On Sunday UK PM Boris Johnson will be making an announcement about the lockdown. There has been much speculation as to whether the UK could start easing up restrictions just as other European nations such as France and Italy have done this week. A recent poll shows that the majority of Britons oppose easing the current lockdown restrictions. Despite this, a vocal minority is calling on the Government to ease restrictions. These calls are supported by Iain Duncan Smith and various others within the Tory Party.
For the UK to end or even significantly ease the lockdown now would be very unwise. In fact, it would likely cause an already horrific death toll to rise further. The UK now has the second-highest death toll from COVID-19 on the planet, with Trump’s America being number one. The UK’s slow response to the virus allowed it to quickly spread, and by the time isolation policies were implemented COVID-19 had already taken hold in the UK. Other countries now easing up on restrictions have done a better job of testing and have reliable data to show the curve is flattening. In the UK data is still not reliable, and the available information suggests it would be a terrible mistake to ease up on the lockdown now.
So why on earth is an easing of restrictions being suggested?
It would be wrong to say that nobody in the media is asking hard questions. Ironically some of more right-wing journalists, traditionally more sympathetic to the Tory Party are leading the charge. Piers Morgan has recently been very critical of the Government’s handling of this crisis. In this interview, he roasts the government over the lack of PPE and has on several occasions challenged the Government on its initial slow response, the continued poor rates of testing and general mishandling of the crisis. This usually pro-Tory journalist’s tough questioning of the Government is the exception in the UK media. On the day the official UK COVID-19 death toll passed 30,000 the newspapers had the following to say:
While the media had to report that UK COVID-19 deaths were the highest in Europe and the second-highest in the world, they did their best not to dwell on it. Owen Jones’ column in the Guardian highlights how the media focusses on the sex life of a senior scientist and member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), rather than the horrendous UK death toll. Contrast this to the Sydney Morning Herald report who describe the government’s response to the pandemic as the “biggest failure in a generation.”
The UK media, with some notable exceptions, have failed to hold the Government to account at a time of serious crisis. Worse than this though, they have actively pushed the editorial line which encourages the ending the lockdown. They are creating a situation where politicians will now feel pressure to reduce restrictions, despite the dire public health consequences. The Financial Times in late April reported that many newspapers suffered a serious decline in sales during the lockdown. It is difficult to feel any sympathy for print media given the way it has reported this crisis.
One paper who has held the Government to account is the usually Conservative Party leaning Times, whose 19 April report 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster very clearly and methodically lists the many mistakes of the current government. Specifically, Prime Minister Boris Johnson missed five Cobra meetings in February and early March where the COVID-19 pandemic was discussed. Boris Johnson and his Cabinet promoted the idea of herd immunity, and in one interview the PM said Britain should “take the hit” and let the majority of the population catch the virus so they’d gain immunity. A very risky strategy for a new virus where scientists weren’t certain herd immunity would work. This is the same Prime Minister who in early March boasted that he continued to visit hospitals and shake hands with COVID-19 patients. A few weeks later he was in ICU fighting for his life after catching coronavirus.
In early February Boris Johnson gave a speech in Greenwich where he had the following to say about coronavirus:
…there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.
And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.
The rhetoric of the Prime Minister was one of Britain having this great proud history as the traders of the world. That post-Brexit Britain would be the champion of free enterprise and any sort of shut down of the economy would be “beyond what is medically rational” and would do “unnecessary economic damage.” By early February the WHO were clearly warning governments that their populations may need to go into isolation to stop the spread of COVID-19. Had the Prime Minister attended Cobra meetings during this time he may have known this. Ironically having delayed taking appropriate preventative action to stop the virus spreading throughout the UK population, the country’s economy will likely be hit much harder and be closed for business far longer than it would have otherwise been.
It was revealed that Boris’s Political Advisor Dominic Cummings had been attending the SAGE meetings, which were supposed to only be for scientists to meet and make recommendations to the government. Cummings, a political hack not a scientist, has attended a number of these meeting and advocated for the group to take certain stances. Even Tories want Dominic Cummings banned from SAGE meetings it has now been reported, showing the tensions are building within the Government over how this crisis has been handled. This week the Government released SAGE’s scientific advice, however, the Government ensured that the documents were censored, to the dismay of many SAGE members. The Government appear to have a strained relationship with its key scientific advisors, which is concerning during a pandemic.
First Secretary of State Dominic Raab has said that lockdown changes being announced this coming Sunday will be ‘modest’ and ‘small’. This is hardly surprising when earlier in the week the national statistician Professor Ian Diamond said that COVID-19 infection rates could be increasing. In particular, the number of cases being reported in care-homes appears to be increasing. Adding to the pressure both the Scottish and Welsh ruled out any significant relaxation of the lockdown rules.
The problem the Government face is that UK levels of testing for COVID-19 remain poor. One survey of care workers found that only 22% of those who showed symptoms of the virus had been tested. The UK has failed to meet its testing targets meaning the true rates of infection are unknown. Poor levels of testing mean easing off the lockdown restrictions is very unwise as the Governments ability to track and trace those with the virus is very limited.
The situation is particularly bad in care homes. Initially, many COVID-19 deaths from care homes were not reported. Recently care home deaths, dating from mid-April onwards have been added and the UK death toll has increased. The official figure of 30,000 COVID-19 deaths in the UK could well be too conservative.
It seems unlikely that the Government will be announcing significant changes to lockdown rules this coming Sunday. But there seems to be growing pressure for the lockdown to ease. While it is entirely understandable that people want this to end, most Britons understand that doing so too soon would do more long-term harm. Having already made serious mistakes at the start of this pandemic, the Conservative Government would do well to ignore Iain Duncan-Smith, the moribund tabloid media, and those who value profit over human life.