How the Government repeatedly failed the public over Covid-19

Prof John Ashton, former North West Regional Director of Public Health, has been a fierce critic of the Government’s handling of Covid-19 and has written a new hard-hitting book on the issue
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The handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by the British government and its advisers has been a calamity.

Slow to act at the beginning of the emergency, a lost month in February was compounded by multiple flawed decisions as the tsunami of the new virus came flooding across the country, carrying off 10,000s of the most precious family members in the autumn of their lives.

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In my new book Blinded by Corona, How The Pandemic Ruined Britain’s Health and Wealth, I have recorded in detail the sequence of events, the incompetence, the lies and the attempts to blame others rather than doing accepting responsibility.

Prof John Ashton, former North West Regional Director of Public HealthProf John Ashton, former North West Regional Director of Public Health
Prof John Ashton, former North West Regional Director of Public Health

It is clear the Prime Minister was distracted by his success in getting Brexit through Parliament and by his new baby, missing the opportunity to get to grips with the shortages of PPE and lack of capacity for testing and tracing the spread of the virus as it took root in communities across the land.

The consequences of this were to place many dedicated NHS and community care workers and their patients at risk; more than 600 NHS staff died in the first wave, including a majority from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and the incomprehensible decision to discharge infected patients from hospital to care homes sparked a disastrous second epidemic among the most vulnerable.

The neglect and savage cuts of local public health teams over the past 10 years had left them too weak to respond to the challenge of carrying out the task that they have excelled at for over 150 years: being able to get on top of epidemics such as cholera, tuberculosis and HIV/Aids, promptly and effectively through their intimate knowledge of their communities and neighbourhoods.

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This provided the excuse the government needed to throw literally billions of pounds at private companies with no experience of this sophisticated work and the requirement for sensitivity in following up the contacts of those infected. Huge sums of money have been wasted and as the second wave has hit the virus is now out of control.

The first lockdown enjoyed a remarkable degree of public support and within weeks the rate of spread of the virus had been halted. The thing to do then was to use the summer months to press on and eliminate the virus to the extent that by now local outbreaks could be readily managed by the intervention of local public health teams supporting those testing positive to self-isolate.

That dividend of low virus circulation was squandered by an unseemly rush to put the imperative of the economy above that of the public good, when the two things should go hand in glove.

The incitement by the Prime Minister to ‘shop, shop, shop’, to eat and drink in restaurants and pubs, and to go back to the office and other workplaces, enabled the virus to continue to circulate. When the summer holiday period was over and the schools and colleges returned to their campuses a second wave was hinted as surely as at a bonfire party on November 5.

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As the pandemic entered the second phase from a position of strength, it was able to insinuate itself into most nooks and crannies of the British Isles. This has been especially in the most disadvantaged communities, not least in northern areas with their concentrations of poverty and ill health and is in contrast to the original outbreak in March, which was concentrated in the February half-term, ski-going areas of the healthier Home Counties.

At its peak in April the daily toll of deaths was more than 1,000 for a two-week period ; at the current rate of escalation we will be back in this situation within the next two weeks.

In addition, it is now clear that even when the illness caused by the virus is mild or asymptomatic and affecting younger patients, the occurrence of the complication of long-Covid, through the virus affecting organs such as the kidneys, liver, heart and brain , may lead to a much-reduced quality of life and shortening of life expectancy in the years to come.

So what is to be done? The catastrophic loss of trust in government that followed Dominic Cummings’ escapade to Durham has led to a collapse in public support for the measures needed now to contain the epidemic. It is essential this trust and cooperation should be rebuilt, but it will not be easy to achieve and is probably impossible with the current centralised and discredited leadership of the response to the crisis.

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The recent stand-off between the Mayor of Greater Manchester, together with many political leaders from across the political spectrum in the north, probably points the way ahead. It was always a mistake to try to micromanage the pandemic from inside the M25 and this , once in a 100-year crisis must surely now give a turbo boost to greater self- determination for the English regions .

What is essential now is for a coalition of northern councils and their public health teams to take control of finding, testing and tracing for the virus. They must be in a position to support members of the public to play a full part in preventing viral spread through personal behaviour and hygiene, mask wearing in public, reduced mixing together and social distancing with self isolation when necessary.

Central government has failed us. What it must do now is own up to its mistakes of commission and omission and get behind the local authorities and elected mayors, providing them with the wherewithal to get on top of this pandemic and ensure that by the spring we can all breath the fresh air with confidence and heave collective sighs of relief. We must then make sure that never again can we be so ruined by one of the humblest forms of life.

Prof John Ashton is former NW Regional Director of Public Health and author of Blinded By Corona, How The Pandemic Ruined Britain’s Health and Wealth (Gibson Square Press)