A testing debacle, a U-turn on face masks and brutal rows over PPE shortages and lockdown: How Boris Johnson’s approach to tackling the coronavirus crisis has been behind the rest of the world at almost EVERY step
- It is now 18 weeks since the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the UK
- Boris Johnson’s response to pandemic has faced intense and growing criticism
- PM has been attacked over U-turn on face masks and abandoning virus testing
- Government also battled through rows over PPE shortages and lockdown timing
- Britain’s response has been different to that of many of its European neighbours
- Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19
Boris Johnson is facing growing questions over the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic with Britain’s official death toll now approaching 40,000.
It is now 18 weeks since the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the UK on January 31.
Since then the Government has been repeatedly rocked by rows and blunders as critics continually asked why ministers were taking a different approach to the outbreak compared to other countries.
Downing Street has now said the UK is beginning the ‘recovery phase’ of the crisis but with a public inquiry inevitable, there is growing scrutiny of the action taken by the Government.
Below is a breakdown of how the UK responded to the spread of the disease and how its approach has differed from other countries which have fared better in tackling it.
Boris Johnson, pictured in Downing Street on June 3, is facing growing questions over the UK’s response to the coronavirus crisis
The UK’s initial response to the Wuhan outbreak
Coronavirus first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December with the outbreak quickly spiralling in just a matter of weeks.
Beijing took the unprecedented decision to put the city into a strict state of lockdown on January 23.
World Health Organisation officials have said that all major governments were made aware by the end of January of how serious the situation could become.
But the UK Government’s focus was largely on Britain’s long-awaited departure from the European Union which finally took place on January 31 after years of bitter political wrangling.
Mr Johnson delivered a major speech in Greenwich on February 3 in which he set out his vision for post-Brexit Britain.
But coronavirus had started to creep into the political mainstream as Mr Johnson made clear his view on Wuhan-style lockdowns.
He said: ‘We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when 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…’
The Wuhan airlift
As soon as the Chinese city was put into a state of lockdown the UK government faced questions about bringing back British citizens.
Both the US and Japan managed to airlift some of their citizens from the city on January 29.
But the first charter flight heading to the UK did not leave Wuhan until January 31 after being delayed due to China failing to grant permission to take off.
Meanwhile, people due to get onto the flight were only given five hours notice to get to the plane despite the city being in lockdown.
When the 83 British evacuees arrived back in the UK at RAF Brize Norton they were then taken by bus to a facility at Arrowe Park Hospital, Wirral.
But the Government faced a backlash after the bus drivers tasked with transporting the people to the site 172 miles away were not provided with protective equipment.
It was not until February 4 that the Foreign Office advised all Britons to leave China if they were able to.
A motorcade of coaches containing British citizens flown out of Wuhan arrive at Arrowe Park Hospital in Wirral, where they were quarantined, at the end of January
Abandoning routine testing
During the early weeks of the outbreak the UK was routinely testing people with coronavirus symptoms and attempting to trace their contacts to stop the spread of the disease.
But the Government abandoned routine testing on March 12 as Mr Johnson told the nation that anyone with symptoms of coronavirus should self-isolate at home for a week.
The decision to shift away from testing was blamed on a lack of domestic capacity while Government experts also suggested checks were no longer an ‘appropriate intervention’ because of the scale of the spread of the disease.
However, as the UK outbreak surged, the Government was forced into a U-turn as Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced on April 2 a new ‘five pillar’ plan to boost testing capacity.
The UK’s decision to ditch testing seemingly went against World Health Organisation advice, with the body having said that the key to fighting the disease was to ‘test, test, test’.
Effective test and trace regimes have been critical to the success of other countries like South Korea and Germany in keeping their death rates much lower than the UK.
The decision to abandon routine testing is now seen by many experts as one of the main reasons why the UK has one of the worst death tolls in the world.
Inadequate testing capacity
The dramatic shift in approach on testing was best illustrated on April 2 as Mr Hancock set a target of hitting 100,000 daily tests carried out by the end of the month.
When the announcement was made approximately 10,000 tests were being done every day with the Government then scrambling in the weeks that followed to ramp up capacity.
In contrast, South Korea was capable of testing 20,000 people a day by the start of March while Germany was managing 15,000 by the middle of March.
UK ministers faced intense criticism for failing to seek help from the private sector, particularly from smaller firms, quickly enough.
Experts argued that small laboratories could be put to work to process swab tests and help to hit the target.
The push was likened to the ‘little ships’ which helped during the Dunkirk evacuation in the Second World War.
But the Government was accused of failing to act on offers of help when they were first made which meant the UK was always struggling to gain ground.
The slow uptake of the offers was blamed by some in Whitehall on Public Health England’s alleged ‘control freakery’ but ministers did eventually U-turn and seek support from small labs.
Mr Hancock then claimed victory at the end of April as he said the target had been hit only for it to emerge that the Government had included postal kits in the figures on the day they were sent out rather than when they were processed.
Mr Johnson admitted at the end of May during an appearance in front of the Liaison Committee that the UK’s testing capability was underpowered at the start of the outbreak because the ‘brutal reality’ was Britain did not ‘learn the lessons’ of previous pandemics.
Antigen versus antibody tests
When Mr Hancock made his 100,000 tests pledge it is thought he was expecting some of that number to be made up of antibody tests.
Antibody tests show if someone has had coronavirus while the more laborious antigen tests show if someone currently has it.
Mr Johnson said on March 19 that the Government was in negotiations to buy ‘game changer’ antibody tests.
But it subsequently emerged that none of the antibody tests were accurate enough to be rolled out, meaning Mr Hancock was totally reliant on ramping up antigen testing to hit his target.
The UK then had to try to get millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money back for the antibody tests it had already agreed to purchase, with reports suggesting Britain had paid two Chinese companies an estimated £16 million for two million tests which could not be used.
A furious row over PPE shortages
A row over shortages of personal protective equipment for NHS and care staff dominated April as ministers were told a lack of gowns, masks and gloves was putting the lives of frontline workers at risk.
Ministers scrambled to buy up equipment from all over the world as they insisted there was not a national shortage of PPE.
However, they did concede there may have been localised instances of hospitals and care homes not having enough equipment.
Ministers were keen to trumpet their apparent successes as pressure grew with the Government announcing in the middle of April that a deal had been done to fly in a massive order of equipment from Turkey.
However, the shipment descended into farce as delivery was delayed only for it to later emerge at the start of May that 400,000 gowns were still sitting in a UK warehouse because they did not meet British safety standards.
400,000 gowns ordered by the UK from Turkey are now sitting in a warehouse after inspectors deemed them useless
A U-turn on wearing face coverings
The wearing of face masks has become a common sight across the globe with a raft of countries steadily making the coverings compulsory on public transport and in situations where social distancing is not possible since the middle of March.
New York made its decision on April 15, in Germany it was April 22, in France it was May 11 and in South Korea it was May 26.
The scientific community has been split on how effective face coverings are with the World Health Organisation still recommending that only two groups of people should wear them: Those who are sick and those who are caring for someone with coronavirus.
However, experts are increasingly leaning toward the notion that something is better than nothing.
A University of Oxford study published on March 30 concluded that surgical masks are just as effective at preventing respiratory infections as N95 masks for doctors, nurses and other health care workers.
For much of the outbreak the UK Government said it was assessing the evidence on wearing face masks as it delayed recommending they be worn.
Number 10’s experts suggested that wearing face coverings may only provide a very small benefit.
Eventually on April 30 Mr Johnson said face coverings could be ‘useful’ as lockdown was eased but wearing them was voluntary.
It was only yesterday that the Government announced the wearing of face masks will be made compulsory on public transport from June 15 with some experts querying why it has taken Britain so long to make the move.
Slow action on protecting care homes
Ministers have faced repeated claims of treating the care sector like a ‘second class citizen’ during the outbreak when compared to the NHS.
The Government has also faced accusations of unsafely discharging care home residents from hospitals back to care settings before coronavirus testing was widespread, risking outbreaks.
Official statistics showed that between March 2 and May 1 there were more than 12,000 deaths in care homes where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificates amid fears the true number is likely to be much higher.
Mr Johnson was skewered on the issue in the middle of May by Sir Keir Starmer after the Labour leader quoted official guidance that had been in place until March 12 – well after coronavirus had started being transmitted in the UK – which said ‘it remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected’.
Sir Keir said during PMQs that the advice showed the Government had been ‘too slow to protect people in care homes’.
Mr Johnson replied that ‘it wasn’t true’ to say the advice said that. He later refused to apologise and accused Sir Keir of quoting selectively from the guidance.
Amid growing pressure over the approach to the care sector, Mr Hancock then announced on May 15 that all care home residents and staff will be tested for coronavirus by ‘early June’. Critics asked why testing had not been ramped up earlier.
Announcing lockdown later than European neighbours
Mr Johnson put the UK into a state of coronavirus lockdown on March 23 as people were told they could only leave the house for food, medicine, exercise once a day or to get to work if they could not work from home.
Up to that point the Government’s main coronavirus advice to combat the spread of the disease had been for people to wash their hands more often than normal.
His decision to impose draconian restrictions on daily life came later than a number of the UK’s European neighbours which had already chosen to act.
For example, a lockdown in France came into effect on March 17 while in Spain it was even earlier on March 14.
The UK Government has always insisted its decisions have been guided by the latest expert advice.
Official data shows that adherence to the lockdown measures in the UK has been high but the Government has faced accusations of causing confusion as the four Home Nations ease measures at different rates with England taking the most aggressive approach and Scotland being most cautious.
Advice to remain two metres apart from other people when outside has been a central plank of the Government’s coronavirus response.
But that message risked being undermined after it emerged that scientists were urging the government to tell people to stop shaking hands the same day Mr Johnson was boasting about shaking hands with ‘everybody’.
Records released on May 5 showed a SAGE sub-committee on March 3 concluded that ‘Government should advise against greetings such as shaking hands and hugging, given existing evidence about the importance of hand hygiene’.
However, that evening Mr Johnson told a press conference in Downing Street that he ‘continued to shake hands’ and the important thing was washing them.
He said: ‘I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.’
Critics have also argued that adherence to social distancing rules and wider lockdown restrictions had undoubtedly been undermined by a row over Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham.
Foreign travel ban
On March 12 Donald Trump announced sweeping travel restrictions on 26 European countries in a bid to stop the spread of the disease in the US.
The US President banned travellers from EU states from going to the US. The UK and Ireland were initially not included before the restrictions were then ramped up.
It was not until March 17 when the UK government took similar action as the Foreign Office announced it was advising against all non-essential international travel with the restrictions coming into force immediately.
Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds speak with heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua at the Commonwealth Service at Westminster Abbey on Commonwealth Day on March 9
Failing to impose tough border control measures
While the Government did impose a ban on non-essential international travel it did not completely close the UK’s borders which meant people were still able to come into the country from abroad – even from coronavirus hotspots.
Statistics published in May showed that just 273 out of 18.1 million people who arrived in the UK in the three months before the coronavirus lockdown were placed into quarantine.
Even after lockdown there have still been hundreds of thousands people arriving in the UK every month.
Ministers were repeatedly criticised over a lack of screening at airports for people coming back to the UK, particularly during the early weeks of the outbreak, amid fears Britain was importing new cases.
The Government subsequently argued that tough restrictions at the border would have had little effect because of the increasing domestic rate of transmission.
Ministers are now planning to introduce 14 day quarantine periods for returning travellers from June 8 prompting questions over why the move was not taken right at the start of the outbreak.
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