By Bridget Anderson
The population of Britain is facing a catastrophe because of Boris Johnson’s Tory government’s callous and barbaric inaction which is allowing the coronavirus to spread uncontrollably throughout the population.
Following outrage at last week’s (12 March) announcement that the government’s explicit strategy is to allow the Covid-19 virus to spread to the point of potentially infecting millions and killing hundreds of thousands of people, the Government has made a presentational shift of its approach. However, it has still not adopted any serious measures to contain the virus, nor changed its overall strategy of allowing the virus to make its way through a significant proportion of the population.
The advice announced by the government on Monday 16 March is far too little, and it will be too late to avoid a catastrophic outcome if serious measures, not just advice, are not implemented soon. The catastrophe of hundreds of thousands of deaths is totally avoidable and therefore should be avoided. China’s decisive actions – which have received the highest praise from the World Health Organisation – have proven that a major outbreak of the coronavirus can be contained within months, provided that serious and thorough measures are taken to stop the spread of the disease.
The World Health Organisation is clear on the proven and tested measures that are required to contain the coronavirus – to be adapted to each country as appropriate. These include testing intensively and extensively, tracing all contacts of those people infected with the coronavirus, strict quarantine of those infected and the promotion of social distancing in areas with cases of coronavirus infections, with strict measures to support its implementation. The UK government is almost alone in Europe in failing to implement these vital recommendations.
On Thursday 12 March 2020 the UK government presented its strategy on coronavirus to the public as explicitly for the disease to pass through the majority of the population with the goal of eventually acquiring “herd immunity” instead of restricting the spread of the disease which would prevent the unnecessary loss of lives. Boris Johnson asked the public to prepare to “lose loved ones before their time” in an admission that the Tory government’s inaction would lead to deaths.
The government has since then tried to distance itself from the “herd immunity” explanation of its Chief Scientific Adviser but its policy framework remains unchanged. It continues to take no serious measures to combat the spread of the virus. It is simply attempting a presentational shift on its reactionary policy.
A secret leaked briefing produced by Public Health England (PHE) for senior NHS officials makes it clear the scale of the catastrophe that the government is willing to let unfold. The document states that the health service should be bracing itself for 7.9million people to be hospitalised from the coronavirus and that the crisis will continue until spring 2021. This failure to restrict the spread of the virus will lead to a mass of deaths amongst the population.
As pointed out by Anthony Costello, Professor of Global Heath and Sustainable Development at the University College London and a former Director of maternal and child health at the World Health Organisation, in The Guardian on Sunday 15 March:
“The stated government policy is to allow 40 million people to become infected. This could mean 6 million hospital admissions, 2 million requiring special or intensive care, and 402,000 deaths if the Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty’s 1% estimate of mortality is correct.”
Johnson’s government is still refusing to countenance the measures adopted in other countries to restrict the virus’ spread: closing schools, testing and quarantining households with a suspected coronavirus case and travel restrictions. The new advice announced on Monday 16 March asked households in which a person has a new cough or a temperature to self-isolate for fourteen days as a whole household. It also encouraged people to stop non-essential social contact. It is still not introducing widespread testing to identify who has the virus and there are no measures to lock down work places of workers who cannot work from home, nor the closure of schools. The advice is not backed up with any resources to enable people to socially distance themselves and make it financially possible for them. The overall approach remains one that will allow the spread of the virus.
The attempt in the media to portray this new advice as a ‘U-turn’ a ‘lock-down’ and a move to ‘draconian but necessary’ measures is an attempt to obscure the inaction of the government compared to other countries and hide their responsibility for the thousands of deaths it will lead to.
The UK’s unfolding catastrophe
Every day that the Tory government delays in taking proper action, in line with that advocated by the World Health Organisation and with the goal of actually containing the coronavirus and halting the spread, pushes the UK further towards a catastrophe of escalating proportions.
Since unveiling its “herd immunity” strategy on Thursday 12 March the number of coronavirus infections has been spirally upwards with the total number of cases more than doubling in 4 days. According to the World Health Organisation data the UK’s cases of coronavirus in recent days has been the following:
- On Thursday 12 March: 460 cases (+87)
- On Friday 13 March: 594 cases (+134)
- On Saturday 14 March: 802 cases (+190)
- On Sunday 15 March: 1,144 cases (+342)
This government data, however, grossly understates the reality of the UK’s unfolding crisis as the government has recently decided to limit testing to only those who are already seriously ill.
The World Health Organization’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has attacked this decision to stop testing people with mild symptoms as it essentially means the government is letting the virus spread widely in the community without anyone knowing who is infected. He said: “You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is. Find, isolate, test and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission”, adding: “Every case we find and treat limits the expansion of the disease.”
It may already be that there are as many as 100,000 infected people in Britain – a number that the Financial Times reported is the view of Tim Colbourn, associate professor of global health epidemiology at University College London.
Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of lives are being put at risk, not just in Britain, by the government’s refusal to introduce serious measures aimed at restricting the spread of the virus. The idea that Britain could become an island awash with coronavirus cases is causing alarm to other countries that want to see the virus contained, not widely spread.
The speed of the spread of the coronavirus in the UK (based on the government’s official figures which underestimate the situation) is now almost twice as fast as the worst period experienced in China in per capita terms. Assessing the situation in terms of absolute number of cases obscures the reality because China is 21 times larger than the UK. On Sunday 15 March Britain had 342 new cases, whereas on China’s worst day for number of new infections – Wednesday 5 February – new cases were only 186 in proportion to the UK population (the total number being 3,887 new cases in China).
China has now got its major outbreak down from almost 4,000 daily new cases 6 weeks ago (5 February) to 27 new cases on Sunday 15 March. On the same day, Sunday 15 March, the UK had 342 new cases.
The World Health Organisation has now declared that “Europe has now become the epicentre of the pandemic” as there are now more new daily cases of the disease emerging in Europe than in China.
The UK is on a fast-track to facing a situation similar to the current situation in Italy, within weeks. On Sunday 15 March Italy had over 21,000 total confirmed coronavirus cases and 1,441 people have died.
Italian medics have written an open letter to the world to copy China’s approach to the coronavirus. The letter states:
“The beginning of the outbreak had the exact same number of infections in China, Italy, and other countries. The difference is that China strongly and quickly locked down Wuhan and all of the Hubei region 8 days before Italy. Just 8 days of delay for the Italy lockdown will result in an enormous increase in the number of total deaths in Italy with respect to China.”
Learn from China to save lives
“In the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history” – World Health Organisation report, 28 February 2020.
The truth is that the experience of China proves that the coronavirus can be contained and that it is possible to prevent people getting infected. It is necessary for governments in Europe and the US to learn from China’s experience – they are the real global experts in how to successfully deal with a major outbreak of the coronavirus.
From implementing aggressive quarantines to building a new hospital in 8 days to deal with the epicentre of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China has mobilised the whole of government and the whole of society to combat the coronavirus.
The statement of Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on 13 March made it very clear that the global health body is urging countries across the world to learn from the success of China and others in stopping the coronavirus:
“The experience of China, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and others clearly demonstrates that aggressive testing and contact tracing, combined with social distancing and community mobilisation, can prevent infections and save lives.”
He also warned against half-measures – which many governments in Europe that are taking some action are guilty of:
“Our message to countries continues to be: you must take a comprehensive approach. Not testing alone. No contact tracing alone. Not quarantine alone. Not social distancing alone. Do it all.”
Spiralling, unnecessary deaths are not inevitable.
As the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, put it: “We are not at the mercy of this virus. Let hope be the antidote to fear. Let solidarity be the antidote to blame. Let our shared humanity be the antidote to our shared threat.”
At this moment anti-China propaganda is deadly. The world needs to learn from China to stop hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people dying unnecessarily.
In Britain, the government’s current approach risks a catastrophe for the population, and it will also adversely impact on other countries. It is urgent that this approach is abandoned. The whole labour movement and Labour Party in Britain need to vigorously oppose the Tory government’s criminal approach to the coronavirus and demand nothing short of a reversal along lines that aim to restrict the spread of the virus. The types of measures that are successfully working in China, that the World Health Organisation is praising, need to be rapidly adopted.
This is a crucial political fight to save hundreds of thousands of lives and the whole of society will need to be mobilised flat out to bring this virus under control.