As Virus Surges, Critics Say U.K. Hasn’t Learned Lessons


LONDON — Britain bungled its response to the coronavirus the primary time round. Now many scientists worry it’s about to do it once more.

The virus is on the rise as soon as extra within the U.Ok., which has recorded virtually 42,000 COVID-19 deaths, with confirmed day by day infections hitting a record-high 6,634 on Thursday, although deaths stay far beneath their April peak.

The surge has introduced new restrictions on day by day life, the prospect of a grim winter of mounting deaths — and a sense of deja vu.

“We didn’t react fast sufficient in March,” epidemiologist John Edmunds, a member of the federal government’s scientific advisory committee, informed the BBC. “I feel we haven’t learnt from our mistake again then and we’re, sadly, about to repeat it.”

The U.Ok. is just not alone in seeing a second wave of COVID-19. European international locations together with France, Spain and the Netherlands are struggling to suppress rising outbreaks whereas limiting the financial harm.

However Britain’s pandemic response has revealed a roster of weaknesses, together with unwieldy authorities buildings, a fraying public well being system, poor communication by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s authorities and a reluctance to be taught from different international locations.

“We have now to ask why a rustic with such reputed well being and intelligence establishments has been so incapable of combating the COVID pandemic,” Gus O’Donnell, the previous head of Britain’s civil service, stated Thursday.

He stated British politicians had “over-promised and under-delivered.”

Like many different international locations, other than Asian nations hit by previous outbreaks of the SARS and MERS coronavirus sicknesses, Britain was unprepared for the pandemic.

Britain shortly permitted a check for COVID-19, however lacked the lab capability to course of these assessments. That meant makes an attempt to find, check and isolate the contacts of each contaminated particular person quickly foundered.

By the point the federal government ordered a nationwide lockdown on March 23, the virus was uncontrolled. Provides of protecting tools to hospitals and nursing houses quickly ran dangerously quick.

Luca Richeldi, an adviser to the Italian authorities on COVID-19, informed a committee of British lawmakers this week that he was “shocked” on the sluggish U.Ok. response whereas Italy was “dwelling a collective tragedy.”

“I had the impression that generally what was taking place in Italy was probably not perceived as one thing that might occur within the U.Ok.,” he stated.

Critics say the federal government’s insistence on going its personal manner — epitomized and exacerbated by the U.Ok.’s departure from the European Union in January — has hobbled its response.

The U.Ok. spent months making an attempt to develop a contact-tracing smartphone app from scratch earlier than abandoning it and adopting an Apple- and Google-developed system already utilized in many different international locations. The app was launched in England on Thursday — 4 months late.

There have been some successes. Britain’s state-funded health-care system coped; its hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. However that was achieved on the excessive value of suspending routine surgical procedures, appointments and screening for most cancers and different illnesses.

Like another international locations, the U.Ok. launched aged sufferers from hospitals again to nursing houses with out testing them for the virus. Hundreds died consequently.

Summer season introduced a respite because the tide of circumstances receded. It additionally introduced a push to revive the battered financial system. Johnson’s Conservative authorities urged staff to return to places of work to stop metropolis facilities changing into ghost cities and tempted folks again to eating places with reductions. It labored economically, however it could even have helped the virus to return.

Given Johnson’s back-to-normal boosterism, there was inevitable confusion when he reversed course this week and introduced that individuals ought to proceed to earn a living from home in spite of everything. That got here alongside new restrictions together with a 10 p.m. curfew in bars and eating places and expanded face-mask necessities.

Critics say the federal government was sluggish to advise broad use of face masks, simply because it was sluggish to require quarantines for folks arriving from overseas.

However the important thing failing, many imagine, is within the coronavirus testing system.

Britain has quickly expanded testing capability, to some 250,000 a day, and arrange a test-and-trace system with hundreds of employees.

However when tens of millions of U.Ok. kids went again to highschool this month — and a few got here house with coughs and fevers — demand for assessments surged to round 1 million a day. Many individuals discovered they may not ebook a check, or have been despatched lots of of miles away.

“I don’t suppose anyone was anticipating to see the actual sizable improve in demand that we’ve seen over the previous couple of weeks,” Dido Harding, who heads this system, informed lawmakers this week — though many scientists and officers had predicted precisely that.

Headed by Harding, a former telecoms govt married to a Conservative lawmaker, the test-and-trace program is essentially run by non-public corporations together with outsourcing agency Serco, utilizing a call-center mannequin to succeed in contacts and inform them to self-isolate. The system is simply reaching about 60% of contaminated folks’s contacts, and analysis suggests many people who find themselves requested to self-isolate don’t comply.

“The entire thing is hopelessly inefficient,” stated Martin McKee, professor of European public well being on the London College of Hygiene and Tropical Medication, who stated good contact tracing is like detective work.

“It’s as if we determined to place (fictional detectives) Miss Marple or Father Brown in a resort room with a single phone line and informed them to resolve the homicide,” he informed The Related Press.

A few of Britain’s troubles aren’t distinctive. Dutch native well being authorities are struggling to maintain up with demand for contact tracing, and in some hard-hit areas contaminated individuals are being requested to tell their very own contacts. In Madrid, website of one among Europe’s fastest-growing outbreaks, it might take greater than every week to get check outcomes. In France, confirmed new circumstances have topped 13,000 a day and the virus is resurgent in nursing houses.

An obvious exception is Italy, the primary Western nation hammered by the virus, the place a strict 10-week lockdown largely tamed the outbreak. Even now, Italians’ compliance with mask-wearing and social distancing is robust, and circumstances common round 1,500 a day.

In Britain, criticism of Johnson’s management is rising.

Johnson is all too conscious of the hazard of the coronavirus — it put him in intensive care in April. However he’s an instinctively laissez-faire politician who likes broad brushstrokes, easy slogans and optimistic messages.

In March, Johnson stated Britain might “ship the virus packing” in 12 weeks. Earlier this month, he stated he hoped issues can be again to regular by Christmas. This week he acknowledged that new restrictions shall be in place for six months.

He stated he was “deeply, spiritually reluctant to make any of those impositions” — however many scientists imagine stronger measures will inevitably be wanted, particularly if the test-and-trace system doesn’t enhance.

In the meantime, polls recommend help for the federal government’s dealing with of the disaster is falling, and authorities fear compliance is fraying.

Unease is rising amongst previously loyal allies of the prime minister.

The Spectator, a conservative newsmagazine that Johnson used to edit, summarized the previous six months as “dysfunction, debacle, insurrection, U-turn and confusion.”

“The place’s Boris?” the journal requested on its cowl.


Aritz Parra in Madrid, Michael Corder in Amsterdam, Thomas Adamson in Paris and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this story.

Contact us at [email protected].


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