Despite an almost complete lockdown of the general population, we seem to be hurtling unabated towards a human tragedy of biblical proportions. Daily death rates soared to over 700 (bringing total deaths to over 4,000) this week. Moreover, our battle frontline came under direct attack as we started to lose doctors and nurses. Yet, Health secretary Matt Hancock stood at the podium on Friday and repeated the government advice that masks don’t offer any protection; an opinion at complete odds with the rest of the planet. While other countries are going hell for leather to source Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), ventilators and Covid test kits, the UK government seemingly dithers over suppliers and faffs around with paperwork. Is this government just woefully bereft of the skills requirement to deal with this crisis or is it still, despite continued denials, pursuing a strategy of herd immunity and putting the economy first?
The full extent of our government’s apparent incompetency came home to me yesterday during a rather revealing conversation with a friend who has managed to source supplies of masks and test kits out of the EU. Despite being a Londoner, he is selling to India and the US, NOT to the NHS. He explained to me that NHS bureaucracy is so commercially prohibitive that he literally can’t afford to sell kit to them. Minimum order sizes, lengthy approval processes and delayed payment schedules means that it is easier and safer for him to sell to regional Indian governments, who seem to have streamlined purchasing processes in the face of the pandemic. I was aghast. When did the UK become more bureaucratically dysfunctional than its former colony?!
Moreover, even if we could get enough test kits, there aren’t enough labs in the UK to process mass samples quickly (only two currently at the MHRA and another in Oxford)
The issue around ventilators has been another balls up of epic proportions. On Friday Health Secretary Hancock told us that the peak of the curve was approaching faster than expected and that the UK was still far short of the number of ventilators required (30,000 units at least). Despite private sector companies (including aircraft manufacturers, carmakers and formula one teams) offering to pool resources in response to the call out, the government seems to have endlessly delayed and procrastinated on the subject.
Way back in January, the UK held talks with the EU about sourcing ventilators and other medical supplies (discussions which the government has disingenuously denied) but for some reason decided to walk away. I can only surmise that this was part of some Brexit related brinkmanship. Subsequently, engineering company Gtech was engaged by the government to design and manufacture the much needed equipment only to cancel the mandate a week later at the end of March. Thereafter, home appliance giant Dyson was asked to lead the consortium with an order to supply 15,000 units, for which we are still waiting. Dyson also happens to be a major Tory party donor. Just saying.
Amidst all of this, the blame game has already commenced. I’d recommend that the West keeps a kibosh on its “Kung Flu” jibes at China as they may be the only ones capable of supplying the world with the tools to fight the virus. Just yesterday they sent the UK 300 ventilators. Last week billionaire Jack Ma’s foundation donated 150,000 test kits, 20,000 sets of PPE and has promised to donate millions of units more. Meanwhile, Trump offered to send his best friend Johnson ventilators even as US healthcare authorities are themselves fighting over the few they have. Clearly the two ‘leaders’ are egging each other on.
It’s interesting also that an increasing number of commentators and politicians are beginning to make gentle calls to end the lockdown once the infection peaks here. Clearly the focus is beginning to shift from saving lives to saving the economy. The government is no doubt waiting and watching to see when public sentiment toward the trade off between further casualties and a return to normal life pivots. Just dangerous and irresponsible. It’s been hard enough to promote social distancing without such comments giving off misplaced positive signals. The end result will be even more patients putting pressure on the NHS. The last thing we need right now.
It hasn’t helped that the opposition Labour Party has been in absentia during this entire crisis and unable to keep the Government in check but at least they are re-emerging now with some proper, grown up leadership under Keir Starmer.
In the final analysis all will be revealed. I don’t envy the PM and his team. They are facing some of the toughest choices they will ever have to make but the more they play for time, the tighter supplies are likely to become. Indeed, the word is that the FDA is about to lift restrictions on medical supply imports. Once that happens all supply will flock to the US. Perhaps by huge dint of good fortune the government will be vindicated in its actions, though, the signs aren’t promising, I have to say. All along the UK has taken a contrarian stance to the rest of the world (on lockdowns, masks and testing). If things go as badly as they have in Italy (our mortality curve is tracing theirs almost point by point currently) given we had so much warning, there will be calls for heads to roll. However, history shows us that it’s very difficult to hold politicians to account unless they have been out and out criminal.
For now, all we can do is watch the government try to downplay all its errors while our healthcare heroes go into the fight of their lives each day almost completely naked and unarmed. Indeed as I type, I’ve just been informed we sadly lost a 23 year-old nurse today at a hospital down the road from us. That’s criminal enough for me.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.