Spare any pity for this government’s handling of the pandemic. It has been a challenging year for any government, yet some have fared better than others. It’s not some trick of fate but showcases how strong leadership can alter the course of a public health crisis.
Leaders like Jacinda Ardern have taken decisive action at all stages of the pandemic. New Zealand even eliminated the transmission of Covid-19 in June 2020. Despite experiencing a revival of the disease, the death and transmission rate has remained remarkably low. But that’s not by some accidental fluke – it’s down to strong leadership – which the UK lacks.
As the UK hit the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths in January, the Prime Minister’s insensitive response was, “we did everything we could.” Apart from this statement being grossly untrue, which will be unpacked, later on, it was conditioned to evoke public sympathy for the government’s efforts throughout the pandemic.
Labelling the situation as “unprecedented” during the first wave, the government aimed to change the public narrative towards sympathy rather than criticism – which is highlighted in recent polls – suggesting the government are still winning public support. It would have been hard for any government, is a response I’ve heard for the past year. Yes, it would – but adequate, fast-acting and responsible leadership has shown that it was possible.
Back in March 2020, at the start of the first wave, the UK’s chief scientific advisor, Patrick Vallance, told the country that 20,000 deaths would have been a ‘good‘ outcome. Although comparing death rates internationally is problematic, the UK has done diabolically and failed to act decisively during the worst public health crisis in a generation. Suppose you compare excess death figures, which is a better measure of comparing countries. In that case, the UK comes seventh globally and is higher than in Portugal and the United States. If you look at the death toll alone, it is the fourth-worst in the world based on deaths per million.
Before the government tries to win the public over with their sympathy any further and tarnish their wrongdoings with the vaccination program’s success, it’s worth remembering the scale of these deaths was entirely preventable. If we had the privilege of strong leadership, many deaths could have been prevented. It goes without saying that we should feel optimistic about our vaccination program. Still, it is better to error on the side of caution.
We know very little about what the vaccine means in terms of transmissibility, and how long immunity will last. Additionally, with the UK variant already mutating again, and the South African variant firmly in the population, we know that this government fails to keep the spread under control. It’s not because of the “unprecedented” situation they find themselves in, but because they lack the will and capacity to step up to a crisis when it matters.
In March, before the first lockdown, the UK was pursuing herd immunity, whereby just accepting that a certain number of people would die for the benefit of the greater good. Boris Johnson said, “perhaps you could take it on the chin… allow the disease to move through the population” a lackadaisical, and frankly dangerous tone to take.
On the other hand, Jacinda Ardern wasn’t having any of it. Arden never even considered herd immunity as a strategy. She knew it would mean tens of thousands of New Zealanders dying from the virus. She promised the public they would, “act now or risk the virus taking hold as it [did] elsewhere.” Herd immunity negates responsibility and suggests the inevitability of people dying was out of the government’s control. But this delaying of the first lockdown, costed lives.
Ardern doesn’t mess around, she said it was better to, “[go] hard and [go] early” to take action, rather than wait for the pandemic to escalate, which has been her style of leadership all along. And as a result, her decisive action saved lives. On the other hand, Johnson was boasting in March that he had shaken hands with several Covid patients. But it’s not just about personal lack of leadership and the strength of character – assets which are pivotal for managing a public health crisis – but the broader government consensus and the shape of their action (or lack of.)
The government failed to provide NHS staff with adequate PPE during the first wave; they wasted £22bn on a Test, Track and Trace system that only returned 40% of tests within 24 hours. They failed to control international borders, as self-isolation requirements were withdrawn on 13th March 2020, ten days before we went into lockdown. A recent study found that the virus was introduced into the UK, “well over a thousand times in early 2020.” Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand both closed their borders to almost all visitors back in March.
This government has shown persistent indecision, contrarian advice, U-turns, mixed messaging, have deliberately ignored the science and set an abhorrent example of following the advice themselves (need I mention Dominic Cummings?) It is tempting to roll our eyes and laugh at their disarray – mimicking typical Johnson buffoonery – but this time around it has cost well over 100,000 lives.
Preventing a crisis of this scale was well within control if we had had just an ounce of strong leadership. Pandemics are not inevitable or “unprecedented” events; they happen throughout human history regularly. In a public health crisis, you must act fast and decisively. This government didn’t – and we can never let them get away with that.