One year on from the first lockdown: still not out of the woods

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a blog for Lib Dem Voice on the Government being behind the curve in introducing measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. Little did we know then what was coming then. By 21 March last year, there had already been more than 400 deaths from Covid in UK hospitals , and that seemed shocking at the time. A year later, there have been 125,580 deaths within 28 days of a Covid test  and 143,259 deaths where Covid was listed as the cause on the death certificate (all data in this article are quoted to 15 March 2021). This amounts to one of the highest Covid death rates in the world.

In March 2020, we could never have foreseen so many shortcomings in the Government’s handling of the pandemic: the true scale of PPE shortages and the dubious PPE supply contracts, as featured in the recent BBC Panorama programme Cashing in on Covid; the discharge of people with Covid from a hospital into care homes; the highly ineffective Test & Trace system which has been allocated an eye-watering £37 billion over two years; the Eat out To Help Out Scheme which was linked to between 8% and 17% of new infection clusters in a University of Warwick study; the failure to lock down in mid-September – despite pleas from SAGE when they saw cases starting to rise exponentially; and the fatal Christmas easing of restrictions. Since 1 January alone, there have been a further 47,000 Covid deaths recorded in the UK.

Of course, we could also not have imagined that several vaccines would have been ready for use within a year, an incredible achievement by the scientific community. The NHS has done a truly heroic job in vaccinating more than 24 million people. All staff and volunteers involved deserve so much credit for their hard work and the long hours they have put in to get as many people protected as quickly as possible.

However, the UK chose to go it alone on changing the recommended gap between the first and second doses of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. This does, thankfully, appear to have been a good clinical decision, although the Government has somewhat turned it into a numbers game – “look how well we have done compared to the rest of Europe.” The comparative data presented (even by the media!) has generally been of the number of single doses administered in the UK, compared to the number of full, two-dose courses given in other countries. Also, on a note of caution, recent research carried out by the Francis Crick Institute has shown that more than half of people with cancer may not get much protection after just one dose of the Pfizer vaccine. This situation needs to be closely monitored.

Looking back, the UK Government’s failures, such as they are, come down to some fundamental, often ideological, flaws: a basic lack of preparedness, despite the Operation Cygnus pandemic exercise of 2016, which exposed major gaps in the UK’s would-be pandemic response; the ‘take it on the chin’ mentality right at the start of the pandemic with early references to achieving ‘herd immunity; an ideological unwillingness to involve local government in tracking and tracing people with Covid-19; a complete failure to close our borders for almost a year, allowing cases and new variants a free pass into the UK; the desire to open up the economy at all costs in the summer and autumn of 2020; and, ultimately, not always following the science, despite Government rhetoric about policy being ‘driven by the data’.

In addition, the UK’s high death toll is surely linked to the fact that the UK has a relatively low number of critical care beds compared to other OECD countries, and health inequalities have been rising. The impact of the pandemic has not been felt evenly.

So, what is to come during the rest of this year? The picture is still not clear. A third wave is now hitting Italy, and cases are also rising in Germany, but the UK has vaccinated more people, at least with one dose, so, in theory, we should be better protected. Nonetheless, Sir Ian Diamond, Head of the Office for National Statistics (ONS), said a few days ago that a third Covid wave in the Autumn is almost inevitable. There are also more variants on the loose, some of which may be less susceptible to the vaccine, particularly the South Africa variant. There is still much uncertainty.

This all feels a long way from the situation in Australia and New Zealand where they went for a Zero Covid approach for which they are now reaping great rewards, not least, staggeringly lower death tolls, at 909 and 26, respectively. One cannot help but think that if the Government had taken the decisive action needed, when it was needed, to protect the population, so many more lives could have been saved – and the economy might also not have taken such a big hit. It turns out that health and wealth go hand in hand.

* Judy Abel has worked in the health field for over 12 years, including at the British Medical Association, for the All-Party Parliamentary Health Group and Asthma UK. She was also the Constituency Office Manager and Senior Caseworker for former Lib Dem MP Sir Simon Hughes from 2012 to 2014. All views are her own.