As the coronavirus warnings grew louder, Boris Johnson’s government was distracted by Brexit triumphalism. On testing, contract tracing and equipment supply, there was a scandalous failure to prepare
By Hugh Barnes
The coronavirus known as Covid-19 (or Sars-CoV-2 to epidemiologists) is a new virus that attacks the respiratory tract. It resembles influenza in some ways but is deadlier and spreads faster than earlier viral pathogens, not least because infected people who are symptom-free can transmit the virus. Since it’s a new mutation, we have no immunity. Nevertheless coronavirus is a disaster for which our government should have been prepared, because it is a predictable (and predicted) consequence of climate change, rising population growth and the globalisation of travel.
Unlike flu, which also spreads via droplets in coughs and sneezes, Covid-19 is not thought to present a risk at distances further than a couple of yards. It doesn’t spread via aerosols, in other words. Its principal mode of transmission is physical contact. On 3rd March, however, the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson boasted that people would be ‘pleased to know’ he had been shaking hands with coronavirus patients at a hospital. Three weeks later, he was diagnosed with the virus and went into self-isolation, then hospital, then intensive care. It was a relief when he, unlike tens of thousands of others, pulled through.
Five years ago, the government’s risk register of disaster scenarios estimated there could be a one in two chance of an influenza epidemic hitting the country by 2020, with catastrophic results. One of the main lessons of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 was that nations that acted early and decisively to contain the virus by banning public gatherings, closing schools, and isolating the sick, ended up with a much lower death rate than places where the government failed to take such measures. Yet with this clear historical precedent, and even a 50% probability of another pandemic, the UK government seemed to be under-prepared and caught off guard when the number of infections began to rise, quite slowly at first, from late January onwards.
It was not until 23rd March that Johnson, in a televised address, announced the unprecedented move to impose a national lockdown, introducing measures that he had been describing as ineffective only two weeks earlier. The statistical evidence is now clear that shutting down Britain earlier would have saved lives. It was already too late by the time Johnson acted because the Covid-19 virus had already taken hold across the country and was spreading exponentially, while personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators were now harder to obtain because of reduced stocks.
The UK government’s policy in the first phase throughout January and February was essentially one of laissez-faire, as favoured by Johnson’s ideological guru, Dominic Cummings. This strategy continued to prevail at Cobra meetings during the first half of March. As late as Friday the 13th – you couldn’t make this up – the government’s chief science advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, was telling the media that ‘one of the key things we need to do’ is to ‘build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission.’
Of course there are only two ways of building up herd immunity against a virus: one is vaccination (and a vaccine for Covid-19 doesn’t yet exist); the other is letting people get infected. So it was a bold and innovative policy in the first phase, given that herd immunity only kicks in once 60% of the population has become infected, and SARS-CoV-2 is thought to kill about two per cent of confirmed cases. Unsurprisingly the Cummings plan failed and we now have a national epidemic.
In Germany and South Korea, both countries with populations the same size as the UK’s, governments immediately cottoned on to the fact that the only way to contain the virus is by widespread testing to identify people who are infected, even if they don’t have any symptoms, and then to isolate them while tracing anybody they’ve had contact with. Of course neither Germany nor South Korea has just undergone 10 years of Tory health cuts, which may explain why Germany is testing more than five times as many people as we are, while its death toll is less than a third. As of 20th April, South Korea has recorded just 236 deaths among its population of 52 million – or 45 times fewer deaths per head of population than the UK, where more than 16,060 had died by the same date, according to the government’s only partial figures.
The Conservative government is directly to blame for the scale of this unfolding catastrophe, which is not just costing lives. On 14th April, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that the United Kingdom’s GDP could fall by 35% in the second quarter of the year as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, with unemployment rising by more than two million to 10%, and public sector borrowing increasing to £273 billion, or 14% of GDP, by the end of the financial year. That would be the highest yearly deficit since World War Two – and Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron cannot avoid responsibility for it after a decade of misgovernment cut funding, underpaid key workers and ignored risk assessments.
It is unfortunate that the Covid-19 outbreak happened just as the climate movement appeared to be gathering momentum. Last November, by the time the first case in Wuhan went unreported by the Chinese authorities, the UK and France had agreed to net zero emissions targets, and Greta Thunberg had become a household name. The threat of climate change may seem less urgent than the pandemic. But, in many ways, what we are seeing in the wake of the commercial shutdown is a rapid and unplanned version of economic ‘degrowth’, which the AGS has been arguing for years is necessary to address climate change and make the planet habitable for future generations.
Across the country the air is unpolluted, river water is clean and full of fish. Birdsong has returned to city centres, and is no longer drowned out by traffic noise. The use of fossil fuels has plummeted. Unfortunately the global lockdown won’t save us from global warming but it might teach us a lesson about how to build a better future.