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A Very British Lockdown - Confused and Chaotic

Author: Paul Dodenhoff : Contact: Disabled World

Published: 2020-04-26 : (Rev. 2020-05-01)

Synopsis and Key Points:

Paul Dodenhoff from the United Kingdom writes on COVID-19 Coronavirus in the U.K. as well as the current British lockdown and social isolation and lack thereof.

What makes the UK's death toll so shocking is that the official death toll excludes the many thousands that are believed to have occurred in care homes and elsewhere.

In short, both the US and the UK are run by buffoons who should not be let anywhere near the decision making process as far the coronavirus pandemic is concerned.

Main Digest

Let's face it, there is no place in the world that seems safe at the moment, but if you live in either the UK or the US, you are entitled to feel that extra bit jittery. Especially after Donald Trump recently suggesting that medics should be looking at injecting patients with disinfectant. And Boris 'herd immunity' Johnson bragging that he shook hands with coronavirus patients, ending up in an ICU unit and hasn't been seen since. Come on, you couldn't really make these kind of things up. In short, both the US and the UK are run by buffoons who should not be let anywhere near the decision making process as far the coronavirus pandemic is concerned. While this is a highly difficult situation for any country, it is not made any easier for the global community by having two of its traditionally leading lights looking like they are led by three-year-olds.

As it stands, the US is not far off a million cases and leads the world by miles in terms of total deaths to coronavirus. And as far as the UK is concerned, it is looking like it is a contest between the UK, Italy, Spain and France for who will fill the number two spot by the time this is all over - at least in terms of deaths. With the UK arguably odds-on favourite. Ok, some argue that it's not informative to compare countries either in terms of total cases or total deaths, but it is interesting that the two countries who have been criticised the most for their slow and rather chaotic response to the crisis, are top or near the top of the worse league table you could possibly ever invent. And two countries whose administrations are perceived globally as simply being a bad joke.

As far as the UK goes, it had far more warning of what was heading toward them than say China, South Korea, Singapore, Japan or Taiwan. Yet, looking at total infections and total deaths for these countries, you wouldn't really know this. Add all those countries together and their total cases and total deaths are still completely dwarfed by the UK's statistics. Even if you drop China from the argument (considering not many people actually trust their stats) the populations of South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan taken as a group, are still at least three times greater than the population of the UK. So, how come these countries with far less warning and arguably far less resources, could to get to grips with this virus and we, the UK are largely scrambling around in the dark, still trying to get off the starting block?

What makes the UK's death toll so shocking is that the official death toll excludes the many thousands that are believed to have occurred in care homes and elsewhere. Quite easily we could bump our official death toll up by at least 40%. One of the continual problems that critics perceive as being a primary cause of the high death toll is the UK's continual lack of testing for the virus. Without testing, the UK cannot isolate infections and it cannot trace contacts. Yet, the UK has a very low rate of testing per head of population compared to the rest of Europe. And while UK hospitals are currently coping with the crisis, there are Brits dying from other illnesses such as cancer, heart attacks and strokes because they are failing to get hospital treatment. Some out of fear that they may get the virus if they do, while many hospital clinics and treatments have been suspended to allow extra capacity for coronavirus patients.

From the beginning, Britain's government clearly underestimated the gravity of the situation. For example, they concluded in February that Covid-19 posed only a 'moderate risk' to the UK, a conclusion that came well after the epidemic had already swept through China. According to a recent Sunday Telegraph investigation, Boris Johnson deliberately missed five emergency meetings on the growing crisis. At a time when countries outside of China were already fighting the virus and while the UK was still allowing sporting events to continue, publically advising that the virus was unlikely to be passed around through large outdoor events. Despite the science that indicated that the virus could be spread asymptomatically or pre-symptomatically by people - and simply by people breathing near each other. A quarter of a million people were subsequently allowed to attend the Cheltenham horse racing festival in March, only 10 days before Boris Johnson told Brits to lock-down, stay at home and not to gather in large numbers. It will no doubt come as no surprise that some of those who attended the racing festival reported positive for the virus not long afterwards.

Part of this chaotic and rather dithering response can undoubtedly be attributed to some extent to the science team who have been advising government, primarily chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer, Chris Whitty. While Donald Trump was suggesting that the coronavirus was a 'hoax', Vallance and Whitty were suggesting that 'herd immunity' was the best way to handle the crisis. We know this from Dr David Halpern, a senior Downing Street official who gave an interview to the BBC on the 11th March, clearly indicating that 'herd immunity' was indeed official government policy - while protecting the most vulnerable from the virus (of course). Government has since rowed back from Dr Halpern's comments but it is clear from the chaos that unfolded soon after the herd immunity plan was abruptly abandoned, that government had no other plan in place and have arguably just been winging it ever since. Without any real forward planning, coherence or joined up thinking. There was actually very little planning for PPE, ventilators and extra hospital bed capacity before the apparent U-turn on herd immunity - you only need to trace the timeline of events to work that one out for yourself. We know from the Sunday Times report that the UK was even shipping protective equipment to China as far back as February. Vital equipment that we needed ourselves.

Even without Dr Halpern spilling Boris Johnson's beans about herd immunity, the UK was clearly treating this crisis very differently from most of the world. I studied epidemiology as part of my first degree, so even I knew that the UK was departing from the standard way of dealing with a pandemic. And in spite of warnings from the World Health Organisation that the only logical way this crisis could be handled was by testing, testing and even more testing. It was only when the London Imperial College study came out in mid-March, indicating that without government intervention to prevent the virus spreading, the UK would be on course for 250,000 to 500,000 deaths - did Boris Johnson & co change tack. Of course, government kept saying that they were following the science. Well, I don't know what science they were following but it certainly wasn't the science I had been following for months. The chaotic nature of having to change horse's midstream has arguably manifested itself in government action that was at best, utter confusion and a general public who were equally confused. For example, first we had Boris Johnson asking Brits not to go out to pubs, cafés and restaurants - but failed to order the pubs, cafés and restaurants to actually close. When nobody took any notice of that advice, Johnson's hand was forced to close them all, just days later. Then he told us not to go out except for essential work, essential goods and exercise, without really going into any detail of what was deemed to be essential work or what was to be allowed for exercise. Once again leaving it up to us to decipher what was being asked of us. The result again being chaotic, as members of the public suddenly turned local parks into impromptu gyms and others willing to drive many miles en masse to the national parks and seaside resorts in order to enjoy their daily exercise, in a nice location. Much to the disgust of the locals, scared of being infected with Covid-19 through no fault of their own.

While many Brits are apparently now obeying 'lockdown' according to government stats at least, it is still a very British lockdown in many ways. You can still witness whole families or couples going out for gentle walks in the park hand-in-hand (without facemasks), cyclists can be spotted in sports gear with huge rucksacks on their backs, clearly not riding around the block for a spot of quick exercise (again without facemasks). And earlier this month, Manchester police even had to break up more than 600 drunken house parties in the space of a few days of each other (and none of whom, including the police, presumably wearing masks).

But the chaos surrounding government policy is arguably best highlighted by the world of work. In the UK, essential workers are apparently not just doctors, nurses, NHS staff, supermarket workers, farmers, food suppliers, postal workers and delivery drivers etc., but also include those making non-essential goods such as furniture, chocolate and clothes. And simply because their bosses don't want to close their factories, production lines and warehouses down. Much to the anger of their employees who are fearful for their lives and trade unions who point out that some of these places of work are not even practising social distancing or even supplying basic PPE such as gloves or facemasks. One UK employer was even recorded recently telling his staff that they would lose their jobs if they didn't turn up for work.

Contrast this with Italy or France where permits or licences are needed just to leave the house and where police patrol the streets daily. Where shoppers stand silently in line outside supermarkets wearing facemasks, issued with plastic gloves from security guards and practically sprayed with disinfectant before being allowed to enter. Not so in the UK. While supermarkets have rightly introduced social distancing measures, shoppers tend to bend the rules in order to busily chat to each other -- from a few feet away of course. With the vast majority not wearing any form of face covering. Go into any British supermarket and it is unlikely that any of the staff will be wearing facemasks either.

In the UK lockdown is understandably much more lackadaisical than in other countries, and I say 'understandably' because basically we have had no real leadership from above. Even taken literately, we have no leadership, because we have not seen Boris Johnson for many weeks. Yes, we have had a stand-in while Mr Johnson recuperates from the coronavirus but there is no real sense of leadership, no real sign of action nor of urgency. It is like we are in limbo until Mr Johnson returns. Not that is something likely to help us turn the corner in this crisis. Boris Johnson is still regarded as someone who likes to take a backseat in pretty much all matters. And as we found out from the Sunday Telegraph investigation, the man preferred to go on holiday rather than attend emergency coronavirus meetings.

Yes, there is always plenty of government talk around - but often that talk fails to materialise into solid action. As it stands, we are still allowing people to fly into the UK, unchecked for the virus on arrival. And currently, government still have absolutely no idea how many Brits have had the virus or haven't had the virus. They, like us are totally in the dark. As a consequence, we're sending medics into work and carers into care homes with absolutely no idea if they are transporting the virus into work with them. The majority of Brits don't wear facemasks or any type of face covering when in public spaces, so the virus will most certainly be spreading when shoppers go shopping, when workers make their way to work or back, and when the health freaks are busily running up and down the street (or when the cyclists spin past you - just inches from your face). So, not really a great situation to be in. The facemask situation is simply another area that the UK has failed to get to grips with. As yet, the UK government still argues that there is no hard evidence to suggest that Brits should be wearing facemasks in public in order to help slow the spread of the virus. However, research dating many back years concluded that that frequent hand washing, disinfecting surfaces and wearing a mask are all among the most effective ways to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) now recommends that Americans wear face masks made from cloth when they go out in public. In Austria it is now compulsory to wear basic masks in supermarkets and other food and drug stores. Austria's neighbours, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, have gone even further, making the wearing of face masks compulsory once you leave home. Germany even announced plans recently to make the wearing of face masks compulsory on both public transport and in shops. For those living in Asia, these announcements are a complete vindication of a tactic that has been adopted quite painlessly across much of the region for quite some time, and appears to have been borne out by many such countries having lower rates of infection and faster containment of the coronavirus outbreak.

In the UK, the lack of government advice to wear masks of some kind is arguably influenced primarily by a chronic shortage of PPE, particularly in hospitals and care homes. If the UK was indeed on a mission of 'herd immunity' regardless of the death toll that policy could cause, there would have been no need for social distancing nor for the purchasing of millions of facemasks. Such pesky things would only slow the herd immunity process down. After all, all the stats from Wuhan and elsewhere indicated that it was primarily those over the age of 70 and those with underlying health conditions who succumbed to this new coronavirus. Something akin to 'normal' flu perhaps, at least in the minds of Boris Johnson and his government?

But what is this British thing against facemasks anyway? The story goes that they are ineffective, that we are too dumb to use them properly, that we may get too complacent or that we simply don't need them. Certainly, there are risks attached to wearing any facemask or face covering, but at the end of the day if they didn't work, doctors and nurses wouldn't be wearing them. From my own research, masks of any description may not stop you getting infected with the coronavirus, but they may help cut down the risk. They may also stop an infected person passing on the virus to others. Sure, N95 respirators are named N95 because they are just 95% effective at protecting the wearer from airborne particles and from liquid contaminating the face. Nothing is therefore 100% effective. But even if Brits wore a simple bandana when just out shopping, still keeping 2 metres apart from each other, still washed their hands diligently and frequently, then I'm pretty sure any face covering would help the cause. And I'm pretty sure the British government will also be advising this in the not-too-distant future. They want to get the economy opening up, if other European countries are seemingly in a position to open up and are recommending face covering in order to help stop a second wave of infections, the UK will certainly follow suit. Today, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab argued on BBC TV that the UK's lockdown would indeed need to be eased carefully, meaning that social distancing will remain for some time - and that we would need to find a new 'normal'.

Arguably, for the UK at least, a 'new' normal is certainly something we need to be aiming for. We cannot let these politicians drag us back to the 'old' normal. An old normal were the elderly, the sick and disabled people were all devalued as human beings simply because they were not in work or not able to work. An old normal were the NHS and social care was underfunded to the point of negligence. And an old normal were thousands of deaths in the UK can be linked to poverty and benefit cuts. Of course, this crisis is costing the UK £billions and that money will undoubtedly need to be recovered. But what chance of that burden being shifted once again onto Britain's poor, including sick and disabled people? I suppose that depends on what we all want to see as being the new 'normal' - and if we are willing to do something about it if it not exactly what we envisaged.

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