Another stupid reaction


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Apr 9, 2012
Tiny Red Dot
We knew that, see Brexit and Boris Johnson.
How did Britain get its coronavirus response so wrong?
As the warnings grew louder, Boris Johnson’s government was distracted by Brexit. On testing, contact tracing and equipment supply, there was a failure to prepare

Distracted by Brexit and reshuffles
The Conservative government of Boris Johnson had other more immediate preoccupations at the start of this year.

Johnson was still basking in his general election success last December. After he returned from a celebratory Caribbean holiday with his fiancee, Carrie Symonds, the political weather for the prime minister seemed to be set fair. It was honeymoon time.

Three and a half years on from the Brexit referendum, the UK was finally about to leave the EU on 31 January. The fireworks and parties for the big night were being planned, the celebratory 50p coins minted.

Minds were certainly not on a developing health emergency far away, as Johnson prepared to exploit the moment of the UK’s departure from the European Union for all it was worth. “I think there was some over-confidence,” admitted one very senior Tory last week.

The prime minister and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, wanted to make an early impression at home in other ways too, as domestic reformers. Cummings was waging a war on civil servants in Whitehall, throwing his weight around and deliberately upsetting the Westminster applecart.

While he made the headlines, briefing about his iconoclastic ambitions, Johnson was preparing a big Cabinet reshuffle to assert his own authority in other areas now Brexit was done and dusted.

With Labour effectively leaderless after its fourth consecutive election defeat, there was little opposition to trouble Johnson on any front at all – and certainly no-one of note asking tough questions about coronavirus.

The prime minister duly recast his cabinet team on 13 February – five days after Li’s death in Wuhan. He made big changes but unsurprisingly retained the hitherto safe pair of hands of Matt Hancock as his health secretary.

In a sign of where priorities lay – and the lack of concern that a potential crisis might be heading our way from the east – Hancock wasted no time recording a video of himself grinning with delight on reshuffle day.

He smacked his right fist into his left palm saying he could not wait to “get cracking” and that he relished the chance to deliver the Tories’ manifesto promises, reform social care and improve life sciences. And lastly, in a more sombre voice, he spoke of “dealing with coronavirus and keeping the public safe” before adding, as the grin returned: “Now let’s get back to work!”

It is perhaps too early to conclude for sure that Johnson, Hancock and the government’s entire team of scientific and medical advisers were caught asleep at the wheel. But the fact that Johnson and Hancock themselves, in common with much of the Downing Street staff, would go on to contract the virus or suffer symptoms, further suggests that people at the top had not been sufficiently on their guard.

Now, 11 weeks on from the first cases being confirmed in the UK on 31 January – a period during which more than 14,000 people (and probably several thousands more once care home fatalities are counted) in the UK have died from Covid-19 – and with the country in lockdown, the economy facing prolonged recession as a result, schools closed, and no sign of an end in sight – hard questions have to be asked.

We already know with some certainty that other countries, such as Germany, South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand, will emerge from this crisis having performed far better than the UK. A few weeks ago the government’s advisers crassly said that fewer than 20,000 deaths would be “a very good result” for the UK.

As we fast approach that grim tally, many experts now believe the UK may come out of this crisis, whenever that may be, with one of the worst records on fighting coronavirus of any European nation. Once the full tally is counted, few expect the number of deaths to be below 20,000.

By contrast, on Friday, Germany was saying it thought it had brought coronavirus largely under control. It had had 3,868 deaths, less a third of the total in the UK (and Germany’s population, at 83 million, is far higher), having conducted widespread testing for Covid-19 from early on, precisely as the UK has failed to do.

How, then, did it come to this? How did coronavirus spread across the globe, prompting different responses in different countries? Did the UK simply fail to heed the warnings? Or did it just decide to take different decisions, while others settled on alternative actions to save lives?

The warnings grow louder

David Nabarro, professor of global health at Imperial College, London, and an envoy for the World Health Organization on Covid-19, says one thing is for sure. All governments were warned how serious the situation was likely to become as early as the end of January. Ignorance of the danger that was coming can be no excuse. Yet it would not be until late March – later than many other countries – that Johnson would announce a complete lockdown.

“WHO had been following the outbreak since the end of December and within a few weeks it called a meeting of its emergency committee to decide if this outbreak was a ‘public health emergency of international concern’,” said Nabarro.

“That is the highest level of alert that WHO can issue, and it issued it on January 30. It made it very clear then – to every country in the world – that we were facing something very serious indeed.”

Well before the end of January, the WHO had been tracking the growing threat minutely: 14 January was a key day in the spread of the disease that would become known as Covid-19. The first case was confirmed outside China, with a woman hospitalised in Thailand.*

* I thought Singapore had the first case outside China. I was wrong.
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