Why the UK failed the pandemic test
Neglect and inadequate excuses lie at the heart of the government’s failures, argue Susanna Mitchell & Roy Trevelion
Thursday, 16th July 2020 — By Susanna Mitchell and Roy Trevelion
Susanna Mitchell and Roy Trevelion
IT is understood that there will be a public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
This should begin now, and not when the current crisis is over. Criticisms will be focused on the government’s disastrous response:
Its initial adoption of a “herd immunity” strategy.
Its failure to provide health care workers and others in front-line positions with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
The shambolic state of its belated testing and tracking operations, including the collapse of its much-heralded app.
Its reliance on private contractors with no relevant experience to supply services and equipment that they were subsequently unable to deliver.
Critically, it will be claimed that all the measures taken were put in place far too late. With the result that the UK now has the highest death toll in Europe. The proportion of care-home deaths is 13 times greater than that of Germany.
All these accusations are currently being met with the excuse that the Covid-19 pandemic was unprecedented. The government claims it has worked to its utmost capacity to control and manage the outbreak.
But this narrow focus on what was done once the virus had established itself in the country is completely inadequate.
Rather, any inquiry must examine the long-standing reasons why the country was unable to deal with the situation in a more efficient way. Unless this is done, the necessary steps to improve our handling of future pandemics cannot begin.
For a start, the argument that government was taken by surprise by a global viral attack is false.
To the contrary, a research project called Exercise Cygnus was set up in 2016 to examine the question of preparedness for exactly this eventuality.
Its report was delivered in July 2017 to all major government departments, NHS England, and the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The report concluded that “…the UK’s preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability” were insufficient to cope with such a situation.
It recommended NHS England should conduct further work to prepare “surge capacity” in the health service and that money should be ring-fenced to provide extra capacity and support in the NHS.
It also stated that the social care system needed to be able to expand if it were to cope with a “worst-case scenario pandemic”.
These warnings, however, were effectively ignored.
One government source is reported as saying that the results of the research were “too terrifying” to be revealed.
And a senior academic directly involved in Cygnus and the current pandemic remarked: “These exercises are supposed to prepare government for something like this – but it appears they were aware of the problem but didn’t do much about it… basically [there is] a lack of attention to what would be needed to prevent a disease like this from overwhelming the system.
“All the flexibility has been pared away so it’s difficult to react quickly. Nothing is ready to go.”
But the reason that the system was too inflexible and unprepared lies squarely with the government’s actions during the last decade.
The Health and Social Care Act of 2012 ruinously fragmented the system.
The austerity and privatisation of these polices have lethally weakened both the NHS and the social care services.
As a result, the NHS is under-staffed, under-equipped and critically short of beds, while the social care service is crippled by underfunding almost to the point of collapse. It is therefore vital that we do not allow any inquiry to be limited to an examination of recent mistakes.
The government’s bungled handling of the present crisis was virtually inevitable within a public health system depleted and rendered inadequate by their long-term policies.
No post mortem can achieve a productive conclusion unless it is understood that these policies were the root cause of the shambles.
If we are to avoid another catastrophe, these policies must be radically changed with the minimum of delay, and public health put back into public hands.
• Susanna Mitchell and Roy Trevelion are members of the Socialist Health Association.