• joeltrenchard

UK COVID-19 response plagued by ignorance and naivety

Worsted only by Trump’s America and Bolsonaro’s Brazil, the UK has suffered the third highest COVID-19 death toll in the world, even though the official government figures are likely underestimating the real national mortality rate. This has been no accident of fate or misfortune; the Conservative government’s handling of the virus outbreak has been ignorant, slow, and incompetent. Boris Johnson’s administration was right to prioritise (at least, publicly) lives over the economy, which is more than can be said for our Atlantic cousins, and eventually, important steps have been implemented, but months too late, in the example of test-and-trace. The government failed to take advantage of the time lag between the virus taking hold in Southern Europe before arriving on the British Isles. We had the benefit of hindsight to understand how COVID-19 had run rife in Italy, and thus we could have profited from this advantage to learn and implement lessons which might have led us to develop a more robust and efficient response to the pandemic. Ultimately, however, the government chose to sit on its hands. Consequently, the UK was fundamentally unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with a COVID outbreak on the scale of that which has unfolded. This begs two important questions: why did the government choke up so badly, even with its time advantage? And how could the UK have acted more decisively to get a handle on the situation earlier on?

British exceptionalism

One key ideological factor that appears to have contributed to the UK being so badly hit by this virus is the inherent, small-island-nation belief that Britain was somehow immune. Hancock’s emergence from an early COBRA meeting in January where he arrogantly declared the “low” risk to the UK is evidence of a farcical level of naivety in the heart of government. The prime minister’s preference to going on holiday over attending key early meetings points further to an administration both arrogant and alarmingly out of its depth. Looking back to March, it is shocking to think how late we were to adopt basic, common sense practices such as social distancing and self-isolation. Our political leaders failed to lead by example on this; Boris foolishly declared that he was still shaking hands with anyone he met, despite official warnings not to. Compounding Downing Street’s blundered strategy was the flouting of herd immunity by the prime minister himself on national television, who voiced the idea that the public could just ‘take it on the chin’. It only seemed to be when Boris himself caught the illness at the back end of the March that Number 10 seemed to really grasp how serious the risk posed by this virus was. It is not surprising therefore that they have attempted to rewrite history by pathetically claiming that herd immunity was never seriously considered.

It is also interesting to note that the leaders of the three worst-affected countries – Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson – have the populist brand in common. All three politicians’ embrace of isolationism and nationalism seems intrinsically linked with a naive credence that the virus won’t touch them – because their countries are somehow, indescribably ‘different’. What all three leaders will learn, however, is that diseases care little about borders or sovereignty.

Right steps in the wrong order

As well all know, the government finally ordered a nationwide lockdown on the 23rd March, announced by the prime minister in a solemn televised message broadcast that very evening. The realisation however that this was the only meaningful way in which the UK could begin to control the virus came much, much too late. It was revealed last week that had the ‘stay at home’ directive been issued just a week earlier, the death rate could have been halved. So why was Boris Johnson so slow to implement it? It has been suggested that the prime minister’s “libertarian” instincts made him reluctant to introduce such an extraordinary curb on public freedoms. Is this really a plausible explanation, or is it more likely that incompetence was the reason behind the government’s dawdling approach? Given that it was only deep into March that social distancing and self-isolation became encouraged, I would suggest the latter. Furthermore, the prime minister's reluctance to reprimand his top adviser, Dominic Cummings, after it was revealed that he had ignored lockdown laws to travel to Durham in April, undermined his own policy, and made further enforcement extremely difficult for police officers.

The national test-and-trace system, still in its infantile stages in England despite being heralded as “world-beating” by the prime minister, is another key component to the UK’s struggle to control the spread of COVID-19. Tracing contacts of those who contracted the virus would always be an obvious way to starve the virus of new hosts, as most of those with the virus or potentially incubating it would be effectively quarantined. Unfortunately, the government failed miserably to have an effective testing and tracking regime in place when it was most needed. A smaller scale operation was up and running when the virus was in its early stages in the UK, before being completely abandoned in early March, after it became clear that it would be unable to cope with a surge in cases. This was a grim early sign that the disease was already getting out of control. It would only be 3 months later, when the daily death rate began to decline significantly, that a national test-and-trace regime would be instituted. It is an important milestone to have a mass testing and tracing operation in place, as it will undoubtedly be the government’s most powerful tool to ease the lockdown while containing the virus. But the frustrating reality is that many more lives could surely have been saved had testing and tracing been emphasised earlier on. It has taken the government far too long to expand testing capacity alone to significant levels, but the lack of tracing capability feels like a whole scandal of its own. This issue in particular speaks volumes about the government’s lack of urgency early on; why wasn’t more time and resources spent on building up testing and tracing when we had weeks to our advantage?

The approach to international arrivals in the UK is again demonstrative of the farcical and confused nature of the government’s COVID-19 approach. Only a couple of weeks ago were international entries to the UK legally obliged to self-isolate for a fortnight upon arrival. This really should have been in place from February, when it was obvious that the COVID-19 crisis would no longer be merely a Chinese affair. Since an estimated 100,000 people entered the country between lockdown coming into force and mid-May, as Sir Keir Starmer rightly pointed out at PMQs last month, why was this quarantine rule not effectuated much sooner? This just seems like common sense; it would have reduced the risk of new sources of the virus entering the country and infecting others, which in turn could have lowered the number of deaths. Once again, the government was not on the ball when it mattered most. I also can’t help but find it ridiculously ironic that the Conservatives have spent so long demonising migrants and harping on about tightening border controls, to appeal to the hard right, but when a global health crisis necessitates extraordinary controls on travel to the UK, that same party do essentially nothing for 3 months.

During the election campaign, one of Boris Johnson’s favourite soundbites was about putting an end to "dither and delay" – obviously in the context of Brexit. But ironically, there is not a more fitting summary of the Tory administration’s handling of COVID-19 than that very phrase. I am relieved that we now seem to be on the right track, with the daily number of deaths and infections falling, but the time it has taken to implement the right measures has been unacceptable. Once this awful pandemic is finally behind us, a deep and forensic inquiry must be set up to expose the government’s failings and outline what should have been done and when, so that we can be better equipped for the future, if, heaven forbid, we ever have to deal with a such a crisis again.


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