The UK government and population expected Brexit to mark their 2020. After months of delay, they finally completed the move under the leadership of Boris Johnson. Boris is a charismatic prime minister who has built a reputation for the grandiose but lacks the plan’s details. It is a feature that has characterized his push for Brexit, full of slogans but no clear plan. He also sets self-limiting targets and deadlines, which have often come back to bite. It is with this approach that the pandemic era of UK unfolded. When the coronavirus struck, changing every country’s priority and plans for 2020. Britain, experts say, ‘sleep-walked into the pandemic’ and the effects have been crippling and devastating.
The first coronavirus confirms the case on January 31. Even after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the government had no concerted strategy to combat the disease and its impact. The Brexit campaign distracted and wore the country. The top leadership was still focusing on the trade deal with Europe coming after Brexit.The health secretary, not the PM, chaired the first meeting of the pandemic era of UK government’s emergency committee, COBRA.
This action turned the Prime minister’s responsibility to a departmental concern. At best, any concerted response and strategy were grossly overestimating the UK’s institutions’ ability to handle the virus. At the same time the government was downplaying the pandemic’s impact and severity. The PM, repeatedly claimed during the pandemic’s early days that the country was better prepared than most to handle it.
He clung to the long-held claim that Britain has world-beating health institutions like the NHS, leading research institutions, and scientists. Unfortunately, none of these institutions were well funded and prepared to deal with complexities, like the ones posed by the coronavirus.
Lack of Clarity in Communication and Strategy
Indeed, no country was ready for what came. However, as the UK’s neighbors were busy taking measures to shore up supplies and put in place measures to control the spread, the government kept downplaying the threat and remain distracted. Only when the cases spiked in March did it become apparent just how unprepared and underfunded the pandemic era of UK NHS and health ministry was.
The government’s efforts were not in tandem with the unfolding situation and measures globally accepted as standard. For example, early testing and tracing efforts were probably the only positive thing that worked. However, the government halted the tracing and testing measures accepting the inevitability of a full-scale outbreak. This action was controversial as it was against the WHO’s advice and actions taken by most nations. In Europe and Asia, aggressive community testing helped push back the epidemic.
Instead, the government announced the country was entering a delay phase on March 12 and still gave no clear policy of what the nation was to do. At the same time, the media quoted his chief medical advisor saying the goal was to develop herd immunity against the disease. It was not the official policy, yet the timing could not be much unfortunate. It would take up to March 16, for the Prime Minister to officially advise the public to practice social distancing. At the same moment, he urged people to work from home and avoid public venues. These guidelines came only when a scientific study confirmed everyone’s fears; the disease could be far worse than previously thought.
Too Little too Late
The guidelines issued on March 16 were not legally binding in any form. The government left it to the mythical British wisdom for people to decide whether to follow these measures or not. It was not until March 23 that Johnson ordered a lockdown of the country. The measures saw the banning of non-essential travel, and many businesses were forced to close. Experts now say this one-week delay denied the government the opportunity to gain time against the disease.
A government advisor and leader of the scientific modeling group based at Imperial University admits that going on lockdown, a week earlier would have effectively halved the country’s death toll. In comparison, Italy, and Spain, which had the highest peaks of the disease in Europe at the time, went into lockdown on March 9 and 14, respectively. France on the other hand went into lockdown on March 14. By May, the UK had surpassed Italy as the country with the most deaths in Europe.
The country saw the death toll rising to 30,000 in the first week of the month. The government explained its delay in enforcing an aggressive lockdown as waiting for measures at the right moment. Such a moment has proven to be the dilemma of the pandemic era of UK. Explaining this decision, Boris said the idea was to act at a moment when it would have a greater impact in controlling the disease. If such a moment existed, then he missed it by a mile. Four days after announcing lockdown measures, the Prime Minister tested positive for coronavirus.
Shortages of PPE and Testing Kits
In nowhere else has the failure to take proactive measures against the disease acutely felt than at the forefront. Health workers lack basic supplies and equipment to perform their work.
The country’s testing capacity was dismally poor, especially when compares with other countries. By the second week of March, Germany was testing about 200,000 people per day while Britain, in comparison, was averaging under 2000 people a day. There was also a severe shortage of PPE equipment for medical personnel hampering their services and the ability to test and seeing many engage in silent protests.
The health secretary attributed the poor testing record to the small size of the diagnostic industry in the pandemic era of UK. Soon, the global supply chains took a hit. The UK’s delay in sourcing supplies saw it engage in embarrassing last-minute attempts to shore up equipment (9). For instance, in April, the British government paid $20 million to a Chinese company for kits that turned out to be dysfunctional.
In another instance, the government enlisted the Air force in the airlifting of 400,00 protective equipment from Turkey. Unfortunately, export licenses complications held the flight back only for doctors to find them defective and not fit for any use. At one point in April, the NHS informed workers that they would have to care for patients without using full gowns. The service was about to run out of equipment in a few hours.
A Missing Prime Minister
A significant setback during the pandemic era of UK has been the absence of its Prime Minister at crucial moments. Before his hospital admission for about a month for covid-19 treatment, Boris’ leadership was missing during the crucial early weeks. As a Sunday Times article rightly pointed out, January ended with Johnson focusing on Brexit; in February, he was handling a divorce settlement (5). The end of the month found him celebrating an engagement and expecting a baby boy early in the summer.
During this time, when personal issues distracted him, he took a ‘working holiday’. He was spending his time with his partner at a country retreat for two weeks. Johnson missed five COBRA meetings from the first one on January 24 and finally attended the sixth on March 2. As world leaders took charge of their countries’ early response to COVID-19, Boris Johnson’s notable act was his absence.
By the time he was leading the UK, he was undecided and without any tangible strategy. Then in just under a month, the Prime Minister was again absent. Unfortunately, this time, he became the first of the world leaders to contract the virus. He was away for another month, during which the UK’s coronavirus cases and deaths spiked, surpassing all countries in Europe.
By the time Boris Johnson was back, the UK had recorded 21,000 deaths, of which 97 percent had occurred when he was out of commission (3). During this period, 4 million workers were furlough in the UK. His sickness brought plenty of goodwill even from his harshest critics. And when he resumed work, he confirmed how close the pandemic era of UK had come to losing its premier. Yet much of the goodwill seems to be quickly eroding as the government embarks on unclear lockdown easing measures. Its delay is going on lockdown has affected how early it can ease such measures, further hurting the economy.
Over 3 billion dollars are lost from the economy with every day in lockdown. Mix message continues to come from the government with safety at home being changed to stay alert. Such actions leave many, including those in government, confounded and contradicting their statements. Leaders of Scotland, Wales, and North Ireland have taken the step to disassociate their stand from his. They point out that Boris Johnson speaks for England alone most times he addresses measures to lift the lockdown. The haphazard manner the lifting of the lockdown is handling for reminds many of the early days’ errors. Another lockdown for the North of England followed Boris’ success remarks in reducing the death toll, in response to spiking cases.
What Comes Next
By July 31, Britain was third behind only the US and Brazil in absolute and per capita deaths from COVID-19. The UK’s statistics body says England alone has the highest number of deaths than any other European nation. The pandemic era of UK has caused the worst recession in three centuries. Ahead, the ghosts of Brexit lie. The self-set deadline for a trade deal with the EU approaches on December 31. The EU parliament has said it will not be rushed, and it is yet to understand what Boris’ government wants.
The lack of a deal has far-reaching implications. With Britain still coming to terms with the COVID-19 disaster, there is a need for an audit, and decisive leadership. There is also a need for a clear plan out of the disaster, the economic turmoil, and the future. Boris Johnson’s time to prove he is the man to provide this leadership is quickly running out.
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