Before the COVID-19 started the UK government was happy to present itself as a world leader in responding to disease outbreaks. Its 2018 biological security strategy put it this way: “Significant outbreaks of disease are among the highest impact risks faced by any society – threatening lives and causing disruption to public services and the economy.”
However, it also said that: “The UK is globally renowned for the quality of our preparedness planning, and we have world-leading capabilities to address significant biological risks,” and: “As a global leader in the biological sciences, we have an opportunity to demonstrate our expertise and be at the forefront of work to meet these challenges.”
This view was supported by a 2019 league table from the World Economic Forum that placed the UK second among 195 countries as best prepared for a pandemic.
Compare that to now. The country is still only a few months into the disastrous COVID-19 outbreak yet is arguably the worst performing country in western Europe and one of the worst in the world. In the first four months alone, there have been over 41,000 deaths of people who had tested positive for the virus, at least 10,000 more who died of COVID-19 without a test and excess deaths overall exceeding 63,000. Lockdown is now being eased despite the high risk of a second wave through the autumn and winter that may lead to a death toll exceeding 100,000. On the economic front there was a 25% decrease in GDP in March and April and the UK is entering the deepest recession in 300 years
There has been plenty of controversy over how Britain has responded so poorly to the pandemic. This has included bitter criticism of the lack of respirators and personal protection equipment and repeated failures of coordination. More recently it has focused on the test and trace system, the level of organisation being taken apart not in the British media but in The New York Times.
The whole sorry saga of the failings, especially since early February, has been documented impressively by Ian Sinclair and Rupert Read in their detailed timeline in Byline Times. They also cover many of the pre-pandemic warnings that the ‘theory’ of the British biological security strategy was simply not being matched by practical preparations. A further specific element that openDemocracy has followed has been the number of early warnings given of what was happening in China, especially how Taiwan was already checking visitors from Wuhan before the British health secretary, Matt Hancock, had even been told about the outbreak. This has now been updated in a report from the Oxford Research Group that throws more light on the speed of reaction of other governments.
Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection, for example, brought in enhanced surveillance by 31 December, with doctors asked to report any patients with fever and acute respiratory symptoms who had visited Wuhan in the previous fourteen days. By 4 January the CHP could report thermal imaging systems established at the airport and at West Kowloon Station, the terminus for the high-speed rail line, while the Hong Kong Hospital Authority initiated a ‘serious response level’ alert in public hospitals and introduced measures for enhanced monitoring and infection control. Concern was such that suspected cases had to be moved into negative pressure isolation rooms for treatment and urgent laboratory investigation.
All this was being done while Boris Johnson was still on holiday in the Caribbean; he was not briefed by Hancock until 7 January. It took another three weeks before a meeting of the COBRA committee was called, and Johnson did not attend it. It took many weeks more before the UK was anywhere near that level of preparation.
The counter-argument is that this Wuhan is less than five hours from Hong Kong by high-speed rail and it had experience of SARS so was bound to be on the ball for something like COVID-19. But the UK is less than 12 hours away by air and was claiming to be one of the world’s best-prepared countries. Instead it is close to being a laughing stock, very far from the supposed world leader.
Moreover this comes in the context of two ominous global trends: rate of spread and consequences of ending lockdown. On the first, after hopes that a young and rather less urbanised population would mean a slow spread across sub-Saharan Africa, the signs now are that infections are on the rise, as they also are for much of Latin America and not just Brazil and Mexico.
Iran thought it was on top of the pandemic but there the lockdown-lifting has had an even greater effect, while Pakistan now looks to be on the verge of an upsurge even as it eases some restrictions. The biggest shock has been China, where an unexpected surge in Beijing has caught the authorities by surprise just as they were claiming success, leading them to impose serious sudden restrictions. In the US, the individual states that freed up their economies, including Florida, Texas and Arizona, are all witnessing increases and New Zealand, one country that really did think it was on top of the pandemic, is working at speed to contain a spread from two people returning from the UK.
Meanwhile, back in the UK the Johnson government is pressing ahead with easing lockdown even though the infection rate has not eased sufficiently and the test-and-trace system is little sort of farcical. It hardly comes as a surprise given its performance so far, but the rest of us would be wise to prepare for a long-drawn-out crisis lasting at least a year.