Incompetence or deliberate intent? That is the question in the minds of many observers as they look at the muddled strategies the government and health services in the United Kingdom are pursuing as they struggle to contain local outbreaks of the coronavirus pandemic. While the UK seems to have rowed back from its initial policy of promoting “herd immunity” in the general population, which was fiscally shortsighted, scientifically dubious, and morally vacuous, not much else appears to have changed as the Boris Johnson administration continues to stumble from chronic confusion to cold calculation and back again. Domestic critics are now talking in apocalyptic terms about the challenges facing the country with predictions that some regional hospitals, particularly in London and the north-east of England, may be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks, with knock-on effects for others.
Despite the widely expressed fears of an imminent health crisis the Conservative Party government is still reacting in a half-hearted – or half-arsed – manner, more concerned with ideological continuity and data-modelling than saving lives. This can be seen in its erratic behaviour towards the European Union as the politics and acolytes of Brexit continue to cast a baleful influence over events even at a time of international disaster, with literally unbelievable excuses offered by the UK in recent days for ignoring or rejecting cooperation and assistance by or through the EU institutions. It can also be seen in the bizarre decision by Downing Street to place a contract for medical equipment with a vacuum-making company when existing businesses supplying those devices were publicly pleading for orders.
The respected and normally placid publication, The Lancet, has issued an excoriating article on the controversies in Britain:
The UK Government’s Contain–Delay–Mitigate–Research strategy failed. It failed, in part, because ministers didn’t follow WHO’s advice to “test, test, test” every suspected case. They didn’t isolate and quarantine. They didn’t contact trace. These basic principles of public health and infectious disease control were ignored, for reasons that remain opaque. The UK now has a new plan—Suppress–Shield–Treat–Palliate. But this plan, agreed far too late in the course of the outbreak, has left the NHS wholly unprepared for the surge of severely and critically ill patients that will soon come.
I receive examples daily of doctors having to assess patients with respiratory symptoms but who do so without the necessary PPE to complete their jobs safely. Health workers are challenged if they ask for face masks. Even where there is PPE, there may be no training. WHO standards are not being met. Proper testing of masks is being omitted. Stickers with new expiry dates are being put on PPE that expired in 2016. Doctors have been forced to go to hardware stores to buy their own face masks. Patients with suspected COVID-19 are mixing with non-COVID-19 patients. The situation is so dire that staff are frequently breaking down in tears.
The NHS has been wholly unprepared for this pandemic.
The result has been chaos and panic across the NHS. Patients will die unnecessarily. NHS staff will die unnecessarily. It is, indeed, as one health worker wrote last week, “a national scandal”. The gravity of that scandal has yet to be understood.
According to several experts on the subject the United Kingdom may find itself not far behind European neighbours like Italy or Spain in terms of confirmed COVID-19 cases if it does not dramatically escalate its response to the pandemic. Which, as pointed out previously, has serious implications for this country as the UK policy remains the default one for the unionist-led power-sharing administration in the Six Counties. Despite attempts by their media defenders and apologists to tar the different parts of the Stormont Executive with the same brush, it is the DUP’s Arlene Foster, the UUP’S Robin Swann and the APNI’s Naomi Long who are keeping the disputed region in lockstep with Britain, despite the objections of Sinn Féin and the SDLP. And, indeed, other minor parties and organisations in the north-east. The unionist bloc in the cross-community assembly, whether hard or soft, is again putting a political “union” before flesh and blood lives with potentially fatal implications for tens of thousands of vulnerable people across Ireland.