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Britain is failing to cope with the Covid-19 epidemic as well as other countries in Europe and East Asia have. Out of 62,000 excess deaths in the UK, says former chief medical officer Sir David King, “40,000 excess deaths could have been avoided if government had acted responsibly”.

The failure is devastating: on a single day this week, 359 people died from coronavirus in the UK – more than the number of deaths in all 27 EU countries over the same 24 hours. The UK is starting to exit lockdown while the epidemic has not been brought under control, despite all the economic self-destruction.

Two main reasons explain why the crisis in Britain turned into a calamity. Firstly, the political consequences of Brexit turn out to be more lethal and swift than any potential economic damage. It is now clear that the worst outcome of the turmoil over leaving the EU has been to land Britain with a leadership of spectacular incompetence during one of the worst crises in British history.

Boris Johnson emerges, when he does emerge these days, as the sort of shallow self-promoting buffoon that his critics, including many who know him well, have always said that he was. As his government’s failures multiply, his default position is evasion and denial: on the very same day that Britain (population 66 million) outpaced the whole of the EU (population 446 million) in fatalities, Johnson told the House of Commons that he was “very proud of what we have achieved”.

Much of the time it does not matter much who is nominally running a country with an effective civil service, but this is not one of those times. Judgements crucial to the lives and livelihoods of millions must be made, but at this critical moment, Britain is finding that it is run by a Gilbert-and-Sullivan type administration. The analogy is all too appropriate: Johnson, with his fake-patrician bombast and shady dealings, strongly resembles the Duke of Plaza Toro in The Gondoliers who “led his regiment from behind/he found it less exciting”. The sinister character and dubious doings of Dominic Cummings strongly recall those of the Grand Inquisitor in the same opera.

Almost everybody outside the government believes that at no point during the epidemic has the government been ahead of the game. It has always lagged behind and frequently headed in the wrong direction. The list of errors is long: underestimating the threat posed by the virus; failure to prepare for it through accelerated procurement; late and inadequate testing and tracing; sending untested Covid-19 carriers into care homes; failing to introduce face masks early on; chaotic preparation for a return to normal life and resumed economic activity. In combination, these mistakes may keep Britain in semi-lockdown for the foreseeable future.

Once, Britain had a reputation for having one of the world’s most astute political classes operating through one of its most effective administrative machines. No longer: the pandemic marks the turning point. Johnson and mediocre ministers have throughout conveyed a frightening sense not of malignancy but of amateurs at work, lightweights baffled by what is happening and unable to learn from experience.

Britain is paying a high price for the whole bizarre Brexit project, not so much because of the undoubted economic damage it will do to the country, but because of the inadequacy of the leaders whom it elevated into power. Anybody who seriously believed that Britain’s troubles stemmed primarily from membership of the EU was either a crackpot, a careerist or simply misinformed. Though claiming to see a golden future for global Britain, the Brexiters were unashamed “Little Englanders”, their isolationism neatly expressed in the apocryphal weather forecast, “Fog in channel, continent isolated”.

From the beginning of the crisis this attitude has hobbled cooperation with other countries or even learning from their experience. The Brexiters’ instinct to stand proudly alone in defiance of reality presumably explains the decision to impose a 14-day quarantine period on travellers arriving in Britain, where coronavirus is still rife, though they may be coming from countries where it has been largely suppressed. This reminds me of travelling to Russia and Iraq in the 1990s, at a time when the health systems in both countries had collapsed and diseases were spreading unchecked, and finding that all arrivals had to have an Aids test.

The second cause of Britain’s all too “world beating” fatality rate, to adopt Johnson’s famous boast, is the degree to which the operational capacity of the UK government has withered in recent decades. Ministers make self-confident claims about the delivery of testing, tracing, PPE equipment, an app to prevent the spread of the illness and other initiatives, but nothing happens or delivery is halting and unreliable.

Britain is discovering the hard way how far its administrative machine has been weakened by cuts and outsourcing. Central government has monopolised authority and resources and starved local authorities of both, though they should be on the cutting edge of “test and trace”. An editorial in the British Medical Journal of which the lead author is a professor of European public health, Martin McKee, succinctly sums up what has happened: “A hollowed out civil service has long turned to outsourcing companies, despite their repeated failures. Companies with little relevant experience have struggled to organise viral testing or contact tracing. The task of coordinating activities with existing organisations, such as NHS laboratories or local public health departments, is too complex for their business model.”

ORDER IT NOW

Testing and tracing are central to the government’s bid to contain the epidemic. This is scarcely surprising since Dr John Snow, one of the founders of modern epidemiology, first mapped cholera victims in Soho in London in 1854 in order to identify the origins of a cholera outbreak (it was a water pump producing polluted water). More sophisticated “trace and track” campaigns have since been used to suppress or contain epidemics. Such detective work needs well trained and experienced interviewers to get total strangers to disclose their movements and contacts. German health officials today credit a well-organised “test and trace” system for their success in bringing the epidemic under control in Germany by 17 April, just six weeks after the first death there from the virus.

In Britain, the recruitment of 25,000 contact tracers has been partly outsourced, 10,000 of them being recruited by Serco and its subcontractors. Directors of public health only learned on the morning of the announcement that the test and trace effort was being launched four days early. It will now only be fully operational by September or October according to its chief operating officer.

The main explanation of the government is that it, along with all the governments in the world, was surprised by the speed and ferocity of the virus. This excuse might have had some validity in February or even March, but not now. Coronavirus has now killed almost twice as many people as died in the Blitz – 32,000 – and most of them should still be alive.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Britain, Coronavirus 
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  1. Sean says:

    John Snow* was eccentric and bit of a genius Karl Friston is something similar

    . German health officials today credit a well-organised “test and trace” system for their success in bringing the epidemic under control in Germany by 17 April, just six weeks after the first death there from the virus

    Right well, they would wouldn’t they.

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/31/covid-19-expert-karl-friston-germany-may-have-more-immunological-dark-matter#maincontent

    Conventional models essentially fit curves to historical data and then extrapolate those curves into the future. They look at the surface of the phenomenon – the observable part, or data. Our approach, ..attempts to capture the mathematical structure of the phenomenon – in this case, the pandemic – and to understand the causes of what is observed. […] A common type of epidemiological model used today is the SEIR model, which considers that people must be in one of four states – susceptible (S), exposed (E), infected (I) or recovered (R). Unfortunately, reality doesn’t break them down so neatly.

    The answers are sometimes counterintuitive*. For example, it looks as if the low German fatality rate is not due to their superior testing capacity, but rather to the fact that the average German is less likely to get infected and die than the average Brit. Why? There are various possible explanations, but one that looks increasingly likely is that Germany has more immunological “dark matter” – people who are impervious to infection, perhaps because they are geographically isolated or have some kind of natural resistance. This is like dark matter in the universe: we can’t see it, but we know it must be there to account for what we can see. Knowing it exists is useful for our preparations for any second wave, because it suggests that targeted testing of those at high risk of exposure to Covid-19 might be a better approach than non-selective testing of the whole population.

    This seems to be very roughly in agreement with the conclusions of the susceptible-infected-recovered (SIR) model of:-

    Professor Gupta suspects that while physical distancing and the lockdown have helped suppress the epidemic, infections may have waned because of people’s natural resistance to the infection, for example through antibodies that fight related coronaviruses which cause common colds – but which would not necessarily show up in Covid-19 antibody tests.

    So a lot of people have the generalised action of antibodies making them not susceptible to being infected with Covid-19 in the first place, and so never getting the specific antibodies that are being taken as a sign of immunity through prior infection. Japan has not had a lockdowwn. or much in the way of testing in a densely populated country of 126 million which is the oldest in the world. Antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 are present in about 6% of Japanese going extrapolating the testing that has gone on. Yet only 900 people have died of the COVID-19 in the whole of Japan.

    Britain is failing to cope with the Covid-19 epidemic as well as other countries in …East Asia have.

    Travel between China and Taiwan was common, and the virus was in Taiwan on 21 January 2020, from a 50-year-old woman who had been teaching in Wuhan Taiwan has the highest proportion of obese people in Asia. In addition, 3.27 million people in Taiwan are over 65 years old. By any rational standard Taiwan ought to have a large number of dead from COVID-19, yet they are not even into double figures. Believe it or not, only seven people in Taiwan have died of coronavirus.

    *(A lesser known contribition by John Snow https://www.unz.com/pfrost/what-caused-rickets-epidemic/)

  2. jsinton says:

    We now know the COVID scam is no more dangerous than the flues of 1957 or 1968, when the world hardly noticed and nobody tried to shut down the economy. It’s only about twice as bad as an ordinary flu season. What changed this time is people over reacted and politicians tried to use it for social control. If we had ignored it in the first place, we would have been far better off. Johnson’s initial reaction “herd immunity” was the correct response, but he sadly turned coward.

    • Agree: AaronInMVD
    • Replies: @Bill Jones
  3. This article is so bad I almost did a double take when reading it. It is the kind of thing you’d see published in The Guardian opinion section so I am astonished Unz has published this.

    First the article starts out with a carefully selected and misleading statistic

    The failure is devastating: on a single day this week, 359 people died from coronavirus in the UK – more than the number of deaths in all 27 EU countries over the same 24 hours.

    But in fact total per capita deaths in the UK are similar to Spain and Italy and lower than Belgium. So although the UK has had a high death rate, it is not wildly higher than other European countries. The article then continues with a diatribe attacking Johnson and Cummings with a variety of adjectives like “shady” and “buffoon.” Yet the specific criticisms are weak:

    The list of errors is long: underestimating the threat posed by the virus; failure to prepare for it through accelerated procurement; late and inadequate testing and tracing; sending untested Covid-19 carriers into care homes; failing to introduce face masks early on; chaotic preparation for a return to normal life and resumed economic activity.

    Every single one of these criticisms is either vague or can be applied to other countries with a much lower death rate. Every idiot thinks they understand Covid-19, despite the fact that countries like Sweden and Japan that never went into lockdown have a lower death rate than the UK. Japan never made much of an effort to test people and yet they recently lifted their state of emergency. France’s testing was lower than the UK’s for much of the early stages of the pandemic yet France has a lower death rate. Other European countries only started to mandate face masks in May in the late stages of the epidemic, against the advice of the WHO who said they didn’t work. Furthermore what is strange is why the author thinks this is a political decision. The decision to mandate or not mandate face masks is based on what scientific advisors say. It is absolutely not the case that the government was going against their scientific advisors when not recommending face masks. These advisors may have been wrong but the outcome wouldn’t have been any different with anyone else in government. On the point of the lockdown, the reason the UK delayed going into lockdown was because the scientific advisors were saying that doing so would be pointless. Do you know who was pushing for lockdown? The “sinister” Dominic Cummings!

    I also have to bring attention to this outrageous argument

    The Brexiters’ instinct to stand proudly alone in defiance of reality presumably explains the decision to impose a 14-day quarantine period on travellers arriving in Britain, where coronavirus is still rife, though they may be coming from countries where it has been largely suppressed.

    Now look at this map: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/04/01/more-than-nine-in-ten-people-worldwide-live-in-countries-with-travel-restrictions-amid-covid-19/ft_2020-04-01_borderclosures/
    The UK is one of the only countries in the world not to close its borders during this pandemic, but yet when the UK government asks travellers to self-isolate for 14 days Mr Cockburn implies this is driven by xenophobia. What an absolute joke.

    Let’s look at another bad criticism

    Companies with little relevant experience have struggled to organise viral testing or contact tracing.

    The opposite is true. The reason testing was so poor to begin with is because NHS England tried to run the whole show. On the other hand countries like Germany that ramped up testing quickly were able to because they partnered with private companies, and this is how the UK has achieved the large numbers of tests it is now conducting.

    Articles like this present a vague feeling that “something has gone wrong” but without a convincing story of what. It’s notable that unlike other countries with high death rates like Spain and Italy, the healthcare system was never overwhelmed. The NHS has always had spare beds and spare ventilators at every stage in this pandemic.

    Let me offer an alternative explanation as to why the UK has been hit so hard. One contributing factor is that the UK has the highest rate of obesity in Europe and we know that obesity is a big factor in Covid-19 deaths. But more importantly, one reason why countries with little-to-no lockdowns like Sweden have done better than the UK is a lot of the infections are taking place in hospitals rather than the community. I know anecdotally that a lot of the infections in care homes occurred because the residents would come back from hospital infected with coronavirus. Despite the claims that the NHS is the “best in the world” measured by patient outcomes it isn’t. The UK has a very high proportion of foreign (non-European) nurses and doctors who have lower IQs than their white counterparts and often barely speak English. Similarly the procurement of PPE, bizarrely blamed by journalists on the cabinet, is actually the responsibility of the NHS trusts. But since the NHS has replaced the Church of England as the national religion it can never be blamed.

  4. A123 says:

    Let’s compare WUHAN-19 statistics between the UK and some EU countries: (1)

    Deaths per Million (Population)

    835.93 — Belgium
    600.16 — United Kingdom
    580.60 — Spain
    557.48 — Italy

    Is Belgium exiting the EU? No. So much ludicrous attempt to tie Brexit to WUHAN-19 outcomes.
    ____

    This does shed light on why the Brexit negotiations are not progressing. The author and EU leaders are in hysterical, gibbering fear that the inevitable post-Brexit success will cause others to reject Authoritarian rule from Brussels. The Euro € currency trap will likely prevent another “Exit”. However, the weak EU/EZ rules are incapable of dealing with open intransigence.

    PEACE 😷
    _______

    (1) https://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants/

    • Replies: @Philip Owen
  5. Anonymous[396] • Disclaimer says:
    @Alex Pareto

    Patrick Cockburn is highly partisan and petty.

    He also wants to overturn Brexit which is odd given he is Irish not even British.

    • Replies: @Alex Pareto
  6. polistra says: • Website

    It’s not incompetence. It’s NEVER incompetence.

    I’ll confess that I was completely fooled by the Soros revolution of Brexit, but I finally saw the truth after Brexit was fully accomplished.

    Boris wasn’t trying to gain freedom for Britain. He was trying to gain freedom for Boris. Immediately after Brexit, Boris started to push MUCH harder on Gaian tyranny, serving Greta loyally. When the “virus” came along, he joyfully applied the lockdown harder and longer than any Euros, and still maintains the lockdown while even Germany is loosening.

    From the other angle, EU suddenly started to protect its borders from migrants just after Brexit. When Greece decided to build a wall against Turkey, EU helped instead of bombing Greece.

    In other words, Britain was the main driver of EU’s borderless insanity. After Brexit, Boris is free to be insane and EU is free to be (relatively) more sane.

    • Replies: @A123
    , @YetAnotherAnon
  7. A123 says:
    @polistra

    Soros revolution of Brexit, but I finally saw the truth after Brexit was fully accomplished.

    This is a puzzling statement. The IslamoSoros is an enemy of Brexit and and ally of Mullah Merkel (1):

    A key pro-EU campaign to reverse the Brexit vote has been given more than £400,000 of funding by American billionaire George Soros’s foundation, the Guardian can disclose.

    The Best for Britain campaign, which advocates remaining in the EU, rather than fighting for a soft Brexit, has received the six-figure sum from OSF since the June 2017 election, sources have told the Guardian.

    The IslamoSoros is a key architect of the EU Elite scheme to import Muslims and replace European infidels (Christians and Jews).
    ______

    After Brexit, Boris is free to be insane and EU is free to be (relatively) more sane.

    The only way to reduce EU insanity is to get rid of SJW Globalist leaders like Merkel and Macron.

    Admittedly, BoJo is not the obvious choice to lead Brexit. However, he has burned his bridges by advocating it. If he does not deliver he will be replaced and permanently vanish from the political scene.

    PEACE 😷
    _______

    (1) https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/feb/07/billionaire-george-soros-backs-campaign-to-reverse-brexit

  8. It really is time for paddy to give it a rest.

  9. GeeBee says:

    What an atrociously bad article, by any measure. I am very fond of the Unz review, but it cannot continue to stand head and shoulders above the rest if it continues to air such farragoes of mendacious, malinformed and malefic tripe that Patrick Cockburn provides here. Surely we loyal readers deserve better than this?

  10. @Alex Pareto

    This article is so bad I almost did a double take when reading it. It is the kind of thing you’d see published in The Guardian opinion section so I am astonished Unz has published this.

    I concur, as a surgeon might say.

    The worst hit local authority area in Wales has a death rate of 104 persons per 100,000 of the population. That statistic was published by the BBC who used it to propagandise about how bad the situation is, without any awareness of the fact that it is the death rate for flu.

    One death per thousand – we have destroyed the economy of the western world for a virus like this, and it’s all down to liberal-looney journos like Mr Cockburn.

    BTW, Mr Cockburn’s own married MP in Canterbury was caught breaking the lockdown to go for a five hour walk with her lover. Of course, this flouting of the totalitarian rules was not publicised by the media.

  11. It’s OK to argue the details about Johnson, but the fact remains: he’s a horrible person & a lousy PM. The list of negative adjectives applicable to “BoJo” would fill an A4 page….

  12. @jsinton

    ” It’s only about twice as bad as an ordinary flu season. ”
    We can’t even say that. We know that extraordinary measure are taken to record a Corona death even if the virus is only remotely present: and in some cases even if it is not tested for.
    The drunk falling off a ladder and dying in a coma a week later died of Covid because he’d tested positive the week before his fall.
    I’m pretty sure the Floyd death would be so recorded is the knee had belonged to one of his brothers.

    These games were not played in 1957 or 1968.

  13. Ko says:

    No. We’re paying the debt for reading irreverent pieces from people who were once impactful, much like what you write.

  14. @polistra

    “In other words, Britain was the main driver of EU’s borderless insanity. “

    More likely is that the EU saw Brexit (correctly) as a response to Blair’s open borders (to A8 and ‘asylum seekers’) and Merkel’s Million Muslim Men, and the EU has decided that they don’t want any more countries leaving.

    Turkey’s open weaponisation of the ‘Syrian refugees’ didn’t help either.

    One thing the Brits DID do was overthrow Gadaffi and open the Med to Africa while the Royal Navy acted as a taxi service for illegal infiltrators.

  15. @Alex Pareto

    HMG took over the procurement of PPE from the trusts with an as hoc system. The result was chaos. Planes delivered cargos without papers to identify the owners.

  16. @A123

    Infection rate is proportional to population density. This is clear.

  17. Judgement day has come

    its as simple as that

    Christ must already have returned to the remnant cult ,so called by the non remnant supercult

    and has only one option left

    to start a youtube account so that “every shall see”

  18. @Anonymous

    He also wants to overturn Brexit which is odd given he is Irish not even British.

    If you follow the Irish press this isn’t surprising at all. The EU has relentlessly screwed Ireland* but because the Irish associate Euroscepticism with the English and they hate the English they have a schadenfreude-based desire for Brexit to fail. Not only are the Irish media universally anti-Brexit but the pro-Brexit arguments are never represented meaning the average Irishman finds Brexit to be an incomprehensible piece of English madness. This has bizarrely led Ireland to be the most pro-EU country in the entire bloc.

    *to give three examples: the Irish are now net contributers to the EU budget, they got screwed in the Apple ruling, and the threats of a “hard border” came entirely from the EU side yet the Irish press blamed it on the British

  19. In the UK the superspreaders covid their neighbour sars

  20. Cockburn is an ardent Remainer and like the rest of the Remainer malcontents he just won’t let it go. According to his lights Brexit is somehow unclean, vile, obnoxious. The fact that it has been rejected twice, once in the referendum and secondly in the last UK general election of course means nothing to him and his ilk. Like the British Bourbons who like him ‘have learned nothing and forgotten nothing he cannot and will not acknowdge that there was nothing which was somehow unconstitutional about the Brexit majority vote. The fact that the EU is a neo-liberal, bureaucratic mess seems to also go over his head. It is a bit like the US when the ‘left progressives’ in the shape of the DNC never accepted the vote of the American people. The British ‘left progressives’ have also never accepted Britain leaving the EU.

    In fact the deranged wing of the Remain berserkers have asserted that Coronavirus was the cause of Brexit, or maybe even the other way around.

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