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How can Boris Johnson call his government's response to COVID-19 a success?

Andrew Parsons/DPA/PA Images

How can Boris Johnson call his government's response to COVID-19 a success?

Boris is back and with a characteristic bluster and pooh-poohing of fact, has said that he knows that many people will be looking at our “apparent success” [in fighting COVID-19] and wondering if now is the time to ease the lockdown.

The UK represents one per cent of the global population and yet can already lay claim to ten per cent of the world’s deaths from COVID-19.

Our elderly population in care homes has been decimated, hundreds of key workers, many in the NHS, have already lost their lives. We are a nation consumed by fear, our mental health has been shattered, our dependence on benefits has sky-rocketed, and our economy is in meltdown.

How can any of this be determined a success?

At the start of this crisis, the UK’s chief scientific adviser said that fewer than 20,000 deaths would be a “good result”. With the official figure now at 26,000 and estimates that easily double that, the reality is that no matter how politicians try to spin it, in terms of how we have dealt with this virus and how many have been left dead in its wake, we are among the very worst in Europe, if not the world.

Did the prime minister, as he lay in his hospital bed struggling to stay alive as the virus, that only weeks before he had cocked a snook at, ravaged his body, question whether things could have been handled differently?

Did he ponder his own gung-ho approach, the one that helped put him in to power but was no match for a disease unimpressed by his boyish swagger? Were there dark moments when he wondered whether he had done the right things by the country?

And so, at the risk of being pilloried for raising questions in the midst of a crisis, of how our political leaders have handled this risk to our lives, to their own lives, should we have put faith in a prime minister who initially treated the risk of COVID-19 like a joke? A leader who was shaking people’s hands during the rising threat of the pandemic in some supremely silly gesture of machismo bravado and attending an international rugby match with his then pregnant fiancée when he could already see what was happening elsewhere?

Should we trust in a government in which a health secretary stockpiled fridges ahead of Brexit but forgot to top up supplies of ventilators or check the use-by date on PPE, and who lost any semblance of respect when he said that he wished that he had a magic wand and could simply procure protective equipment to fall from the sky?

In New Zealand, the prime minister was concise and she was clear: her main objective was to not allow one New Zealander to die – only 20 so far have. Our message was to protect the NHS and that would then save lives. And there was one reason that our message was different, and that was because we had an NHS so ravaged by ten years of austerity that it wasn’t feasible to believe it could do the job that it was designed to do, given the numbers of sick predicted.

The UK Government knew that because their pandemic modelling exercise in 2016 had told them so.

I believed then and do now that our politicians saw this as a virus that was happening somewhere else to others and even when it reached Europe and we could see the tragedy unfolding in Italy and Spain, they covered their eyes, heard information selectively and didn’t see it as something that would happen here.

As the WHO and almost every other epidemiology expert in the field knew and advised, the way to deal with a virus like COVID-19 is to act fast: test, trace, isolate and contain. And protect your most vulnerable.

Why didn’t we do that?

And while there is predictable outrage among her fan base that Nicola Sturgeon isn’t included in commentary about how well global female leaders like Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel, Mette Frederiksen and Erna Solberg have coped in this crisis, the reality is that despite her leadership team being all-women, until the departure, that is, of her CMO for ignoring the very rules she was asking everyone else to abide by, Sturgeon’s record in this pandemic is largely akin to Boris Johnson’s record. And that isn’t a good one.

It seems pointless now with so many dead to ask the counterfactual question: ‘What if Scotland had done something different?’ What if Sturgeon had followed other smaller countries like Denmark, Norway and New Zealand, who also, coincidently, are led by women, and gone hard and gone fast?

In a small country with an independent health, education and legal system, with a nationalist government at its head, with a mandate to hold a second independence referendum, with an election looming and a Scottish Parliament wrapped in a mantra of ‘finding Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’, and with a proven record in following public health rules, why did we simply pay lip service to following the science, when what we did, in all honesty, was simply follow Westminster?

Sturgeon has dealt with public health crises before. She has done that well. And while it’s true that now you can sense an impatience in the First Minister to go it alone, and in small steps she is doing that and, predictably, being criticised for being perceived to be making a constitutional point in even advising the wearing of face masks, she is way behind the vital testing curve.

When she led on fighting swine flu or even on the Legionnaire’s outbreak, she had the benefit of Sir Harry Burns as her chief medical officer. His advice on a global pandemic has been simple from the start: ‘Test, test, test, trace and isolate.’

In 2011 Professor Anne Glover was Scotland’s chief scientific adviser and amid the response to the Fukushima nuclear explosion, which threatened a global health disaster, she attended both COBRA and SAGE meetings on behalf of the Scottish Government. Her message was, and is, ‘follow the science’.

Of course, it is with hindsight, but I can’t help but wonder on a parallel universe where Sturgeon would be now if she’d had Burns and Glover still by her side. Perhaps then there would be no room for any slight regret that our first minister didn’t follow her instinct, never mind the science.

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