We are now officially the worst-hit European country. Yesterday, both ONS and government figures put coronavirus deaths in the UK above Italy’s. A rare and sobering day of agreement between the two official bodies, and a shocking reminder of the scale of the human tragedy in the UK. As this happened, our petition calling for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak passed 70,000 signatures and continued to rise.
When asked at yesterday’s press briefing about the UK’s relative death toll, foreign secretary Dominic Raab immediately sought to dismiss international comparisons. To many across the country, this will have come across as tone-deaf and evasive. We are now only second to Donald Trump’s USA on a leader board than no country would like to top. We are not here by chance alone and people deserve to know how this has happened.
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How is it possible that a country like the UK, with world-leading science, a globally envied health service, a strong economy and robust infrastructure –ended up having the worst death toll of the continent? The growing consensus is that the answer lies in a litany of errors of attitude.
All political leaders must now commit to an inquiry to identify what has gone wrong, learn the lessons, and ensure it never happens again, while we are still in time.
While other European countries started locking down fast, our nation was embroiled in a national debate about the theory of “herd immunity”. The PM himself took to daytime television to discuss it. Notions of “allowing the virus to sweep through the population” and “taking it on the chin” were seemingly being considered as adequate strategies. Meanwhile a quarter of a million people attended Cheltenham festival, sparking an outbreak.
What followed was a concerted campaign to reassure the public that we did not need to listen to the World Health Organisation’s pleas to “test, test, test”. Government did not pursue community testing and abruptly dropped contact tracing. “What does Britain know about coronavirus that the rest of Europe doesn’t?” asked a perplexed CNN on 14 March. Not much, it would seem – as the UK later had to scramble to lock down, then reinstate testing and contact tracing.
The biggest scandal of them all is undoubtedly the woeful lack of PPE equipment available for frontline NHS and care workers. They are asked to put their lives on the line to save ours. Some even came out of retirement to risk – and lose – their lives for ours. Far too many have already lost their lives and still, they are not fully protected.
Perhaps the most damming indictment of the government response to the pandemic is that at least some of the shortage of PPE equipment could have been prevented. We had warnings from other countries ahead of time, and a government-mandated pandemic simulation, exercise Cygnus, that warned of these supply risks and shortages back in October 2016.
There is no doubting the mountain of a challenge faced by the UK government. It is unlike any challenge faced by any government in the UK. However, it is the same challenge faced by all governments in Europe, and with the possibility of a second peak before a vaccine is available, it is vital that we are not caught underprepared again.
We cannot ever again leave our NHS so under-resourced, expecting brave medical staff to treat patients dressed only in bin bags and thin surgical masks. All political leaders must now commit to an inquiry to identify what has gone wrong, learn the lessons, and ensure it never happens again, while we are still in time.
This is why we launched a petition calling for a full and independent public inquiry in the UK’s response to the Coronavirus outbreak. Many tens of thousands have already joined us to challenge the inaction, press for scrutiny, demand accountability and learn the lessons.
Tom Brufatto is co-Founder of the campaign March for Change.