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Tue 20 October 2020
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A former WHO director blames ideology, years of austerity and the downgrading of public health for the UK’s failures in dealing with the pandemic.

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The UK and US Governments have suffered from “hubris” in their response to COVID-19 and failed to get a grip on the deadly disease because they believed they were “untouchable”, according to a former director at the World Health Organisation.

Anthony Costello, professor of global health and sustainable development at University College London and former director of maternal and child health at the WHO, said both countries “felt that somehow they were untouchable” and that, in the UK, a decade of austerity and ideology which prioritised “efficiency at the expense of resilience” was a big problem in the response to the Coronavirus.

“If you’ve got the choice between large stockpiles of protective equipment, for example, or you just say ‘we’ll have supply chains, why have big stockpiles?’, that’s one of the problems you run into it,” he said. “Our public health function has been very degraded in the UK. In 2013 it was moved into local authorities from the National Health Service and it’s been systematically cut for the last six years.

“So we’ve got a weak public health system, or a weakened one, we didn’t have the stockpiles, we had a bit of hubris, we weren’t thinking this was going to come in our direction, even after seeing the calamity in Wuhan and indeed in Iran and Italy. For all those reasons we made a big mistake and then… [to go on with a] policy where we just say ‘let it spread’ was a huge mistake.”


New Zealand Looks to Asia

Costello made his comments in a new Byline Times event, Science, Ideology and the Pandemic: A Way Out from the COVID-19 Crisis?

He was joined by Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, and a member of New Zealand Ministry of Health’s Pandemic Influenza Technical Advisory Group, who agreed that “complacent exceptionalism” and the notion that “what was happening in Asia wouldn’t hurt us” was a factor in why Western countries did not respond quickly enough to the pandemic. 

“In New Zealand, we were waiting for a lead from the places we always look to, which is the West, the UK and Europe to say ‘we’re rolling out all these measures to contain this infection’ and nothing happened,” he said. “Our normal sources of information and wisdom were not backing us up… in the end we went and looked at the examples from Asia and just in the nick of time, I think, for Australia and New Zealand.”

Also on the panel, Rupert Read, associate professor of philosophy at University of East Anglia, said that the attitudes of both Britain and the US broke the “precautionary principle” incumbent on governments during a deadly pandemic.


“Bosses in the Room”

For investigative journalist and Byline Times reporter Dr Nafeez Ahmed, the UK’s approach to COVID-19 has been coloured from the beginning by a desire to protect the economy and this was a big error as “you cannot separate out the economy from a strong public health system which protects life”.

Ahmed agreed with Read that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech in Greenwich on 3 February was a “smoking gun” for this attitude.

Referring to the post-Brexit trade speech in which the Prime Minister said that the Coronavirus would trigger “a desire for market segregation” that would go beyond “what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage” and “at that moment humanity needs some Government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange”, Ahmed said he believes that the ultimate irony of the UK’s COVID-19 response is the creation of a situation which now runs completely counter to notions of economic protection. 

“The decisions have been about trying to keep the economy going and trying to reduce costs and disruption, certainly that’s been a huge factor in the way that decisions have been made and the irony is that, as a result of doing that, the Government has got itself into a position where down the line they’re going to be forced into a far more draconian state of affairs which is going to do exactly what they wanted to avoid,” he said. “Now we’re at the point where we’re looking at Government advisors saying we might have an 18-month lockdown… going on indefinitely until we have a vaccine, which is a kind of horrifying dystopian nightmare scenario.

“We’re looking at New Zealand and Australia and other countries in Asia and we’re thinking: how did this happen? This is not, in any way, shape or form, helpful for the economy and, as a result of this ideology and austerity-driven decision-making, we’ve ended up in this scenario doing exactly what we set out not to do… This whole approach of favouring the economy over human life is fundamentally flawed and doesn’t make any sense.”

There is no alternative, according to Costello, to the UK now ramping-up and adopting comprehensive testing, contact tracing and isolation measures if the Government wants to ever safely end lockdown. The problem is, he said, that politicians “still seem to think they can manage [the virus] by spreading it out” and they are “not really getting an integrated, national programme to lock the virus down which is what the Asian states have done”.

The professor said that the lack of a diverse range of expertise – including public health and international advice – sought by the Government over its COVID-19 response has been another “fundamental weakness”, with an approach dominated instead by mathematical modellers and those “whose bosses were sitting in the same room”. 

Ahmed added: “If the Government refuses to eat a bit of humble pie and and ramp up mass testing and a tracing and isolation policy, we are in for a long haul and it’s not clear what the solution is… but it’s not too late to rein it in and ensure that we don’t continue on this horrifying path… There is a way out, but policy-makers really need to start taking those measures that public health experts, who know what they are talking about, are saying.”

The event was chaired by former Al Jazeera journalist Anita McNaught and produced by Sheridan Flynn.


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