We in the UK cannot even celebrate embarking into a positive year of hope and the roll-out of two vaccines, as the horrors of 2020 follow us close at our heels.
While UK was the first country to bring in the Pfizer vaccine and now the AstraZeneca vaccine, the country is reeling under the attack of the new strain of the COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 — which is, as per reports, 70 percent more transmissible.
The R-rate is shooting up and there are almost 60,000 daily hospital admissions, even before the post-Christmas/New Year surge has taken effect.
Yes, no one can stop a virus from mutating but what about a dithering leadership which has been consistently playing catch-up throughout this pandemic, without learning from its past mistakes?
Why The Tier System Of Lockdown Has Been A Total Failure
We are now under the strictest level of lockdown – Tier 5 – but it has come a bit too late and scientists have warned that the latest lockdown imposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson may not be able to contain the new COVID variant as the first lockdown did last spring.
Over 75,000 people are already dead and it is predicted that the death count could go up to 100,000 by February 2021 — way beyond British civilian casualties during World War II.
Overwhelmed hospitals are becoming ‘war zones’, doctors and nurses are exhausted, oxygen and ventilators are running short.
Most of the highly-praised Nightingale hospitals — which opened with such fanfare in 2020 — are empty because of lack of staff. Schools are in chaos. Local authorities and trade unions stood against the reopening of primary schools, and finally Johnson was forced to give into the demand. Secondary school students were told the GCSE exams stand cancelled for 2021. To top it all the tier system has been a total failure, leaving people confused. And sans a strong and decisive leadership few are obeying lockdowns, something PM Johnson is yet to categorically admit to.
PM Boris Johnson Has Continued To Be Reactive
We have no idea when this lockdown will be lifted, given the current situation. In London there are ambulances zipping up and down the streets every few seconds, clearly showing the desperate situation we find ourselves in after getting nine months to ratchet up response. We now have one in 30 people in London with COVID. The Cabinet Office Minister, Michael Gove, said this third national lockdown is likely to remain in place into March. That is being truly positive.
Sadly, the PM continues to procrastinate. In March 2020 he was slow to introduce the first national lockdown despite scientific advice.
Unlike Australia and New Zealand, UK, also an island nation, did not seal its borders. And we became one of the worst countries in Europe with sky-rocketing deaths.
The government did not manage to use the March lockdown, despite the Health Secretary Matt Hancock promising to roll out a robust test-and-trace system. As in March and October 2020, Johnson was again behind the curve despite the discovery of the new strain in September 2020 following which scientists advised a short and sharp circuit-break lockdown – but it never came.
Johnson has remained consistent in being reactive rather than pre-emptive in taking hard decisions with belated U-turns galore.
A Heavy Price Is Being Paid For UK Govt Easing Restrictions During Festive Season
Above all we are paying a heavy price for the UK PM’s easing of lockdown restrictions during the festive period. Science Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage UK) member Professor Calum Semple said the easing of restrictions in some areas over the festive period, and the new, more transmissible variant of the virus, made fresh national measures inevitable. “We're only now seeing the start of the price we have to pay for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day mixing. With that and the new variant it was inevitable we were going to have to hit a hard lockdown at this stage.”
The scientific community has all along been critical of Johnson’s decisions. Professor of Infectious Disease & Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, Mark Woolhouse, said:
“The new variant is a game-changer and made the prime minister’s announcement of a full national lockdown for England almost inevitable. Given the estimates of the transmissibility of the new variant, this lockdown may not be as effective as the one in March 2020. It may be that the best we can hope for is that the situation does not deteriorate further.”
His advice was that the government should not “just focus on lockdown” instead, ramp up mass testing, and improve surveillance of cases, and provide support for people required to self-isolate to maximise compliance with the “crucial intervention”.
Is Vaccination The Only Way Out Of This Crisis That UK Finds Itself In?
In his handling of the pandemic, Johnson has lost the trust of the people, in a situation when a country needs a strong leadership ready to take hard decisions. Now that a developed country like the UK has landed in such a crisis second time round in a year, our only hope is vaccination.
Will the jab be our way out of this crisis, and will this government manage to make it a success after so many failures?
Johnson wants all the over-70s, the most clinically vulnerable and front-line health and care workers to be offered a jab by mid-February, to allow the restrictions to be eased.
That requires about 13 million people to be given the opportunity to be vaccinated — but so far only 1.3 million have been. A quick rollout to the rest is fraught with difficulties. The UK has two approved vaccines and has ordered 140 million doses, which ought to be enough for the entire population.
But a BBC report noted that the first hurdle is the manufacture of the vaccine which involves two stages — the production of the substance and then a process called fill-and-finish, whereby the vaccine is put into vials and packaged up for use.
The report stressed the concern about “the latter stage, with the availability of key ingredients and equipment including glass vials a key issue.”
A Long Way Before UK Surfaces From Crisis
England's Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam says fill-and-finish was a “critically short resource across the globe”.
Even after a vaccine is in the vials though, each batch has to be checked and certified by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which can take several weeks. Then comes the distribution. While 700 local centres are up and running there needs to be a much larger number working. But by late January the vaccination figure ought to reach two million doses a week. “That — and a little bit more — will be needed to hit the mid-February target,” said the BBC report.
It is a long way ahead before we come out of this dire crisis.
Every blame however cannot be put at Johnson’s door; governments all across the world have suffered and faltered in dealing with this pandemic and the new variant has not made life any easier for us.
Why Was The UK So Unprepared?
But as Martin Fletcher put it succinctly in The New Statesman: “Why has Britain suffered one of the world’s highest death tolls and worst economic recessions despite spending more (nearly £300 bn) on countering the virus than almost any other country? Why was the UK so unprepared, not just when the pandemic first erupted last March but again this winter when ministers knew full well there would be a second wave? ... And why, despite roughly £40bn of expenditure, is the UK’s ‘world-beating’ test-and-trace system still so inadequate?”
But the final word still remains – in this global pandemic, if we leave one country behind, we are all exposed to risk, and to life taking longer and longer to returning to anything like normal.
(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)