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Sat 15 August 2020
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The UK Government’s response to COVID-19 has consistently been punctuated by fatal delays, reports Sam Bright

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It has been a common refrain during the Coronavirus crisis: the UK Government has acted… finally.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted that his Government has taken “the right steps at the right time” to tackle the outbreak of this deadly virus. Yet, with a death toll of 60,000+ and the second-highest number of recorded health worker deaths in the world, something has evidently gone awry.

On this front, the timing of the Government’s actions is worthy of examination. On Monday, Johnson announced that it will be compulsory for people to wear face masks in shops from 24 July – two weeks after the same measure was introduced by Scotland. Meanwhile, Germany first introduced this measure on 22 April. Three months ago.

And this isn’t an exception. Johnson has repeatedly announced policies that have been commonplace for weeks if not months in other parts of the world.

Here are the five most important delays.

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1. Face Coverings

Johnson’s Government has been one of the last to acknowledge the health benefits of face coverings.

On 3 April, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam stated at the Downing Street daily Coronavirus briefing: “There is no evidence that general wearing of the face masks by the public who are well affects the spread of the disease”.

The UK hadn’t stockpiled any masks prior to Coronavirus, which likely contributed to the Government’s early policy – only supplying masks to health workers. Their general adoption was not recommended until the conclusion of a lengthy review on 11 May, when the Government advised people to start wearing face coverings in confined spaces as it began to relax the lockdown rules. It was a month later, 15 June, that face coverings became mandatory on public transport. And, as mentioned, face covering in shops will only be mandatory from 24 July.

Italy had already applied these rules on 4 May, requiring face coverings to be worn both on public transport and in shops, while Spain followed this example on 28 May when the Government made it law for face masks to be worn in all public spaces where social distancing rules could not be followed. Coverings on public transport had already been mandatory from early May.

Even the United States, which has been a model of incompetence on Coronavirus, was faster out of the blocks than England. On 3 April, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started recommending that people wear face coverings in public – the same day that Van-Tam stood at his Downing Street lectern and disputed their benefits.


2. Lockdown

Neil Ferguson told MPs on 10 June that introducing lockdown a week earlier could have halved the Coronavirus death toll – saving 25,000 lives. Ferguson is one of the world’s pre-eminent epidemiologists who advised the Government until a scandal cooked up the right-wing media forced his resignation in May.

It is true that the virus reached the UK later than other European countries, yet our imposition of lockdown was still a last minute, begrudging concession from Johnson’s Government.

Given the time lag between Coronavirus arriving in different countries, it is therefore more instructive to compare the number of deaths that each had reported, on the day they locked down:

Italy: 463 deaths
UK: 335 deaths
Spain: 288 deaths
France: 148 deaths
China (Hubei): 17 deaths
Greece: 0 deaths

Italy was of course stung early by the virus, and had little time to cope. This wasn’t an affliction suffered by the UK.


3. Test and Trace

On 27 May, just a few days before the Government’s ‘test and trace’ system was launched, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock said, “It is your civic duty,” to participate in the programme, “so you avoid unknowingly spreading the virus and you help to break the chain of transmission”.

This marked a significant moment in the Government’s general approach to Coronavirus. Initially believing that ‘herd immunity’ would save us from the pandemic, Hancock and Johnson were caught behind the curve. Pushed in the early days by Downing Street aide Dominic Cummings, the UK chased herd immunity instead of investing in the only successful method of controlling the disease: comprehensive testing and contact tracing.

And so, by the time Hancock unveiled our system in late May, we were already lagging months behind our global counterparts. By mid-March, South Korea had tested more than 270,000 people, many of whom took advantage of drive-through and walk-in testing centres. The South Korean Government had also developed a genuinely “world beating” contract tracing system to track down the virus – using interviews, GPS tracking, credit-card records and video surveillance to get in touch with people who had been in contact with the disease.

While the UK’s death toll stands at tens of thousands, South Korea has recorded fewer than 300 fatalities.

Similarly, Germany applied the ‘test and trace’ model early during the pandemic, with great success. In mid-June, Germany launched its Coronavirus contact tracing app, which uses short-range Bluetooth to detect whether someone has come into contact with Coronavirus. Within 24 hours of launch, the app had been downloaded by 6.5 million people.

Hancock promised that a similar sort of app would be delivered in the UK by mid-May, though it now looks like it won’t arrive until late this year at the earliest, and potentially won’t be in app stores until 2021.


4. PPE

On personal protective equipment (PPE), Government inertia began even before Coronavirus. At the time when Coronavirus first reached the UK, there were no gowns, visors, swabs or body bags in the Government’s pandemic stockpile.

The problems multiplied from there. Amid soaring global demand – and while the Government stubbornly rejected any help from the European Union – NHS staff suffered dangerous shortfalls in protective equipment. As Byline Times reported earlier this week, a recorded 540 health and social care workers have died from Coronavirus in England and Wales. Several of those who died from the disease, including Dr Peter Tun, who worked at Royal Berkshire Hospital and Dr Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, who worked at Homerton Hospital in Hackney, east London, had warned about a lack of PPE in hospitals.

In response, in mid-April the Government enlisted the help of the RAF to transport a major shipment of protective equipment from Turkey for use in the NHS. However, the much-hailed shipment actually contained a fraction of the gowns that were ordered, according to the Health Service Journal.


5. Care Homes

Compounding the problems posed to health workers by a shortage of PPE, the Government was also slow to react to an upsurge in care home Coronavirus cases. As late as 12 March, just a week before Coronavirus cases spiked and the country went into the lockdown, the Government was continuing to insist that “it remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home will become infected”.

It was subsequently found that elderly people were being returned to care homes from hospitals without being tested for Coronavirus – risking outbreaks in these high-risk settings. Yet it wasn’t until mid-April that Hancock changed the rules so that everyone returning to a care home from hospital had to be tested.

An LSE study has consequently found that UK care home residents have been more likely to die of COVID-19 than any other country apart from Spain – with the death toll exceeding 20,000.


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