Coronavirus: Assessing the UK’s Public Health Response
Adam Robertson Charlton examines the UK Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and assesses rationale behind it.
As I sit down to write this, the world is at the start of the greatest crisis since the Second World War, the biggest biological disaster since the Spanish flu. That fact will not change by the time this article is finished, nor by the time that it has been published. As a global community, we are a kite dancing in the teeth of a storm; yet to be fully engulfed. Whilst our situation changes day to day, and the number of dead in this country rises exponentially over the coming weeks, that one fact will not change. We are at the beginning. This article can only offer a snapshot of the past two months.
Due to the incubation period of the coronavirus, the next few weeks are effectively prewritten. The past few weeks were prewritten several weeks before. This makes it somewhat tricky to discuss the effects of policy within such a small period relative to the duration of the crisis. Therefore – and for detail’s sake – this article will focus on the government’s public health strategy, not its economic measures. Given the overwhelming density of recent developments, we will begin with a brief timeline of Britain’s response to the coronavirus.
On the 22nd January 2020, Public Health England raised the threat level to the British public from the novel coronavirus from ‘very low’ to ‘low’. By the end of the month the first British citizens had tested positive for the virus. By the 10th February, the health secretary Matt Hancock announced that doctors would have strengthened powers to quarantine people as the number of confirmed cases in the UK reached eight. On Friday 28th the first British death due to coronavirus was recorded. This came at the end of the worst week for global stocks since the 2008 financial crash. On the 3rd March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson proudly announced that on a visit to a hospital treating patients with coronavirus, he’d “shaken hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know”. The following day the number of UK cases leapt by 34 to 87, as schools across mainland Europe shut.
On the 11th March, a £12bn support package was announced by the Chancellor to help cope with the imminent onslaught. By this point the government had committed to a ‘herd immunity’ strategy, and had their chief scientific advisers on TV promoting it. Four days later, cases in the UK passed 1000. Matt Hancock suggested that the elderly should be quarantined for up to four months with no mention of how this could be achieved. The next day, Johnson urged everyone able to work from home to do so. On the 17th the government unveiled a massive financial package including loans and tax cuts for companies threatened with collapse. The following day school closures were announced as the government U-turned on its herd immunity strategy. Finally, on 20th March – much to the disquiet of Tim Martin – pubs, gyms, restaurants and other social venues closed for ‘the foreseeable future’. The same day, Johnson told reporters he was planning to see his mum on Mother’s Day, despite having insisted that the general public refrain from doing so.
How this time has been used by different countries has yielded dramatically different results.
As I write this, on the 1st April, the death toll has reached 2352, and both Matt Hancock and the Prime Minister have contracted the virus. Although the mainstream media has attempted to turn “lead by the science” into a Homeric epithet for the government, the UK’s public health response has been catastrophically negligent. Let us begin by comparing our current plight with that of other European countries. Whilst Italy had little warning and scant time to prepare for the crisis, the same cannot be said of northern Europe. How this time has been used by different countries has yielded dramatically different results. Germany – which developed cases before the UK – has, of 1st April, 67366 confirmed cases, far more than the UK, but just 732 deaths, almost 1000 less than us.
Evidently, the early enforcement of effective social distancing correlates with a reduced number of fatalities.
Another example is Norway, where the virus initially spread faster than in the UK due to the number of Norwegians returning from the Italian Alps. Yet, through the rapid introduction of social distancing measures like the closure of social venues, the death toll has been kept to 28 out of 4447 known cases. In contrast, Sweden, which has a near identical number of cases to Norway, but has followed a similar policy to the UK, has lost 180 lives to the virus. Testing, tracing, and stringent social distancing policies in South Korea have the number of cases not just under control but in decline. Evidently, the early enforcement of effective social distancing correlates with a reduced number of fatalities. what is more, this evidence has been available for quite some time.
The sudden U-turn on herd immunity suggests that the UK government has finally grasped this. Yet the claim made in large parts of the establishment media that the policy changed because the science changed is outrageously disingenuous. The importance of slowing the virus to prevent healthcare systems from being overwhelmed has been World Health Organization (WHO) advice since the start of the outbreak. Instead, the UK pursued a herd immunity strategy on the expectation that a lasting period of immunity follows the virus. They based this strategy on a model produced by Kings College London, which predicted that allowing 60% of the population to become infected, (the government’s goal according to its chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance), would result in 20,000 deaths.
since U-turning on herd immunity, the government has been at pains to deny such a strategy ever existed.
When “new data” from Italy was put into the model however, the number of deaths predicted as a result of this strategy turned out to be 260,000. It must be stressed that these numbers from Italy were not really new. Indeed, they correlated closely with preexisting data out of China. What is more, the number could easily be higher. After all, you don’t need a model to work out how many people will die if 60% of a population of 66 million contracts a disease with a mortality rate of even just 1%. That number is 400,000. With that in mind, the government’s decision to keep pubs open and the economy running at the expense of lives, based on an unproven theory about immunity, and a faulty model, appears frankly deranged.
Perhaps that is why since U-turning on herd immunity, the government has been at pains to deny such a strategy ever existed. The abundance of footage in which government ministers and their scientific advisors stump for the strategy, however, means that the masquerade party can’t last for long. In their efforts to conceal their culpability, the government is not only misleading the British public, but is actively scapegoating it. The notion that people buying too much toilet paper, sitting in a park, or walking too far from home are responsible for the scenes we are about to see in hospital hallways up and down the country is absurd. If the Lancet’s 18 days from contraction to death is to be believed, then the many hundreds that died today contracted the virus when pubs, shops, and restaurants were still open. We appear to have been led here by a government that has politicized epidemiology.
Sadly, myopic policy-making of this kind is nothing new. A decade of fanatical ‘efficiency savings’ in the NHS, meaning that hospitals that should never run above 85% capacity operate between 95 and 105% every winter, means we are lethally low on capacity for the coming crisis. Whilst a pandemic on this scale was bound to overwhelm the health service of any western neoliberal state, the policies of the Conservative government past and present have primed this country for disaster.