Two weeks ago, most Britons believed that Britain had outperformed Spain and Italy in tackling the coronavirus pandemic. But two weeks is a long time in politics, and now the majority believe that Britain’s performance has been worse than that of France, Germany, Sweden, China, Japan, South Korea and Australia, and worse than Spain and Italy, the first coronavirus centres in Europe.
The only country that Britain has outperformed in managing the spread of the virus, according to a poll by the British newspaper the Observer, has been the US. This will have left a bitter taste for the British government, bearing in mind that more than 80,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the US and the number of infected people is about 1.5 million, approximately 25 per cent of the globally infected.
With the confusing and mixed messages about the national strategy to contain the virus and the sharp rise in casualties, it is little wonder that the British public has been losing patience with the government. The latest figures show that almost 10,000 care-home residents have now died from the coronavirus in the UK, with official figures revealing that 26 per cent of all the victims have been such residents.
They suggest Britain’s true death toll could be 43,000, far higher than any other European country.
Britain’s GDP has decreased by 30 per cent as a result of measures introduced to halt the spread of the coronavirus, one million people have lost their jobs, and a large percentage of doctors and nurses are still complaining of the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks and gloves.
There has been much impatience in Britain as a result of these figures, and the impatience seemed to have reached 10 Downing Street when British newspapers leaked reports of a rift between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock after discovering that more than 25 million medical goggles meant to protect doctors and nurses were faulty, forcing the government to recall them from hospitals.
This incident and others have put Hancock under pressure, with government sources briefing that “Matt’s days in government are numbered.” During a sharp exchange between Johnson and Hancock, Johnson raised questions about Hancock’s “grip” at the Ministry of Health, especially after it had failed to fulfill promises to conduct 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of last month.
According to reports, Hancock had replied “that’s not fair... give me a break.”
Perhaps he is right, as assigning responsibility to one person for the failures in the UK’s handling of the pandemic is likely to be unfair when it is more likely to have had many parents, including the prime minister himself. Since the coronavirus began to spread in Britain, the government has changed its messages to the public several times, causing confusion and misunderstanding.
There are six main areas in which the government has sent out ambiguous messages.
The first is testing for the virus. On 12 March, the UK’s Chief Medical Adviser Chris Whitty said that it was “no longer necessary” to conduct coronavirus testing, saying that “it is no longer necessary for us to identify every case, and we will move from having testing mainly done in homes and outpatients and walk-in centres to a situation where people who are remaining at home do not need testing.”
But on 5 May, Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, said in a U-turn that “I think if we’d managed to ramp up testing capacity quicker it would have been beneficial. And, you know, for all sorts of reasons that didn’t happen. I think it’s clear you need lots of testing for this... I think if we do test, track and tracing well, and we keep the social distancing measures at the right level we should be able to avoid a second wave.”
The second is “herd immunity.” The government sent out conflicting messages on the so-called “herd immunity” principle, with Valance saying on 13 March that “our aim is to try to reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it. Those are the key things we need to do.”
But on 5 May, he said “I should be clear about what I was trying to say, and if I didn’t say this clearly enough then I apologise. What I was trying to say was that, in the absence of a therapeutic, the way in which you can stop a community becoming susceptible to this is through immunity, and immunity can be obtained by vaccination, or it can be obtained by people who have the infection.”
The third is the death toll. Stephen Bowis, the national medical director of NHS England, the UK’s National Health Service, said on 28 March that “if we can keep deaths below 20,000, we will have done very well in this epidemic. But Johnson said on 30 April, after the number of victims had already exceeded 26,000, that “we avoided an uncontrollable and catastrophic epidemic where the reasonable worst case scenario was 500,000 deaths.”
The fourth is the prohibition of social and economic activities. Britain did not move early on to ban social and economic activities like other European countries. Italy and Spain imposed a complete lockdown before the number of victims had reached 10, but Britain only imposed its lockdown on 23 March, when the number of victims had reached 335.
On 9 March, Whitty explained the logic for the slow start by saying that there was a risk if the UK implemented an early lockdown that people would get tired and it would be difficult to maintain the lockdown. According to many experts, this is an inexcusable defence.
The fifth is a problem with personal protective equipment (PPE). On 11 April, Hancock said that “the central challenge is one of distribution rather than one of supply and going from a business as usual, relatively low levels of PPE distribution, to the unprecedented level of use of PPE now has been a big challenge.”
But on 18 April, local government secretary Robert Jenrick said “supply in some areas, particularly gowns and certain types of masks and aprons, is in short supply at the moment, and that must be an extremely anxious time for people working on the frontline, but they should be assured that we are doing everything we can to correct this issue, and to get them the equipment that they need.”
The sixth is the use of face masks. On 3 April, Jonathan Van Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, said that “in terms of the hard evidence, and what the UK government recommends, we do not recommend face masks for general wearing.”
But on 30 April he said “what I think SAGE [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] is saying, and what I certainly agree with, is that as part of coming out of the lockdown I do think face coverings will be useful, both for epidemiological reasons but also giving people confidence they can go back to work.”
The confusion reached a surreal level in a speech delivered by Johnson on Sunday evening in which he was supposed to explain the “road map” to exit the lockdown. But rather than being clear, this road map was anything but.
Johnson changed the government’s slogan from “stay at home” to “stay alert,” advice not understood by many Britons. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she did not understand the new slogan, implying that the changes were Johnson’s attempt to satisfy the “hawks” in his government, especially as infection rates are still high in Britain.
Sturgeon and other heads of the devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland said they would not follow the changes announced by Johnson and would keep the “stay at home” slogan.
In the biggest crisis that Britain has faced since World War II, England is heading in one direction, while Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are heading in another. No wonder Johnson is now being called the “prime minister of England” rather than of the United Kingdom.
Some on social media summarised the government’s new strategy by saying that “Boris’ new instructions are: Go out but stay at home. Go to work, but do not use public transportation. Meet your relatives, but do not meet them in large numbers. Go to school, but not too often. Go to the beach but do not sit under the sun.”
The government is faced with important decisions in the coming days, among them the pace of reopening the economy and a gradual exit from the national lockdown. Johnson will not only face opponents from the opposition parties, but also from his own government and Conservative Party, as many are keen to reopen the economy sooner rather than later.
If the confusion and hesitation persist and lead to a longer and deeper economic recession and more victims – Johns Hopkins University in the US expects the number of victims in Britain to reach 66,000 by August – then Johnson’s political future will be at stake.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: The worst in Europe