The Lancet editor on Britain’s response to coronavirus — and being labelled a pariah
When Dr Richard Horton turns up for our Zoom lunch, I feel a pang of disappointment. I am at home but attired for a real-life work meeting: black frock, inoffensive earrings and a dab of make-up. The editor-in-chief of The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal founded in 1823, “arrives” in a black hoodie. He has apparently forgotten his light-hearted promise to wear a jacket, though happily remembered that we are dining together. “Look, I’ve got my lunch,” he says proudly, thrusting a brown paper bag towards the camera. He offers to wait until mine is delivered.
I am not surprised that our loose sartorial agreement has crumbled in the face of his to-do list. It was The Lancet that, in January, first published clinical reports of a mystery pneumonia from Wuhan. Since then, a trickle of papers on Covid-19 has become a torrent of crucial, freely accessible information helping to shape the public health response in real time.
That has landed the 58-year-old with an arguably more important secondary role: critic-in-chief of the UK government’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak. Since February, he has accused ministers and their advisers of failing to see the coming storm, keeping up a barrage of criticism in The Lancet, in newspapers and on television.
The UK response to the pandemic, he told the BBC on March 26, is a “national scandal”. I go to the heart of the matter: does the government have blood on its hands?
“I’m not going to use those words, but I do believe lives could have been saved had we acted earlier,” he says. “If we had used February to scale up capacity for testing and contact tracing, and to begin surge capacity for intensive-care bed use, it’s absolutely clear we would have saved lives and saved the NHS.
Even if it wasn’t the extreme lockdown we see now, we should have been reducing social mixing and winding down economic activity, like promoting working from home and physical distancing, so that we started to cut the lines of transmission.”