UK Government Under Fire for Pandemic Response

The United Kingdom is reporting more than 700 Covid-19 deaths a day as criticism mounts over a lack of preparation and testing.

People wear masks as they walk near Britain’s Houses of Parliament in London on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

(CN) — A prime minister missing in action and still bedridden 27 days after he announced he was sick with Covid-19. A government accused of botching its response to the pandemic at every turn. Doctors and nurses dying at alarming rates. A country grappling with a death toll among the worst in Europe.

This is the troubling picture of the United Kingdom, where the government run by Boris Johnson, a charismatic but controversial Conservative prime minister, has become Europe’s prime exhibit of government missteps and failures in handling the coronavirus pandemic.

On Wednesday, the U.K. reported 759 new deaths in its hospitals, bringing its total to 18,100 fatalities, the fourth highest in Europe. But unlike Italy, Spain and France, the U.K. continues to report deaths of over 700 people a day. One Labour Party parliamentarian said that’s the equivalent of two jumbo jets colliding in midair.

Moreover, the number of fatalities in the U.K. is likely much higher. The Office for National Statistics said on Tuesday that the deaths in England and Wales for the week ending on April 10 were 75% higher than normal. Based on government data, the Financial Times newspaper estimates that as many as 41,000 people have died from the virus, more than double the official death toll.

Official tolls in other countries are also considered undercounts because many people who died in homes and nursing facilities were not tested for the virus and were not officially classified as dying from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

This week has been particularly rough for Johnson, who remains in quarantine where he is recovering after being infected with the virus. Johnson was briefly admitted to a hospital when his condition worsened.

Johnson contracted the virus after downplaying the outbreak and carried out his duties without taking precautions. He even visited a hospital with Covid-19 patients and was photographed shaking hands with hospital staff. For now, his foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, is standing in for the prime minister.

Over the weekend, the Sunday Times newspaper revealed that Johnson missed five national crisis meetings in January and February when the government was assessing the threat from the new coronavirus.

The article’s headline read: “38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster.”

The newspaper’s report was a stunning chronicle of complacency and undercut the government’s assurances that the U.K. was ready for a pandemic. The newspaper, relying on government sources, found stockpiles of protective gear were depleted. Pandemic planning had been put on the back burner during the U.K.’s crisis to deal with Brexit. Even after the threat was evident, the government was slow to stock up on ventilators, tests and other supplies, the Times reported.

Scandal erupted. Downing Street, the prime minister’s office, issued a rare and lengthy rebuttal, but acknowledged Johnson had missed the meetings. The government said a prime minister doesn’t always attend such national crisis meetings.

Instead of overseeing the crisis meetings, Johnson was spending time with his girlfriend – who had not yet informed the world that she was pregnant – at a country retreat. His mind may have been elsewhere also because he was involved in divorce proceedings.

“Johnson may well have been distracted by matters in his personal life during his stay in the countryside,” the newspaper reported. “Aides were told to keep their briefing papers short and cut the number of memos in his red box if they wanted them to be read.”

At the same time, Johnson was boasting about his remarkable political feat of winning a bruising and years-long fight over Brexit. He won an election in December and then easily pushed through Parliament the U.K.’s exit from the European Union, a historic moment and considered the most significant political shift in U.K. history since World War II.

Empty streets surround The Albert pub in central London on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Then the pandemic struck an unsuspecting Johnson.

His government at first downplayed the threat from the virus. Then, government scientists and officials argued that the best policy was to seek to achieve “herd immunity,” a tactic that requires a sizable majority of people contracting the virus and building up immunity.

With the number of infected people quickly rising, Johnson shifted gears and imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 23. But it was too late: The U.K. was already in the midst of a serious outbreak.

Making matters worse, the U.K. found itself lacking in protective equipment for medical workers and woefully behind in testing for infections. The U.K.’s shortcomings are blamed in large part on years of budget cuts to health services demanded by Conservative governments since the 2008 financial crisis.

On Wednesday, the government was grilled over its response when the House of Commons held a most unusual session – its first-ever Prime Minister’s Question Time inside a near-empty Westminster with members of Parliament asking their questions from their homes and offices via computers.

During normal times, the House of Commons on Wednesdays holds the time-honored tradition when parliamentarians ask the prime minister questions. These are raucous affairs with opposing party members waving papers, jeering and taunting each other.

Not so this Wednesday. Inside the chamber, only about 50 members were allowed to attend. Raab stood in for Johnson on the Conservative side. No one sat next to him or behind him. When he spoke, his voice echoed in the empty chamber.

Opposite Raab was the new leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer. Starmer recently was elected to take over from Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left Labour leader who resigned following his party’s devastating election defeat and failed campaign to stop Brexit.

It was a slightly dull affair with Starmer refraining from incendiary rhetoric. It was his first appearance as the leader of the opposition at a Prime Minister’s Question Time. But he had plenty of questions for the government.

He noted that the U.K. is testing only about 18,000 people a day, far below promises the government has made that by end of April the country would be testing 100,000 people a day.

“We’re way behind the curve,” Starmer said.

He criticized the government for not making it easier for medical workers to get tested, saying they must travel to far-away testing centers to see if they have the virus.

“It’s little wonder we are seeing these pictures of half-empty testing centers,” Starmer said, adding that far too many medical workers have died from the virus.

The government announced on Wednesday that since the outbreak, 69 medical staff with the government’s National Health Service and 15 workers in care homes have died. The government also has acknowledged many health care workers were given flawed tests.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab speaks in the House of Commons on Wednesday. (House of Commons via AP)

Raab insisted the government was on pace to reach 100,000 tests a day.

Starmer also said there are “countless examples” of medical workers lacking protective gear and resorting to wearing homemade masks. He said protection was “the least they deserve.”

“This has been a stress test of our health care system and the government plan is clearly not working,” he said.

Raab countered that there was a worldwide shortage in protective gear but added that the government had delivered about 1 billion items of protective equipment.

“There is a pattern emerging,” Starmer said. “We were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment.”

Raab rejected the assertion: “I don’t accept this premise that we have been slow. We have been guided by science.”

The government also came under fire from parliamentarians asking questions from their homes and offices.

Some demanded the government do more to help people who are struggling financially. One Conservative member lashed out at banks for charging high interest rates on people who need cash.

Ian Blackford, the House of Commons leader of the Scottish National Party, urged the government to consider a basic income scheme to provide everyone with funds.

“People are being left behind,” Blackford said. “Put cash into pockets.”

Raab said the government has no plan to do that. “We want to make sure we provide the support who needs it the most,” he said. The U.K. government has announced a massive rescue package for businesses and individuals.

One Labour member, Barry Gardiner, accused the government of not following the advice of its scientists, who he said recommended a lockdown on Feb. 26, three and a half weeks before the country was shut down. He cited a report from a government advisory committee that was released as part of probes into the government’s handling of the crisis. Opposition parties are calling for a full-scale investigation into the response, something called a public inquiry in Britain. Raab shot down that demand on Wednesday.

The session also saw Matt Hancock, the heavily criticized health secretary, give Parliament an update. He tried to assure the nation the crisis is under control.

“Our [National Health Service] has never at one point been overwhelmed by coronavirus,” Hancock said, adding there are thousands of spare intensive care beds and plenty of ventilators.

He insisted that the demand for tests was lower than expected and that testing was “ahead of schedule.”

“We are at the peak” of the outbreak, Hancock assured.

Jon Ashworth, the Labour shadow health secretary, questioned that sunny assessment.

“It looks like we are heading to have one of the worst death rates in Europe,” Ashworth said. “Why is our death rate so poor compared to, say, Germany?”

Hancock said death rates between countries shouldn’t be compared and insisted the U.K. never fell behind in testing.

“This is an area where we have had the foot on the gas all the way through,” he said.

But his assurances left another Labour member, Barry Sheerman, unimpressed.

“I believe it is a shambles of leadership and management,” Sheerman said. “Many of us do not believe [Hancock] is telling the truth to the people of this country.”

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Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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