On the anniversary of the first national lockdown, Terina Hine details the government's consistent failings over the last year
On 23 March 2020, exactly a year ago, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown, introducing major restrictions on us all to stop the spread of Covid-19. We were told it would last 12 weeks.
A year later and we have witnessed the worst per capita death rate of any large nation; more than 126,172 people have lost their lives and many thousands are still suffering the effects of the virus.
So what went wrong?
A chaotic, slow and indecisive government which makes decisions by listening to libertarian backbenchers and what they think is politically defensible rather than heeding scientific advice. Add into the mix a crumbling health service and a prioritisation of the economy over life and you have a recipe for disaster.
So when the world discovered the new coronavirus at the end of December 2019, the UK decided to do nothing.
It was not until 16 March 2020 that citizens were advised to avoid non-essential travel and social contact; not until 20 March that schools, restaurants, cafes and pubs were closed; nor until 23 March that the PM gave into the inevitable and announced the first (of three) national lockdowns. A week of delay right there.
But let’s backtrack a little. After all many of us were already staying at home well before we were told to. By March 23 much of the population had already voted with their feet.
Ignoring the science
By mid-January key scientific and medical advisors knew that things were serious, although perhaps not the PM as he failed to attend the five emergency Cobra meetings called in January and February.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared on 30 January that the new coronavirus presented a “public health emergency of international concern” making it very clear that a global crisis was looming.
On 11 February, Robert Peston, ITV News’s Political Editor, reported a senior government source telling him “we should know within a fortnight or so if we are looking at a pandemic in the UK…The risk is 60% of population getting it. With mortality rate of perhaps just over 1%, we are looking at not far off 500k deaths.” Yet calls for contact tracing and quarantine were ignored - the government still did nothing.
Minutes of the 21 February Nervtag (the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) meeting suggested "that up to 1.3 million people could die” but ministers kept the pandemic risk alert level as ‘moderate’ and it was another 3 weeks before the PM called a national lockdown.
Dominic Cummings, Chief advisor to Boris Johnson, was reported to have given the instructions: “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” And the PM himself famously suggested the country should “take it on the chin.”
Late to lockdown
Sage members and other epidemiologists repeatedly called on the government to impose a national lockdown.
Instead, on 7 March, Johnson went to Twickenham with 81,000 others to watch rugby and shake hands.
On 10-13 March the Cheltenham Festival went ahead. There was considerable disquiet amongst the general public at the thought of over 60,000 people descending on the stands each day, with Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser calling the decision “reckless” and “foolhardy”. But it was lucrative for the Jockey Club, for bookmakers and no doubt useful for health secretary Matt Hancock, MP for Newmarket, the capital of horse racing.
The sporting events didn’t stop with racing and rugby: on 11-15 March All-England Badminton Championships were held in Birmingham, attracting 300 players and more than 25,000 spectators from around the world. On 11 March the Uefa Champions League football match between Liverpool and Atlético Madrid was played in Liverpool; 54,000 people attended the game, including 3,000 fans from Spain, although Spain had already closed its schools because of the severity of the epidemic.
It appeared the UK government was deliberately letting the virus rip.
Around 30,000 deaths could have been prevented if the government had put the UK into lockdown just one week earlier, and the lockdown would have been both shorter and caused less damage to the economy.
Test, test, test?
While WHO’s director general said all possible action should be taken: “Not testing alone. Not contact tracing alone. Not quarantine alone. Not social distancing alone. Do it all.” The UK government did nothing.
Initially they introduced travel restrictions for those arriving from Hubei in China, Iran, parts of South Korea and northern Italy, but on 13 March quarantine requirements were withdrawn in the interest of being ‘open for business’. Although some restrictions returned, screening of international travellers was not introduced until January 2021.
In a similar vein, testing and tracing was wound down. On 26 March the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jenny Harries told reporters “There comes a point in a pandemic where that is not an appropriate intervention.” The testing focus was to shift to hospital patients and health workers for months no one knew if they had Covid or not.
Then of course there was the PPE scandal. There simply wasn’t any. In the April peak, half of the doctors working in high-risk environments said they had no or inadequate PPE; nurses were photographed wearing bin-liners; hospitals across England were running out of protective equipment and as there was no stockpile, supplies failed to be replenished. Dodgy contracts were awarded but still no one knew when new equipment would arrive.
And the failings were not just from inaction, there was also wrong action. Ignoring advice from Public Health England (PHE), thousands of patients were transferred from hospitals into care homes and the community, some with positive Covid tests. By April, at the height of the pandemic, 25,000 hospital patients had been discharged to care homes - many without being tested at all. Such transfers, and the addition of blanket DNR instructions, led to thousands of elderly people dying before their time.
When the first lockdown was lifted the virus was still in wide circulation.
The testing system and its much criticised app was not yet operational, but international travel restrictions were lifted and Brits holidayed abroad in droves. The summer saw the Chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and employees were told to go back to the office - slowly but surely infection rates crept up.
By the end of July, Leicester and Greater Manchester had returned to lockdown. By 11 August more than 1,000 confirmed cases were being reported daily - breaching the government’s ceiling set in May for exiting lockdown.
The autumn was marked by students being locked into halls of residence as Covid spread rapidly through their closely confined living spaces. All the time cases steadily rose across the country with kids back in school and parents at work.
A study published in September found that 75% of those with symptoms failed to isolate - it was the beginning of the blame game. The ability to self-isolate was clearly income related with those earning less that £20,000 three times less likely to stay home; yet in November more than half those in Covid hotspots applying for financial assistance to isolate were rejected. To this day the government has failed to provide adequate sick pay or adequate support for isolation.
And the testing disaster continued - with people being asked to travel hundreds of miles to obtain a test. Unsurprisingly the case numbers kept rising.
By mid-September Sage urged the PM to impose a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown to bring numbers back under control - the ONS was estimating 6,000 new cases per day by this point. But the call was ignored. Once again the UK was at a tipping point and, according to Sage, ministers needed to act swiftly to avoid history repeating itself.
Instead, backbenchers and key ministers championed the Great Barrington Declaration, which pushed for herd immunity, was signed by a dubious collection of scientists and given far too much airtime in the ‘interest of balance’.
By November intensive care admissions were set to pass April’s peak, and hospitals in some areas were running out of beds. Having missed the boat for a short, sharp circuit-break, we had a second national lockdown.
According to estimates from Imperial College, 2.5 million people were infected between the day the PM ignored the calls for the circuit breaker on September 22 and the end of the November lockdown.
Over by Christmas
In preparation for the festive season shops opened in early December and the hospitality industry prepared their Christmas cheer. But as winter advanced so too did the virus, and this time at breakneck speed. On 15 December we were informed that a new, more infectious strain of the virus was out of control in England. Only later did we learn that the strain had been identified as early as October; the government had kept quiet for over a month letting the Kent variety, as it became known, spread far and wide.
So Christmas was cancelled for London, the south-east and parts of eastern England, and cut to just one day in the rest of England. Europe introduced travel bans and we became a nation isolated on plague island.
To avoid another national lockdown ministers extended the already confusing tier system of local restrictions, introducing Tier Four on Boxing Day. A few days later more than two-thirds of the country were placed under T4 restrictions, but as cases rose along with hospital admissions and deaths, by 4 January Boris Johnson was left with no choice and imposed the inevitable third (and current) national lockdown.
A few weeks ago school children returned to school, in a few days’ time we will be permitted to meet friends outside, and gradually lockdown 3 is to be relaxed. But we should not assume it is all over. We are in the midst of a fantastic NHS vaccination programme, but the threat of new variants remain real, and many millions remain unvaccinated.
The government has failed us repeatedly in this Covid year - it delayed locking down not once, but three times - the last delay cost 27,000 people their lives. The current success of the vaccination programme must not provide cover for the failings of their chaotic and corrupt pandemic response.
We must continue to be on our guard from both Covid and this murderous government.
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