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‘A national scandal’ — a timeline of Covid-19 failures

IAN SINCLAIR and RUPERT READ compile a step-by-step analysis of the British government’s woeful response to the coronavirus crisis

SPEAKING on BBC Question Time on March 26 2020, Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, described the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as “a national scandal.”

A look at the warnings the government received before the national lockdown on March 23 explains why.

October 2016
Exercise Cygnus, a three-day training on how to deal with a pandemic, is carried out, involving all major government departments, the NHS and local authorities. “It showed gaping holes in Britain’s Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response plan,” the Sunday Telegraph notes. A senior academic directly involved in the exercise and the current pandemic said:
 “These exercises are supposed to prepare government for something like this — but it appears they were aware of the problem but didn’t do much about it.”

September 14 2017
National Risk Register Of Civil Emergencies published by the Cabinet Office. The report notes “there is a high probability of a ‘flu pandemic occurring” with “up to 50 per cent of the UK population experiencing symptoms, potentially leading to between 20,000 and 750,000 fatalities and high levels of absence from work.”

July 30 2018
British biological security strategy published, addressing the threat of pandemics. It “was not properly implemented, according to a former government chief scientific adviser… Prof Sir Ian Boyd, who advised the environment department for seven years until last August and was involved in writing the strategy, said a lack of resources was to blame,” the Guardian reports.

January 24 2020
A group of Chinese doctors and scientists publish an article in the Lancet medical journal titled Clinical Features of Patients Infected With 2019 Novel Coronavirus in Wuhan, China. According to Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, the study showed “that a third of patients require admission to intensive care, and 29 per cent get so bad that they need ventilation.”

January 30 2020
The World Health Organisation (WHO) declares coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern.”

January 31 2020
Professor Joseph Wu, from the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong, co-authors an article in the Lancet medical journal about the coronavirus outbreak in China. The authors note: “Independent self-sustaining outbreaks in major cities globally could become inevitable because of substantial exportation of presymptomatic cases and in the absence of large-scale public health interventions. Preparedness plans and mitigation interventions should be readied for quick deployment globally.”

February 3 2020
Speaking in Greenwich, the Prime Minister says there is “a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage.” At this moment, “humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other… I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role,” the Prime Minister says

February 26 2020
A memo from the government’s National Security Communications Team warns that in a worst-case-scenario half a million Britons could die from coronavirus, the Mirror reports.

March 2 2020
The SPI-M committee, an official committee set up to model the spread of pandemic flu, publishes a report noting up to four-fifths of the population could be infected and one in a hundred might die — “that was a prediction of over 500,000 deaths in this nation of nearly 70 millions,” explain Reuters.

March 11 2020
WHO declares a coronavirus pandemic. Dr David Halpern, the Head of the Number 10 “nudge unit,” tells the BBC: “There is going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows as we think it probably will do, where you’ll want to cocoon, you’ll want to protect those in the at-risk group so that they basically don’t catch the disease and by the time they come out of their cocooning herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population.”

March 12 2020
The government announces it will “no longer try to ‘track and trace’ everyone suspected of having the virus. Instead, under plans outlined by the Prime Minister and his medical and scientific advisers, testing would be limited to patients in hospital with serious breathing problems,” the Guardian reports. The WHO’s director-general makes his opening remarks at the mission briefing on Covid-19: “We are deeply concerned that some countries are not approaching this threat with the level of political commitment needed to control it. Let me be clear: describing this as a pandemic does not mean that countries should give up. The idea that countries should shift from containment to mitigation is wrong and dangerous.”

March 13 2020
Interviewing the government’s chief science adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, about the herd immunity strategy on Sky News, presenter Stephen Dixon says “even looking at the best case scenario… 0.5-1 per cent fatality in something like this, that’s an awful lot of people dying in this country.” Anthony Costello, a paediatrician and former World Health Organisation director, “said that the UK government was out of kilter with other countries in looking to herd immunity as the answer. It could conflict with WHO policy, he said in a series of Twitter posts, which is to contain the virus by tracking and tracing all cases,” reports the Guardian.

March 14 2020
WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris questions the government’s decision to follow a herd immunity response to the outbreak, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We don’t know enough about the science of this virus, it hasn’t been in our population for long enough for us to know what it does in immunological terms.” More than 200 scientists sign an open letter to the government urging them to introduce tougher measures to tackle the spread of Covid-19, noting Britain’s current approach will put the NHS under additional stress and “risk many more lives than necessary.” The British Society for Immunology publishes an open letter to the government raising “significant questions” about the herd immunity plan: “This strategy only works to reduce serious disease if, when building that immunity, vulnerable individuals are protected from becoming ill, for example through social distancing… we don’t yet know if this novel virus will induce long-term immunity in those affected as other related viruses do not.”

March 15 2020
“When I first heard about this, I could not believe it… my colleagues here in the US… assumed that reports of the UK policy were satire,” notes William Hanage, a Professor of the Evolution and Epidemiology of Infectious Disease at Harvard University, in the Guardian about the British government’s herd immunity plan. “The UK should not be trying to create herd immunity, that will take care of itself. Policy should be directed at slowing the outbreak to a (more) manageable rate. What this looks like is strong social distancing… All this and more should have started weeks ago.”

March 16 2020
The Imperial College team advising the government publishes a report that predicts “unconstrained, the virus could kill 510,000 people” and “even the government’s ‘mitigation’ approach could lead to 250,000 deaths and intensive care units being overwhelmed at least eight times over,” Reuters reports. “Imperial’s prediction of over half a million deaths was no different from the report by the government’s own pandemic modelling committee two weeks earlier.” The Guardian reports on the government’s partial U-turn: “What changed was new data on the impact of Italy’s out-of-control epidemic on its health service. Basically, it is catastrophic, with 30 per cent of hospitalised patients having to be admitted to intensive care.”

March 23 2020
The Prime Minister announces a national lockdown.

This is an edited version of a longer timeline published by Byline Times on April 11 —



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