The government’s handling of the pandemic has been a disaster from the start. Ministers have shown themselves unwilling or incapable of learning from mistakes. Here are Keep Our NHS Public's 10 ways we've been failed by the government over the Covid crisis.
They prioritised the economy over safety and rejected the possibility of a ‘Zero-Covid’ plan, even when other countries such as New Zealand and South Korea have done so with great success. If they had implemented a sensible Covid strategy with an effective ‘find, test and trace, isolate with support’ regime (FTTIS), including realistic financial support for workers self-isolating, alongside clear and consistent messaging, the population would not now be facing a draconian Christmas crackdown, imposed far too late in the day. The government has failed. The record speaks for itself. 80,000 lives have been lost since March over average expected deaths. Over 600 NHS and care staff have died and many more pushed to the brink. The economy has been badly damaged. It is time to look at the mistakes and learn from them. It is time for a change.
1 They failed to maintain the NHS
10 years of austerity has left the NHS with woefully limited resources when compared with other European economies’ health care. For example, we have a third of Germany’s beds and scanners, two thirds of their doctors and nurses, and a fifth of their intensive care capacity (pro rata population). This deliberate act of neglect – of the NHS, public health, social care – is ideologically motivated. A decade of deliberate defunding has left us needlessly vulnerable.
2 They failed to prepare for the pandemic
The government was knowingly underprepared for a major pandemic despite this being the nation’s number one risk for years. Government failed to implement its 2016 national pandemic planning. Despite recent SARS, MERS and Ebola pandemics, they downplayed Covid-19 risks and ignored warnings from Chinese doctors and scientists.
Just as the World Health Organisation was repeating calls in March for all countries to find and test every coronavirus case, the British government abandoned the practice as ‘no longer necessary’ and ‘people who are remaining at home do not need testing’.
3 They failed to act efficiently on lockdown
The reluctance to lockdown in early March – the false reassurances that ‘it will all be over by Christmas’ – has undoubtedly led to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths.
Coronavirus never went away. And in the absence of test, trace and isolate with support, there was no suppression. The lockdown was lifted prematurely and inevitably Covid re-emerged with disastrous consequences as soon as schools and universities returned – despite warnings from scientists and unions.
The second lockdown in November came six weeks after SAGE advice in September, which recommended an urgent lockdown in October. The government once again responded too late with an ineffective ‘tiered system’. The government stuck by its dangerous ‘enjoy your 5-day Christmas’ message until Saturday 19 December faced with a dramatic rise in Covid in London and the south east. They hid their delay behind claims of new information about the variant’s spread – but they had known about skyrocketing infections for weeks.
4 They failed to provide adequate protection
Failure to keep stocks of up-to-date PPE let down the NHS, social care and other frontline staff. The NHS Supply Chain, responsible for procuring and delivering PPE, had itself been privatised and fragmented, meaning profit was prioritised over safety.
Many frontline workers had to work with either no PPE, the wrong PPE or inadequate supplies of PPE. The final toll of deaths is yet to be over.
5 They failed on test and trace
When all community testing and contact tracing was stopped on 12 March, Public Health England had only contacted 3,500 people of whom 125 were confirmed positive. It had fewer than 300 staff to do contact tracing. They needed a workforce of tens of thousands. The NHS and local authorities should have taken control. The government refused. Instead it subcontracted £billions of test and trace contracts to private companies Deloitte, Serco, Sitel and others, who have totally failed to run the service properly.
6 They failed us by choosing ‘Herd Immunity’ over a ‘Zero Covid’ strategy
South Korea has a population of 51 million. As of this week, after rigorously pursuing a ‘Zero-Covid’ plan, it has 52,550 cases of Covid and 739 deaths. In contrast, the UK has a population of 68 million, with a staggering 2,110,314 cases and 68,307 recorded Covid deaths – 80,000 total deaths all-causes since March over the average. This shows it didn't have to be this way in the UK.
Early on the government adopted the ‘herd immunity’ strategy usually applied to vaccines not a killer disease. After public backlash and a quick rebrand, they still have not fully abandoned this. Complacency also led to decisions to send Covid patients home from hospital to care homes without testing and without protection, leaving vulnerable people at great risk.
7 They failed to give us clear and unbiassed messaging and advice
When it suited government, Johnson and Hancock repeated ad nauseam that they were ‘led by the science’, but when advice was politically uncomfortable it was set aside. Dominic Cumming’s well publicised drive to Durham castle to ‘test his eye-sight’ meant that the double standards and outright lies dramatically undermined trust in government advice.
Throughout the crisis the government repeated messages that children were not at risk from Covid and teachers and parents should ‘put the welfare of school children first’ when the reality is that schools become ‘super-spreader environments’ – the result of which has been demoralisation and chaos.
Hancock also claimed to have placed a ‘protective ring round care homes'. Simply not true, leaving 22,000 deaths in care homes, social care staff in tears and many staff dying.
Public confidence in the government has hit rock-bottom this Christmas, with its mistaken message that ‘it was nearly over’ and we would all be able to enjoy a family Christmas – until it was evident that we couldn’t.
8 They failed us on schools
In December, despite a very serious increase in infection being found in secondary schools, the government overruled local authorities and insisted schools stayed open under threat of legal action. Government has disregarded the huge efforts by staff and trade unions to attempt to make schools Covid-secure.
They failed to fund environmental issues such as providing effective ventilation. They let down school students and university students again and again with ultimatums and U-turns over summer exams, September return, Xmas closing and New Year school term. Infection rates rocketed because of these failures.
9 They failed us by awarding contracts to cronies
The government bypassed our public services and awarded contracts worth a staggering £17.3 billion to the private sector for PPE and test and trace services, and apps which have failed to deliver. The government created a ‘high-priority lane’ for companies with political connections, such as links with government officials, ministers’ offices, MPs and members of the House of Lords and senior NHS staff.
Matt Hancock made his intentions clear in Parliament in June: ‘The independent sector has played a critical role in helping us get through the crisis and will play a critical role in future. That has put to bed any lingering, outdated arguments about a split between public and private in healthcare. We could not have got through the crisis without the combined teamwork of the public and private sectors.’
10 They have failed to save lives and the economy
The government’s failures are truly ‘world-beating’. They have even failed on their own terms, which were to keep the tills ringing even if it meant death for consumers and workers. There has been a tragic and unacceptable number of avoidable deaths because of the government’s failings and yet still an unprecedented economic crisis looming in the months and years to come.
The public health impact of the worst economic recession so far of the leading world economies will be severe, with worse to come. We face rising unemployment, disgraceful levels of food poverty (Unicef has stepped in to feed children in England), depression, ill-health and generalised insecurity. The awful truth is, that many more will die before the crisis is over, from both Covid and poverty related conditions.
Johnson should go and take Hancock with him. But we need a political sea-change, to return to public service values, reinvestment in a public NHS and the creation of a national care service. Their failure can no longer go unchallenged.
Tony O’Sullivan and Tom Griffiths