News that the UK has the worst death rate in Europe is a grimly unsurprising indictment of Government inadequacy, argues Mona Kamal
For a government which during this crisis has shown itself adept at outright lies and obfuscation there can no longer be any denial of their failures, which today have been evidenced by the fact the UK now has highest known death toll of not just any country in Europe, but of anywhere in the world with the exception of the United States - and this is before we include those who have died in the community.
Three months ago, Matt Hancock stood in the House of Commons and told us that the UK was ‘well-prepared and well-equipped to tackle and contain’. NHS staff who knew the extent to which the service was struggling to meet basic demands well before this pandemic hit, and the NHS campaigners who have been sounding the alarm about the damage a decade of austerity and private sector sell-off have done to our once world-class health service, knew well that he was being dishonest. This crisis has finally laid bare the impact of this government’s ideological campaign against the NHS and it is the 32,000 who have died with this virus and their loved ones who have paid the price.
The reality could not have been further away from Mr Hancock’s reassurances. This crisis arrived at a moment when the NHS was arguably at its weakest and it is worth comparing our resources to the those of the other countries in Europe whose death tolls we have now outstripped. We need to be asking this government why it is that we began this crisis with one of the lowest numbers of hospital beds per capita of any other European country. After a decade which saw a record 17,000 beds closed, we now have 2.3 beds per 1000 of the population while France has almost double and Germany has three times that number.
We need to ask why our critical care beds have been reduced to 4000 meaning we have 6.6 beds per 100,000 - compare that to Germany and Italy which have 29.2 and 12 per 100,000 respectively. It is for this reason that we are now in the appalling situation of having to ration ICU treatment. We are hearing from intensive care colleagues that they are having to become increasingly selective about who will be offered ventilation and that difficult decisions to deny care are being made essentially due to limited capacity.
We also need to ask what this government has done to our pathology labs over the past decade which have been gutted and outsourced to a level which means we are simply not capable of the types of mass testing recommended by the WHO in the way that Germany or South Korea have been able to.
We must ask why it is that the government failed to act in response to the Operation Cygnus pandemics drill in 2016, the results of which showed that, due to under-resourcing, our emergency stockpiles (including stockpiles of Personal Protective Equipment) had fallen by 40%.
We need to examine what has been done to NHS staff terms and conditions and our training opportunities which means we came into this crisis dangerously understaffed with 44,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors missing from our wards. The warnings were there that the 14% real terms pay cut nurses have suffered since 2010 coupled with the scrapping of the NHS student bursary would have harmful consequences for staff recruitment and retention but the cuts went ahead regardless.
What we have seen is a catalogue of ‘acute or chronic’ failures by the government which is costing lives. A decade of assaults on the NHS have been further compounded by their failures in their immediate response to the crisis, specifically failures to carry out the necessary strategies to mass test, isolate and contact trace which other countries have managed to achieve and their failures to procure enough protective equipment for staff. Above all it has been their delayed response in calling for a lockdown and instead wasting time discussing the option of herd immunity, a strategy which by their own estimates would have required 60% of the population to have been infected by the virus, which will have caused excess deaths.
They have failed in the basic, most elementary duty of any government to safeguard the lives of its citizens. Patients and staff alike are paying a heavy price for this government’s ill preparedness and the absence of accountability from the media of our political leadership has been utterly shameful. Yes, they must be held to account but for now the priority must be to ensure that there is clear unified resistance to any attempt by this government to lift the lockdown and push us back into work prior to World Health Organisation six conditions are met. These include disease transmission being brought under control, assurances that health systems are able to detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact, that ‘hot spot’ risks are minimized in vulnerable places (such as nursing homes, schools, workplaces) and other essential places have established preventive measures, assurances that the risk of importing new cases can be managed and that communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a ‘new normal’ that enables social distancing.
Already we are hearing the clamour from Conservative party grandees and party donors telling us that we can not afford to wait any longer before resuming normal economic activity regardless of whether or not a vaccine becomes available. Until these conditions are met any attempt to lift the lockdown will be reverting to the policy of herd immunity in all but name and it is our task now to ensure that this government knows we will not accept putting their profit making ahead of our lives and the lives of our loved ones.
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