NEWS
05/11/2020 10:59 GMT

7 Lessons Boris Johnson Didn't Learn From The First Lockdown

The government hasn’t taken on board its coronavirus failures from earlier this year, experts and campaigners say.

Everyone makes mistakes – but the most important thing is to learn from them to avoid repeating them.

But as England enters a second national lockdown, campaigners have heavily criticised the government for failing to learn from the errors it made during the first wave of the pandemic.

Now scientists and public health experts have revealed some of the fatal flaws that are happening again – and they say lessons haven’t been learnt in the handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Too slow to go into lockdown

PA
A sign outside beau-k florists in Battle, East Sussex, ahead of a national lockdown for England from Thursday.

One of the biggest criticisms of the first coronavirus lockdown was that it came too late and that the delay cost lives.

When the UK went into full lockdown on March 23 – some experts said taking action just a week earlier may have halved the death toll.

But the government seems to have been just as slow to act this time around. Scientists recommended a “circuit breaker” lockdown weeks ago, and urged the government to impose a time limited lockdown as a matter of urgency.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which has provided scientific advice throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, warned on September 21 failure to take immediate action was a dangerous strategy and would result in “a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences”.

We are now going to have to try to climb down a mountain instead of a hill. That’s going to take a lot longer and be more difficult.Gabriel Scally, a member of Independent SAGE

Advisers wanted a two-week lockdown over the October half term to significantly restrict the winter wave of infections.

Boris Johnson, however, opted for the three-tier local lockdown system, leaving much of the country largely unprotected. Now, England is heading into its second national lockdown – although one where schools and childcare settings will stay open.

Dr Gabriel Scally is president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine and a visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol.

“We are now going to have to try to climb down a mountain instead of a hill,” Dr Gabriel Scally, a member of Independent SAGE, told HuffPost UK. 

HuffPost UK
Dr Gabriel Scally, a member of Independent SAGE

“That’s going to take a lot longer and be more difficult.

“A circuit breaker would have been by far a better time to have a lockdown, particularly during half terms when schools were closed.”

Professor John Ashton is also scathing about the government’s apparent indecision. 

“They have been looking in the rear view mirror rather than looking at the windscreen at what is ahead and acting on it.”

Ashton, a former north-west regional director of public health, has written a book called Blinded By Corona, which describes the many mistakes he believes the government made in its handling of the coronavirus crisis.

John Ashton
Professor John Ashton, former north west regional director of public health who has written a book called Blinded By Corona

Prof Ashton told HuffPost UK the government’s constant changing of mind was “pathetic”. 

“The government failed to take decisive action in February and early March and now it has done the same thing all over again.

“They didn’t act decisively or quickly at the beginning of the pandemic and now they have made the same mistake again and don’t seem to have learned anything.”

Announcing the second lockdown on Saturday, Boris Johnson declared that “now is the time to take action.” 

He told the nation that the one-month stay at home order was necessary to stop hospitals becoming overwhelmed.

Not learning from other countries

SIPA USA/PA Images
Medical staff dressed in a protective suit during the voluntary mass-testing programme for coronavirus. 

When many other countries across the world had introduced the wearing of face masks, particularly in enclosed spaces, early on in the pandemic, the government only announced they would become mandatory for people visiting shops from July 24.

The reluctance to follow the lead of countries who have made great strides in reducing the spread of coronavirus is a common factor in the government’s handling of the crisis, says Ashton. He believes the worst aspect of this was revealed after the first lockdown.

“After the initial lockdown, there was an opportunity to really suppress the virus – but the government did not do that. Instead, everyone was encouraged to go out and shop and eat out,” he said.

“But other countries such as China, Hong Kong and New Zealand all squashed the virus as they were robust in their actions.

We are still not on top of testing, tracing and isolating – and now there are so many cases of the virus around, it is impossible to contact trace. The infection has become much more widespread.”

PA
A sign outside the Terra Rossa restaurant on Upper Street in Islington, North London, promoting an extension of the Eat Out to Help Out food discount scheme for its customers.

Scally from Independent SAGE agrees. “The two big ways of tackling coronavirus are social restrictions and the whole system of test, trace and isolate,” he said.

“At the time of the first lockdown, the government abandoned that system but them brought it back – but it has just not worked.

“This system works best when cases are relatively low. But the virus was still circulating in many parts of the country when the government lifted the lockdown.

“A test, trace and isolate system would have been much better if it was locally based and run. The system was set up to fail and has failed.

Ashton feels the government also failed to learn lessons from the surge in Covid-19 cases that happened in countries such as Germany and Spain when children returned to school.

During this second lockdown, schools, colleges and universities in England will remain open. While Ashton acknowledges education is vitally important, he believes things should have been handled differently instead of having a mass return to schools.

“We should have copied the office-based community, many of who have said they don’t want everyone back in the office until next year and only have about a third of the staff in,” said Ashton.

“Schools, colleges and universities should have done this and only had one-third of students in at any one time, rotating them with home learning being provided the rest of the time.

“The government should have beefed up the remote learning provision in all schools with investment.”

In April, education secretary Gavin Williamson pledged the government would fund laptops for children on free school meals in Year 10 to learn at home, as well as for vulnerable pupils with social workers and care leavers. 

But, despite some 540,000 pupils being eligible for the scheme, just 220,000  laptops had been delivered to schools even four months later.

Scally said: “There is no clear strategic plan for dealing with Covid-19 from the government and they make it all about the lockdown and coming out of it and reducing restrictions.

“The problems are to do with the virus. The lockdown is not the problem – the virus is.” 

False hope and poor communication

ALBERTO PEZZALI via Getty Images
Boris Johnson speaks during a virtual press conference inside 10 Downing Street in central London on October 31, 2020

With his declaration of beating off the virus by November, his promises of having a “world-beating” test and trace operation and his dangling of the pipe dream of families being reunited for Christmas, Boris Johnson has been accused of constantly giving people false hope and poor communication.

On March 19, four days before the first national lockdown, Boris Johnson said: “We can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks and I’m absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing in this country.”

Then when making the announcement about the second lockdown, Johnson said: “Christmas is going to be different this year, perhaps very different, but it’s my sincere hope and belief that by taking tough action now we can allow families across the country to be together.”

Communication has been appalling throughout this pandemic and is continuing to be awful,” said Ashton, pointing out the shambolic way the news of the second lockdown emerged through leaks before the public waited hours for Boris Johnson to address the nation and make it official.

“They have managed it like a political campaign by talking things up rather than just giving people the facts and doing the right thing.

“It smacks of wishful thinking. And some of the messages the government has been putting forward are the kinds of things you say when you want people to vote for you.

“The public needs truth and trust. It is madness that Boris Johnson is talking about Christmas. He should be managing expectation now by telling people Christmas will be very different.” 

It smacks of wishful thinking and some of the messages the government has been putting forward are the kinds of things you say when you want people to vote for you.Professor John Ashton, former north west regional director of public health

He added: “The government’s communication around the pandemic has been about telling a good story rather than the true story.

“It is entirely wrong of the government to give people false hopes that they know will be dashed.

“It gives the impression of a government that is not really in charge and is creating a false narrative.” 

BAME people are still being let down

Dominic Lipinski - PA Images via Getty Images
A man wearing a protective face mask passes a mural showing medical and transport workers, in Waterloo, London

The disproportionate impact of coronavirus on people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds became apparent early on in the pandemic.

Concerns were raised when it emerged the first 10 doctors who died of Covid-19 in the UK were all from non-white backgrounds.

Various studies and research revealed that BAME people – particularly Bangladeshi and Black people – were more likely to die of coronavirus than white people, with those from some backgrounds being twice as likely to die as their white counterparts.

After campaigners pushed for a public inquiry into the issue, Public Health England published a report highlighting the increased risk of coronavirus to BAME communities and in mid-June, published a subsequent report with several recommendations on tackling the disproportionality.

But nothing has changed, says Weyman Bennett, co-convener of Stand Up To Racism.

Bennett fears more BAME people will die disproportionately due to the government’s failure to learn lessons from the first wave of the pandemic and lockdown.

Weyman Bennett
Weyman Bennett, co-convener of Stand Up To Racism

“The government is saying even more people may die this time around,” he said. “We fear there will be disproportionate deaths of BAME people once again.

“Ninety-three per cent of the first set of doctors and nurses who died during the first wave were from the BAME community.

Once can be accepted as a mistake, but the second time is wilful negligence and incompetence.Weyman Bennett, co-convener of Stand Up To Racism

“The government has done nothing to address this disproportionality the second time around.

“Once can be accepted as a mistake, but the second time is wilful negligence and incompetence.

“There is no excuse as they knew but did nothing to tackle it and our communities are going to be ravaged by the virus once again.”

Sure enough, as HuffPost UK revealed last month, the proportion of intensive care beds filled with Covid patients from Black and Asian backgrounds during the second wave was the same as it had been during the first wave.

Lack of transparency with figures

bizoo_n via Getty Images

There has been a lack of openness and transparency when it comes to coronavirus death figures throughout the pandemic, says former public health director Ashton. He feels that pattern is continuing as England heads into its second lockdown.

“For the first couple of months, the coronavirus death figures being published were only hospital deaths and didn’t include the deaths in care homes,” he said.

“Then about three months ago, they decided they would only count Covid-19 deaths if a person died within 28 days of a positive diagnosis.

“This is total madness. If I hit someone on the head with a hammer and they didn’t die until six months later, I would still get done for murder.

“If people die of coronavirus but it takes a while for the long term effects to take hold and kill them, their death should still be attributed to Covid-19.

This is total madness. If I hit someone on the head with a hammer and they didn’t die until six months later, I would still get done for murder.Professor John Ashton

“If the government wants the public to trust it and do what they are asking, they can’t tell lies and manipulate data and need to explain things properly.”

The UK recorded another 492 deaths of people who had tested positive for coronavirus yesterday – the highest number of deaths recorded in 24 hours since May 19, when 500 were reported.

Another 25,177 cases were also picked up – the second highest daily increase ever.  

Parents treated as an afterthought

Pascal Skwara via Getty Images

A familiar pattern of the first lockdown was announcements coming from the government – and then tweaks and changes being made.

This is happening all over again with the second lockdown, says Ashton, as was demonstrated by the government announcing on Saturday that, in England, people would be allowed to meet with one other person from another household and it must be outside.

The initial plans counted a parent and a baby as two people – which would have meant them being unable to meet up with anyone else while looking after their child.

The government agreed to change its new lockdown rules and on Sunday afternoon, health minister Nadine Dorries announced children under school age with their parents would not count towards the limit on two people meeting outside.

It is reminiscent of the first lockdown, when minister Michael Gove initially suggested children should not be travelling between different houses during the restrictions but later backtracked and apologised and clarified that children of parents who are separated were able to move between households during the lockdown.

“It shows a total lack of empathy with how ordinary people live,” said Ashton. “The government has constantly had to change and tweak things leading to the public becoming very confused.

“These people making the decisions are accustomed to having nannies to look after their children and lots of money for childcare so are out of touch with how ordinary people live.”

Lack of notice 

Drazen Zigic via Getty Images

One of the criticisms of the first lockdown was the last-minute rushed approach to announcing it and a failure to give people notice.

Boris Johnson announced the first full lockdown on March 23 telling cafes, pubs, bars and restaurants to close that night as soon as reasonably possible and not to open the following day.

Many sectors believe there has once again been a lack of notice with the prime minister announcing the second lockdown on Saturday evening with the shutdown coming into effect from Thursday.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of hospitality trade association UK Hospitality told HuffPost UK that the relative lack of notice with which the various restrictions have been brought in has proved a huge challenge.

“Businesses need time to plan their openings and closings, sort out shifts and to order, use up or cancel stock,” she said.

“That becomes much harder with just a few days’ notice.

Businesses need time to plan their openings and closings, sort out shifts and to order, use up or cancel stock.Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been faced with a patchwork approach to restrictions, with different countries adopting different positions and even regions within countries moving through the various levels of restrictions at the drop of a hat.

“For businesses that operate outlets across the UK, keeping on top of the current state of play can be difficult.”

But Ashton disagrees about a lack of notice as he feels that once the government decides and announces a lockdown, it should happen straight away.

“Every day that you are not locking down, the virus is spreading further and there is a three-week lag to more deaths,” he said. “Once the decision is made, lockdown should happen.”