Opinionista Peter Hain 25 May 2020

South Africa should not follow Britain’s response to Covid-19 – except mostly for what not to do

One thing at least is crystal clear for South Africa from the sorry British Covid-19 saga: It’s a helluva lot harder to get out of lockdown than into it.

In schools, concern to ensure deprived or vulnerable children especially get back into classrooms has come up against municipal and city councils together with parents and teacher trade unions, all worried about safety and lack of resources. 

In football, Premier League bosses’ anxiety about massive losses from forgone TV revenues and fans’ thirst to see matches again have come up against obvious threats from staging large crowd events, even without crowds.

The hospitality and leisure sector feels decimated, suspended in limbo and unsure how to emerge again to meet strict anti-Covid requirements. 

Without universal testing and systematic tracing for the virus, emerging from lockdown is proving even more difficult for Britain than getting into it. 

Boris Johnson has been caught out by his cavalier attitude to truth and detail. His ministers’ preoccupation with dominating the news agenda has produced a chasm between headline-grabbing rhetoric and reality. 

His insistence on every citizen rigidly obeying his dictum to “stay at home” seemingly excluded his Svengali-in-chief Dominic Cummings, caught breaching rules by travelling 250 miles from his London home. A case of “Do as I say, not as I do” from the Downing Street elite.

Unlike South Africa, Britain was very late into lockdown. Instead of learning from several weeks’ forewarning from Asia, most successfully South Korea with its concerted testing and tracing, lockdown and quarantine, the UK has the worst record of deaths in Europe, and Boris Johnson’s idol the US the worst in the world. 

On 24 May the UK Sunday Times carried a headline, “Revealed: UK’s lockdown dithering led to the worst death toll in Europe”. The paper’s investigative unit Insight reported: “Coronavirus infections across Britain rocketed from an estimated 200,000 to 1.5 million in the nine days before lockdown while the prime minister agonised over how and when to act… The findings are likely to explain why Britain eventually suffered a greater death toll than other European countries — now standing at 36,675 — and why it is taking the UK longer to come out of lockdown than some of its neighbours.”

With the pandemic accelerating fast in February, Johnson almost flippantly urged Brits to wash our hands and stay home for a week only if we had any symptoms. Unlike Australia and New Zealand, flights continued arriving from China, schools stayed open along with restaurants, bars and care homes. 

Belatedly he has now imposed a two-week quarantine on anybody coming into Britain – a clumsy, scatter-gun policy which seems odd when in March alone as the pandemic was rampant globally, more than three million people arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport, half a million from the Asia-Pacific, 900,000 from the European Union and 700,000 from North America.

On 11 March, 52,000 watched Liverpool play Atletico Madrid in the Champions League in a packed stadium containing 3,000 visitors from already partly locked-down Madrid. A quarter of a million people attended the Cheltenham horse racing festival. After both events, Covid-19 rocketed locally.

So, with the virus rapidly spreading across Europe, more than 1,000 Italians already dead, Boris Johnson prevaricated. Reluctant to impose a lockdown at odds with right-wing libertarian instincts, he shifted from a “containing” policy to one of “delaying” the spread of the emergency to avoid overwhelming hospitals. 

The charge against Boris Johnson is fivefold: healthcare workers couldn’t access personal protective equipment; Britain was far too slow to implement a lockdown; testing came far too late and has been organisationally chaotic; and care homes were thrown to the coronavirus wolves.

This decisive shift meant abandoning contact tracing and the mass testing the World Health Organisation was urging, and which Germany was so effectively implementing on its way to a much more effective outcome with far, far lower death and infection rates.

In the Financial Times on 1 May, journalists Peter Foster and Sarah Neville gave a devastating insider account of chaos over personal protective equipment shortages and how government ministers were “slow to recognise the scale of PPE that would be needed during the pandemic… left staff feeling confused and vulnerable, and… left the UK playing catch-up with other nations to secure its share of scarce supplies… insiders have painted a picture of confusion and delay”. 

In a Facebook post in late March, 53-year-old London hospital consultant urologist Abdul Mabud Chowdhury pleaded publicly for Boris Johnson to make sure every health worker in Britain was given protective equipment. Just three weeks later Chowdhury died after contracting the disease.

The charge against Boris Johnson is fivefold: healthcare workers couldn’t access personal protective equipment; Britain was far too slow to implement a lockdown; testing came far too late and has been organisationally chaotic; and care homes were thrown to the coronavirus wolves.

The government can claim to have finally introduced a massive and rapid expansion in personal protection equipment, hospital capacity, testing and tracing, but the cost of delay has been huge and avoidable loss of life. 

Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and an adviser to the World Health Organisation, stated bluntly:

“Countries that moved fast curtailed the epidemic, countries that delayed did not.”

Former Tory health minister Jeremy Hunt has been very critical of the government’s decision on 12 March to abandon mass testing, meaning it could only guess at the number of infected cases which we now know were soaring, as hospitals quickly started filling with seriously ill patients.

Finally, and again very belatedly, Johnson announced a plan to lift the number of tests conducted each day to 100,000 by the end of April, and in early May began hiring 20,000 “contact tracers”. By then his prevarication meant Britain had conducted just above 10 tests per 1,000 people, the lowest rate in western Europe, with Italy’s, Ireland’s and Germany’s rates each standing at more than 30.

The government can claim to have finally introduced a massive and rapid expansion in personal protection equipment, hospital capacity, testing and tracing, but the cost of delay has been huge and avoidable loss of life. 

British ministers kept insisting they were “following scientific advice”. If so, as editor-in-chief of medical journal The Lancet, Dr Richard Horton, damningly said:

“The handling of the Covid-19 crisis in the UK is the most serious science policy failure in a generation.”

If South Africa is looking for examples on how to manage the incredibly complex issues of getting life and the economy back up and running again, don’t follow Britain – except mostly for what not to do. 

Instead, for leadership try New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern or Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen, and for countries, try South Korea or Germany. DM

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