James Melville on the fast response of Jacinda Ardern’s administration, which the UK could learn more than a few lessons from.

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Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted.

– Duke of Wellington.

New Zealand’s entire population of five million people have been in total lockdown for nearly two weeks, with no one allowed to leave their homes unless they are fetching essential supplies or taking exercise. 

This is similar to the UK but with two notable differences. Firstly, despite New Zealand having over 1,100 cases of the Coronavirus, the critical case rate and mortalities are much lower than in the UK. Only three are in intensive care units and only one person has died from the virus in New Zealand – a woman in her 70s with underlying health conditions. 

Secondly, the New Zealand Government made a swift move to ‘level four’ social distancing through a national lockdown in the space of two days which, based on the low critical case and mortality figures, appears to be working in containing the virus and stopping a widespread community outbreak. This is in contrast to the UK, where the first case was confirmed on 31 January, but no aggressive social distancing measures were put in place until 23 March.

In the UK, pubs, restaurants, clubs, theatres and sporting arenas remained open for business until 22 March. Perhaps if the UK government had used the low case rate reconnaissance period of January and February to draw up an early strategy of mass testing and tracing, early lockdowns for the vulnerable and full personal protective equipment provision for NHS workers – rather than wasting time on nudging people towards herd immunity – they wouldn’t be in a state of panic now.‬

The UK Government looks like as if it was asleep at the wheel. Due to a combination of a lack of testing per capita and delayed lockdowns, the UK now has one of the steepest Coronavirus mortality curves in the world (with a daily increase of on average of more than 600 deaths per day for the last six days). The UK is now running on par with Italy on the daily death rate increase curve at the same stage of days since the outbreak began. 

We were warned about this.

The medical journal the Lancet presented a report on 24 January on the pattern of the outbreak in China. The Chinese scientists in the report warned about the perils of inaction.

“The number of deaths is rising quickly,” they wrote. The provision of personal protective equipment for health workers was strongly recommended, testing for the virus should be done immediately once a diagnosis was suspected. They concluded that the mortality rate was high and urged careful surveillance of this new virus in view of its “pandemic potential”.

That was in late January. Yet, the UK Government took eight weeks to fully recognise the points raised. By mid-March, the Coronavirus was fully unleashed upon the UK with inadequate protective equipment for NHS frontline staff, a lack of non-hospital mass testing and tracing programmes and delayed social distancing.

Something has gone badly wrong. There has been a collective failure within the heart of Government to adopt a clear strategy to get ahead of the virus and it is now too late. As a result, it is now reacting to events, instead of being proactive. The Government had the opportunity and the time to learn from the experience of other countries and implement models of success. Tragically they failed to do so.

The warnings from China and Italy were evident for weeks before the Coronavirus landed in Britain, but unlike New Zealand, the UK Government wasted its reconnaissance time – and many lives are being lost as a result.


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