Have the Government handled the Covid-19 pandemic well?

It’s a difficult question, and the Covid-19 pandemic has been a challenge for governments worldwide. The fact is that, while the government has done well in terms of an initial lockdown, there have been serious failings. It will be interesting to read the review when it’s published.

Firstly, the government, with SAGE’s advice, took the position that they did not want to lockdown too early as people may not accept it. This was obviously an error as thousands of lives could have been saved by locking down a week earlier. Later in the year, the government has again delayed a lockdown, going against the advice of SAGE who called for a short, sharp circuit breaker. I assume that they wanted to prove to their supporters that it was entirely necessary, but, again, it will have led to unnecessary deaths.

Secondly, the track and trace system has been a bit of a disaster. It took a long time to get it up and running, large sums was spent in the beginning hiring personnel who were, then, not used, and people still needed to travel for up to an hour to reach a testing centre.

Now, we are going into a tier system which is again flawed. The government has chosen to use counties as a system to determine which tier levels apply to a county and this has caused issues; particularly for towns which straddle two counties. Hopefully, Tunbridge Wells will be the benefit of more generous funding support should we remain in Tier 3 as we are clearly not in a high-risk area. In fact, there is data to suggest that the rates between East Sussex and Kent in the border town are quite similar.

Further, it seems that the government have, once again, allowed their friends and supporters to profit from PPE contracts to an incredible degree with enormous contracts going to companies hastily set up and at least one an offshore company awarded a contract of £122 million. There are also significant and baffling gaps in government support for people, and the increase in unemployment is likely to see an estimated 1 million people applying for universal credit to survive after the latest lockdown and tier system restrictions end. We haven’t seen people living on allowances like this since the late ’90s.

All in all, I think that this pandemic could have been handled better – a lot better.

* Gillian Douglass is a member of Tunbridge Wells Liberal Democrats

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  • david marder 2nd Dec '20 - 12:49pm

    No they have not handled it well. Bojo gets ratty every time Sir Keir needles him. A shame that our leader is silent at this time of called for leadership.

  • John Marriott 2nd Dec '20 - 1:34pm

    Has the government handled the pandemic well? Who really knows? What it does expose is how many incompetent people still seem capable of climbing the greasy pole. We used to laugh at ‘failing Grayling’, whose performances in different rôles used to be the benchmark in this particular competition. Now I ‘m not so sure whether we now need to recalibrate our judgements.

    Rather than assessing how we or other nations performed, I would rather get to the bottom of how we got to this place. Let’s start with the reaction to ‘pneumonia like symptoms’ in Wuhan Province around a year ago and whether a Chinese cover up actually did take place. Also, have they reopened those ‘wet markets’? If so, don’t we ever learn lessons?

  • Ultimately those countries that sought to stop transmission with hard initial restrictions have now been more or less back to normal for months, and have enjoyed more freedom, a stronger economy and better mental health as a result.

    The UK (and some others) sought always to balance the health question against the economy, freedom, etc, and as a result scored worse on all counts.

    Mill’s harm principle is clear that restrictions to prevent harm to others are acceptable, and there is no need to feel conflicted about restrictions, especially when they lead more freedom in the long run.

    We are probably too late to usefully change tack now, and we are likely to be riding a wave of very high rates of infection and death until the vaccines have effect.

  • Helen Dudden 2nd Dec '20 - 2:59pm

    My concerns with a vaccine, is how often does it need to be given? Side effects not understood at present. How will it protect, or stop transmission?
    The many lost businesses, I find that heart breaking.
    The figures of those who died at home, not necessarily from Covid.
    The testing by one of the so called tests, called into question in Portugal.
    I’ve read online of the heavy fines and attitude of law enforcement.
    The attitude of Johnson, Hancock and Gove, I will most certainly not vote for them in the future. Single minded without question.
    Sadly, the mental health of both children and adults. It’s a broken society that has been the price paid for so many wrongs.
    The attitude, things will return to normal with a vaccine, far from the truth.

  • John Marriott 2nd Dec '20 - 4:09pm

    @Joe Otten
    Those countries “ that sought to stop transmission by hard initial measures” now “ back to normal”? Really? China perhaps; but that’s another story. Italy and Spain back to normal? Even the wonderful Germany’s new cases are currently on a par with ours.

    The fact is that, yes, we might have been a bit late in damping down the first curve to give the NHS some breathing space (no pun intended). However, the damn thing is not a competition. Nobody, except again perhaps China, Taiwan and possibly Singapore (New Zealand has other advantages, perhaps), has made mistakes; but most of us are appearing to have learned something from them. Just as aircraft development benefitted greatly from two world wars, so vaccine development appears to have benefitted in a rather obtuse way from this particular and very different ‘war’. I’m now just awaiting my jabs, if our local GP surgery can ever get its act together.

  • “Have the Government handled the Covid-19 pandemic well ?” Depends which government you mean, Gillian.

    If you live in Tunbridge Wells the answer will be awful and incoherent – with ‘world beating’ test and trace and other expensive contracts dished out to Tory chums.

    If you live where I live, Scotland, the answer is on the whole pretty well with some articulate and dedicated leadership from our First Minister…as my friend John Marriott will confirm.

    Ms Sturgeon was blindsided in the early days by the care home situation, especially those created via the Griffiths Report (i.e. privatised) in Thatcher’s days…. but big lessons have been learned. I expect the care system structure to be reviewed (something I don’t expect to happen in England).

  • @ John Marriott Your “local GP surgery” is a semi-privatised commercial business, John, (probably with Virgin lurking somewhere in the background). It was set up by the Coalition Government via the Lansley Health and Social Care Act 2012.

    I believe Councillor Otten’s old M.P. had something to do with it despite many protests at the Lib Dem Conference in Gateshead.

  • David, GP surgeries were never nationalised. They have always been private businesses. There have been a handful of publicly owned ones over the years for one reason or another but it has never been a general policy.

  • British officials authorized a COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use on Wednesday, green-lighting the world’s first shot against the virus that’s backed by rigorous science and taking a major step toward eventually ending the pandemic.

    The go-ahead for the vaccine developed by American drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech comes as the virus surges again in the United States and Europe, putting pressure on hospitals and morgues in some places and forcing new rounds of restrictions that have devastated economies.


  • John Marriott 2nd Dec '20 - 8:14pm

    Interesting No 10 briefing this afternoon. The highlight for me was a sort of clash between Jonathan Van-Tam and Boris Johnson. Van-Tam more or less said that COVID would always be with us so, get used it it. Johnson let slip that, with the vaccines on stream, life as we knew it, would more or less return. Oh no it won’t, people. Better get used to it!

  • Tony Greaves 2nd Dec '20 - 9:23pm

    Not a difficult question at all. From the perspectives of (1) local in East Lancashire (where we have been under the top restrictions for six of the past 8 months and continuously for the past five) and (2) Westminster they have been utterly incompetent. Dangerously shambolic. And there are no signs it is getting better. Whether they can handle a mass testing and a mass vaccination at the same time remains to be seen. But I can’t think we can be optimistic.

  • Peter Chambers 2nd Dec '20 - 9:31pm

    The task of government was to lead in a national effort against the virus.
    Instead management of internal differences in the Tory Party have consumed our national politics. This has led a band of incompetents to attempt to manage “trade offs”.
    This leads to a sub-optimal outcome in almost all cases.
    So the government has adopted and held to a strategy that will mean they will do badly.
    They did this for their own reasons and the situation will persist until their hands are removed from the levers of power. Do we have a plan to do this?

  • @John Marriott – “an-Tam more or less said that COVID would always be with us so, get used it it. Johnson let slip that, with the vaccines on stream, life as we knew it, would more or less return. Oh no it won’t, people. Better get used to it!”

    And both are right!
    With the vaccines, CoViD-19 could become like Measles, Mumps, Rubella, etc. – Present but not at the levels we experienced before the development of vaccines. However, given the mutation seen in Denmark, the pharmaceutical companies will be kept busy, just as they are with flu, developing vaccines for the new variants.
    So life will return to some form of normal, however, I doubt people will be so willing to crush themselves into mass transit systems, or go to ski resorts, namely expose themselves to the key vectors that facilitated the rapid spread of Sars-cov-2 worldwide and across the UK.

  • John Marriott 3rd Dec '20 - 10:06am

    The point I was making was that Dr Van-Tam was being a realist, whereas the Prime Minister was being true to form in not being willing to face a reality that has been dawning on some of us for some time. The difference between ‘Britain Trump’ and the real thing would probably have been that, had Dr Van-Tam been working for the latter, he would have probably received his marching orders by now!

  • @ Joe Otten Joe, I said, ” a semi-privatised commercial business”, Joe.

    As Nye Bevan once said, ““I stuffed their mouths with gold””. What your departed M.P. supported was the extension of the earlier Alan Milburn changes through to Virgin et al.

    Branson Virgin Care has won almost £2bn worth of contracts since 2010, and at least one commissioning group is spending more than 20% of its budget with them.
    To quote the Virgin web site :

    “Primary Care – Virgin Carevirgincare.co.uk › … Primary Care › Specialist Services
    Primary care includes GP practices, GP out of hours services, walk-in centres, urgent care centres (UCCs) and minor injury units (MIUs). To make an appointment at most of our GP practices you have to register with us”.

  • George Thomas 3rd Dec '20 - 12:18pm

    In my opinion, each government within the UK responsible for health measures has done well and badly in different ways with overall picture not yet fully clear.

    What I think we can say is that initially, the UK government (representing England) and devolved nations agreed to work together which saw a later than necessary lockdown and ill people be moved into care homes. These are probably the biggest mistakes made throughout the full year.

    Since then, Scotland has generally aimed to act hard and early at all times, Wales has sought to be as cautious as possible but with strong communication, Northern Ireland has had to partner more closely with Ireland than any other and England….England probably has done most to support businesses but is likely to be judged as communicating poorly, arguably favouring business health over public health (while still seeing massive hit to the economy – a consequence of supporting their mates’ business rather than genuine contenders?), using it to further the Tory war on devolution/alternative voices, and ultimately their investment into vaccine development playing a huge role in getting the UK out of the mess. Final conclusions will have to wait a little bit longer though.

  • Robin Bennett 3rd Dec '20 - 12:28pm

    @ John Marriott 2nd Dec ’20 – 4:09pm
    Those countries “ that sought to stop transmission by hard initial measures” now “ back to normal”? Really?

    Covid-19 deaths per million to date: Taiwan 0.3, South Korea 10, Hong Kong 15 Singapore 5, UK 877. Public health authorities in Taiwan learned about the virus from the monitoring of electronic communications on the mainland as early as 31 December, and had the experience of SARS and MERS behind them. Our public health people knew, or ought to have known, what urgent steps Taiwan and other SE Asian countries took, and acted on them. Masks from the start, for example. And the successful countries did not have to be authoritarian like China – Taiwan and South Korea are now comfortable democracies.

    Devi Sridar, Professor of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University, predicted such a pandemic two years ago at the Hay Book Festival but she was not on SAGE. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/video/coronavirus/video-2135258/Video-Health-expert-predicts-global-spread-Chinese-virus-2018.html

  • Peter Hirst 3rd Dec '20 - 4:50pm

    The government has failed miserably and that was to be expected. It does not value subsidiarity or devolution of powers to those who know their locality best, essential for enabling test and trace and understanding local services capacity. The do not believe in transparency that is essential to developing trust between government and the electorate. They do not value trust that is essential for public health measures to work without draconian restrictions on civil liberties.

  • Steve Trevethan 3rd Dec '20 - 6:28pm

    Alas, H.M.G. was culpably ill-prepared for Covid.
    The conclusions from “Operation Cygnus” proves this.
    Even worse, H.M.G. knew from “Operation Cygnus” that the were ill-prepared. They even knew the detail of their deficiencies.
    This deficiency was catastrophically compounded by the deliberate delay in releasing its vital information
    “Operation Cygnus” was undertaken in October 2016 and it was released to the public in October 2020.

  • Nigel Quinton 3rd Dec '20 - 10:47pm

    I find it shocking that we are even asking this question. This government has presided over a colossal failure of leadership and sound policy making that has cost thousands of lives, and untold damage to the UK economy.

    The lack of preparedness, the failure to take action following Operation Cygnus, is directly linked to the total focus on Brexit at the expense of other policy action. In February Johnson was either absent or asleep at the wheel, see https://timeline-of-failure.com/ and it is simply not true that SAGE advice was to delay lockdown, they called for it two weeks before Johnson finally pressed the button.

    There was a failure to secure supplies of PPE, of ventilators, and crucially of testing capacity, despite clear advice from WHO to TEST TEST TEST. Having got the virus under some sort of control after lockdown 1 they then failed to adopt a ZeroCovid strategy, or to develop a functioning Test Trace isolate system. Worse still they gave away hundreds of millions of pounds in contract awards to Tory friends and family, many with no track record and without publishing any details, breaking the law as is now being exposed by Good Law Project et al. They failed to predict that if universities and schools reopened then community transmission would increase and we are now in a second wave that is just about being controlled but still causing 500 deaths a day. They still fail to provide adequate support to those being asked to self isolate or to businesses forced to close. Then there are the forgotten 3 million. And schools. And failure to work with local government. And….

    What more evidence of failure do you need?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 3rd Dec '20 - 11:23pm

    The answer, no, but had other parties run it would they be different?!!!!!!

    I agree with everything in this piece.

    I agree with everything said here from Jo Otten.

    All the countries that locked down, a silly description, or, in fact, closed down, with support of their people, in other words, not locked at all, succeeded better.

    We or those libertarian, complainers, in other words, those not anything like me and Jo, and others who believed , like Mark Pack brilliantly said, all we initially were told was to make the great effort of watching DVds at home and for two months!

    If the country had closed all borders for months accept for emergencies. all pubs, all bars, all gatherings more than two households, and kept to that for months, this would have been a solution. All those who have complained, fine, do it, but do not, please quote Mill or any Liberal of old, it was lloyd george who gave us conscrtiption. Far more stringent than closing the Pub!

  • “it was lloyd george who gave us conscrtiption.”

    Oh no it wasn’t. The PM at the time of the Military Service Act, 1916 was Herbert Asquith.

    Lloyd George closed some of the pubs

  • Lorenzo Cherin 4th Dec '20 - 2:24am


    An even more liberal Liberal then, so my thanks for illustrating the point even more!

  • David Garlick 4th Dec '20 - 12:56pm

    Not sure if it has been said previously but ‘celebrations in a brewery’ comes to mind.

    Failure to ask us to wear facecoverings from the start, ill prepared on PPE, Care homes and frontline workers without PPE, hospitals dischrging without testing, lockdowns introduce too late, night time economy freedoms. No doubt others I could think of.
    Oh I forgot the “Worldclass Test and Trace System”. When will that be in place?

  • @ Joe Otten

    “Mill’s harm principle is clear that restrictions to prevent harm to others are acceptable”

    I think you have misinterpreted Mill and it is not the first time I’ve seen someone do this.

    What Mill was arguing was that the *only* grounds for restrictions on freedom were to prevent harm to others. He was opposing the regulation of harmless immorality or telling people what is in their best interests. He was not saying that the risk of harm automatically means that restrictions on freedom are justified.

    In other words the risk of harm to others is a necessary condition for the state to intervene but not a sufficient one. Mill’s harm principle is only relevant to the Covid response in the sense that interventions to protect people from themselves are not justified (by Mill’s reasoning).

    If you are evaluating the impact of lockdowns perhaps Hippocrates do no harm principle would be more useful.

  • James Fowler 7th Dec '20 - 12:38pm

    Well, this is the million dollar question, but to answer it you have to agree a lot of contextual measures of comparison. The biggest mistake people make is failing to compare like with like.

    As I see it, Britain is a capitalist democracy with an aging population of ca. 65 million. It is a relatively unequal society but has a well developed health service. It sits at the focal point of international travel in western Europe but has no experience of dealing with major epidemics in living memory. Other (somewhat) similar countries include France, Italy, Spain, Germany and perhaps Poland. Of these, only Germany and Poland have had appreciably ‘better’ experiences – so far.

    The principle British mistake has been a failure to be consistent. This is connected with the failure to accept that the virus is a long term problem which needs sustainable, proportionate, equitable measures. Instead we’ve had a cycle of foolish denial, followed by hysterical over-reaction, followed by relaxation, followed by more damaging over-reaction. The narrative of ‘lockdown’ and ‘circuit break’ and ‘safe R number’ has been wrong from the start. There is no closure on this issue. The virus (or others) will always be here and we have to learn to live with it.

    Britain, like several other elderly western democracies, has suffered heavily on round one. But that really was just round one. The virus follows the weather/seasons. Last spring it hit western Europe hard and then moved through the eastern seaboard of North America. It then hammered South America in June and July and has now returned in force to Western Europe, North America – and now Eastern Europe too, which avoided much of the first wave.

    I’ve not been that impressed with the government – and especially not with the monomania of their medical experts. But the critics haven’t been much better – the ‘harder-sooner’ argument is akin to the ‘birch them, hang them’ short-sharp-shock school of tougher sentences to ‘solve’ the epidemic of crime. Self-righteous sermons valourising lockdown from noticeably well upholstered and secure middle class pulpits have been especially obnoxious. That some peoples’ baking and birdsong were going to be other peoples’ dole and despair was obvious from the start. There’s a gradually growing consciousness of the hideous social damage lockdown is causing, but a more balanced view of events is coming very late in the day – sadly.

  • James Fowler – yes quite right, the liberal approach is generally to resist the hardline safety first approach to crime, defence, security etc of Blair, May et al that would justify any draconian action if it saved a single life and instead argue for keeping to our values and thinking about unintended consequence. We seem to have abandoned that principle.

    Has the government handled it well? No, but not the reasons generally put forward. They should have imposed lighter touch restrictions plus extra protection for the most vulnerable that could be understood and sustained over a 12-18 month period instead of chopping and changing all the time. They keep losing their nerve in the face of dubious advice and opposition pressure.

    Maybe the real question is would the opposition have handled it better? The answer is surely no. The main error being to try to hold the government to account for the death toll, even though comparisons between countries are difficult and there are factors largely beyond the government’s control. Secondly, arguing that track and trace is the answer to everything rather than an extraordinary difficult task for a respiratory virus that usually leads to mild symptoms is immature politics as is the notion that Covid could be eradicated completely.

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