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The UK and Coronavirus: where did it all go wrong?

The UK officially has the highest death toll in Europe and the second largest number in the world. Ultimately, three fundamental failures have led to this: late implementation of a lockdown; a lack of PPE; and a lack of testing. So, let’s break it down.

✏️ Isabel Loubser

The UK officially has the highest death toll in Europe and the second-largest death toll in the world. The time has come to ask, in Sir Keir Starmer’s words, “How has it come to this?” Ultimately, there have been three fundamental failures that have led to the current death toll of over 35,000. These are: late implementation of a lockdown; a lack of PPE; and a lack of testing. 

So, let’s break it down.

Lockdown 

When the Covid-19 pandemic was first brought to public attention, the UK government insisted on following a ‘herd immunity’ approach, refusing to implement an extensive lockdown because it wasn’t yet the right time. Whilst other countries went into lockdown at a much earlier stage in their pandemic experience, our government framed this as too extreme a step. 

Unfortunately, this has resulted in serious consequences. If we had responded with the immediacy that was necessary, as was done in New Zealand, we may have been able to reduce the ‘R’ number (rate of infection) at an earlier stage and prevent the number of cases from climbing at such a quick speed.

I’ll admit, it’s difficult to compare nations like for like, as factors such as population density play an important part in the rate of infection. However, we can compare leadership. In the beginning, Johnson insisted on playing down the extent of the pandemic and continuously repeated that they were simply ‘following the scientific advice’ – advice which the public only received via the government rather than independently from SAGE. 

This posed the initial problem – because of the government’s decision to wait to implement a complete lockdown, the general public received mixed messages and many felt that social distancing measures were not, in fact, necessary. Ultimately, the government should have been completely transparent regarding the risk of the virus and have complemented this with decisive action, putting the UK into lockdown at an earlier stage.

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[Boris Johnson announcing lockdown on 23 march – 20 days after he was warned that failing to implement a lockdown would result in 250,000 deaths].

PPE 

If you have read or watched any coverage of Coronavirus, you will have realised that one of the major issues facing Britain is personal protective equipment – specifically, a lack of it. In care homes throughout the UK, people are caring for the sick and elderly with absolutely no way to shield themselves from the virus. 

PPE is necessary to ensure that those in the medical profession are able to rehabilitate the sick without falling ill themselves- well a reduced risk of falling ill. Yet, the government has failed to provide adequate protection for all the key workers that are literally putting their lives on the line to help others. 

What is even more shocking is that private companies have offered to supply the government with PPE to distribute to the NHS and many have simply received no response. More broadly, the consequences of an underfunded NHS are now being felt nationwide and the fatalities that have occurred as a result are unacceptable.

The government has insisted that there are adequate levels of PPE, but from the testimony of those in the health service this is simply not the case. The government must take the blame for an organisational mistake of this scale and acknowledge that they have made extreme errors in the supply and distribution of PPE – errors which have ultimately contributed to an intolerable death toll. 

https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/KGkjbylGpzfjGnLJJAJCDdiNpN2Y2wTDA09upaT8yfWUQaR2dkv7OvpjBr0JvEadVE12y2wlGXXVLeBFgLR0Kt-kDOjSp4ctQ2yx4heBgzKXcUG9-wVrPnRE70m8hkwrXrSl2JLi
[NHS workers wearing PPE – staff have been instructed to reuse some items which are meant to be single use].

Testing 

Coronavirus testing is so vital because it allows us to identify and isolate hotspots of the virus outbreak. It also means that those who are experiencing symptoms can definitively know if they are Covid positive and, if so, self-isolate. On this front the government has, once again, fallen short.

In order to have minimised the number of deaths in the UK, the government needed to implement widespread testing in the early stages of the pandemic and make these tests available to as many as possible, prioritising health care workers. 

This was not an impossible goal. If the government had set up testing centres at the initial point of the outbreak and invested in buying the number of tests needed, those with symptoms could have been diagnosed before further spreading the virus – this would have minimised the country’s death toll.

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-prEqZcEWXobW8fD9jD2hB6flJvyHqRicsUZ9fgBkQ_SmEcXwK4UTL_fccur4lprtv1Wfw_MJcMPHhf-F39e7ZVoYa0ridKw5FmO7ulXOxJlppqZ7iDPIczsAyYFrPlIq9Qt-VjO
[Drive through coronavirus testing centre in Belfast].

Although the government has tried to portray their response as well-managed and coordinated, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In the time that they wasted strategizing how to positively portray a paralytic and weak response, many contracted, spread and ultimately died from Coronavirus.  

Overall, it is right that we hold our government accountable for the current death toll – our present situation was not inevitable. In times of crisis, we have the right to expect absolute clarity and transparency from those in power and, unfortunately, we have been let down. 

Moving forward, we must hope that those in government will learn to navigate the ongoing pandemic with more tact and honesty and urge them to take the necessary action to ensure public safety. 

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