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Britain's tragic tale of dither, delay, dearth, and deaths

Khaleej Times 2020-05-23 14:50:29

Alastair Campbell's assertion that we have 'witnessed a national catastrophe' is hard to dispute when the UK has the second-worst Covid-19 death toll in the world.

"We are witnessing a national catastrophe," bellowed the headline of Alastair Campbell's recent article about the British government's bungled response to the coronavirus crisis.

Few of us can disagree with Campbell's 13,000-word evisceration of the unmitigated disaster which has unfurled over the last couple of months.

Tony Blair's former communications chief has been one of the most vociferous critics of Boris Johnson and administration's inept handling of the crisis, which is a tragic tale of dither, delay, dearth, and deaths.

While some may say Campbell has a tacit political agenda given his Labour Party kingpin past, his excoriating assessment cannot be argued with in the context of more than 35,000 deaths (or over 50,000, according to some statisticians) from this dreadful disease.

Worst Covid-19 fatality figures in Europe 

When you have the worst Covid-19 fatality figures in Europe and second-highest in the world behind the United States, serious and searching questions must be asked.

Firstly, was Boris Johnson complacent about the outbreak of the disease when it first emerged in China?

At the start of 2020, he was basking in the glory of finally having secured Britain's exit from the European Union, three and a half years after the country narrowly voted in favour of Brexit.

Little did he know that the struggles of 'Let's get Brexit done', the mantra which underpinned his resounding General Election victory in late 2019, would be dwarfed by one of the biggest pandemics in history. 

Johnson seemed blithely dismissive of Covid-19

Initially, however, like his good friend Donald Trump, Johnson seemed blithely dismissive of the exponential spread of Covid-19.

In early March, with the World Health Organization warning of a potential pandemic, his government was promoting rigorous hand-washing as the best defence.

Johnson jovially proclaimed he was still shaking people's hands after meeting patients on March 3.

A week later, he told the morning television show, 'This Morning', why he was avoiding taking 'draconian' lockdown measures.

"One of the theories is, that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population," he said.

Espousing herd immunity

In other words, Johnson was espousing herd immunity, an epidemiological term usually reserved to describe how the population as a whole is protected from a disease depending on the levels of people vaccinated.

Yet to be fair to Johnson, he was ostensibly only following the advice given to him by experts such as Sir Patrick Vallance, England's chief scientific advisor.

Back in March, Sir Patrick told a government briefing that the UK's approach was aimed at broadening the peak of the epidemic, and allowing immunity to build up among the population.

The World Health Organization has since denounced herd immunity as a dangerous concept.

A drastic change of tack as lockdown imposed

Johnson then drastically changed tack when, on March 20 with Covid-19 cases and deaths rocketing, schools, pubs, restaurants, gyms and other social venues were ordered to close.

Three days later, Johnson imposed a nationwide lockdown, telling people they should go outside only to buy food, exercise once a day or travel to work if they could not do so from home.

This came just two weeks after 150,000 people had been allowed to attend the four-day Cheltenham horse-racing festival.

As we know now, mass gatherings are ideal breeding grounds for the silent assassin known as Covid-19, so why was this allowed to go ahead?

Other European countries such as Germany imposed a lockdown earlier and have far fewer deaths as a result, which also owes much to its introduction of mass testing (which Johnson was also too slow to implement).

Johnson did not appear to appreciate the seriousness of the virus, resulting in many of us feeling it had been over-hyped and was just akin to flu.

It also felt as if he did not want to upset people's status quo and enjoyment, while prioritising the economy over public health.

Johnson thrives on being the jocular man of the people, but what a national emergency required was more austere, urgent measures and a leader displaying gravitas.

Johnson contracts the virus himself, goes into intensive care

But then he contracted the virus himself (as did Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty) and was given a savage wake-up call about its malevolence.

Johnson spent three nights in intensive care and has since revealed it was 50-50 whether he recovered or died.

He was one of the fortunate ones. Day after day, we learn of hundreds of deaths, gruesome statistics which do not reveal the untold suffering of those grieving.

A sickening shortage of PPE

Meanwhile, our much-adored healthcare workers have been tirelessly battling to save lives, despite a sickening shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Three desperate nurses even donned bin bags to protect themselves due to a lack of PPE.

Care homes have been particularly badly hit by the virus, with deaths in these institutions feared to be above 20,000. Critics attribute these to callous neglect and a lack of testing and PPE.

Why were we so dismally under-prepared for such a devastating scenario?

The government held a simulation of a flu outbreak four years ago

It beggars belief given that, just four years ago, the government held a simulation of a flu outbreak, Exercise Cygnus, to war-game the UK's pandemic readiness.

Ministers such as Matt Hancock have staggeringly claimed not to have read the damning findings of the report, which grimly stated: "The UK's preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic that will have a nationwide impact across all sectors."

Rishi Sunak's job retention scheme averts even greater national calamity

One shining light has been the emergence of the slick and shrewd Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, whose unprecedented job retention scheme is saving millions of jobs.

It's not a panacea, it's costing billions and could be compared to a sticking plaster on a festering sore, but Sunak's initiative has helped avert an even greater national calamity.

Overall, however, it does not bear thinking about what happens next in these tumultuous times - and the mixed-messaging of Johnson and his cronies certainly hasn't helped.

Mixed messages as lockdown eased

An easing of lockdown restrictions in mid-May resulted in 'Stay Alert' replacing 'Stay at Home' in the government's Covid-19 slogan. Stay alert to what exactly, Boris?!

The plan includes a staged undertaking to allow businesses to reopen, advice on avoiding public transport and wearing face coverings as well as a 14-day quarantine for most international arrivals.

But critics galore have said the details are nebulous and did not help people to know whether they should go back to work, how they would get there and how they could stay safe in the workplace.  

No laughing matter

A video of the satirist Matt Lucas mocking Johnson's muddled messages went viral, providing some much-needed light relief amidst the all-prevailing gloom.

But this is certainly no laughing matter.

These are dark hours and days indeed for Johnson and his much-maligned government, but the darkest may be yet to come. Can blustering Boris eventually engineer a 'victory' of which Winston Churchill would be proud?

As it stands, Johnson looks more like the docile, nodding dog called Churchill from a renowned British car insurance advertisement. As such, the canine Churchill's lament of 'Oh no!' looks increasingly apt in light of Britain's bungled response to Covid-19.

- Euan Reedie is a freelance writer and editor in the United Kingdom