A personal rant — the UK and a failure of governance

It’s 12 January 2021, and we’re about to hit 100k deaths from COVID-19 in the UK. In less than a year.

One. Hundred. Thousand. Deaths. From. COVID-19.

This is a personal viewpoint post. Links/citations in the comments. And very much political and critical. So read on at your own blood pressure’s risk.

Have people behaved badly en masse during this pandemic? There’s a small number of individual idiots in any population, and they’re important. But, given most people genuinely do behave within the guidance, the horrible landmark of 100k deaths is overwhelmingly a failure of governance. So, if you’re a massive fan of Johnson, and the Conservative Party, then I’m afraid it’s time to bury your head up your backside right here and continue to pretend they are indeed marvellous.

Because, of course, the truth is that their response to the pandemic has been are anything but marvellous.

Just to ward off a Tory Party fan’s usual excuse, that of “everyone else would be just as bad”, I say to you “prove it, with data from this pandemic”. And you can’t, because you don’t have any data points and would have to make up a fictional scenario inside your head. We can prove the current government’s failing with considerable ease.

There’s also the suggestion of “oh I suppose you could do better could you?” and the answer to that is “yup”. You dear reader, you could do better. In fact a dead cat and a traffic cone could also provide better governance, since they would sit still and not get in the way, and thus make a neutral contribution rather than a negative one.

So, a key feature has been repeated delays about implementing a lockdown. Once, back in March, is understandable. To fail to do so again in September when expert advice was for a short circuit breaker, repeated again in October, that’s unforgivable. And to then again delay by a few weeks (including encouraging mixing of people over Christmas and pointlessly sending children back to school for one day in early January), is desperate.
Should be stressed that a lockdown is essentially an admission that you’ve run out of ideas and this is all that’s left. They have their place, and are hugely important, but they are in essence a last resort.

Elsewhere, you’d think a government would act sensibly and not award massive contracts and funding in pandemic management to their friends, neighbours, Tory MPs wives and their local pub landlord. Wouldn’t you? And yet, during a public health emergency, that’s exactly what they have done. Around half of $22 billion of tracked contracts went to companies who had no prior experience of what they were bidding for (e.g. buying and distributing PPE). From that same article, around $5 billion went to those politically-connected peeps. And who can forget the £30m given to Matt Hancock’s pub landlord? See also here for more on this topic.

The insistence of giving Serco and friends billions of pounds of taxpayer money to run a bad test and trace system is one of the most important failures. Dido Harding was invited to oversee its running with a wealth of expertise in… telecoms. By the way, she is married to John Penrose, a Tory MP, and Penrose just happens to the in the role of the Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion.

Thing is, there are local health protection teams around the country who do the ‘trace’ bit (contact tracing) for a living. Serco and Deloitte consultants do not do this for a living. And we have an inevitably-abject system and the existing highly-skilled infrastructure was not funded and scaled up.

There’s eat out to help out, where the Prime Minister told us it was our civic duty to go to the pub and meet indoors in large numbers for long periods of time in a poorly-ventilated environment, combined with encouragement to head abroad in the summer which contributed to introduction of new cases with ensuing superspreader events.

And yes, there’s this lax border policy. We have a government that at every turn promises to crack down on people coming in from abroad, even if its spectacularly unhelpful for times of crisis like, for example, during a pandemic when we need as many healthcare staff as we can get. We are an island nation. And yet, the one point in history when it made sense to greatly restrict people who come into the country (shut the borders), the decision is made to not do that. And when they are applied, quarantine measures are short-lived, half-hearted and not enforced. See for example Australia and New Zealand, also high-income country and island nations. You want to go there? You head to a nominated hotel first up and stay in that room for 14 days. And… their policies work… much lower rates of COVID-19, their economies are rebounding much better, daily life is relatively unrestricted, and there’s fans attending the Australia-India test matches.

And of course, it’s one rule for them, and one for us. MPs queued up to lend support to the disingenuous behaviour of non-elected bureaucrat (as Brexit fans like to say about others, regardless of whether that’s true or not) Dominic Cummings, which resulted in significant loss of trust in government’s handing of the pandemic.

We can also point out that our preparedness for a pandemic was lacking, in part due to Conservative Party failure to take this seriously. For that, we in part have Jeremy Hunt to thank, who quite literally stopped playing during a pandemic simulation exercise back in 2016, and then failed to implement most of the findings from the Exercise Cygnus report.

There’s so much reading material out there (I’ve barely scratched the surface of purely what I’ve seen). I’ve written about 1200 words when I meant to write 500. For extra keen readers, Prof Tim Colbourn, UCL, did a nice twitter thread summary of the issues described here, and many more besides.

We will have some news articles about the 100k deaths in the coming days (and this does not pick up on hospitalisations, long COVID, the increase in inequalities, the knock-on effect onto other areas of health and society etc). As they emerge, think about how bad it’s been here in the UK over the past year, and reflect that it didn’t have to be anywhere near as bad as this.

What can you do?
— Stay at home. It’s dull and depressing and everyone is fed up to the back teeth. But, it’s essential.
— Don’t become a healthcare stat if you can possible avoid it. It’s not just hands-face-space-and-ventilation-too. For example, do you really need to do that bit of DIY that involves a chainsaw? Or go ice skating across what you hope is a frozen pond? Because you really don’t want to end up in hospital or A&E right now, given how overwhelmed hospitals are. So, do what’s essential and low-risk.
— Keep an eye on Independent Sage, who do a load of really good work at summarizing risk and putting out recommendations.
— And really, next time at the ballot box, you should remember the year 2020, and how the government (that a fair number of you voted for) failed you time after time after time, whilst lining the pockets of their donor friends. If you like that sort of thing, then sure, you vote for Johnson and co. If you’re angry about 2020, then consider voting for someone else.

I’m am a researcher focusing on infectious diseases, I have a background in public health research and epidemiology.

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