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Government sluggishness over Covid-19 is costing thousands of lives

“Banks have been bailed out, and now the people must be.”

Carlos Martinez.

By Carlos Martinez.

Professor Devi Sridhar, Professor and Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, wrote in The Guardian on 23 March that the UK government’s response to the novel coronavirus had been unacceptably slow. Given the warnings issued by the World Health Organisation and respected epidemiologists around the world from late January onwards, “we have had nine weeks to run outbreak simulations, set up supply chains to ensure sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators, and bring about the availability of rapid, cheap tests. We have had nine weeks to establish algorithms to support contact tracing, and start mass awareness campaigns.”
That was a month ago. At the time, there had been 6,650 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Britain, with 335 deaths. As of 19 April, there have been 120,067
confirmed cases and 16,060 deaths. In terms of coronavirus-related deaths per capita, the situation in Britain is currently twice as bad as in the US, four times worse than in Germany, and 75 times worse than in China. And the curve continues to resist the long-promised flattening.
A damning report published by the Sunday Times on 19 April brutally exposes the government’s failures in relation to the pandemic. It provides incontrovertible evidence that the government was being briefed by scientists from mid-January as to the seriousness of the threat posed by Covid-19, and that this evidence was greeted by Boris Johnson and his team with ambivalence. No efforts were made to procure the level of personal protective equipment (PPE) that would be needed in the case of a pandemic, or to institute appropriate regimes for mass testing and contact tracing. Where China carried out containment measures “with a rigour and innovation of approach on a scale that we’ve never seen in history” (according to the WHO), the British government sat on its hands and did very little.
Why? The only feasible explanation is that the government was pursuing a strategy of ‘herd immunity’, whereby a sufficient proportion of the population (typically around 70 percent) acquires immunity so that susceptibility – and therefore contagion – goes down and the virus dies out. Usually herd immunity is only employed in a situation where a vaccine is available: as long as enough people are vaccinated, those unable to receive the vaccine (because of being immunocompromised) will be protected by the ‘herd’.
The only valid application of herd immunity in the absence of a vaccine is for a flu epidemic with a very low mortality rate. Covid-19’s mortality rate is still not well understood, because we don’t know how many undiagnosed cases there have been. Nonetheless, epidemiologists have been estimating it to be in the region of 1-2 percent – 10 to 20 times higher than a typical winter flu. Thus a strategy of herd immunity in Britain would require around 45 million people to become infected, of which between 450,000 and 900,000 might be expected to die. This is what the UK government knowingly signed up for, until the public and the scientific community demanded they change tack.
Lockdown has now been in place for four weeks, but it’s not enough of a lockdown, as many non-essential workers are still having to go to work, and therefore still need to use public transport. The PPE situation continues to be disastrous, and the levels of testing are still woefully inadequate, with Britain “at bottom of coronavirus testing league table”.
Of course, the pandemic is not affecting everyone equally. Big companies have been given a generous bailout, many better-paid workers have been enjoying “furlough and merlot”, and middle-income workers in certain industries have been able to work from home, thereby reducing their susceptibility. But cleaners, transport workers, shop assistants, delivery drivers, gardeners and builders aren’t being given the option to “stay home and stay safe”; they are in effect forming a smaller – but still very substantial – herd.
This is starkly reflected in the statistics, which indicate that people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are at least twice as likely to die from Covid-19 than their white counterparts. The reasons are clear enough: due to centuries of institutionalised racism, BAME people are more likely to be in low-paid work that’s continuing through the lockdown, more likely to suffer from long term exposure to air pollution, and more likely to suffer from the various underlying illnesses that are associated with poverty and which are linked with higher susceptibility to Covid-19.
Has the government effectively decided that a herd immunity strategy based on a disproportionately low-income and BAME herd is a pragmatic response to the pandemic? The evidence seems to point in that direction.
With the public increasingly angry and upset, it’s inevitable that some UK ministers will emulate their counterparts in the US and simply blame China for the problem. For example Tory committee chairman Tom Tugendhat has gone so far as to say that the Chinese authorities “manipulated vital information about the virus in order to protect the regime’s image”.
We must demand that the government stop looking for scapegoats and instead urgently and immediately focus all its efforts on saving lives. This means securing full PPE for health workers, mandating companies to produce it if necessary. It means implementing testing for all health workers, everyone displaying symptoms, and any key workers that aren’t on lockdown.
It also means extending the lockdown to include non-essential workers. The fact is that lockdown is horrific for a lot of people. It’s driving poverty and unemployment, not to mention depression and social isolation. The solution to this isn’t to end the lockdown prematurely, tempting though that clearly is. Doing so would lead to tens of thousands of extra deaths, and the victims would disproportionately be ethnic minority and low-income workers. Therefore we need to keep the lockdown in place until the new case numbers are negligible, but this must be accompanied by proper and immediate compensation – an obvious starting point is a monthly bank transfer to everyone suffering reduced income. This is certainly affordable. Banks have been bailed out, and now the people must be.

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