On 23 March, Boris Johnson announced his new measures to enforce social distancing and self-isolation. We were told that “we will beat coronavirus” and even “come through it stronger than ever.” In such times of crisis as these, overtly confident and stoic leadership has its place. Panic buying and stockpiling are the marks of an uncertain population, and how better to feel secure than to know you can burrow away with your tins, baseball bat in one hand, toilet paper in the other, and wait out the storm. We’ve seen how people behave when they are uncertain. So, Boris decided to put away his bumbling persona, and fill the void with assurances.
But is the government in a position to make such promises? And why does there seem to be such a disconnect between Boris’s proclamations, and the far less promising projections of the experts? As Chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, Jeremy Hunt was not keen to support his boss’s claims, telling the House of Commons that “social distancing” measures just won’t do the job. His suggestion that it may be “too late” to prevent the UK from following Italy into chaos is a cause for concern.
Hunt’s bleak perspective has, more often than not, been echoed by health professionals. One A&E consultant told Sky News that the UK health system does not measure up to its Italian counterpart, predicting that within days patients will be lining hospital corridors. He too, echoed the concern that the government was not taking the situation sufficiently seriously, reproaching their “falsely placed sense of optimism that it will all work out.”
Not only is the UK health system reportedly on the brink of saturation, but the government seems insistent on pursuing unconventional containment policies. Naturally, it is not for me to comment on such things, but dissatisfaction amongst those in the know remains compelling. For example, the government is not making coronavirus tests routinely available, despite global practice and professional advice being to the contrary. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation said to “Test, test, test”, telling all countries that their testing numbers are too low. South Korea has emerged as the model for successful containment, and they did not do it through disruptive lockdowns either. Rather, they acted quickly, conducted widespread testing, traced contact and relied on people to do the right thing.
We had our chance to stay indoors and look out for ourselves, but now we have been sent to our respective rooms. However, there is still the opportunity to begin widespread testing before the virus spirals out of control. The government is aware of this course of action with Health secretary Matt Hancock advising Parliament “to get to the point where anybody who wants to get tested can get tested”. Currently, testing kits are available only to patients, with even NHS workers struggling to attain them. The BBC outlined that by testing the wider population, it becomes much easier to understand how far the virus has spread. Moreover, it facilitates “surveillance testing” and prevents a drain on human resources, constituting those key workers who are self-isolating unnecessarily.
The reason why the government is not prioritising testing kits may be because it’s too late. Resources are limited and the first priority is now healthcare services. South Korea listened to the advice of medical professionals a week before their first case was diagnosed back in January. By the time their confirmed cases had reached double digits, thousands of kits were available, with production now having reached 100,000 kits per day. The UK currently tests 828 people per million of the population, whereas South Korea was testing 2,000 at the corresponding point in its outbreak. Hopefully the government will consider the South Korean example, and act accordingly before it really is too late.
Image: Mohsen Atayi via Wikimedia Commons