• Jonas Lammens

Shining light on dimming Isles: The British Government COVID Catastrophe

Picture's Copyright: Sky News

I remember feeling shocked when I journeyed back to the UK on the 15th of March. I arrived at Brussel-Midi/Zuid’s Eurostar terminal that day, to find no health checks in place; just the standard brief passport/ID check. No measurement of temperatures, no questions asked on health- nothing. ‘Business as usual’ was the unuttered message which transpired as I awaited to board the 18.7 metre by 2.81-metre-wide carriage which would shuttle me back to English shores. After two hours of travel I had arrived at St. Pancras international. A fifteen-minute Tube journey consisting of four stops on the Hammersmith and City Line, during the Sunday evening rush-hour window, was my final stretch in the supercity capital before boarding a train towards my rustic home in East Anglia. The palette between two extremes of the human conditions was ever-present in that journey. Namely, whilst some fellow commuters showed a reserved sense of cautiousness others were oblivious or untroubled by this spectre which was unfolding at the microscopic level of our everyday milieus. It would take another eight days before the government abandoned its ‘herd immunity’ strategy. The intrinsic utility of the 21-mile-wide buffer of the English Channel, which had kept Bonapartism and Nazism strictly on the continent, the non-membership from Schengen accords and the sovereignty over border policy were all absent- until it was too late. British Spring was still in full swing, St. Patrick’s Day had pubs open and as a quarter of a million racegoers were given the greenlight to attend The Cheltenham Festival (on the 13th of March) Europe began bracing itself for the invisible enemy which lurked within its borders. Skip a month forward and we are in the midst of arguably one of the UK government’s worst mismanaged operations of this current century. The prospect that the British Isles may face is as Professor Anthony Costello, of University College London’s Institute for Global Health, said that the “harsh reality” is that the UK will probably have “Europe’s highest death rate” due to its slow reaction. The question is how was this dilemma allowed to materialise?

As I write this piece, The Sunday Times has published an exposé on the 38 days in which this nation “sleepwalked into disaster”. The government fired its cylinders on that same day in the form of a blogpost response from the Department of Health and Social Care Media Centre, addressing and dismissing some of the article’s claims as ‘falsehoods’. Ironically, the editor of the worldwide renowned medical journal, The Lancet, whom had been quoted in the government’s rebuttal came out stating that their response was “deliberately rewriting history in its ongoing Covid-19 disinformation campaign” through handpicking one tweet which was “followed by a series of tweets drawing attention to the dangers of this new disease”. Richard Horton, the person in question, had in fact that same day tweeted a series of emerging studies, which included findings that suggested this virus would require the preparation for a “urgent clinical challenge” due to the early signs of its high pathogenic nature.

On the 3rd of February, Boris Johnson delivered a speech in Greenwich which today would seem satirical to give. Seven weeks before lockdown this speech addressed Brexit and the road ahead and in it referring to COVID-19 said that it “could trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational, to the point of doing real unnecessary economic damage. Then, at that moment, humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange. Some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leaping into the phone both emerging a supercharged champion of the right of populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely amongst each other”. Johnson was positioning himself as the bulwark for the liberal order against what he saw as the onslaught of an illiberalist spectre emerging in the forms of lockdown and restrictions discussions. A week earlier he was absent from one of the first COBRA[1] meetings on the subject; he would go on to miss four more meetings- a fact now confirmed by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove. The Sunday Times quoted a senior advisor to Downing Street No. 10 as saying that the Prime Minister “liked his country breaks” “didn’t work weekends” and was like “an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago”.

He played everything down and boasted weeks before going into self-isolation that he was shaking hands with coronavirus patients. Our Primus inter Pares seemed indifferent and untroubled, allegedly, in ill-taste, nicknaming the ventilator shortage “operation last gasp”. The Sunday Times findings have shown that Cabinet members were told throughout February by epidemiologists and virologists of the expected high casualties, if current posture was maintained, however it “fell on deaf ears”. A study by the University of Southampton has further shown that 190,000 people flew into the UK from Wuhan and other high-risk Chinese cities between January to March.

One can’t help but think that an EU-exiting UK government felt like it needed ‘to prove’ something to its country’s collective investors and stakeholders. Maintaining posture was key in the unpromising forecast of an economically turbulent Brexit Britain. Briefings by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) had emphasised through its predictions put forward to government in late February that the UK would need 220,000 intensive care beds and could expect 380,000 deaths if it maintained current postures. Almost a month prior to lockdown the government had seen dire projections- but these were just mere projections and ‘seeing is believing’. It is why a senior politician told 'the Times' that in conversations with Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Advisor for the UK government, ‘herd immunity’ was the absolute focus in late January; and as it was perceived as a ‘pandemic flu’. But considering The Sunday Times exposé it has now come to light that a government which claimed to be policy-led by the experts had been briefed and advised for an earlier lockdown than took place.

In the last rehearsal for a pandemic in 2016, codenamed Cygnus, the simulation predicted the health service would collapse and shortcomings such as lack of PPE and intensive care ventilators would contribute to this. The government knew of the possible realities which could transpire in the scenario of a pandemic. Despite this the UK government sent 279,000 pieces of personal protective equipment to the Chinese authorities. It now finds itself with a Health Minister who has warned that PPE supplies could run out in the next 48 hours and has advised hospitals to “reuse” as much of it as they can. Furthermore, the UK awaits shipments of PPE from Turkey and China to deal with the shortages. This tactic may pay off in the long-run as the UK has received a positive-net income of PPE from China, but in the immediate short-term ‘day to day’ setting of a pandemic it shows further a lack of judgement. Indeed, the government tried to stay resilient to its herd immunity plans and when Belgium, France and other European countries began implementing lockdown measures it took nearly a further two weeks for similar plans to transpire. The UK was behind the general European curve- taking fifteen days from its third confirmed COVID-19 death to implement full ‘lockdown measures’; the worst response time amongst the big European four (France, Germany, Italy and the UK). Beyond this it was late in preparations and despite having a chronic shortage for Cygnus scenarios to transpire it went ahead in donating over a quarter of a million PPE supplies to a country which was already the largest producer of PPE equipment; at the end of March China was producing over 116 million masks a day. Moreover, it seems the government were failing to engage early with industries in ramming up production such as testing kits. The chief executive (Doris-Ann Williams) of the British in Vitro Diagnostics Association (which represents 110 companies that make up most of the UK’s testing sector) said that that the government only approached them meaningfully on the 1st of April concerning the scaling up of testing kits. Many UK manufacturers’ appeals have apparently been ignored by the government despite the shortages of PPE in hospitals. As The Daily Telegraph found (21st of April), last week five million surgical masks and more than a million respirators were packed on to EU-registered lorries by one UK wholesaler.

Furthermore, the UK government has been ‘flip-flopping’ in the information it has given on matters such as not joining the EU procurement scheme.[2] First the position was that the government had not ‘received’ an invitation and after this was exposed not to be the case the government changed its line. The new stance was that it did not join as it was no longer a member of the EU, which was never a requirement in the scheme. More shockingly, the Foreign office permanent under secretary Sir Simon McDonald admitted on the 21st of April that this government failure to join an EU bulk-buying scheme was a ‘political’ decision and not an email communication error. This manipulation of information is nothing new to the Cummings led era of number 10 communications, on the 3rd of February several journalists staged a walkout from the press-briefing room after Downing Street tried to ‘cherry-pick’ desirable journalists for attendance only- thus streamlining the potential scrutiny. Dr John Ashton, a former regional director of Public Health England, said late March that “The government has been too slow to act on this, and they’ve been slow as individuals”. The government line has since then always been that it responded, “at the right time”. But even if this was the case its response since then and the objectives it had set are far from being reached. For example, as outlined by Health Minister Matt Hancock, the government has set the aim to conduct 100,000 tests a day by the end of April; however, with only 27 mobile testing stations across the UK and only fulfilling a fifth of this daily quota, it is unlikely that this will be met.

Whilst I write these closing remarks the UK has suffered over 17,000 deaths and that is not including the large extent of COVID-19 related deaths recorded in homes and care-homes. Over the last weeks the UK’s rate of confirmed cases has been two to three times the rate of France and Italy. With the government still a far reach away from attaining the daily testing targets, producing enough PPE (especially scrubs[3]) and building the necessary capacities for the eventual ‘second wave’, the easing of restrictions seems still a little while away. Whilst continental Europe, such as Belgium, begin talking about mid-May lifting of lockdown regulations the UK will surely be behind the curve, once again.

In times like these a need for politicians to accept a certain degree of an informal technocracy is vital. Where government is truly guided by the experts and one where it maximises our readiness and capabilities in dealing with these crises’ scenarios is necessary. Germany must count its blessings with the scientific expertise and principles which Angela Merkel possesses as a Chancellor. Moreover, in the context of Cygnus, the 10-year Conservative led government will never again be able to overlook such reports and recommendations. Policy-formulation and strategy in terms of dealing with future pandemics will probably transform. The need for highly calculated pandemic action plans based on social and environmental demographics will be required to form systems of appropriate responses. Austerity politics cannot and will not continue. The pandemic politics of tomorrow will require tedious scientific planning, testing, innovation, global transparency and a subservient government to fulfil these recommendations. With the UK economy projected to shrink by 35% this Spring, Boris Johnsons’ initial aims to be the last open “free-trader standing” has backfired bitterly.

When the storm calms, inquisitions will follow. Questions will be asked, and some will be sufficiently answered. But for now, as echoed by Hegel, throughout the ages, for those times that have come and are still to unravel, “The owl of Minerva only flies at dusk”.

I would like to dedicate this article to the countless volunteers, fundraisers, key-workers and the National Health service heroes who have proven that this country can still be a Land of Hope and Glory.

[1] COBRA- Cabinet Office Briefing Room A- refers to the place and special emergency ministerial meetings with representatives from the armed forces, emergency services and the relative institutions the subject relates to.

[2] Granted not joining the EU procurement scheme may be a blessing in disguised as leaked EU documents have indicated the potential severe delay in delivering crucial ventilator systems and PPE.

[3] Scrubs: The name given to the uniforms which nurses, doctors and other health workers wear in hospital milieus.

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