It’s a difficult situation for any government to manage, but the problems produced by coronavirus have been marked by muddle and incompetence in the response from the government. I think we can exonerate them of three serious charges. It was not inappropriate to delay the initial response: they judged, that people would not comply with instructions until they were convinced of the seriousness of the situation, and so it proved. It was not obviously wrong, before the numbers became apparent, to ask whether the disease could be allowed to run its course with with only moderate social distancing. (An illuminating set of simulations, published online by the Washington Post, suggests that this strategy would still have been more effective than quarantines.) And it is not wrong to impose restrictions that cannot be adequately enforced. The nature of the disease’s spread is that every reduction in social activity limits the potential of the disease to spread. It cannot be stopped, but it can be delayed, and delay makes it more possible for services to cope and ultimately to the availability of a vaccine.
Having said that, there have been several marked problems in the government’s response to the situation. The problems include:
- The lack of testing means that the government has not been able to keep track of what is happening, let alone manage public health issues such as contact tracing.
- The failure to provide personal protective equipment for medical staff is utterly disgraceful. Hospitals have become a danger zone.
- The government’s first response was to protect business; its second response was to protect employees. There are still major problems evident in the protection of people in precarious employment and those on benefits. I have covered those issues separately.
- Contradictory and inconsistent advice. There have been frequent, repeated, muddled statements from different government ministers and advisers about what is required, what the rules are, and who is affected. Instructions are imprecise. For example, there is still prevarication about what is essential work, such as whether or not construction can proceed. And if the aim is self-contained households with minimal interaction, what is wrong with individuals working alone on an allotment?
- Announcements have been sudden and immediate, making it difficult for people to close business or even to move physically to the right location for isolation.
- Over-reaction. The police have criticised the public for going to isolated places to walk and exercise. I am in the middle of a house move – my furniture left on the van on Friday – but the registration of property transactions has stopped, and the Law Society has advised solicitors not to conclude business. I don’t claim any medical expertise, but I think I can say with confidence that coronavirus cannot leap down the circuitry of internet communications to emerge at the other end and eat you.
Additional comment, 28th March: The Lancet has published a blistering editorial condemning the incompetent preparations for the pandemic.
February should have been used to expand coronavirus testing capacity, ensure the distribution of WHO-approved PPE, and establish training programmes and guidelines to protect NHS staff. They didn’t take any of those actions. The result has been chaos and panic across the NHS. Patients will die unnecessarily. NHS staff will die unnecessarily. It is, indeed, as one health worker wrote last week, “a national scandal”. The gravity of that scandal has yet to be understood.