Lockdown #3: Could The UK Have Had Any Better?

This article was written for and features in The C Word Mag

At the time of writing, there has been 89 million cases of Coronavirus worldwide, and a staggering 1.92 million deaths.

Things are looking up in some parts of the world however, and a year on from the initial outbreak of the virus some countries are now happily returning to normality, majorly easing restrictions and even recording zero cases for days on end.

Here in the UK though, it’s sadly a different story.

The country is a week into its third national lockdown since March last year, and over 1,000 Covid deaths were recordedyesterday alone – surpassing that of Australia’s death toll from the entire pandemic, in just 24 hours.

It is easy enough to point fingers when it comes to why this is the case. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the UK government are undoubtedly to blame for the now almost vertical spikes of infections and deaths. Constant backtracking, failure after failure and a glacial pace to respond to each wave of the virus has led the UK to a position where there is seemingly no clear end to the pandemic in sight.

Regardless of how clear the disasters of Johnson’s government may be however, many of the public are still quick to jump to its defence. “He’s doing his best” or, “they couldn’t have done any better” are among the most common of supporters’ cries.

Both statements beg the question, could we have had any better by now?

Short answer, yes.

For the long answer, here’s a look at how some other governments guided their countries through the beginning of the pandemic which has led to their success now, and what we could possibly have had instead of lockdown number 3.

First up is New Zealand. The country and its widely loved Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been at the forefront of all arguments that Britain could have done better, and for good reason.

With a population of just under 5 million, New Zealand boasts an impressive ratio of cases to casualties, with 2,186 confirmed Covid cases and only 25 deaths.

Prepping for the outbreak began in January of 2020, before toilet paper hoarders in the UK were even aware of the looming threat. The Ministry of Health quickly set up the National Health Co-ordination Center (NHCC), and an Infectious and Notifiable Disease order was issued from 30th January – requiring health practitioners to report any and all suspected cases of Covid.

Travel restrictions to and from other countries were set in motion as early as February, a move which has been proven key in fighting the spread early, but unfortunately one that not all countries made.

New Zealand’s national lockdown also came before any citizens had died from the virus, coming into effect on the 26th March when 102 cases but 0 deaths had been reported.

Nine months after the initial lockdown and of course some easing of restrictions along the way, the country partially locked down Auckland, its most populated city, all because just one student became infected with Covid.

This more aggressive plan of attack rather than attempting to merely “flatten the curve” or rely on herd immunity is exactly why the country has been so successful in supressing the virus.

Up next, Taiwan.

With a much larger population (23.78 million) than New Zealand (although still smaller than that of the UK), Taiwan has had only 817 confirmed cases in the country, with a staggeringly low number of deaths – just 7.

The key to their success has been labelled as the country’s past experience of dealing with a virus outbreak. The rapid spread of SARS through Taiwan in 2003 did undoubtedly give the country an upper hand for future pandemics, but arguably should have also been a warning to other countries of the importance of being prepared for one, too.

Before Corona even registered of the radars of other governments, Taiwan had sprung into action and was actively testing and quarantining travellers from Wuhan, China.

They also had a stockpile of PPE – mostly masks – and lab capacity at the ready in case of emergencies like Covid, so that even if the virus did make it past borders they had the equipment to fight it.

Singapore clearly also learnt the lesson from 2003.

Known throughout the Coronavirus pandemic for the unusual ratio of cases (58,749) to deaths (29), Singapore reacted similarly to Taiwan, with the government tightening border controls almost immediately after the disease first appeared in China.

The country made masks mandatory everywhere from April, and have been praised by the World Health Organisation for their aggressive contact tracing and testing – they have swabbed nearly 900,000 people to date, one of the highest per capita rates globally.

Another contributing factor to Singapore’s success has been the governments consistent, clear, and precise communication to the public, a luxury citizens of many other countries have not been lucky enough to receive.

They were also quick to understand why they had so many confirmed cases but little deaths. Around 95% of infections were among young workers mostly in their 20 or 30s, who were living in cramped dormitories and working in labour-intensive jobs such as construction. Knowing this, Singapore rapidly created a rostered testing regime for dormitory residents, acknowledging that, “the more we diagnose, then the lower the mortality rate is.”

To dispel the common rhetoric that the UK’s biggest hurdle to facing Covid has been the large population, Vietnam is up next on the list.

With a population almost double that of the UK at 97.34 million, Vietnam has had only 1,504 cases and a mere 35 deaths in comparison.

The country’s first Covid case was discovered and confirmed on 23rd January, and an emergency plan of action was immediately put into place. Yet again, months before some countries had even considered taking precautions against the virus.

Schools immediately closed until mid-May, a huge contact tracing operation began, travel restrictions were set up and there were increased health checks at all borders.

A closely inspected border with China was eventually closed, and the virus was dampened for the foreseeable future all thanks to Vietnam making every moment count.

Timing has been everything for the successful countries, shown when spikes of Covid did occur in Vietnam in July – 450 cases in one weekend – another full lockdown was imposed in the city of Danang, almost as quick as the cases had been reported.

Dr Todd Pollack of Harvard’s partnership for Health Advancement in Hanoi, Vietnam said, “when you’re dealing with these kinds of unknown novel, potentially dangerous pathogens, it’s better to overreact”.

He was correct of course, illustrating in one sentence how the UK’s dealing of the pandemic has been so disastrous: The government and the Prime Minister evidently underreacted at every turn.

The UK’s population is around 66.27 million, and since the outbreak of Covid the country has reported 2.96 million cases, with a gut-wrenching 79,833 deaths.

There has sadly not been just one or two isolated reasons for those drastically high numbers, but instead a plethora of failures from the conservative-led government that has led them here.

Failures such as a dangerously late lockdown, a backpedalling Boris, and in general a government that was way too slow to grasp the seriousness of the virus.

In the early days, as most other countries were taking their first steps or even already entering lockdowns, Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly missed five Cobra meetings. He went on to – almost five weeks after the first Covid case was confirmed in the UK – announce, “it’s very important that people consider that they should, as far as possible, go about business as usual”.

It wasn’t until 285 people had already lost their lives that he decided to place the country in a national lockdown in late March. A step in the right direction, but it wasn’t just late, it was also considerably lax, with travel restrictions in and out the country not enforced until June.

A train wreck of mistake after mistake from the government ensued.

Ministers allowed over 25,000 patients to be discharged from NHS hospitals to care homes without being tested for Covid. The virus made its way through UK care homes that have since been seemingly abandoned by the government. It resulted in a shocking estimated death toll of 20,000 within the institutions, and was described as ‘one of the most devastating policy failures of recent times’ to the High Court.

Government officials made the decision to also abandon any contact tracing at the height of the pandemic, before changing their minds and starting work on their own test and trace app, only to backtrack once more, ditch that idea and opt instead for a system developed by Google and Apple.

NHS staff made the news when they were left without proper personal protective equipment, and at one point were even sent repurposed bin bags, leading many hospitals to start rationing what little PPE they had.

An intensive care doctor, Dr Roberts, spoke to the BBC in April, telling them that her hospital had received very little from the government, and what they had been given was concerning. “The respiratory protection face masks we’re using at the moment, they’ve all been relabelled with new best-before end dates. Yesterday I found one with three stickers on. The first said, expiry 2009. The second sticker, expiry 2013. And the third sticker on the very top said 2021”.

When cases seemed to be on the decline and an end was near, the UK government decided to sacrifice more lives for the sake of the economy, and so the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was introduced during summer. This undeniably triggered the second wave of infections that crashed into the country afterwards, causing even more cases than the first wave and steering the UK to its second national lockdown in November of last year.

A new and more transmissible variant of Covid was discovered late September, but wasn’t acted on until it was running rampant through London in December, and so a three-tier system birthed a fourth tier overnight. This led to train stations in the city being inundated with people fleeing to lesser tiers for the Christmas period – all of whom were scolded by the Prime Minister who instructed them to stay, but had advised his fellow government officials to leave London before the tier four announcement was made.

While other countries made rigid plans and stuck by them, took extra precautions, communicated clearly with the public, put lives before money and stayed vigilant throughout, the UK government and Boris ‘let it spread through the public’ Johnson opted for something different entirely.

The back and forth on important decisions, the waiting around for a miracle as people died in crowded hospitals and care homes, and the constant confusing of the public left the UK with a death toll surpassing that of the 9/11 tragedy almost 27 times.

And here we are, lockdown number 3.

Schools once again are closed but nurseries remain open, and university students are ignored as they pay for accommodation they can no longer use and full tuition for courses they’re completing through a screen.

Vaccines are being rolled out to the four most vulnerable groups as we speak, but the promise from the Prime Minister that all will be completed by mid-February is looking less and less realistic with each update.

So to those that declare Boris Johnson and his government have tried their very best throughout this pandemic, or that they couldn’t possibly have dealt with the circumstances any other way, know they definitely could have done much better than they have.

And they should have done much better.

Because 79,833 people deserved so much better.

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