LONDON (AP) – The crisis facing Britain this winter is sadly familiar: stay-at-home orders and empty streets. Hospitals are overflowing. A daily toll of several hundred coronavirus deaths.
The UK is once again the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government faces questions and anger as people demand to know how the country ended up here – again.
Many countries are experiencing new waves of the virus, but Britain is among the worst, and this comes after a horrific 2020. More than 3 million people in the UK have tested positive for the coronavirus and 81,000 have died – 30,000 in the last 30 days. The economy has shrunk 8%, more than 800,000 jobs have been lost and hundreds of thousands of additional workers on leave are in limbo.
Even with the new lockdown, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said on Friday the situation in the capital was “critical”, with one in 30 people infected. “The harsh reality is that we are going to run out of beds for patients in the next few weeks, unless the spread of the virus slows down considerably,” he said.
The medical staff are also at the breaking point.
“Where before everyone was in a, ‘We just need to get through this’ mode, (now) everyone’s like, ‘Here we go – can I go through this?’ ‘Said Lindsey Izard, a senior intensive care nurse at St. George’s Hospital in London. “It is really very difficult for our staff.”
Much of the blame for Britain’s poor performance has been laid on the doorstep of Johnson, who caught the virus in the spring and ended up in intensive care. Critics say his government’s slow response to the emergence of China’s new respiratory virus was the first in a series of deadly mistakes.
Anthony Costello, professor of global health at University College London, said in March that the question of whether locking down the UK has cost thousands of lives.
Britain closed its doors on March 23, and Costello said if the decision had come a week or two earlier, “we would be back at 30,000-40,000 dead. … More like Germany.
“And the problem is, they repeated these delays,” said Costello, a member of Independent SAGE, a group of scientists set up as an alternative to the government’s official science advisory group for emergencies.
Most countries struggled during the pandemic, but Britain had drawbacks from the start. Its public health care system has faltered after years of spending cuts by austerity-conscious Conservative governments. He only had a small capacity to test for the new virus. And while authorities had predicted a hypothetical pandemic, they assumed it would be a less deadly and less contagious flu disease.
The government has sought advice from scientists, but critics say its pool of advisers is too small. And their recommendations have not always been followed by a prime minister whose laissez-faire instincts make him reluctant to suppress the economy and daily life.
Johnson defended his record, saying it was easy to find fault by looking back.
“The retro-spectroscope is a wonderful instrument,” Johnson said in a BBC interview last week.
“Science advisers have said all kinds of different things at different times,” he added. “They are not at all unanimous.”
A future public inquiry will likely look into the failures of the UK coronavirus response, but the inquisition has already started.
Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee said in a report released Friday that the government was not transparent enough about the science advice it received, did not learn from other countries and reacted too slowly when “the pandemic demanded that policy be developed and adapted more quickly. time scale. “
The government rightly points out that there has been enormous progress since last spring. The first problems with getting protective equipment to medical workers have been largely resolved. Britain now performs nearly half a million coronavirus tests per day. A national testing and traceability system has been put in place to find and isolate those infected, although it struggles to keep up with demand and cannot enforce self-isolation requests.
Treatments including the steroid dexamethasone, which was found to be effective in a UK trial, have improved survival rates among the most seriously ill. And now there are vaccines, three of which have been approved for use in Britain. The government has pledged to fire the first of two shots at nearly 15 million people, including all over 70, by mid-February.
But critics say the government has continued to repeat its mistakes, adapting too slowly to a changing situation.
As infection rates plummeted this summer, the government has encouraged people to return to restaurants and workplaces to help jumpstart the economy. When the virus began to explode again in September, Johnson rejected advice from his science advisers to lock down the country, before finally announcing a second one-month nationwide lockdown on October 31.
Hopes that the move would be enough to curb the spread of the virus were dashed in December, when scientists warned that a new variant was up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain.
Johnson has tightened restrictions for London and the south-east, but the government’s science advisory committee warned on December 22 that this would not be enough. Johnson did not announce a third domestic lockout for England until almost two weeks later, on January 4.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are developing their own public health policies and have similar restrictions in place.
“Why is this Prime Minister, with all the scientific expertise at his disposal, all the power to make a difference, always the last to understand what must happen?” said Jonathan Ashworth, spokesperson for the opposition Labor Party. “The Prime Minister did not lack data, he lacked judgment.”
Costello said Johnson shouldn’t take all the blame. He said a sense of ‘exceptionalism’ had led many UK officials to watch scenes from Wuhan, China, in early 2020 and to think that ‘this is all happening in Asia and it won’t come here’ .
“We were deemed insufficient,” he said. “And I think it’s a wake-up call.”
John Bell, Regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, said people should be more forgiving official missteps.
“It’s very easy to be critical of how we did it, but you have to remember that there is no one who has really dealt with a pandemic like this, who has never done it before,” he told the BBC. “We all try to make decisions on the go, and some of those decisions will inevitably be bad decisions.”
“Everyone should do their best, and I think all the people are – including, I have to say, politicians. So don’t beat them too hard.
Follow AP coverage of the coronavirus pandemic on: