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The Government's response throughout the COVID-19 crisis has been 'decisive' - Tories response to Sunday Times article

The Government's response throughout the COVID-19 crisis has been 'decisive' - Tories response to Sunday Times article

The Sunday Times article criticising the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis claims that the situation wasn’t taken seriously enough. However, it is worth questioning some of the points in the article. 

Suppose that the government had prioritised other agendas over solving the crisis itself, as The Times alludes. It is easy, with hindsight, to be armchair politicians, advisors and epidemiologists, but I posit the idea that any of us would have taken a similar, if not the same approach to the COVID-19 outbreak as the government.

If you cast your mind back three months, to the period in which these “5 lost weeks” happened, you will recall that only the most well-informed professionals were talking about Coronavirus. It has been remarked upon that the first months of 2020 were filled with headline-grabbing news. Early in January, the world teetered on the brink of war between the US and Iran. Then, as January progressed, the attention of the public was drawn to Australia and their raging bush fires. And at the end of January, all eyes were on Brexit.

Suppose that you are the government in early January, and the scientific community starts to raise alarm over an outbreak of pneumonia in an obscure city in central China. It is still being reported as pneumonia by the Chinese government, who first raised it with the WHO as pneumonia on December 31st. Here are the considerations you would have to make in your response to the disease: 1) how dangerous is this outbreak to the UK? 2) what would a government response to an outbreak look like? and 3) what government policy would those responses conflict with?

It is the role of the scientific community to raise the alarm over every possible threat to our health, which has previously led to high profile coverage of many outbreaks in the last 20 years. As a result, there has consistently been mass awareness of outbreaks, such as Ebola, MERS, SARS and numerous other diseases, each of these instances has resulted in negligible effects to the UK and none of which could be compared to what COVID-19 has become. Given that, at the start of this crisis these outbreaks were the reference points for many members of the public and government alike, it is understandable that many were sceptical of the effect that this outbreak would have on the UK. The 2012 MERS, 2002-2004 SARS and West African Ebola outbreaks saw very few cases in the UK. After repeated instances where the medical community has cried wolf (as is right and proper of the said community), it is understandable that the government would be hesitant to act over another call from epidemiologists.

Take this in the broader scope of things, the government had recently been elected on a mandate that called for two broad policies, delivering Brexit, and rolling out new spending on economic development and social welfare programs. The success of the Johnson premiership and its agenda would thusly be judged on the overall health of the economy and the general optimism of the country. From a government perspective, why would you prioritise a potentially damaging response to danger (your perception of the seriousness of which could be diminished by past precedence), over more pressing and more urgent policy agenda?

In short, anyone would have done as the government did, and focus on what they perceived as the most pressing issue of the day, ensuring the health of the British economy, delivering Brexit and avoiding war with Iran.

As The Times themselves have reported, coronavirus arrived in York on January 29th, ‘The next day the government raised the threat level from low to moderate’. Later in the article, they concede that ‘The first order for equipment under the “just in time” protocol was made on January 30.’

The arguments being made in regards to the Prime Ministers holiday in Mustique, whilst China was arguably actively coordinating a global disinformation campaign, with the WHO happy to accept their words that minimised the global need to act is laughable.

Whilst The Times says that China and the WHO claimed that the virus was not being transmitted via human to human contact, British academics and epidemiologists were stating otherwise; it is important to remember that the WHO is a globally recognised organisation and it is important that their advice is followed, it was difficult to judge the severity of the crisis when China is thought to be giving the WHO false information to act upon, especially if China did not allow WHO scientists access to the country in January. This could have allowed the rest of the world and the UK government to act sooner if access was given. Formulating policy around diseases is hard, and it is made harder when the information that the world is given to act on is thought to be unreliable.

The criticism that little progress was made in obtaining PPE, especially from China, and that the government sent 279,000 items to China in February is equally flawed because Asia was still the epicentre of the crisis, and when questioned on this Michael Gove answered that the government was playing a part in the international response. This is also true of other countries like the USA, where they sent a reported 17.8 tonnes of PPE to China. On 9th April China reciprocated the UK’s earlier aid, with a flight operated by British Airways delivering ventilators and PPE equipment from China. There will be another flight from Shanghai delivering hand sanitiser. 

The number of cases in the UK only reached 1,000 on March the 14th, the number of deaths would only be at 100 four days later. Five days after this, the UK officially went into lockdown, following weeks of advice to social distance.

Ultimately, the governments' response has, throughout the crisis, been decisive, has been weighed up against other important parts of their agenda, and has matched the threat presented, according to the information on and perception of COVID-19 at the time. Many of the scientists discussed by The Times have been integral to the decision-making process inside Number 10. The Times critiqued the government for ignoring scientific advice, yet reported that scientists were claimed to be leading cabinet decision; “Lack of political leader leaves scientists in charge, say Tories”.

This government has provided balanced, considered advice and action, both economic, sociological and medical, in the face of exceptional circumstances, for which they should be applauded.

 

Photo Credit: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street under licence (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 


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