictment of the British government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, ‘An Avoidable Loss, A Failure of State’ reflects on the painful national theatre of the coronavirus pandemic, which involved Boris Johnson’s own near-death coronavirus experience (now reported to be greatly exaggerated) and personal rule-breaking.
The work is an audio-visual expansion of A Daily Sea (2020) in which a series of seascape photographs are combined with fragments of recordings of British politicians from the daily government COVID-19 press conferences, of family members remembering loved ones, and a monologue by actor Rory Kinnear who voices the names of some of the deceased. Kinnear lost his own sister to coronavirus who was, as it later transpired, buried on the same day of one of Boris Johnson’s No.10 lockdown parties.
Alongside the words of government ministers including Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Dominic Raab and Priti Patel, there is a bell that tolls on some of the most significant moments of the crisis. On the 21 April 2020, when mortality figures from the Office for National Statistics showed the highest daily rate of fatalities recorded during the first wave, with 1,224 deaths; on 11 November 2020 when the 50,000 death occurred, and on 22 January 2021, when the number of deceased in the UK from coronavirus surpassed 100,000.
It is likely that tens of thousands of people died needlessly in the pandemic, largely because of the government’s woeful response. The country was locked down three weeks too late. Thousands of elderly patients were discharged from hospitals into care homes, untested. Deep cuts to public-health budgets by the Conservative Party in previous years left England without the infrastructure to carry out mass testing and contact tracing.
The thread that linked our varied emotional responses to the pandemic was the shared sense of loss: of loved ones, livelihoods, landmark life experiences. During each lockdown, grieving relatives and survivors tell their stories of loss on the national news, whilst the looming death toll would grow ever larger. Many people bereaved by coronavirus described how their grief was compounded by the sense that their loved one had been subsumed into a statistic.
An Avoidable Loss forces us to confront, once again, the question of what to do in response to our individual and collective outrage and grief. In the wake of Matt Hancock’s leaked WhatsApp messages and as the public enquiry into the government’s pandemic response gets underway, hard questions must be asked about the UK death rate and the practical ways many thousands of those deaths might have been prevented.