Written by Rachel Parry
Many people’s memories of January, including my own, are that of feeling mildly annoyed at perceived hysteria toward Covid-19. At the time, many of us thought it was merely a flu, not cause for concern. As ordinary people, our ignorance at what was to come can perhaps be excused. However, our government’s failure to protect us against coronavirus cannot.
On the 30th January, the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’. Despite this, and Britain having the benefit of seeing how other countries had already succeeded or failed to contain the virus, by mid-March we were still desperately under-prepared.
Yet, our inability to cope with the pandemic can be traced further back than the Johnson government, to the onset of Thatcherism. In 2013, the Department of Work and Pensions found that since 1979, poverty rates have almost doubled. Rising poverty was further aggravated by the onset of austerity in 2010. By 2019, the Social Metrics Commission found that 14.3 million UK citizens were living in poverty.
Poverty increases the likelihood of long-term health problems, which were underlying factors in many coronavirus deaths. The most deprived areas in England had more than double the death rate of the least deprived areas. Health inequalities have also meant BAME people are significantly more likely to die from the virus.
Austerity has also led to chronically under-funded public services. The Public Health England budget was cut by 40% in real terms between 2012 and 2020, whilst spending on the NHS significantly declined. Key personal protective equipment was left out of the PPE stockpile when it was established in 2009, and subsequent governments failed to buy the missing equipment. All these factors contributed to declining public health, increasing vulnerability to the virus, and left our health services un-prepared to deal with the virus.
Nevertheless, the short-term actions of Johnson’s government have certainly contributed to Britain’s disastrous response. With over 41,500 Covid-19 deaths, 64,000 excess deaths, and the UK facing the worst recession in 300 years, it is clear the British government has seriously failed to protect us from the coronavirus pandemic.
In New Zealand, the government implemented travel bans from infected countries before the first coronavirus case reached the country, and placed the country into lockdown and shut borders before their first death. As a result, they have had 22 total coronavirus deaths. In comparison, despite the outbreaks in other parts of the world, the British government did not implement any travel restrictions, or enforce quarantine for those from infected areas. In fact, between the 13th and 22nd January, students from Wuhan visited a Cambridge college. This continuation of free movement made the spread of coronavirus inevitable.
Equally, the British government failed to prepare for the inevitability of the virus reaching the UK. Since the Wuhan outbreak, Johnson failed to attend five Cobra meetings, an anonymous senior advisor was quoted in the Sunday Times, stating that “there was a real sense that” Johnson “didn’t do urgent crisis planning.” The government failed to implement mass testing, or to enforce quarantining for those with symptoms.
Comparatively, the Vietnamese government developed an intensive testing system from the outset, tracing up to five degrees of contact from an infected person. They enforced a mandatory 14-day quarantine in special centres for anyone who had come into contact with an infected person and anyone who entered the country. To date, Vietnam has had 34 total deaths, despite having a higher population than the UK. Why did our government not use the time between January and March to replicate Vietnam’s track and trace system?
By the 12th March, the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic, with Europe at the epicentre. Whilst other governments prepared to protect their citizens, Johnson simply stated the public should prepare to lose loved ones. Despite estimating that as many as 10,000 people in the UK were infected with the virus, between the 12th and the 23rd, the government failed to act to protect lives. Instead, they pursued a herd immunity approach which they knew would cost an estimated 500,000 lives.
Only when it became clear the public would not accept this approach, did they U-turn. Professor Neil Ferguson estimated that if lockdown was implemented only a week earlier, the UK death rate would have been halved. Imagine how many families would have been saved devastating losses if the government had acted sooner.
By mid-March, the NHS prepared for the influx of coronavirus patients by freeing up hospital beds. This included discharging elderly patients back into care homes. Until the 15th April, there was no requirement for those who were discharged into care homes to be tested for the virus. The government’s failure to protect the elderly led to an estimated 20,000 care home residents dying as a result of Covid-19.
At the same time, key workers were given inadequate protective equipment, leaving almost half of doctors having to independently source PPE. The Good Law Project are currently calling for an inquiry into government decisions to award PPE contracts to companies with no history of PPE provision, who provided un-usable PPE.
Jolyon Maugham, Director of the Good Law Project, revealed that Ayanda Capital, an investment strategy company with no record of PPE provision, were awarded a £252 million contract to supply PPE. Andrew Mills, a government Board of Trade advisor also acts as an advisor to the board of Ayanda, prompting questions about whether government advisors profited from this contract. The fifty million facemasks Ayanda provided were ultimately found unfit for use. Tragically, the government’s failure to provide adequate PPE has meant that many key workers, and disproportionately those of BAME descent, lost their lives.
Equally disastrous have been government communications with the public. Rules have been unclear, and have shifted dependent on the actions of Conservative advisors. A study carried out by University College London found that the Cummings scandal significantly decreased public trust in the government, likely decreasing the likelihood of cooperating with government advice.
The Greater Manchester lockdown was initially announced via Twitter at 9pm, leading local MPs to report widespread alarm and confusion from their constituents. Whilst meeting other households was forbidden, pubs and restaurants were allowed to remain open, meaning people could still come into contact with those outside their household. Only six days after lockdown was announced, did the government implement laws to enforce it.
The lack of clarity over government regulations has made local lockdowns less effective. In fact, in Bolton and Trafford, cases have spiked despite being in lockdown for over a month. Whilst the government promised to lift Bolton and Trafford out of lockdown on the 2nd September, they U-turned just twelve hours later, again prompting confusion and anger from local residents.
This is just one of twelve U-turns over the summer, as the government have backtracked on poorly-planned policies, such as the A level results algorithm. The government’s incompetence has meant they have wasted vital opportunities to prepare the much-needed track and trace system in time for a second wave.
Though the government announced a contact-tracing app was being developed in May, today we still do not have a working app. In the final week of August, 30 per cent of the contacts of people who tested positive were left untraced. There is an urgent need for extensive testing and tracing to prevent another lockdown, which would be detrimental to both mental health and the economy.
Yet, without an increase in statutory sick pay, there is no guarantee people will quarantine, as many cannot afford to lose income. At the same time, government refusal to extend the furlough system, and their encouragement to return to the office, places those who are high-risk in a serious dilemma as they are forced to choose between their health and their income.
Without an effective test and trace system, and targeted welfare for those who need to isolate, Britain faces the reality of either an economically crippling second lockdown, or an even higher death rate.
Ultimately, the coronavirus crisis has broken the long-propagated myth that Conservative governments govern best. Had the UK followed a Vietnamese-style test and trace system from the outset, not only would many lives have been saved, but our economy would also be in a far better state as lockdown would not have happened. Instead, the government’s negligent response has seen Britain suffering the third-highest excess deaths per capita in the world, and the worst recession of any G7 member state and European country bar Spain.
However, the twelve U-turns this summer show that public pressure can force change. The British public must continue to hold the government to account and push for effective test and trace. We must reject government attempts to distract from their dereliction of duty by using fascist rhetoric of demonising refugees. In the long-term, we must fight against any push for more austerity, which strained Britain’s ability to cope with the virus. Britain must learn from its mistakes, or we will continue to disproportionately suffer.