What we Already Knew about Britain’s Covid Failures

Dominic Cummings speaking at a press conference in the Rose Garden at 10 Downing Street after breaching lockdown, 25th of May 2020

This article was originally published by Ebb Magazine here.

The Prime Minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, blew the whistle on government handling of the pandemic over a month ago. He spent several hours in front of a committee of MPs giving a seemingly devastating indictment of the government as a whole and the Prime Minister and then Health Secretary in particular. Allegations included ignoring scientific evidence, brazen lying, and reckless endangerment of the British public. He said that Boris Johnson ranted that he never should have implement the first lockdown and regarded the whole thing as a massive ‘scare story’, and that another cabinet secretary (Mark Sedwill) suggested telling the public to intentionally go out and get the disease ‘like the old chicken pox parties’.

Cummings admitted that ‘tens of thousands of people died, who didn’t need to die’, that ‘the government rhetoric was “we put a shield around the care homes, blah blah blah” – that was complete nonsense … Quite the opposite of putting a shield round them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes’ – although he also tried to claim Johnson and himself were ignorant of this policy to seed the virus in care homes. Did they not read their own guidance? And if they were ignorant and only later realised, why did the policy continue past September 2020?

The media response has generally been to point out that these claims have not been backed up with proof. Cummings has promised to reveal such proof via a paid-for newsletter, however, this isn’t really necessary – all we need to do is look at the facts of government policy in 2020 and compare to countries who successfully suppressed the virus and protected their populations from a lethal virus.

The British state and its media are desperate to put this behind us and focus on vaccinations, but the government has known a virus like Covid-19 was the number one national risk for a decade at least, and once the pandemic had begun for real the government had weeks to prepare – time given by the prompt response and transparency of China. Vietnam, which had far less time to prepare with a larger population, and which even shares a border with China, sprang into action. With a population 22 times smaller than Vietnam, Laos, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Cuba, and China put together, Britain had 14 times the death toll. China itself has 20 times the population of Britain, yet by the end of 2020 Britain had over 25 times the amount of Covid cases that China had. The facts show conclusively the superior capacity of socialist systems over capitalist ones to overcome such crises that face society as a whole. These failures of Britain can be considered in terms of, firstly, its inconsistent lockdown, secondly, an impaired NHS, thirdly, deficient PPE, fourthly, insufficient Test & Trace system, fifthly, unreliable statistics, and finally, its inadequate furlough scheme.

Lockdown

This is how it began: on the 23rd of January the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) started advising against non-essential travel to Wuhan and the clock started ticking. On the 27th, then Health Secretary Matt Hancock offered repatriation to 200 Brits from Wuhan – breaching China’s lockdown and undermining their efforts to contain the virus. British Airways suspended all flights both to and from China on the 29th of January, and by the 31st the first cases in the UK were confirmed with Britain suffering its first death on March 5th. By the 11th of November Britain was just the fifth nation to record 50,000+ deaths after the US, Brazil, India, and Mexico – all with vastly larger populations. In January 2021, Britain was the fifth country to record 100,000 mortalities with one of the worst death tolls in both absolute terms and per capita in the world.

It wasn’t until the 2nd of March that the government even held an emergency meeting to discuss possible responses to the virus, and a report from the meeting shows that they considered scenarios including a ‘severe prolonged pandemic as experienced in 1918’, and that a fifth of the workforce could be absent during its peak. Yet it wasn’t until the 8th of June that arrivals from overseas were required to undergo a 14-day quarantine; it wasn’t until the 24th of July that face masks became mandatory in shops across England, under threat of £100 fines; and it wasn’t until July 30th that people testing positive or showing symptoms had to self-isolate and only for 10 days, rather than 14 (from the 12th of March people were merely advised to self-isolate for seven days). To put this into perspective, Professor Neil Ferguson – a scientist who advised the government on lockdown measures – stated on the 10th of June that half of the lives lost could have been saved if measures were introduced just a week earlier. This view was reinforced on the 5th of August by the Home Affairs committee which admitted the spread could have been slowed by earlier implementation of quarantine on overseas arrivals.

Lockdown didn’t begin until the 23rd of March 2020, when the public was restricted to their homes except to go food shopping, to exercise outdoors once a day, to travel to work or for medical care, while all non-essential shops were closed and gatherings of more than two were banned. The death toll was already over a thousand only a few days later.

Restrictions eased on the 10th of May, allowing unlimited exercise outdoors and garden centres to reopen; they eased again on the 28th of May as groups of six could meet, and from the 1st of June all shops reopened provided they met a set of five criteria. Elite sport events restarted behind closed doors and primary school children would return to the classroom, with some high school students also returning on the 15th of June. On the 3rd of July the government scrapped the two-week quarantine for 73 popular holiday destinations, and the day after pubs reopened and weddings resumed.

In August the government actively paid £522 million for people to go out and mix in restaurants and pubs with their ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, which offered half-price meals up to the amount of £10. A study conducted by Warwick University found that up to 17% of new infection clusters could be linked to the scheme. On August 24th Boris Johnson pleaded with parents to send their kids back to school when they reopened because the ‘life chance of a generation are at stake’. Meanwhile the opposition leader, Starmer, chimed in with a tweet saying he doesn’t just want children back in school, he ‘expects’ them back. The first week in September the government actually launched a drive to encourage people back to their workplaces as well.

From the 22nd of September a 10pm curfew was announced for pubs and bars in England, but it wasn’t until the 14th of October that a new lockdown with three-tier regulations came into force, with at first only Liverpool being assigned the strictest tier – Leicester, Manchester, parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire had been under continual targeted lockdown throughout the intervening period – and then on the 5th of November a second nationwide lockdown commenced. The government had ignored warnings from:

●        England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer (Professor Van Tam) who alerted on the 30th of May that Britain was facing a ‘very dangerous moment’ with easing restrictions.

●        Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance, who as early as the 14th of July forecast a second wave hitting in winter and taking between 24,500 and 251,000 lives. He later admitted that he was rebuked by government officials for favouring lockdown early on in the pandemic.

●        On the 4th of August, scientists warned that test and trace provisions were inadequate to prevent the second wave after schools reopened in September.

●        On the 5th of September, a leading epidemiologist warned that reopening universities was a ‘critical moment’ as three days later the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) issued a warning on ITV News that cases were ‘increasing exponentially’.

China realised that the virus was transmissible from human to human on the 20th of January 2020 and they locked down the city of Wuhan three days later; after eight days, the entire province comparable to the population of Britain (58 million people) was quarantined. In Vietnam, preparations were implemented an entire month before the World Health Organization (WHO) even declared it a pandemic. Britain, on the other hand, was weeks and even months late with responses – and when the response did finally come, it was utterly inadequate.

 

The NHS

A 2011 National Security Risk Assessment detailed exactly the threat of this kind of pandemic. And yet, knowing this, the government cut thousands of key staff, cut 25% of funding since 2015, cut thousands of beds, failed to stock adequate resources and equipment (such as ventilators), and decentralised responsibility for such a crisis. From the start of the pandemic the government didn’t buy ventilators for 7 weeks. While on the 16th of March the NHS had a deficit of over 20,000 ventilators, the government merely called on businesses to support supply. Instead of requisitioning private hospital beds, the government rented them for £2.4m a day.

The government policy was centred around ringfencing the NHS to keep it from collapsing under the crisis. The result was that the NHS was used as minimally as possible to combat the pandemic, while at the same time the NHS became pretty much inaccessible for anything else. Much fanfare was raised about Nightingale hospitals dedicated to fighting Covid-19, but in the end they were hardly used at all, only treating a few hundred patients between them.

In Cuba, Vietnam, and China all Covid-19 cases were treated in proper healthcare settings – not discharged to rot in care homes (where they further spread the virus and culled more than 10% of the care home population) or patients’ own homes. China built two emergency quarantine hospitals in Wuhan from foundations up in just 10 days.

 

PPE

On the 8th of April 2020 the Royal College of Nursing warned that the lack of PPE was ‘fundamentally compromising’ NHS frontline staff and their patients, and just a week later the government was telling NHS frontline workers to reuse gowns or wear ‘other’ kit as they resorted to wearing bin bags. Sky News reported that the government pressured the Health and Safety Executive to declare untested PPE as safe and, to top it all off, NHS staff were censored from discussing PPE shortages. Only 2.6 billion items out of a required 32 billion were delivered to frontline organisations between February and July.

It turns out that PPE supplies, vital to saving lives, were transformed into a money-making, price-gouging bonanza for mates of Tory politicians. According to the National Audit Office, suppliers with ‘political connections’ were 10 times more likely to be awarded contracts – and prices soared by up to 1,310% as the Tories ended up spending £10 billion more of taxpayers’ money than it would have ordinarily done. In the context of withholding basic protective gear from healthcare workers and forcing them to wear bin bags, the state-led ‘clap for carers’ came across as cynical and sarcastic.

 

Test & Trace

Testing and tracing is possibly the most important part of containing a pandemic – to find exactly how many have the virus and where they are is a necessary prerequisite to treating patients and isolating them so that it is contained. Yet Public Health England stopped bothering to perform contact tracing as early as the 12th of March when capacity was overwhelmed. By the 1st of April, only 2,000 NHS staff had been tested from a workforce of 1.2 million. Cabinet Minister Michael Gove’s excuse was that there was a shortage of chemical reagents, but the Chemical Industries Association contradicted this – there was no shortage and the government had not even tried to find out about potential supply problems.

On the 2nd of April, Hancock set the goal of reaching 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month. By the 23rd of April, capacity had already maxed out at 51,000 and by the 28th capacity had reached only 73,000 per day. It wasn’t until the 18th of May that people with symptoms were made eligible for testing, not till the 23rd of April for key workers and a few days even later for care home workers. After just a dozen or so cases showed up in Qingdao in October, China tested the entire city of nine million in five days.

Then there’s tracking and tracing. The Tory government had to abandon its first attempt to build a tracking app in June after months of development and the app was finally made available on the 24th of September, though only two days into its use errors left users unable to input results.

A senior civil servant admitted in July that the system was only finding 37% of people ‘we really should be finding’. SAGE estimated that at least 80% of a case’s contacts need to isolate for the system to be worthwhile, yet, apart from those not contacted, rates of self-isolation were below 20%. A major factor in this is working class people not having the resources to isolate, whereas in China all testing and treatment is completely free for patients and the Communist Party forced all businesses to pay employees as normal who had to stay home during quarantine.

Meanwhile, back on plague island, a data blunder caused nearly 16,000 cases to go unreported in England during September. Dido Harding, Tory peer and head of NHS Test and Trace, apologised on the 3rd of September about the state of testing, where some people were having to travel several hundred miles, and up to three quarters of those wanting tests were not able to get them, she admitted. Many of the labs had simply hit capacity. Many people had to be turned away from test centres for not showing symptoms, despite having been in contact with an infected person.

In China there were temperature checks at the entrance of every public building and they set up 1,800 five-person teams to identify clusters, trace contacts and arrange isolation. In Vietnam, contacts with infected people were traced to the fourth layer and isolated, their neighbourhoods given targeted lockdowns and sanitised. They’ve performed more tests per confirmed case than any other country. In Cuba, medics actively screen all homes on the island every single day. They literally knock on everyone’s door, anyone who tests positive gets hospital treatment until they’ve recovered and are no longer contagious. They can do this because they have the highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the world, even without counting the 10,000+ Cuban doctors performing international healthcare duties.

 

Figures

Britain’s government and media were trigger happy with accusations of other countries supposedly fudging the figures – yet official statistics in Britain did not even include deaths outside of hospitals until the 29th of April. Even the Financial Times published a study on the 22nd of April based on figures from the Office for National Statistics which showed the government was hiding approximately half the death toll. With negligible testing, it was inevitable that the case count was massively underestimated. In July, Hancock ordered an urgent review and so limited deaths to count as Covid-19 only if the patient had tested positive within the last 28 days. While official numbers had Britain passing the 50,000 mark on the 11th of November, the Guardian had estimated this toll had been passed as early as the 2nd of June. Case and death figures in care homes were particularly murky. Care England, the UK’s largest care home representative body, estimated on April 18th that deaths of residents were closer to 7,500 than the official figure of 1,400. There were 18,000 excess deaths in care homes during April, only 8,000 of which were recorded as Covid-19 related.

 

Furlough

Covid-19 has had a huge amount of knock-on effects for ordinary people. Many of these would have been mitigated by adequate financial support from the government. Even those who escape the virus were plagued by anxieties surrounding health, work, loved ones, disrupted routine, accessing essential food, services and medication, and so no wonder that suicide rates spiked. For the 1.5 million people in Britain with an intellectual disability these effects were intensified, as well as for those in general who need care and have physical disabilities. Not to mention the homeless, migrants and prison populations.

All this is intersected by factors of gender, sexuality, disability and race. Workers of colour have been disproportionately affected and both the media and politicians have attempted to explain this away with race science as if they are innately more susceptible than white people. A quick glance outside Britain is enough to dispel this myth and realise that structural racism is really the factor that explains this.

Many people have had the awful choice to make of staying home and using up very limited sick leave or staying in work and putting themselves at enormous risk. The government guaranteed 80% of wages for employees being furloughed and 80% of earnings for the self-employed in March 2020, but while there was a temporary rent amnesty and £1.6 billion was earmarked for local authorities to support homeless people and adult social care, this wasn’t much good for the unemployed, those on zero-hours contracts or those on below a living wage to begin with. And it was only a stay of execution for tenants whose rent continued to accumulate and homeless people who would eventually be turfed back out onto the streets.

Meanwhile £330 billion was earmarked for bailouts for businesses! Richard Branson, worth over £4 billion, demanded £7.5 million worth of emergency credit, having already sent thousands of workers home for eight weeks unpaid leave and slashed sick pay from six months full pay to just 12 weeks. You have to question the foundations of the kind of society which allows this.

Other countries – such as China, Vietnam, and Cuba in particular – have shown that there is a simple strategy to contain the virus and protect people from it. They have been able to do this because of central planning and socialist control of the economy. In Cuba, neighbourhood organisations (Comités de Defensa de la Revolución) are mobilised to provide community services; similarly in China Communist Party members have volunteered en masse to combat the pandemic, and Vietnamese factories are able to be repurposed to produce the necessary PPE. Capitalist countries are not capable of this type of collective effort because the power dynamic is in reverse: state forces are at the service of capitalism, rather than the people. Thus, the British government has put us all in jeopardy and made a conscious choice not to implement mass testing, a choice not to implement mass decontamination of public areas, not to trace and isolate cases, not to nationalise and requisition private healthcare, and not to mass produce the necessary medical equipment and PPE, and it chose not to take care of those who needed help to cope with the crisis. All this can be explained by the explicit eugenicist ideology that pervades Britain’s ruling class and the Conservative Party in particular, and by its prioritisation of business above peoples’ lives and welfare.

Whether Boris Johnson said the words ‘let the bodies pile high in their thousands’ is immaterial, his policies caused exactly that. The recent testimony of Dominic Cummings only confirms what was there to see from the start: herd immunity by September was ‘literally the official plan in all docs/graphs/meetings’. He also shared a photo of a whiteboard laying out an early Covid plan asking ‘who do we not save?’. It should be no surprise that the government now has 150,000 deaths on its hands, as the Labour Party stood to one side and watched. If you’re not raging at the British government’s total disregard for our lives, you’re not paying attention.

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Post Author: Pitchfork Cosmonaut

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