Britain has been carelessly responding to the coronavirus for the first time. Now many scientists fear it will happen again.
The virus is once again on the rise in the UK, which has recorded nearly 42,000 deaths from COVID-19, with confirmed infections at the highest level since May. The hike has brought new boundaries to everyday life, the prospect of a gloomy winter with heightened death – and a feeling of déjà vu.
“We didn’t react fast enough in March,” epidemiologist John Edmunds, a member of the government’s scientific advisory committee, told the BBC. “I don’t think we have learned from our mistakes at that time and unfortunately, we will repeat them.”
The UK is not alone in seeing the second wave of COVID-19 infections. European countries including France, Spain and the Netherlands are struggling to contain a growing outbreak while limiting economic damage.
But Britain’s pandemic response has exposed a range of weaknesses, including a tough government structure, a broken public health system, poor communication by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, and a reluctance to learn from other countries.
“We have to ask why a country with such a well-known health and intelligence agency is not capable of fighting the COVID pandemic,” said Gus O’Donnell, former head of the British civil service, Thursday.
He said British politicians had “over-promised and under-fulfilled.”
Like many other countries, apart from Asian countries that were hit by the SARS and MERS coronavirus disease outbreaks in the past, the UK is not prepared for a pandemic.
The UK quickly agreed to a COVID-19 test, but lacked the laboratory capacity to process the test. That means efforts to find, test, and isolate the contacts of any infected person immediately ran aground.
By the time the government ordered a nationwide lockdown on March 23, the virus was out of control. The supplies of protective equipment to hospitals and nursing homes are running low and dangerous.
Luca Richeldi, Italy’s government adviser on COVID-19, told a committee of British lawmakers this week that he was “shocked” by Britain’s slow response as Italy “endures collective tragedy.”
“I have the impression that in general what is happening in Italy is not really considered something that could happen in England,” he said.
Critics say the government’s insistence on going its own way – symbolized and exacerbated by Britain’s exit from the European Union in January – has hobbled its response.
The UK spent months trying to develop a contact-tracking smartphone app from scratch before abandoning it and adopting a system developed by Apple and Google that is already in use in many other countries. The application was launched in the UK on Thursday – four months late.
There have been some successes. The UK’s state-funded health care system is coping well; the hospital is not overwhelmed. But it comes at a high cost to postpone routine operations, appointments, and screenings for cancer and other diseases.
Like several other countries, the UK is releasing elderly patients from hospital to return to nursing homes without testing them for the virus. As a result, thousands of people died.
Summer brings respite as the tide of cases recedes. It also brought a boost to revive the battered economy. The Conservative Government of Bpk. Johnson urges workers to return to offices to prevent downtowns from becoming ghost towns and tempts people to return to discounted restaurants. This works economically, but might also help the virus to come back.
Given Mr. boosterism. Johnson returns to normal, there is inevitable confusion as he reverses course this week and announces that people should continue working from home. It came alongside new restrictions including a 10pm curfew in bars and restaurants and expanded face mask requirements.
Critics say the government has been slow to recommend the widespread use of face masks, just as it has been slow to mandate quarantine for people arriving from abroad.
But the key that failed, many believe, lies in the coronavirus testing system.
The UK has rapidly expanded its testing capacity, to around 250,000 a day, and is setting up a test-and-trace system with thousands of staff.
But when millions of British children returned to school this month – and some came home with coughs and fevers – the demand for tests jumped to about 1 million a day. Many people find they cannot order a test, or have it shipped hundreds of miles away.
“I don’t think anyone was expecting to see the sizeable increase in demand we’ve seen over the last few weeks,” Dido Harding, who heads the program, told lawmakers this week – although many scientists and officials have correctly predicted that.
Led by Ms. Harding, a former telecommunications executive who is married to a Conservative lawmaker, the test and trace program is run mostly by private companies including outsourcing company Serco, using a call-center model to call contacts, and tell them to separate. The system has failed to reach about a quarter of identified contacts, and it is unclear what percentage of those asked to isolate actually complied.
“Everything is very inefficient,” said Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who says good contact tracing is like detective work.
“It’s as if we decided to put down [fictional detectives] “Miss Marple or Pastor Brown was in a hotel room with one phone line and told them to solve the murder,” he told The Associated Press.
Some of Britain’s problems are not unique. Local Dutch health authorities are struggling to keep up with contact tracing requests, and in some of the worst-affected areas infected people are being asked to inform their own contacts. In Madrid, the site of one of Europe’s fastest-growing outbreaks, it took more than a week to get the test results. In France, new confirmed cases have reached 13,000 a day and the virus is reappearing in nursing homes.
The clear exception is Italy, the first Western country to be hit by the virus, where a strict 10-week lockdown has largely tamed the outbreak. Even now, Italians adhere to mask use and social distancing, and cases averaging around 1,500 per day.
In Britain, where more than 6,000 cases were recorded as of Wednesday, criticism of Mr Johnson’s leadership is growing.
Mr Johnson is well aware of the dangers of the coronavirus – it put him in intensive care in April. But he is instinctively a laissez-faire politician who loves wide brush strokes, simple slogans, and upbeat messages.
In March, Mr Johnson said Britain could “deliver a package of viruses” in 12 weeks. Earlier this month, he hoped things would return to normal by Christmas. This week he acknowledged that the new restrictions would be in place for six months.
He said he was “very, spiritually reluctant to make any of these forces” – but many scientists believe that stronger action will definitely be needed, especially if the test-and-trace system does not improve.
Meanwhile, opinion polls show support for government response to the crisis is falling, and authorities fear compliance will wane.
Discomfort grew among the prime minister’s former loyal allies.
The Spectator, the conservative news magazine Mr. Johnson, summed up the last six months as “chaos, disaster, rebellion, turning and confusion.”
Where’s Boris? the magazine asked on the cover.
This story was reported by The Associated Press. Aritz Parra in Madrid; Michael Corder in Amsterdam,; Thomas Adamson in Paris; and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this story.
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