Coronavirus: Britain overtakes China

Britain has now overtaken China in respect of the number of deaths from coronavirus and yet unlike China and South Korea we had three months to prepare.

China and South Korea went into immediate “lock down” with widespread public testing, tracing and isolating contacts and the wide use of Personal Protection Equipment and, in particular, masks. In consequence China has all but stopped the spread of the virus with 3,322 deaths or just 2 per million population. The death rate in South Korea has also slowed with just 174 deaths or 3 per million population. In Britain deaths are still rising with 3,605 so far or 53 per million population.

Despite the World Health Organisation’s warnings testing is still way behind as is the provision of PPE.

On 22nd March the Sunday Times published an article entitled “Ten days that shook Britain – and changed the nation for ever” which revealed that Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s senior aide, had become convinced that Britain would be better able to resist a lethal second wave of the disease next winter if Whitty’s prediction that 60% to 80% of the population became infected was right and the UK developed “herd immunity”. At a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings outlined the Government strategy. Those present say it was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.

However at the Sage meeting on March 12, a moment now dubbed the “Domoscene Conversion”, Cummings changed his mind in the “penny drop moment” when he realised he had helped set a course for catastrophe with between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths predicted. From then on Britain was playing catch up.

Listening to Matt Hancock on Thursday’s Question Time one could be forgiven for thinking the Government had still not ditched the concept of “herd immunity” altogether as he referred to “passports” and “certificates” to enable people to get back to work. He himself was back in circulation just short of seven days after testing positive when the World Health Organisation recommends a minimum of 14 days.

Yvette Cooper tried her best to draw Matt Hancock as to the Government’s future strategy and the concept of “herd immunity”, without going over old ground, and also expressed concern that carers were going from house to house without PPE (masks, goggles, gloves, gowns etc) and could be spreading the virus amongst the most vulnerable people in society who were dependent upon their care.

The Government appears to have paid too little attention during this pandemic to the wider population, to home food deliveries or the protection of people working in the Super Markets, food chain, gas, electricity, water and refuse collection on whom we all depend. And has so far failed to even adequately protect those in the NHS!

Dominic Cummings has long expressed concern at the economic consequences of an aging population and the high cost of pensions across Europe without realising that to increase them in Britain in line with Europe would reduce expenditure on the NHS and improve the quality of life.

Dominic Cummings has to find savings somewhere in order to cope with the economic reality of Brexit  in January and is clearly an opportunist. However any civilisation can be judged by how it looks after the older and disadvantaged members of society. Older people have paid National Insurance throughout their lives and continue to contribute to society as a whole in a variety of ways.

Advising people not to go to pubs and restaurants as the Government did initially, rather than closing them, could be seen as a way of protecting the high finance of the insurance companies at the expense of small businesses. They could not claim on their insurance if business fell off but could if they were closed through no fault of their own.

Of course we need to help the NHS to cope, that goes without saying, but the Government must stop this ambiguity and mixed messages, rigorously impose social distancing and the use of PPE and stop talking about “slowing the spread” and start talking about STOPPING the spread. And continue to invest in developing a vaccine.

* Chris Perry is a former Director of Social Services of South Glamorgan County Council, a former Non-Executive Director of Winchester & Eastleigh Healthcare NHS Trust and a former Director of Age Concern Hampshire.

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28 Comments

  • Phil Beesley 4th Apr '20 - 3:52pm

    This is a welcome opposition piece. Lib Dems ought to be challenging government about their competence. Everyone with a political pulse knew that Johnson appointed cronies as ministers after the December 2019 general election. It is valid to challenge their actions and inactions.

    Chris Perry: “Advising people not to go to pubs and restaurants as the Government did initially, rather than closing them…” I sort of agree, but government had to announce a series… of drawn out… steps… in which people reduced socialisation before closing time. The sort of thing that pub landlords do by putting towels over the beer pumps and turning down the jukebox.

  • I am far from one to defend this government.

    But… !!!

    This article does smack to me of too many conspiracy theories piled on top of one another.

    Clearly with 20/20 hindsight the lockdown should have happened earlier. This is mainly due to the exponential nature of the growth. Stop one infection and you stop many down the road.

    There are a number of aspects that make very early lockdown difficult:

    1. People will say no-one is dying. Why are we doing this?

    2. There’s the civil liberties aspect. And indeed many here have been critical of the government over that

    3. To destroy the economy even temporarily has long term effects and is a difficult decision to take!

    4. In Western liberal democracies you need people to agree with the government to some extent and I am not sure they would have much earlier.

    5. To govern is to choose. A university of Bristol research paper shows the economic recession caused even if it’s short will cause many more deaths than coronavirus, even if that’s high (and let’s hope it isn’t) over the longer term. Of course it’s likely that if there’s a big pile of corpses in the corner as Bill Gates commented in a ted daily talks podcast conversation (well worth subscribing BTW) then economic activity will not be high!

    We regularly tolerate seasonal flu epidemics that kill 28,000. I am not saying that’s right, I am just saying an early lockdown difficult ias you are deciding who statistically you will sadly kill. (And of course the big spike caused by coronavirus is another reason to control it)

    South Korea is often cited but it had the SARS experience and as well as being somewhat more authoritarian had already had had the national conversation on the authorities being allowed to use mobile phone and bank records to track down infections etc.

  • Edwin Poultney 4th Apr '20 - 4:58pm

    Probably too late to suggest PPE especially masks as Donald Trump has just declared war on his Nato partners by telling 3M to restrict deliveries of their masks to within the US using legislation last used during the Korean war. This leaves countries without their own PPE factories struggling to find replacement suppliers worldwide for their own healthcare workers. How this edict will go down in other countries with 3M Factories remains to be seen as they object to supplies being diverted to the US when their own healthcare workers may be competing for urgent supplies.

  • I’m also not eager to defend the Government, and they’ve definitely made a number of mistakes, but I agree with Michael that effective earlier action isn’t as easy as simply telling people to stay indoors sooner for reasons he’s already given.

    I also question the idea that China have been honest about their death rates, and very much challenge the idea that they went into an immediate lock-down. Don’t forget the doctor who initially raised the alarm was dismissed as a crank and ignored for some time. It is also likely that China may have been dishonest about the impacts on different age groups, although the apparent differences could, in theory at least, be due to a number of environmental factors.

    I think it’s right and good that we challenge what the government did, but we have to do it from a place of honesty, and be realistic about what could have been achieved and the reaction of the public if we’d done something differently. And we need to be especially alert to the fact that this is far from over yet for China or South Korea.

    As the news keeps reminding us, this lock down relies on people to do the right thing. It’s impossible to fully police, nor do we want that to be the case. Clearer guidance and instruction earlier would have helped, but there would always be large chunks of the population who resist any perceived threat to their right to have fun. Even if it wasn’t done exactly right, and communication was often poor, the theory of winding things down in phases to help the public prepare physically and emotionally for full lock-down was valid.

  • Chris Perry 4th Apr '20 - 5:11pm

    Michael1. It was not my intention to imply any conspiracy but to try to understand errors of judgement. My main concern is that the government should aim to “STOP” rather than “slow” the spread whilst protecting the NHS and working to develop a vaccine. China is able to send us respirators

  • @Edwin – the fiasco of the American system (if you can call it that) for each state or care providers to order their own PPE, often competing with each other in bidding wars with the very same suppliers is another reminder of the advantage of having an NHS which is national, with national procurement and distribution policies. Granted, we are having problems with procurement and supply, but it would be way worse if each region or hospital trust were left to bid against each other.

    But it also reminds us why we should have been involved in that EU procurement scheme for ventilators, and the problems that are being faced by facilities such as care homes that seem to be left to their own devices more than we’d like.

  • Richard Underhill. 4th Apr '20 - 5:50pm

    Michael 1 4th Apr ’20 – 4:18pm
    When Bill Gates was running Microsoft he had a policy that bad news travels fast. He had sound business reasons for that, such as the action/s of a competitor. Details are in his book ‘Business at the Speed of Thought’ (using a digital nervous system.)
    ISBN 0-14-028311-0 Hardback 456 pages.
    Imagine that all the important numbers in a business were increasing exponentially at the same time and influencing each other. Imagine that you had to announce this at a staff party “The Revenue Bomb.”

  • John Marriott 4th Apr '20 - 6:25pm

    I wondered how long it would take for the criticism of the government’s actions to surface. As they say, we are where we are. You can’t turn back the clock. Quite frankly nobody has a definitive answer. The ONLY solution to this crisis is to find an effective vaccine sooner rather than later.

    In the meantime, social media is full of conspiracy theories. Here’s one that one of my sons told me about yesterday. The Queen is broadcasting to the nation tomorrow to inform us that the Duke of Edinburgh has passed away. Oh yes? Personally I am concentrating on doing as I have been told. In any case, if the restrictions are lifted in a month or so, it’s quite likely that Covid-19 will continue to plague us, as will undoubtedly Brexit. “What’s Brexit?” I hear you ask.

  • @John Marriott

    There does have to be an element of criticising the government John in order to make sure that mistakes are learnt from, especially since we know this virus and others are going to raise their ugly head again in the not too distant future.

    One of the main lessons that are going to have to be learnt and accepted by all (though I know difficult in some quarters) is that there is a trade-off between protecting the economy and surrendering some civil liberties and freedoms (albeit temporarily) in order to track, trace and isolate this and other viruses that are a danger to our way of life and prosperity.
    Boris does seem to me to be a pretty Liberal guy and some of the measures that were bought in clearly sat uncomfortably with him. However, Surveillance track and trace is going to play a huge part of us getting out of lockdown and hopefully returning to a normal kind of life as possible, but we should be in no doubt that things are going to have to change in the future, to protect all our futures and it is a conversation that we should probably be starting to have now as I know so many people are going to be dead against it

  • David Allen 4th Apr '20 - 7:44pm

    “Clearly with 20/20 hindsight the lockdown should have happened earlier. …There are a number of aspects that make very early lockdown difficult: 1. People will say no-one is dying. Why are we doing this?…”

    It would really be nice, once in a while, if people who got things wrong would just frankly own up and say sorry. Yes, it was a hard decision. Yes, everybody makes a mixture of good and bad judgments. However, it was a bad decision.

    Thousands will die because the Government, supported by many on this site, resisted taking effective action for far too long. Many of the posters on this site who argued for inaction expressed their disdain for those who took an opposite view. Those who cannot learn from their mistakes are condemned to repeat them.

  • Simon McGrath 4th Apr '20 - 7:53pm

    We have no idea how many people have actually died in China.

    If their is evidence the Govt ignored the scientific and medical advice they were given we should be very critical but i don’t think LDV should publish conspiracy theories like this. Even on the most basic level of self interst a few nano seconds thought will show that the govt is unlikely to want to kill off their own supporters

  • David Evershed 4th Apr '20 - 8:04pm

    We are told that local authorities in China are now incentivised to have zero cases of coronavirus. How many cases would you expect the local authorities to report?

  • David Allen 4th Apr '20 - 8:28pm

    I don’t think it is fair to talk about “conspiracy theories”. Nobody is claiming that the Government conspired to “kill off their own supporters”. The charge against the Government is lack of competence, laziness, and a poor judgment of priorities.

  • Is Chris Perry the last person standing to believe the Chinese numbers which from a multitude of sources have been confirmed as fake.

    Has Chris forgotten the Chinese behaviour at the start of SARS?

  • Phil Beesley 4th Apr '20 - 8:40pm

    Simon McGrath: “We have no idea how many people have actually died in China.

    If their is evidence the Govt ignored the scientific and medical advice they were given we should be very critical but i don’t think LDV should publish conspiracy theories like this.”

    Deaths in China? Well done to UK gov for spotting that an enemy for 70+ years might be fibbing.

    Conspiracy theories? Scientific journals and economic reporters published reports about a new virus at the start of the calendar year. UK government had weeks to prepare but it treated an infection already present around us as if it was a meteorite — ‘that was close, but thank goodness it missed us’. But it didn’t miss us and it has been travelling by boat and plane all over the place.

    It is not a conspiracy theory to question how UK government failed to act on evidence (Economist, New Scientist) available at newsagents.

  • Chris Perry

    ‘testing is way behind as is the provision of PPE’

    Can you tell us which country or countries in Europe has adequate supplies of PPE?

    Would be interested to hear since my wife’s niece who is working on the front line in Toulon & has phoned us asking if we can send some from the UK ,they have had shortages of masks for the last three weeks. You will have no doubt read the reports yesterday of Macron blocking the exports of masks from the Molnlyke plant in France to Spain & Italy.

    Germany is re-sterilising single use masks.

    Friends in Greece told us that hospitals in Athens have no masks, gloves or disinfectant.

    In terms of testing the UK has now reached 10,000 which France also achieved yesterday.

  • @Chris Perry
    Thanks for your response.

    “Michael1. It was not my intention to imply any conspiracy”

    Um… You talk about the Government “protecting high finance” that sounds a little like a conspiracy theory to me. May be they were… May be they weren’t. In general I’d suggest that it falls down a tad on motivation in that “high finance” and big business tend to have bigger pockets than smaller businesses and if anything they would want a longer and earlier lockdown as it tends to affect smaller businesses with smaller pockets harder and there’s more for the big boys later.

    Again you repeat the line about Cummings being blasé about older people dying. Again a liile bit of the conspiracy theory I’d venture! He might or might not be. It stems from a Sunday Times article which he denied and which was gushing about the Chancellor and the Treasury so clearly sourced from them. And we know that the Treasury are not exactly best friends with Cummings. So probably overblown.

    But it also falls down on motivation for the Tories as a whole. We know that they get their electoral support from older people. And indeed they have chosen the policy option as I point out that statistically keeps them alive and statistically kills younger people (which if I was a conspiracy theorist, I would have pointed out they would because it benefits then electorally). It is the policy though to be clear I think is the right one as I point out and I don’t want anyone to die but to govern is to choose.

    On slowing rather than stopping, I’d venture that you slightly misunderstand. To stop a car you need to brake and slow it first. Indeed if you press down on the gas pedal with weights that in turn cause more weight to put on, it goes faster faster. Exponential growth is really difficult to get.your head round. So first you have to get going faster less fast! But if the replication rate is below 1, it will and then slow and then stop. And there’s some reason to think the replication rate is below 1. There is the question of whether you wait until no new domestic cases. Perhaps but if the number is low, you might be want to ease restrictions but so that the rate is still below 1. How they end things is a major issue for the government and we will see and judge them then.

    My understanding is that the Government is among the biggest funders of a vaccine globally and there are NHS trials on drugs that might help

  • The EU scheme for ventilator procurement won’t work till too late – because the european and other countries that produce them have made it illegal to export them till their governments are sure they’ll have enough for themselves.

    Why would manufacturing countries in (e.g. central and eastern Europe) let their health systems be outbid by richer post-manufacturing countries?

    The real lesson from this should be to support on-shoring of manufacturing of strategic supplies.

    Regarding certifying recovered people. It seems pretty sensible that people who are now immune should be in the front-line if they are not at risk of being infected themselves and (assuming proper hygiene) spreading it to other people.

  • David Allen 4th Apr '20 - 11:27pm

    Michael-1: “Again you repeat the line about Cummings being blasé about older people dying. Again a little bit of the conspiracy theory I’d venture! …. It stems from a Sunday Times article which he denied and which was gushing about the Chancellor and the Treasury so clearly sourced from them. And we know that the Treasury are not exactly best friends with Cummings.”

    So let’s get this straight. The Sunday Times article was nice to the Chancellor and the Treasury. Ergo, it must have been written by the Chancellor and the Treasury. Ergo, it must have been a planted article, designed by the Chancellor and the Treasury to do down their enemy Cummings.

    And you dare to call other people conspiracy theorists!

  • Edwin Poultney 5th Apr '20 - 12:12am

    I do not understand all the comments regarding data from China being fake it is probably no more fake than the UK data which almost entirely depends on hospital admissions and tests and deaths registered at a hospital. The data from China is similar to that from South Korea that did far more early testing and control of spread. China very much learnt a lesson from SARS and was very much more open as it was fighting the Coronavirus and introducing a strict lockdown in Wuhan. Western Governments chose to ignore the advance warning for too long with little or no control of world travel for many weeks after cases had spread around the world. I personally am far more concerned at the US deliberately trying to “outbid” its allies for medical equipment, PPE, drugs and possible vaccines for exclusive use in the US i.e. America First in both trade and lives!!!

  • Richard S

    ‘The EU scheme for ventilator procurement won’t work till to late’

    Spot on.

    The EU tender needed to have been completed in early February at the latest, not a week ago & stating that large block purchases in this environment will ensure the lowest price is really naïve. I suppose the exercise was purely for PR purposes to meet the mounting criticism of inertia.

    Praise where praise is due, at least the government realised this was a non starter & hopefully the various new UK manufacturers McLaren, G-Tech et al will deliver along with the three existing UK manufacturers.

  • Michael 1 – ” A university of Bristol research paper shows the economic recession caused even if it’s short will cause many more deaths than coronavirus, even if that’s high (and let’s hope it isn’t) over the longer term. Of course it’s likely that if there’s a big pile of corpses in the corner as Bill Gates commented in a ted daily talks podcast conversation (well worth subscribing BTW) then economic activity will not be high” – as long as the figure you mention does not reach 250000 or 500000, then the case is still closed.

    “There are a number of aspects that make very early lockdown difficult” – a lockdown of a locality/neighbourhood or even a building in 1st March can be as effective as a city-wide lockdown 2-3 weeks later. On top of that, there are many things the government could have done:
    – Imposing mandatory quarantine on all international arrivals (for example, first from China, and then from Korea, Iran, Italy…Taiwan, Australia and NZ have been doing so very early), can be done as early as late-January. As for so-called liberal values, Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada also shut all nearly incoming international travelings by mid-March.
    – Stockpiling PPE, medical supplies, masks, test kits. Can be done from early February.
    – Test, test and test. 10000 per day should have been achieved 2-3 weeks ago. We are lagging far behind Canada and Australia and many other European countries in testing. France is also considered a laggard in testing. Even the US has surpassed us despite having bungled testing several weeks ago.
    – Rapid tracing and isolating via mobile phones and credit cards.
    – Closing schools (South Korea did immediately after a large outbreak occurred).
    – Ban gatherings of 250 people or more. Can be done before 1st March.

    Had we done so, restaurants and most non-essential businesses would have remained open by now. In South Korea, schools are closed but restaurants and other non-essential businesses remain open, I am not joking.

  • For now, lockdown must be remained until the curve is actually bended and new cases/deaths actuall fall. And then, we can gradually and slowly loosen restrictions, but it must be done slowly, and after that mandatory quarantine on all international travels must remain in place. About a hypothetical second wave, mass testing, rapid tracing and isolating are enough to do the job. No need for a second lockdown. Unlike in 1918, we can mass test people in 2020.

  • The Government made voluntary compliance with stay at home and social distancing more difficult to achieve by sending extremely mixed messages itself e.g. with the PM virtually boasting about shaking hands with Coronavirus patients only a few weeks ago.

    As for 20:20 hindsight, as a country we were gifted a valuable extra couple of weeks warning compared to some others, and we wasted them.

    I don’t know about Cummings based conspiracies and herd immunity strategies, but only a truly incompetent and callous Government could have failed to properly consider the effect, right at the very beginning, of hospitals being overwhelmed and staff absence or death due to lack of correct PPE.

    Even now, Government ministers obfuscate facts, and change and delay targets, in a way that clearly indicates they don’t have a grip on the situation.

  • Jenny Barnes 5th Apr '20 - 9:17am

    Conspiracy theories? You don’t need them, just look at the class interests of the government.
    Item: No UBI , which would have been much simpler than the “Universal (dis)Credit”/ loans/ 80% furlough/ whatever schemes they have come up with.

    We can trash the economy for C19, but not to stop climate change?

    Thay used to talk about George W Bush being corrupted by the oil industry…No, he was an ex-oilman, and came from Texas, so he just naturally thought that way.

  • We don’t really know what is happening in China. This is because China is a single party state that is mainly concerned with protecting that single party. It is also not a developed country with good public hygiene standards. The CCP’s first instinct was to cover the outbreak up, rather worrying about the spread of the virus. It locks-down religious minorities and possible opponents as a matter of course. Its lockdown is not just about containing the disease. It is also about containing the spread of news. People who praise the actions of China remind me of the people who used to praise the “strength” of the Soviet Union. They ignore who is running the country and what their priorities are. The CCP is worried about China loosing its status as the worlds factory, grip on power at home and its image on the world stage. Take anything official the CCP releases with a pinch of salt. It’s effectively a dictatorship and not to be trusted.

  • Sue Sutherland 5th Apr '20 - 2:14pm

    Nick Baird is correct about the lack of preparedness by the Government. There have been regular reports into the handling of pandemics, the latest being in 2016 I think. It was decided not to stock pile protective equipment for NHS staff on the grounds of cost.
    I think it’s perfectly acceptable to criticise the government for failing to adequately protect those coming into regular or close contact with those infected by the Corona virus. It is right for us to do so because that may force the government to change its mind. These are facts not rumour and I agree it’s vital in a time when people want to believe in the government to stick to factual criticism. The government failed to respond quickly enough to the shortfall of PPE and to the lack of equipment needed for patients.
    It has been very muddled in its announcements of the numbers of people with the virus and the numbers of deaths. I have no idea whether this is because it’s not on top of the situation or because it wishes to obfuscate but it still seems to be a valid criticism to me.

  • Peter Hirst 5th Apr '20 - 5:50pm

    Until we know what proportion of various populations have been infected and thus have immunity it will not be easy for life and the economy to return to normal. Ideally, everyone should know their immune status with repeat testing for those testing negative. I suspect we will find that a higher proportion than expected have immunity when we develop sufficiently sensitive tests.

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