UK’s false-start contact tracing has fatal consequences

The UK now has a worse death rate than any other comparable nation, bar Spain, according to the World’s Press. A Financial Times report released last week gives Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent assertion – that the upcoming track-and-trace system is ‘world beating’ – something of a grim irony. Such technology has proved effective in other countries, most notably South Korea, who contrarily have one of the lowest Covid-19 mortality rates in the world.

For South Korea, aside from being quick off the draw with regards to testing (by mid-March they had tested more than 270,000 people), they had realised the benefits of prudent use of mobile technology early. People who had tested positive were asked to input data with regard to their movements, aided by GPS and credit-card transaction tracing.

Such an approach has caused a collective skin crawl in the West, who’s leaders and populations alike lazily ascribe notions of totalitarian surveillance to the Asian continent as a whole. It is worth noting that such technology has struggled to get off the ground not only in the U.K, but in the U.S too. The latter nation has seen many citizens insisting that lockdown impinged upon their freedom. There have been demonstrations in as many as 18 U.S. states, while the number of Covid-19 cases sky-rocketed, giving the U.S. the largest case count globally.

It is not just the U.S. who are guilty of patriotic exceptionalism, however. A number of critics have painted Mr. Johnson and his government as having a lackadaisical approach to the virus from the off. Back in February, a leaked government report suggested that coronavirus could claim as many as 500,000 British lives in a worst case scenario. The next week, after chairing his first COBRA emergency meeting, Mr. Johnson assured the public that while the spread of the virus was likely, the British people should ‘go about business as usual’.

Later, the Sunday Times would report that Mr. Johnson had in fact missed five previous COBRA emergency meetings regarding the status of the pandemic, and thus suggested a marked failure on part of the Prime Minister to take the virus seriously. On March 3rd, one day after the his first chaired COBRA meeting, Mr. Johnson said, ‘I was at a hospital the other night where I think a few there were actually coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody. I continue to shake hands.’ The Prime Minister’s previously unshakeable confidence has since been rattled by his contracting the virus himself.

Two days later, on the 5th March, the Prime Minister appears on ITV’s This Morning where he introduced the public to the idea of herd immunity. He said, ‘One theory is that you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go, and allow the disease, as it were to move through the population.’ But in reality the NHS simply didn’t and arguably still doesn’t hold the required capacity. To be fair to Johnson, it was his chief aide Dominic Cummings who was largely reported as the original proprietor of the herd immunity strategy – a man who later embroiled himself in scandal after breaking the ‘Stay At Home’ rules he helped to create.

Granted, after heeding warnings from scientists, Cummings distanced himself from the herd immunity approach, in favour of a policy of strict social distancing. However, this does not contradict the thesis of the Sunday Times piece, which suggested five weeks of battle-planning were lost due to government floundering.

It is true that while the government were juggling with herd immunity, another approach was considered: that of developing test-and-trace technology. This strategy, however, was abandoned in mid-March. One senior Tory was quoted in the Financial Times as saying, ‘There is a belief here that the things being done in Korea were too intrusive and wouldn’t be acceptable.’ He continues, ‘No one believed you could be totalitarian about this.’ Thus it seems we have more in common with the U.S. than we would care to admit.

Later, critics accused the government of missing an opportunity to deploy 5,000 contact tracing experts who were sitting pretty at local councils across the country. In fact, the Guardian reported in early April that such people were expecting to be called to action: ‘We are pretty good at infection control and contact tracing, it’s part of the job. We thought we’d be asked and we were shelving other work’ said one environmental health worker at a council in the north west.

This brings us to the first week of June, with Mr. Johnson’s ‘world beating’ contact tracing technology being resuscitated and made available to the public, two and a half months after it was initially buried. The only evidence available as to why it was buried in the first place, points to government paranoia and a need to maintain favourable polling amongst the public. Indeed this shows a willingness to place party priorities over public health.

Perhaps this too is the reason why the government is itching to unravel lockdown procedures when as many as 324 people died just last Friday. As of Monday the 1st June, Brits are able to mingle with up to five other people, and elite sport is to return behind closed doors. This is despite warnings from scientific advisers that it is too soon to lift lockdown.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and formerly of the World Health Organisation, has said this of lockdown easing: ‘Test, trace and isolate has to be in place, fully working, capable of dealing with any surge immediately, locally responsive, rapid results, and infection rates have to be lower.’ Whether the track-and-trace technology will be effective is yet to be seen, but the UK’s infection rate remains high.

The UK government would do well to consider that both Germany and South Korea have seen an upsurge in cases since public life has resumed. Spain, the only nation with a higher death-rate than the UK, extended their state of emergency after a rise in the death toll was caused by easing lockdown measures. Britain, like the U.S., has so far acted with a crisis strategy largely informed by isolationism and exception. Critics will therefore continue to be suspicious of the UK’s ability to follow the example of other nations.

The consistent evocation of war-time rhetoric and Churchill-like stoicism by the UK government has done little to quell something as faceless and apolitical as an airborne virus. This is mirrored in the U.S, with the virus being personified as an affront to individual freedom – an idea further perpetuated by the twitter ramblings of President Trump. With the U.S and the U.K topping the Covid-19 death-charts, and both proving to have ineffective crisis strategies, it is worth asking, what makes us so special?

 

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