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As virus surges, critics say UK hasn't learned from mistakes

The virus is on the rise once more in the UK, which has recorded almost 42,000 COVID-19 deaths, with confirmed daily infections hitting a record-high 6,634 on Thursday, though deaths remain far below their April peak. The surge has brought new restrictions on daily life, the prospect of a grim winter of mounting deaths — and a feeling of deja vu.

PTI | London | Updated: 25-09-2020 00:05 IST | Created: 24-09-2020 23:41 IST
As virus surges, critics say UK hasn't learned from mistakes
Representative image Image Credit: ANI

Britain bungled its response to the coronavirus the first time around. Now many scientists fear it's about to do it again. The virus is on the rise once more in the UK, which has recorded almost 42,000 COVID-19 deaths, with confirmed daily infections hitting a record-high 6,634 on Thursday, though deaths remain far below their April peak.

The surge has brought new restrictions on daily life, the prospect of a grim winter of mounting deaths — and a feeling of deja vu. "We didn't react quick enough in March," epidemiologist John Edmunds, a member of the government's scientific advisory committee, told the BBC. "I think we haven't learnt from our mistake back then and we're, unfortunately, about to repeat it." The UK is not alone in seeing a second wave of COVID-19. European countries including France, Spain and the Netherlands are struggling to suppress rising outbreaks while limiting the economic damage.

But Britain's pandemic response has revealed a roster of weaknesses, including unwieldy government structures, a fraying public health system, poor communication by Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government and a reluctance to learn from other countries. "We have to ask why a country with such reputed health and intelligence institutions has been so incapable of combating the COVID pandemic," Gus O'Donnell, the former head of Britain's civil service, said Thursday.

He said British politicians had "over-promised and under-delivered." Like many other countries, apart from Asian nations hit by past outbreaks of the SARS and MERS coronavirus illnesses, Britain was unprepared for the pandemic. Britain quickly approved a test for COVID-19, but lacked the lab capacity to process those tests. That meant attempts to locate, test and isolate the contacts of every infected person soon foundered.

By the time the government ordered a nationwide lockdown on March 23, the virus was out of control. Supplies of protective equipment to hospitals and nursing homes soon ran dangerously short. Luca Richeldi, an adviser to the Italian government on COVID-19, told a committee of British lawmakers this week that he was "shocked" at the slow UK response while Italy was "living a collective tragedy." "I had the impression that in general what was happening in Italy was not really perceived as something that could happen in the UK," he said.

Critics say the government's insistence on going its own way — epitomized and exacerbated by the UK's departure from the European Union in January — has hobbled its response. The UK spent months trying to develop a contact-tracing smartphone app from scratch before abandoning it and adopting an Apple- and Google-developed system already used in many other countries. The app was launched in England on Thursday — four months late.

There were some successes. Britain's state-funded health-care system coped; its hospitals weren't overwhelmed. But that was achieved at the high cost of postponing routine surgeries, appointments and screening for cancer and other diseases. Like some other countries, the UK released elderly patients from hospitals back to nursing homes without testing them for the virus. Thousands died as a result.

Summer brought a respite as the tide of cases receded. It also brought a push to revive the battered economy. Johnson's Conservative government urged workers to return to offices to prevent city centres becoming ghost towns and tempted people back to restaurants with discounts. It worked economically, but it may also have helped the virus to return. Given Johnson's back-to-normal boosterism, there was inevitable confusion when he reversed course this week and announced that people should continue to work from home after all. That came alongside new restrictions including a 10 pm curfew in bars and restaurants and expanded face-mask requirements.

Critics say the government was slow to advise wide use of face masks, just as it was slow to require quarantines for people arriving from abroad. But the key failing, many believe, is in the coronavirus testing system.

Britain has rapidly expanded testing capacity, to some 250,000 a day, and set up a test-and-trace system with thousands of staff. But when millions of UK children went back to school this month — and some came home with coughs and fevers — demand for tests surged to around 1 million a day. Many people found they could not book a test, or were sent hundreds of miles away.

"I don't think anybody was expecting to see the real sizable increase in demand that we've seen over the last few weeks," Dido Harding, who heads the program, told lawmakers this week — although many scientists and officials had predicted exactly that. Headed by Harding, a former telecoms executive married to a Conservative lawmaker, the test-and-trace programme is largely run by private companies including outsourcing firm Serco, using a call-centre model to reach contacts and tell them to self-isolate. The system is only reaching about 60% of infected people's contacts, and research suggests many people who are asked to self-isolate don't comply.

"The whole thing is hopelessly inefficient," said Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who said good contact tracing is like detective work. "It's as if we decided to put (fictional detectives) Miss Marple or Father Brown in a hotel room with a single telephone line and told them to solve the murder," he told The Associated Press.


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