Analysis: Repeated dither and delay has brought the UK to this point

Health Correspondent Shaun Lintern reflects on the choices that led to the UK having one of the worst global death rates from Covid-19

Shaun Lintern
Health Correspondent
Tuesday 26 January 2021 16:45 GMT
The coronavirus pandemic has taken at least 100,000 lives across the UK
The coronavirus pandemic has taken at least 100,000 lives across the UK (PA)

As the latest daily tally of reported deaths reveals, the UK has now passed the awful milestone of more than 100,000 deaths since the pandemic began back at the start of 2020.

How did a country of only 66 million people end up having one of the worst death rates per capita in the world?  

As one of the richest countries in the world, the UK should have been able to marshal its resources to protect the public, but in comparison to many other countries – including Vietnam, Taiwan and Australia – the UK has performed very poorly.

A full inquiry into the handling of the pandemic is promised by the government and among its primary goals must be to explain how things went so terribly wrong.

It will need to examine the hubris of ministers who, freshly elected on a wave of Brexit nationalism, may have taken their British exceptionalism too far in thinking we could hold the virus at bay, and perhaps it wouldn’t be that bad in the end.

The story of coronavirus in the UK has been one of repeated dither and delay, often in the face of overwhelming scientific advice and common sense.

Once it arrived here, it was inevitable the virus would spread and kill people; the government cannot be blamed for that. We all have our share of responsibility. That one time when we forgot to wash our hands, the cheeky quick visit to a friend, the “just this once” meal out with more than one household. It all adds up.

But the public also takes its advice from the government, and at times during the crisis the messaging has been a complete mess. As a result, many members of the public struggled to keep up with the rules.

Those few weeks of delay back in March, when most of Europe was in lockdown but the UK held off, gave the virus the foothold it needed to rip through communities infecting more and more people. By the time the lockdown came, thousands of deaths and hospitalisations were “baked in” as deputy chief medical officer for England Jonathan Van Tam would say.

Other factors to consider include the weakness of the NHS, which went into the crisis with some of the lowest rates of beds, nurses, and doctors in western Europe. We won’t know for many months, maybe years, how many deaths were linked to the crisis and its impact.

Public Health England had experienced repeated budget cuts in recent years, as had local councils and social care services. PHE couldn’t test anywhere near the numbers needed to stay on top of the virus back in March, so the UK just gave up trying, closing our eyes to the scale of community spread at one of the most crucial moments.

The nation’s stockpile of protective equipment was completely inadequate to keep hospital staff safe from the virus; the spread among staff and patients could have been as high as 20 per cent.

In short, the institutions and infrastructure we needed to combat a threat like the coronavirus were weak and underpowered.

Tens of billions of pounds have been spent setting up the test and trace service – which wasn’t up and running until the end of May and has been a distinct failure in helping to control the virus, with government scientists saying its impact was marginal at best. The NHS App has also come with a hefty price tag and no real evidence of it working at all to control the virus. Even the centralised testing laboratories took months to get up to speed.

The understandable fear for the economy and the effect of the lockdown on the nation led us to the summer re-opening and Rishi Sunak’s ill-conceived Eat Out to Help Out scheme. Experts at the University of Warwick think it could have increased infections by as much as 17 per cent.

The government was urging workers to get back to the office during August and September – one of the most ill-judged messages of the whole pandemic.

Inevitably, as things relaxed the virus spread and cases started to rise again. Come the autumn, it was clear another round of restrictions would be needed.

Just two weeks after criticising those calling for a lockdown, Boris Johnson was forced again to act when faced with the scale of what was happening. The lesson from March had not been learned.

By Christmas, with the tier restrictions failing to work, ministers pressed on with efforts to allow everyone to mix for five days over Christmas, but again this was hastily withdrawn as the virus took advantage.  

And again in January, school children were sent home just one day into the new term.

This pattern throughout the crisis must be viewed as the principal failure of the UK government.

The evidence from around the world was to act fast. Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said one of the lessons from the pandemic was to “go hard early and broader ... waiting and watching won't work”.

There are now 100,000 reasons for ministers to ensure they learn the lessons from this pandemic.

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