Johnson likes to talk up the UK performance in dealing with COVID-19. But strangely he doesn’t consider one statistic that shows the UK competing strongly for the ‘world-beating’ title. If we ignore San Marino, that title goes to Belgium, but with the UK in second place (here I ignore Andorra, with my apologies to both countries) – and closing.
We hear a lot about the numbers of deaths in various countries, and how USA and Brazil are leading the field- but to get a true picture we need to relate this to the population size, as deaths per million inhabitants, a parameter known to epidemiologists as the ‘death rate’. Let’s look at some data (as at 13 June).
Belgium has recorded 841 deaths per million. For the UK the figure is 621.
Spain and Italy are close behind (581, 566 respectively).
Some others for comparison: Sweden 482, France 452, Ireland 354, USA 352, Brazil 204, Germany 106. Of these, USA and Brazil are both likely to move up the list.
I should add that all of these figures are somewhat suspect, some more so than others, as practices vary between countries, for example in whether they are COVID-confirmed or merely suspected, and how assiduous they are in ascertaining COVID-related deaths in the community.
How did we get to the unenviable position of being (almost) world-beating?
The UK Government has done a lot of things wrong (or failed to do the right things). I’m not going to attempt a complete list, but a few examples will suffice.
It starts several years ago. There were warnings from at least two ‘exercises’ that we were ill-prepared for a pandemic – notably, but not solely, in the inadequacy of the stockpiles of PPE. These warnings were not acted upon. I suspect that the government was influenced by the ‘just in time’ business model, which holds that stockpiles are inefficient. This model failed spectacularly as it doesn’t deal with a situation when circumstances change suddenly (as supermarkets also found out).
Other problems arose from the repeated reorganisation of the infection control systems. At one time, each hospital had its own diagnostic lab, and each local authority had well-organised arrangements for monitoring and dealing with outbreaks of infectious diseases, including experienced teams of contact tracers. Much of this was dismantled and centralised, and what was left has been largely ignored by the government. Hence people having to travel considerable distances to be tested and it taking several days to get the results back.
Then we come to the lack of action at the early stages of the pandemic. Warnings were there in January, becoming more serious in February. The government did nothing until well into March. No controls on passengers coming to the UK, not even temperature checks. Now we hear that there were at least 1300 separate introductions of the virus to the UK.
They also failed at that stage to ramp up the provision for testing and contact tracing, so that it quickly became overwhelmed when the outbreak started in earnest, and had to be abandoned. It could have made a vital difference at that stage.
They were very slow to stop large gatherings of people – including the rugby international at Twickenham (7 March), the Cheltenham Races (10-13 March) and the Atletico Madrid match at Anfield (11 March). They maintain that the scientific advice was that these events were low risk – and it could be that while people were sitting in the stands watching, the risk was less than for people in a crowded pub. But what about travel to get there? What about the bars at the event? And in the pubs afterwards?
Even after those events, with the warnings becoming clearer and clearer, it took them another two weeks to impose a lockdown.
A large part of the blame must lie with Johnson himself – first of all his refusal to engage with the issue during January and February, and then, well I can’t blame him for being ill, but he seems to have established a cabinet without anyone able to take charge in his absence. And to cap it all, his failure to deal with Cummings after his flagrant flouting of the lockdown has created a situation where large sections of the populace no longer have the respect for the advice that is necessary for maintaining control during the easing of the lockdown.
I could go on – the refusal to co-operate with the EU over the supply of PPE and ventilators (was this a dogmatic antagonism to anything ‘European’?), the hesitation and vacillation over any changes, and then imposing them suddenly without warning, and without consultation with those who would be most affected – notably the fiasco over the re-opening of the schools, plus the multitude of ever-changing ‘guidance notes’, and the proposal to change the distancing rules – will they, won’t they? Who knows? But enough is enough.