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Boris Johnson escapes criticism while UK pandemic deaths soar

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has avoided criticism from the British media over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic (Screenshot via YouTube)

While President Trump is being excoriated for his disastrous handling of the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S., the British media has largely let Boris Johnson off the hook.

Only now, after revelations at the weekend that Johnson was missing in action for five meetings of the Government’s weekly crisis meetings, has he been criticised.

This is despite the number of daily virus-related deaths in the UK soaring by mid-April to be second only to the USA, according to worldometers.info.

The site was reporting the number of new cases recorded in the UK each day was second only to the USA.

(Graph via Our World in Data)

The UK had a higher death rate per million population than the U.S.

It had the fifth-highest overall death rate in the world for countries with populations greater than 10 million.

Its rate of 237 deaths per million compared with 55 for Germany (which says it has the virus under control), 61 for Iran, 152 for much-criticised Sweden, 0.3 for Taiwan, 0.5 for Hong Kong and three for Australia.

The Johns Hopkins coronavirus site recorded the UK as having the second-highest death rate in the world for confirmed COVID-19 cases.

With more than 16,000 people in the UK killed by the virus, how on Earth did such carnage unfold?

As early as 10 February (according to the official UK Government site) Health Minister Matt Hancock warned:

“…the incidence or transmission of novel coronavirus constituted a serious and imminent threat to public health.”

But still, Johnson could not be bothered taking control of the looming disaster, failing to attend the weekly crisis meetings.

The international crisis had developed to the point where on 2 March, more than 900 Italians were hospitalised with nearly 10% of them in intensive care.

Perhaps it was the dire warning by Professor Paul Cosford from Public Health England on BBC Breakfast that day of the probable widespread transmission of the virus in the UK that sparked the politician charged with leading the country into attending his first crisis meeting.

By then, the situation in the UK had reached such a stage that just ten days later, Johnson called a media briefing at Number Ten to announce his first plan – “a clear plan – to counter the virus.

Chief Scientist Sir Patrick Vallance told the media the plan relied on about 60% of the population – 40 million people – catching the virus in order to create a herd immunity.

MIT Technology Review summed up the plan:

Boris Johnson announced that his country would adopt a different coronavirus strategy from the ones its European neighbours have followed. Most governments have sought to suppress the spread of the virus by reducing mass gatherings, imposing quarantine restrictions, and encouraging social distancing.

 

But Johnson said the country would forgo such measures with an unusual plan to prevent the outbreak from overwhelming the health-care system and protect the most vulnerable groups during peak infection seasons.

Johnson warned at his media conference:

“Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

Just how many would die under Johnson’s plan was explained in the eminent medical journal, The Lancet:

‘With a 0.3–1% mortality, that meant a plan that would accept somewhere between 117,000 and 390,000 deaths. But when the brutal consequences of this strategy became clear, it was quickly ruled impermissible.’

Fortunately, the needless loss of life suffered in World War One, when thousands of lives were sacrificed to try to reach an objective decided upon by grandees, was not going to be repeated — Johnson changed his plan.

He had said on 12 March in announcing his first, clear plan:

“At some point in the next few weeks, we are likely to go further...”

But that plan was ditched just four days later when he announced a new plan:

“...reducing the number of victims, reducing the number of fatalities.”

Foreignpolicy.com reported:

‘Johnson Government admits its strategy of allowing the virus to spread and build up immunity was a failure but stops short of mandatory controls.’

While many foreign media such as the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune had been critical of Johnson’s policies, an internet search for British editorials critical of Johnson failed to find any before the Sunday Times revelations.

This was despite reports from medical sources finding his leadership wanting.

The Lancet reported:

‘The goal changed to saving lives. It is not surprising that one professor of public health informed about the UK's COVID-19 response talked of “serious disarray” in government.’

Epidemiologist Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University, wrote:

We had a choice early on in the UK’s trajectory to go down the South Korean path of mass testing, isolating carriers of the virus (50% of whom are asymptomatic), tracing all contacts to ensure they isolate as well and at the same time taking soft measures to delay the spread. Instead, we watched and waited and whether it was academic navel-gazing, political infighting, a sense of British exceptionalism, or a deliberate choice to minimise economic disruption over saving lives, we have ended up in a position where we are now closer to the Italy scenario than anticipated and are faced with taking more and more drastic measures.

And the British Medical Journal noted wryly:

The change in approach from “contain” to “delay” requires the public to trust those communicating this advice — and in the case of politicians, they don’t, as I noted in The BMJ last week.

 

Political populism has been a highly contagious global virus. There is a rich irony in how poorly that contagious virus prepared us for COVID-19.

More recently, a committee of MPs was warned by Professor Anthony Costello, former Director of the Institute for Global Health at University College London, the harsh reality was that the UK would probably see the highest death rate in Europe because ministers were “too slow” to act.

Johnson’s lack of leadership on COVID-19 is also evident on two other matters.

At a press conference on 3 March when he should have been urging people against personal contact he announced:

“I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know and I continue to shake hands.”

Finally, after an example of stupidity and gross hypocrisy.

On 22 March, the Government issued this guidance for people planning to visit second homes or holiday premises during the coronavirus pandemic:

‘Essential travel does not include visits to second homes… People must remain in their primary residence. Not taking these steps puts additional pressure on communities and services that are already at risk.’

Having recovered from the virus, Johnson then flagrantly ignored the advice issued under his Prime Ministership that he “must remain” in his primary residence by travelling to his second home to recuperate.

Professor Susan Michie, Director of University College London’s centre for behaviour change, said:

“There are many reasons why those in leadership positions, including in government, should practice what they preach.”

You can read more by Steve Bishop at stevebishop.net

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