COVID19 and how the UK got it all wrong

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From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK decided to go its own way and the approach it preferred was controversial to say the least. ‘Take it up the chin’ and ‘let it move through the population in one big move’ are not what you would expect as strategy for a lethal virus. Especially not with the devastating impact in Spain and Italy already right under the nose of Boris Johnson and his team.

His supporters suggested however that time will tell if this strategy was right, apparently still believing that the United Kingdom would be able to deal with this with the ‘good old British spirit’ as Boris Johnson suggested. Despite the WHO already reporting how contagious the lethal virus is and Europe bracing for impact, Boris Johnson believed in spirit as solution for what would soon turn out to be the death sentence for more than 40,000 Britons and there is no end in sight.

On top of the flawed strategy to contain the virus, the healthcare system started to collapse under the rapidly spreading virus and not just in the hospitals. Care homes started to report extremely high infection rates and deceased residents. Until late May the Government under Boris Johnson didn’t even report these numbers in their daily briefings. And it wasn’t just the residents who got infected with the virus, it was also the carers and their families who paid the price and in too many cases with their lives. Where the healthcare workers of the NHS even got advised to reuse PPE to compensate for the shortages, Boris Johnson’s administration kept advising care homes that PPE was not needed…

And yet, none of this completely explains the disaster which happened as the United Kingdom started to pay the price for the disastrous leadership by Boris Johnson. Time has passed since the virus started to move through Europe and the United Kingdom, and the data shows a very clear and sobering picture.

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Italy and Spain were hit hard and early in the COVID-19 crisis, leading to an almost complete collapse of their healthcare systems. Germany got exposed almost simultaneously but with a well prepared and functional healthcare system was able to deal with the crisis much better, especially when it comes to curing the infected patients. Slightly below 5% is very good compared to all other countries world wide.

The United Kingdom had several weeks time until the virus started its lethal aggressive spread and Boris Johnson was almost welcoming it to ‘create immunity under the population’ to which he repetitively added that the NHS was very well prepared to deal with the crisis. Since the NHS has been one of the top themes during his Brexit and election campaigns, one would expect nothing less than that. Nothing was less true. Within 3 weeks, major parts of the British healthcare system where already completely overloaded, ran out of necessary protective equipment to protect staff and patients and had close to no testing capacity available.

Within 3 weeks, the United Kingdom under Boris Johnson was in the same state of collapse as Spain and Italy. Spain and Italy responded with a total and unconditional lockdown of the country and an outcry for support to their European partners. Boris Johnson? He waited 4 more weeks until he decided for a gradual lockdown, during which he persistently declined support from the European Union in for example purchasing PPE. Persisting on his Brexit victory and strategy appeared to be more important than protecting the population and the NHS. Protecting the NHS was nevertheless at that moment already a slogan…

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Data from the Johns Hopkins University confirms that the spread of the virus started significantly later in the United Kingdom than it did in Italy and Spain. The data also shows that the initial spread was slower. And according to Boris Johnson, the NHS was prepared like no other healthcare system in the world. So, how can it be that despite the slower start and the slower spread and the allegedly well prepared and top funded NHS, the chances of survival once infected are lower in the United Kingdom? How can it be that despite this all, more people per million have died in the UK and this curve is still not improving?

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One of the struggles that Italy and Spain had to deal with was their relatively high share of senior citizens, which are clearly identified as a high-risk group. The United Nations publishes detailed information about demographics of every country worldwide, so it is easy to check if this might have influenced the extremely high COVID-19 death rates in the United Kingdom. The answer is clearly NO!

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When comparing the United Kingdom with their former European partners Italy, Spain and Germany, the UK even has the lowest share in the high risk group. The population of Italy and Spain suffered under ailing healthcare systems during this crisis, with emotional outcries from doctors having to decide which patients they could safe and which ones they couldn’t. The deathrate in both countries is attributed to collapsing healthcare systems and aging population.

The NHS, centerpiece in half a decade of election campaigns, especially the campaign by Boris Johnson, can hardly be compared with the ailing and underfunded systems of Italy and Spain, or can they? A decade of budget costs and outsourcing of care under the conservative governments definitely has its toll but still not as bad as the situation for our Southern-European partners.

The real damage was done under the leadership of Boris Johnson and that turns out to be a chain of very bad decisions and lack of required leadership by his administration. The Herd Immunity strategy is only the starting point of how the UK got it all wrong and in many cases still does.

The decision to keep discharging patients to care homes, well knowing that the virus was already spreading aggressively in those care homes and PPE was not available, is just one of them. Care home beds are cheaper than hospital beds…

Not stepping up and filling the emergency stock of medical equipment when there was still time, is another decision with disastrous consequences. Even when the lethal virus was already showing its ugly head throughout Asia and Europe, Boris Johnson stuck with the policy to keep the emergency stock even below the already risk-full low levels agreed in the prior budgets.

When the emergency stock of PPE was rapidly depleting, there still was no corrective action, still no ‘oops, we got this wrong’. Despite outcries by healthcare staff of not having enough protective gear to protect their patients, their families and themselves, Boris Johnson and his staff dared to step in front of the cameras and claim everything was under control. Not just once, for several weeks. Until they finally publicly admitted that their might be an issue but that one tiny shipment from Turkey, which would have lasted not even 2 weeks if it would have all been the right PPE, was going to solve everything… The healthcare staff of the NHS and especially the nurses have paid a very high price for these leadership failures. With their lives! Boris Johnson’s ‘man of the hour’ Matt Hancock cared so little about it that he called it ‘some nurses’ on public television. Boris Johnson doesn’t seem to care much either because Matt ‘some nurses’ Hancock still is in office…

The required testing capacity was nowhere to be found and it took very long until the United Kingdom finally came to the conclusion that something should be done. A testing capacity of 100,000 per day was set as target for April 30th. 100,000 tests per day with a population 66 million citizens isn’t really a lot compared to what other countries do, but at least it is a start, right?

A target of 100,000 tests per day set mid March for the end of April, where Germany was already doing significantly more every single day than the UK was planning to do 6 weeks later. Testing is an important tool to control the spread and also an important tool to start treatment as early as possible!

The UK was very very ‘late to the party’. The goal was of course reported as achieved by Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson but analyst quickly discovered that this was not really the case… Some creative bookkeeping with backlogs from previous days and tests done abroad. Who cares, as long as you can appraise yourself… The nurses who suffered under lack of PPE and lack of testing got another surprise today. They will have to pay taxes over the work related testing now that tests are finally available.

Tracking-and-Tracing is in the words of Boris Johnson ‘the icing on the cake’. When the plans for the NHS Tracing App were announced, two things happened. Apple and Google made crystal clear that they were neither willing nor able to provide the British Government the access it had imagined it would get for its app.

And experts like my friend Bill Mew and myself, became very vocal about the flaws in the design and the usability of the app. When questioned by Keir Starmer about these reported challenges, Boris Johnson bluntly denied them. Weeks later when questioned again by Keir Starmer about reports that the NHS Tracing App was not working, Boris Johnson replied that the App was up and running, and ready for deployment.

Again weeks later, after finally admitting that the App was far from ‘up and running, and ready for deployment’, Boris Johnson simply claimed that no country worldwide had a functioning Tracking and Tracing App. When confronted with the fact that, among many other countries, Germany already had a functioning App at that moment, Boris Johnson was not ashamed to claim that this was not true…

Some of what the United Kingdom is going through is the result of the past, no doubt about that. There has to be a lot wrong with the healthcare system for it to become the core slogan of several election campaigns. Akin to the situation in Spain and Italy? Even if that would be the case, which I doubt, Boris Johnson is in office since 23 July 2019 and has since than made countless statements of all the good he was going to do for the NHS.

The latest since mid February, Boris Johnson and his administration are aware of the risks and impact of the COVID-19 crisis. What happened after that is a combination of not responding at all, making catastrophic decisions when responding and when needed bending the facts to a comfortable excuse.

As the Czech proverb goes: or in plain English . Meaning if something is wrong, chances are it started with the government or leaders. Boris Johnson is the fish in the British COVID-19 crisis and over 40,000 Britons paid with their lives for that. How many deaths could have been avoided? Nobody will know but an indisputable fact is that each and every avoidable death is one too many, and the UK under Boris Johnson has many too many…

Data from the Johns Hopkins University shows that the virus is increasing its spread again through big parts of the United Kingdom, again. Infection Mortality Rate is still not improving, even worse, it is again worsening. The end is not in sight.

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Dad, consultant, coach, speaker, author. Mainly Cyber Security, leadership, responsible tech and organizational change.

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