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UK COVID-19 death toll hits 100,000 and The PM offers an insincere apology.

Written By: - Date published: 6:11 am, January 29th, 2021 - 21 comments
Categories: Austerity, Politics, uk politics - Tags: , , , , , , ,

Originally posted on Nick Kelly’s Blog

In late March 2020, the medical director of the NHS Stephen Powis said that keeping the UK COVID-19 death toll to under 20,000 would be a good result. Ten months later, almost to the day, the UK’s official death toll from COVID-19 hit 100,000, a few days after an Oxford University study found that the UK had the worst daily death rate per capita for coronavirus in the world.

On Tuesday Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply sorry” for every life that was lost. His apology was quickly followed by this statement:

I think on this day I should just really repeat that I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost and of course as I was prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done. We did everything we could to minimise suffering and minimise the loss of life and will continue to do so.

Boris Johnson addressing the nation Tuesday 26 January 2021

Back in May 2020, I wrote a blog which listed the many failings of the UK Governments handling of the crisis. The Prime Minister and his colleagues ignored scientific advice and allowed the virus to take hold throughout the population in February and March 2020. The Prime Minister, in particular, took pride in the fact that he planned to keep the country open even when most other European nations were going into lockdown. It was only when NHS hospitals were near breaking point that Britain followed other nations and implemented similar restrictions.

COVID-19: Boris Johnson 'deeply sorry' as over 100,000 coronavirus-related deaths recorded in UK - kmfm
Above: Prime Minister Boris Johnson giving his address to the nation on Tuesday.

Probably the greatest failing by the Conservative Government in the fight against COVID-19 was not its response to the crisis but the decade of underinvestment in the country’s public health system. Sir Michael Marmot from the UK Institute of Health Equity published a damning report in December 2020 which highlighted that during the last decade of Conservative Government:

  • people can expect to spend more of their lives in poor health
  • improvements to life expectancy have stalled and declined for the poorest 10% of women
  • the health gap has grown between wealthy and deprived areas
  • place matters – living in a deprived area of the North East is worse for your health than living in a similarly deprived area in London, to the extent that life expectancy is nearly five years less.

The report also made clear that the above trends, in particular the health gap between wealthy and deprived areas, corresponds with data during the COVID-19 pandemic which found those from poorer parts of the UK were hit harder by the virus.

In May 2020 I posted a blog about the state of UK Social Care where for decades successive governments have failed to resolve the funding crisis, or indeed to build proper links between the health and social care systems. In October 2020 Amnesty International published its report As if Expendable which outlined how many older people were kicked out of hospitals and placed back into residential care homes, without first even being tested for COVID-19. This shameful action, along with not supplying social care providers adequate supplies of PEE was responsible for many thousands of deaths. The Amnesty report highlights that the UK Governments treatment of people in the social care system during this time breached both domestic and international law:

The UK is a state party to international and regional human rights treaties which require it to protect and guarantee fundamental human rights relevant to the concerns addressed in this report, including notably, the right to life, the right to highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to non-discrimination – including on the grounds of age, disability or health status – the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.

As if Expendable, Amnesty International report 2020

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has yet to atone for what happened during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the social care sector. Whilst this was not just the fault of his government’s failure, his statement on Tuesday shows he still accepts no-fault and claims they did all they could to ‘minimise suffering’ and ‘loss of life’, a claim the Amnesty International report demonstrates is false.

On the issue of face masks, the UK Government lagged behind most many other nations, initially implying that these were not effective, only later to make them mandatory on public transport. The justification for this U-Turn is that by mid-2020 there was more scientific data, which is fine except many other nations applied this scientific advice much earlier. A Centres for Disease Control and Prevention paper published 2004 found that during the 2003 SARS outbreak that wearing a face mask frequently in public places, frequent hand washing, and disinfecting one’s living quarter were effective public health measures to reduce the risk for transmission. Nationalist Britain knows best self-confidence could well have been a factor in the UK Governments refusal to learn from international experience.

Another example of government arrogance in the UK during this crisis was the development of the track and trace system. Whilst most nations have struggled to develop an effective track and trace application, the UK managed to spend 22 billion pounds of public money on a system that did not work. In June 2020 Boris Johnson claimed in parliament that the UK was developing a “world-beating” contact tracing system. After billions were given to private contractors, many with personal links to members of the government, the system was found to have failed as it relied on excel spreadsheets to record the data and resulted in 15,000 cases not being recorded in September and October 2020.

The failure to develop a functional track and trace system has led to one of the greatest policy failures that have contributed to England being in its third COVID-19 lockdown. Very few people would disagree that having schools closed and students having to learn remotely is negatively impacting on students. And most people can understand how difficult it is for any government to balance public health against long term educational outcomes. But when the Conservative-leaning paper The Telegraph runs the headline The biggest mystery in politics: why is Gavin Williamson still in a job? you know that the Education Secretary has performed poorly. The recent example where after Christmas schools reopened for one day in January before closing again due to high infection rates, despite the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warning the UK Government on 22 December 2020 that with the new strain of COVID-19 leaving schools open was contributing to the rising infection rate. A poll conducted earlier this month found that 92% of teachers believe Gavin Williamson should resign as Education Secretary, which is hardly given surprising his abysmal performance in recent months.

Coronavirus: UK epidemic growing as R number goes above 1 - BBC News
The Above graph shows how COVID-19 infection rates rose sharply after UK schools reopened in September

Yet the blame for schools does not sit fully with the Government. Her Majesty’s loyal opposition can also take much of the blame for this fiasco. In April 2020, at the height of the first wave of coronavirus pandemic in the UK, newly elected Labour Party Opposition Leader Kier Starmer called on the Government to set out plans to end the lockdown. Starmer, former head of the Crown Prosecution Service and a QC would argue that he meant that there should be a plan which included contact tracing, social distancing guidelines and other measures to make it safe to reopen. But the optics of the call was pressuring the UK Government to lift restrictions and specifically calling on them to reopen schools. Unlike in a court of law, in politics, it is about the key message, not the detail buried on page 7 of the affidavit.

The Oppositions position on schools has been nearly as confusing and contradictory as the Governments. The Party, still recovering from its 2019 election loss (which I wrote several blogs about in early 2020), under a new leader was trying to rebrand, reposition and appeal to voters it had lost. This has not been helped by the internal factionalism (which I also blogged about in May 2020) and the party still not being clear where it sits politically and ideologically. In April 2020 shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey’s position was that schools should reopen when safe, a position that was consistent with the education unions. Shortly after this Long-Bailey was replaced as Education Secretary by Kate Green, who has been clear that she wishes to distance Labour from the education unions in an attempt to present the party as more ‘moderate’.

Green and Starmer’s position throughout this has been motivated by a policy of triangulation and policy by focus group whereby they are appealing to middle-class parents who want their kids back at school. Like the Tories, Labour’s position has been motivated by politics, not science. That former Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt called for schools to close earlier this month before the opposition is telling. Meanwhile, the leader of the opposition was being grilled by media for his confusing position. Many believe that Green was appointed due to her loyalty to Starmer just as Williamson has kept his role due to loyalty to Boris Johnson. One would be more concerned if either appointment were based on ability as this would say a great deal about the capability of the other 648 MPs in the Commons if these two are the best and brightest on offer for education.

The issue of schools reopening is a personal one for me. In my blog earlier this month, I told of how my partner who works as a secondary school teacher in London caught COVID-19 and how we both spend Christmas and New Year recovering from the illness. When Greenwich Council tried to close schools in the borough due to skyrocketing infection rates, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson threatened legal action to keep the schools open. By this time, most schools in the area had a significant percentage of students sick, or in isolation having been in contact with someone infected. In many schools, pupils were sent home due to the number of teachers off sick with COVID-19. To argue that continuing with this situation is any better for secondary school students is nonsense.

Much of the concern over school closures is the impact on students’ grades. When the Government announced GCSE and A-level exams would be cancelled once again in 2021 this added to the anxiety. One of the issues here has been this Government’s shift towards having student grades mostly assessed through examinations. This style of assessment favours certain learners over others, as exams favour those with short term recall skills. Many other countries have moved away from a full examination model of assessment to a mix of exams and course work assignments during the year. But aside from implementing a poor education assessment model for students, the pandemic has highlighted the risk of placing so much emphasis on examinations as, if for whatever reason, these cannot go ahead, it becomes difficult to determine student grades. The UK Government’s position on education and assessment is blinkered and ideological, which has meant it struggled to come up with sensible pragmatic solutions to this problem during the crisis. Worse, the Education Secretary has demonstrated he lacks the intellectual rigour and leadership to address these issues.

A coherent and strong opposition would have easily made political mileage during this time, however to date, the opposition has opted for triangulation and timidity. The opposition MP who has made the clearest and most articulate statements regarding school closures during the pandemic has been Lisa Nandy the Shadow Foreign Secretary, who came a distant third in the 2020 UK Labour leadership contest. What Nandy had to say was hardly earth-shattering, merely that the Government needed to get testing and track and trace working properly before it would be safe to reopen schools. To be fair, Starmer, Green and Long-Bailey probably also thought they were saying the same thing, but what people heard was quite different.

Prime Minister Johnson’s non-apology on Tuesday was an insult to the British public. Yes, this was a difficult crisis and all governments have made some mistakes at this time. But the UK has done particularly badly and the statement on Tuesday shows he has learnt nothing. The Conservatives won the 2019 election with the sizeable majority that they did largely due to Brexit (see my blog post immediately after the 2019 UK election) and divisions within the opposition. Boris Johnson is not a strong leader and in this crisis, he has proved to be woefully inept. It is well known that Johnson likes to compare himself to former Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in which case the COVID-19 pandemic has been his Gallipoli.

At a time when the country is in its third lockdown, when over 100,000 people have died, when the economy is in recession and the number of jobless is set to rise, few now are looking to the next election which will likely be held in 2024. Yet that still motivates leaders of the UK’s two main political parties. Polling numbers in recent months have been fairly close between Labour and the Conservatives. Where polling has been much more consistent is in Scotland, where the SNP maintain a strong lead heading into the Scottish Parliament’s election on 6 May 2021. Support for Scottish independence also maintains a strong lead and as I predicted in my blog post nearly a year ago this issue continuing to feature prominently on the political agenda, despite fierce opposition from political leaders in London. Without a doubt, independence campaigners in Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland and Wales, continue to win support for their independence calls on the back of the UK Governments inept handling of this crisis.

There is however hope on the horizon. The Governments rollout of the COVID-19 vaccinations will hopefully in time slow the movement of the virus to a point where current restrictions can be lifted. It is a wonder of modern science that within a year of COVID-19 emerging that scientists, including those at Oxford University, have developed a vaccination. Despite concern by some about the speed with which this has been released, the evidence so far is that widespread vaccination will stop the spread and save thousands of lives. Credit where credit is due, the UK Government have been quick off the mark to get this vaccine available to the most vulnerable with the aim of immunising as many people as possible over the next year. And to the oppositions credit, they have supported the Government on the vaccine rollout.

There is still a long way to go until this crisis ends and the Government have a lot to answer for badly mishandling things to date. The Prime Ministers apology on Tuesday did not cut the mustard and was an insult to the families of those who have died. Lessons from the mistakes over the last year need to be learnt and with this, the Prime Minister needs to cut the bombast and bravado and instead learn humility and humbleness. The successful rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine will be essential not only for ending the crisis but also for rebuilding trust in public trust British state after it has managed this pandemic so badly.

21 comments on “UK COVID-19 death toll hits 100,000 and The PM offers an insincere apology. ”

  1. Ad 1

    +100 great post Nick and sincerely hope you and your partner are on the way to recovery.

  2. dv 2

    Re death rates per million

    Belgium 1802

    Slovenia 1685

    UK 1515

    Then US 1326

    https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries

    • nickkelly 2.1

      The Oxford research on deaths per million is a week or so out of date. The UK after nearly a month in lockdown has started to fall in the death per million numbers – thankfully

  3. AB 3

    "and in this crisis, he has proved to be woefully inept"

    To call Johnson inept is to give him something of a free pass. He is a preposterous Tory toff, and probably inept a lot of the time, but it's not the most important thing. The UK Covid response has been terrible because ideologically the Tories could not bring themselves to do what was necessary – shut down large parts of the economy and give people a big slug of money to stay at home and not work until you have the thing under control. This response requires recognition that citizens have rights above and beyond what they can earn for themselves in the labour market, and that every citizen has obligations towards the wellbeing of every other citizen. These are ideas that are toxic to conservative ideology.

  4. Adrian Thornton 4

    Well the UK media (including The Guardian), UK Jewish leadership council and New Labour members should accept some of this responsibility, as we all know now they all relentlessly attacked, and through their ceaseless combined efforts destroyed Corbyn and the Socialist Labour UK project. And doubt anyone could deny that Corbyn the life long humanitarian, would have dealt with this this pandemic in a far more humane manner…but then you get what you vote for, and they all have admitted at some point either explicitly or implicitly that they preferred a Tory government under Boris than a Labour lead one under Corbyn….so maybe they need to stop bitching so much and look at their own role this UK disaster…wait what am I saying, of course that sort of self reflection never happens, these people are ideologues so the ends always justify the ends, even when it results with the deaths of 102, 000 human beings I assume..

    The proof we have been waiting for: Jeremy Corbyn has the entire media elite against him

    "The press coverage of the early election campaigns amounts to a level of brainwashing that is more commonly associated with dictatorships rather than a proud democracy."

    https://www.thelondoneconomic.com/news/the-proof-we-have-been-waiting-for-jeremy-corbyn-has-the-entire-media-elite-against-him/19/11/

    'Anyone but Corbyn': Jewish voters turn away from Labour

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/dec/10/anyone-but-corbyn-jewish-voters-turn-away-from-labour

    Anti-Corbyn Labour officials worked to lose general election to oust leader, leaked dossier finds

    https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/labour-leak-report-corbyn-election-whatsapp-antisemitism-tories-yougov-poll-a9462456.html

    Yes, Jeremy Corbyn has suffered a bad press, but where's the harm?

    https://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2016/jul/19/yes-jeremy-corbyn-has-suffered-a-bad-press-but-wheres-the-harm

  5. RedLogix 5

    The failure of leadership goes well beyond Johnson or Trump. The whole of Europe has been battered by this disease, partly because of political failure at every level.

    At the very outset we have to look at how WHO burned away a great deal of it's credibility in the first month of the crisis, taking far too long at a critical moment to recommend shutting down travel and borders. As a consequence, the one organisation best placed to lead a global response has been hobbled, despite a lot of good work it's done subsequently.

    Moreover now Trump is gone, it's become respectable to at least question the origin of the virus. This rather long but well written narrative kicks the door wide open, and asks some very obvious questions that have been suppressed for almost a year now.

    In November, David Relman, the Stanford microbiologist, one of the most thoughtful of the voices warning against gain-of-function research, published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the urgent need to unravel the origins of COVID-19. “If SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab to cause the pandemic,” he wrote, “it will become critical to understand the chain of events and prevent this from happening again.” Conflicts of interest by researchers and administrators will need to be addressed, Relman wrote; to reach the truth, the investigation must be transparent, international, and, as much as possible, unpolitical. “A more complete understanding of the origins of COVID-19 clearly serves the interests of every person in every country on this planet.”

    Nor can anyone claim to have been unaware of the potential risk here – it was well understood at least a decade ago. This 2012 article presciently outlined what may well have happened – and makes it clear why so many professionals in the field who knew the risks of their research perfectly well, have spent the last year pretending otherwise.

    As it stands, researchers often study potential pandemic pathogens — including the extremely dangerous SARS virus — in BSL-3 laboratories, ignoring National Institutes of Health guidelines, which clearly state, “Biosafety Level 4 is required for work with dangerous and exotic agents that pose a high individual risk of aerosol-transmitted laboratory infections and life-threatening disease that is frequently fatal, for which there are no vaccines or treatments…”

    And why public health authorities remain so reticent to undertake the definitive programs with Vitamin D remains a mystery to me. Even more disturbing is how they’ve treated Ivermectin’s potential role as completely unwanted. Note carefully, I’m no position to advocate for the effectiveness of these alternative treatments, but I can expect health authorities to honestly fund the research necessary to resolve the issues one way or another.

    Too much of this COVID story seems to have been buried under political and professional conflicts of interest. And as a result the death tolls far higher than they should have been in my view.

    • Drowsy M. Kram 5.1

      The failure of leadership goes well beyond Johnson or Trump. The whole of Europe has been battered by this disease, partly because of political failure at every level.

      Extraordinarily poor leadership by Johnson and Trump has contributed to relatively dire pandemic health outcomes for UK/US citizens, who have suffered ~25% of the global deaths attributed to COVID-19 while representing ~5% of the world's population. Maybe also due in part to a sense of entitlement – COVID’s not the boss of me!
      https://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/2021/01/editorial-the-legislators-fomenting-turmoil-in-oregon.html

      Moreover now Trump is gone, it's become respectable to at least question the origin of the virus.

      If Covid-19 Did Start With a Lab Leak, Would We Ever Know? [19 Jan 2021]
      "The February letter in The Lancet, signed by Daszak and his fellow task-force members, does raise some legitimate concerns. In denouncing the “conspiracy theory” of a possible laboratory origin, it warns of the “fear, rumors, and prejudice” that might arise if this idea became widespread in the absence of evidence, which could then “jeopardize our global collaboration in the fight against this virus.” Indeed, this is the same worry expressed by many critics of the Baker piece—that loose speculation of this kind could be taken up by reckless or malicious actors, then used to buttress other, more harmful notions such as vaccine skepticism. Or else a “lab-leak theory” run amok could imperil more rigorous investigations by the WHO or others."

      On the origins of SARS-CoV-2 [13 Jan 2021]
      "Public health is an enterprise that requires the engagement of the global public health community. As such, countering the corruption of science with politics will require a community effort. The stakeholders in public health—scientists, clinicians and, most importantly, the public—must push back against political interference in essential, objective scientific investigations. We must demand that funding agencies such as the NIH justify overtly political funding decisions for critically important work. A great amount of good can be done by debunking misinformation consistently and educating the public about the need for unbiased, data-focused research into virus origins."

      As humans continue to 'modify' and expand into previously wild habitats they will naturally provide all manner of new opportunities for pests and pathogens – we've been there before. The current pandemic could act as a (tragic) vaccine against future complacency – time will tell how long any 'immunity' lasts.

      And why public health authorities remain so reticent to undertake the definitive programs with Vitamin D remains a mystery to me. Even more disturbing is how they’ve treated Ivermectin’s potential role as completely unwanted.

      Maybe it's a conspiracy smiley

      Vitamin D and COVID-19: why the controversy? [11 Jan 2021]
      To help retain the peak of sunny summer health—to help maintain rugged resistance to winter colds and sickness—drink Schlitz [beer], with Sunshine Vitamin D”, reads an advertisement in the American Magazine from December, 1936.

      Can Vitamin D protect you from COVID-19? [26 Jan 2021]
      If you take a vitamin D supplement, treat it as an additional preventative measure. 'The worry I have is people out there are starting to take vitamin D and potentially getting false reassurance – 'This is protecting me, and therefore I'll carry on misbehaving',' says Professor Sattar. 'We don't know that. You need the randomised trials to report before we can say yes or no.'

      Existing drugs could help treat covid-19. How do we know when to use them? [28 Jan 2021]
      Unfortunately, the debacle with hydroxychloroquine in the summer, touted by the former charlatan in chief as a cure-all for SARS-CoV-2 infection, further poisoned the well of repurposing old and generally safe medications for treating the new disease.

  6. Boris is a waste of oxygen, but the whole UK establishment must be sclerotic and rotting to let such a buffoon anywhere near the levers of power.

  7. Treetop 7

    The WHO plan for a serious pandemic was not fit for purpose. More will come out in the WHO review which Helen Clark is involved in.

    I did hear Johnson apologise sincerely for the high UK death toll on Aljazeera TV a week back. On the Lectern used when Johnson speaks it says "Stay home, Protect the NHS, Save lives."

    It is obvious that immediate action needs to occur for lives to be saved and that everyone needs to play a part in this. As well each country needs to review what has worked and what has not worked in the response to the Covid pandemic.

    It is crucial that where ever the origin of a pandemic starts that it must be notified immediately contained at ground zero and borders to be closed.

    It appears that every country did not have a sufficient pandemic plan for a virus which can show no symptoms and be so transmissible.

    • Incognito 7.1

      It appears that every country did not have a sufficient pandemic plan for a virus which can show no symptoms and be so transmissible.

      Taiwan was prepared and acted decisively and the results speak for themselves.

      • Treetop 7.1.1

        Yes Taiwan is the exception.

        Can you think of any other country being the exception?

        • Incognito 7.1.1.1

          No, I can’t think of any other country at the moment but others might. It is quite telling, isn’t it?

            • Treetop 7.1.1.1.1.1

              In the link pertaining to NZ.

              But the key factor in the countries success was how hard and fast it moved to lockdown the population following early cases.

              Lockdown level 4 was a big success in stopping community transmission. Preventing another outbreak using the levels 1 – 4 and making a change to the criteria of a level needs to be reviewed.

              I would like to see a change at level 2 that when there are 3 or more separate community cases in 3 different households (not community transmission) that the country goes to level 2 for 2 weeks. Hard and fast seems to be the best approach.

              I will read all of the link later over the weekend.

    • Macro 7.2

      It appears that every country did not have a sufficient pandemic plan for a virus which can show no symptoms and be so transmissible.

      Actually the US did have a plan – but you know who thought that it was far better to enrich himself and his buddies than to fund a pandemic response team which Obama had put in place for just such an event.

      • Treetop 7.2.1

        The key word is sufficient.

        I read the link. Not a priority for Trump to manage a pandemic. His record on allowing Covid to run rampant is what cost him re election.

        • Macro 7.2.1.1

          The key word is "did".

          The plan put in place by Obama was made never able to be enacted. The idiot who replaced him, removed all the funding to enrich himself and a few others.

          The plan is still there, but as your rightly point out, it was never a priority of him who shall not be named to manage a pandemic.

          • Treetop 7.2.1.1.1

            Had the plan been enacted the outcome would have been different.

            When it comes to sufficient this is open to interpretation.

  8. joe90 8

    Tories are reduced to shooting the messenger.

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