As the UK COVID19 death toll exceeds the 100,000 milestone, there are calls for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to resign but the opposition’s inability to form a solid policy front provides the government with valuable breathing space.
London (Brussels Morning) The EU and UK wrangling over vaccine supplies has caught headlines both sides of the English Channel. However, the Brits have little solidarity with Europe as cases in the UK with COVID-19 related deaths surpassing 100,000 cases on Tuesday. Such high figures have only been seen in countries with far bigger populations, namely, the US, Mexico, India and Brazil.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was compelled to apologise in a seemingly heartfelt TV address, claiming “We did everything we could” — while brushing criticism aside as unfounded.
The mounting death toll has made the UK the country with the highest number of deaths in Europe for some time and had led ministers, including the Conservative leader, to pass the buck, blaming any number of factors.
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Thérèse Coffey said the devastating numbers were down to the aged population, while Priti Patel looked toward Black and ethnic minority people for rising figures. Johnson made claims not backed by science that the new strain of the virus is not only more contagious but also more deadly. Meanwhile, a call for reviewing actual lessons learnt and an independent public inquiry, have been avoided.
Scientists question the notion that everything that could be done has been done to save as many lives as possible. Professor Neil Ferguson, an Imperial College professor and expert for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies makes the case that lives could have been saved if the government acted sooner, and with more stringency.
An earlier lockdown, when there was an apparent public appetite for one to stem the spread of the virus, could have prevented the large impact seen in Britain. The mistake was repeated in September and again coming up to Christmas as the new variant was detected.
Even before COVID-19 hit Britain, there was no real grasp on the extent to which Italy and Spain had been hit by the virus.
Ferguson said that a paper in Nature highlighted “about that time, just before lockdown happened, the first two weeks of March, we probably had 1,500 to 2,000 infections imported from Italy and Spain, which we just hadn’t seen in the surveillance data, until that point”.
“The second part”, he continued, “which I think would have been more avoidable, is about half of those deaths occurred in care homes”.
There was also an assumption that the elderly and care homes would be shielded but this didn’t happen, he said, speaking to a parliamentary committee.
“During the exponential phase of the virus, even a few days can make a big difference”, said James Naismith, a professor of structural biology at the University of Oxford.
“The UK’s significantly higher death toll than Germany is most likely down to difference in the timing of the lockdown”.
Border checks were also scant, again not a scientifically guided decision, but one made by the Foreign Office, and the lack of testing capacity was partly culpable for not being more successful at curbing infections.
The government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty has admitted the UK got things wrong — including on the wearing of masks — and there is a general consensus the national test and trace scheme was an outright flop.
But there are also factors that existed before the pandemic hit that scientists like Professor Calum Semple, also of SAGE, say contributed to the national health service being overwhelmed including it experiencing “decades of underinvestment” and a pre-existing disposition to health inequality.
Many are now calling for the resignation of Johnson, but those calls aren’t coming from across the political aisle as Labour leader Keir Starmer has avoided scoring political points on the 100,000-death figure.
However, some feel that this is exactly where the former lawyer should be holding the government to account.
Instead, at Wednesday’s weekly prime minister’s questions session, Starmer posed: “The question on everyone’s lips is ‘why.’ The Prime Minister must have thought about that a lot. Could he tell us why he thinks the UK has ended up with a death toll of 100,000 — the highest number in Europe?”
Predictably, no meaningful answer came forth, and commentators have derided the opposition leader’s overall performance at the session as lackluster and halfhearted.
Starmer came into the leadership after a less than amiable step down by Jeremy Corbyn, embroiled in claims that he failed to tackle a rampant anti-Semitism problem within the party, and was later suspended by Starmer.
Starmer has struggled to win the favour of those further left of the party, who see the new centrist leader as essentially a Blairite; other point to Starmer’s record of supporting social democratic policies like increasing taxes on the wealthy and advocating for public ownership of utilities. There are those Corbyn supporters that have opted to back Starmer now he is leader as the only hope of getting the Conservative party out of government.
Corbyn’s 2017 “for the many, not the few” manifesto yielded the biggest number of votes since 2001 and gained some international acclaim from progressive leaders such as the prime minister of New Zealand Jacinda Adern. Yet, the Labour Party has failed to make the point that this was a fiscally measured policy package that would have left the country better prepared to cope with the current crisis, partly because the current leader is not eager to defend the track-record of his predecessor. As significantly, Starmer has failed to make the case that a Labour government would have made a difference in the context of the current crisis.
Starmer risks looking weak, trying to hold a minority of critics at bay without holding onto the convinced and energised constituency that would up the political pressure vis-à-vis Johnson’s government.
What’s more, the Corbyn 2017 policies have become relevant once more, potentially stirring a renewed desire to see a different political direction from the current status quo.