Today
Sun 17 January 2021

John Ashton compares the responses of the two nations to COVID-19, explaining why quick, decisive action is essential in a pandemic

Sporting events often concentrate attention on a host country’s political circumstances. In the case of Bahrain, however, which hosted its Grand Prix this weekend, news attention was dominated by a dramatic crash involving Haas driver Romain Grosjean, whose life was undoubtedly saved by the safety halo device on his car. This meant Bahrain’s outstanding response to the COVID-19 pandemic went unreported.

From the beginning of the public health emergency, Bahrain has been on the front foot, led by Cambridge-educated Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad, who convened a task force and set up a COVID War Room on 3 February – which I was later invited to join.

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson was preoccupied with his chaotic sexual relationships and distracted by Brexit legislation, Crown Prince Salman was taking action, ensuring that the Public Health Service was ready, and that the country’s capacity for COVID-19 testing was massively increased.

His first decisions, in February, involved postponing the Grand Prix, which should have taken place from 20 March in the capital Manama, preventing Shiite religious pilgrimages to the holy sites in Iran, and implementing a comprehensive system of scrutiny for all those entering the country – with systematic isolation and quarantine requirements. Contrast this with the UK, which allowed the Cheltenham horse racing festival to go ahead in March, 10 days before lockdown measures began.

Such was Bahrain’s control over the pandemic that, by the Summer, it had only recorded a couple of dozen deaths among a population comparable in size to the city region of Liverpool – generating acclaim from the Director General of the World Health Organisation.

Since the Summer, with only a hiccup at the end of August during the religious festival of Muharam, the picture has been sustained. To all intents and purposes Bahrain is now back to normal, as signalled by the rescheduled Formula One Grand Prix.

From 600 new daily cases in September, there are now roughly 100 new cases each day, with only a couple of COVID-19 deaths each week. The total number of deaths from the disease in a population of around 1.5 million is 340. This has been achieved largely through the kind of measures that Britain’s local public health directors have been demanding for months, with minimal intrusion into normal life and without closing schools. Rather, all parents at both private and state schools in Bahrain were offered a choice for their children of online learning or school attendance.

The Bahraini approach has been characterised by innovation and pragmatic common sense. The country has implemented widespread and frequent lateral flow testing – such as has been piloted in Liverpool – making the technology available in schools, gatherings and at sporting events.

In a particularly dramatic example of how effective these tests can be, 45 out of 158 prisoners tested at one establishment were found to be virus positive, pre-empting what could have been a deadly outbreak. Meanwhile, in the UK, widespread testing in prisons is still not available.

At the present time, COVID-19 tests are available over the counter in all pharmacies in Bahrain, thereby enabling the public to take charge of the emergency – surely the ultimate goal of any public health intervention, and a key step in returning the country to normality.

There is currently a vaccine trial of 7,000 volunteers using the Chinese vaccine, Sinophar, with the expectation that a programme of vaccination will begin in three weeks. Meanwhile, having not put all their eggs in one basket, the Bahrainis also have supply chains ready for the Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Covax vaccines.

Bahrain is by no means a political nirvana, but its success in dealing with the Coronavirus crisis, in contrast with the UK, is stark. Indeed, Boris Johnson’s Government has struggled to cohere even a vaguely joined-up response to the pandemic, acting too late and then imposing multiple layers of inconsistency and contradiction. As a result, there has been extensive damage to both the nation’s health and its economy – breaching public trust and alienating Members of Parliament.

With lateral flow testing programmes now set to be rolled out across the country, it seems as though the Government is practicing Winston Churchill’s famous description of Americans: “always [doing] the right thing, only after they have tried everything else.”

However, in a style of government that repeatedly grasps defeat from the jaws of victory, Johnson has decided to give the virus one more gift: a Christmas blow-out. If this holiday season causes a dramatic spike in cases, the UK could be plunged into another period of lockdown and economic turmoil.

Johnson may not be keen on looking to the Middle East for political inspiration, but on COVID-19 he has a lot to learn from Bahrain.

John Ashton is a former Regional Director of Public Health for North-West England and has advised the Bahraini Government on its response to the Coronavirus pandemic


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