Naomi Butterfield

When Boris Johnson took a strong Conservative majority in December 2019, his first trial was expected to involve keeping Britain afloat and united at the beginning of the official Brexit period. Instead, with a crippled National Health Service (NHS) that he threatens to further compromise, he came face to face with the worst pandemic in a generation. With over 300,465 positive cases and over 42,288 COVID-related deaths as of 18 June, the UK is recognized as one of the biggest failures of a western nation to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

The story of the UK catastrophe arose from acting too late. This was compounded by an ongoing history of financial cuts to the NHS and compounded once again by dramatic miscommunication and confusion emanating from parliament. Underlying everything is the British government’s obstinate determination to stay true to Brexit, thereby refusing any offer of life-saving collaboration with the EU.

With his eyes on the economy, Johnson initially refused to acknowledge the threat of the virus and implemented inadequate measures to protect public health. Government advisors broadcast mixed messages throughout March, suggesting that parliament aimed to develop herd immunity to avoid a grinding halt to the economy. After public outrage ensued, the government refuted the claims and shifted gears on 16 March, quickly moving towards ever-stricter social-distancing measures and eventually a full lockdown on 23 March. But at this point infections were already exponentially soaring. It was too late for a lockdown to have a significant effect. Research has since shown that committing to the lockdown a week earlier could have resulted in halving the number of total deaths.

This failure to “flatten the curve” developed the need for a much longer lockdown and has resulted in a catastrophic financial impact. Five percent of the country’s GDP was immediately injected into the economy, mainly through furlough payments and NHS funding, while 11 percent in delays and loan guarantees is expected to follow. Already, the country has seen a drop of 20 percent in its domestic GDP. This is a cruel irony given that Johnson had prioritized protecting the economy.

On 16 March the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the backbone of the pandemic response must be to “test, test, test.” The very same week the UK stopped testing. Contact tracing was abolished, and the NHS had no capacity for large-scale testing. In fact, the overwhelmed health service has not played a role in the acceleration of testing at all, with the government out-sourcing responsibilities to private contractors such as Serco. The necessity to do so comes from the past decade of Conservative-led cuts to health systems. The once-powerful NHS has been systematically stripped of its parts by top-down restructuring, which, among other things, weakened the pandemic response infrastructure which was effective in targeting the 2009 swine flu outbreak. The system’s centralization of previously localised health centres is a particular problem when considering testing capacity – the NHS has been left with only 122 labs at its disposal. Now, inequitable market mechanisms must fill the gaps that the nation’s renowned healthcare system cannot.

Yet it is not simply the provision of testing that has proven to be unduly complicated and confusing. Analysts and citizens alike are also struggling to understand exactly what the government is doing. When Health Secretary Matt Hancock proudly announced reaching the 100,000-tests-a-day goal by 1 May, many voiced concerns about how this was achieved. Analysts later discovered that this number referred to tests that had been sent out but not yet taken, allowing for double counting, and thus did not reflect the actual number of people tested.

Unfortunately, contradictions in government statements and mistruths in communication were not new concept for Britons at this stage of the pandemic. As early as mid-March when cases were exponentially rising and fear was rife among the population, the government issued various explanations for how and why Britain had not been a part of the EU personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement scheme. It claimed that there had been no UK representative at any of the procurement meetings (there was); that the government wasn’t aware it was going ahead (they were); and that they hadn’t been sent an email about it (they had). The avoidance of the procurement scheme, as well as the lack of attention paid to international warnings to the UK to prepare for the worst, highlighted the UK government’s need to distance themselves from the EU. Amid the confusion and strife of the pandemic, Johnson’s politics shone through: Britain was not going to play with others – they were going to tackle this first challenge as an independent nation alone.

One prominent thread woven through all aspects of the UK’s problem-rife COVID-19 response is miscommunication and confusion. With Johnson’s eyes focused on independence from the EU, and an unwillingness to sacrifice the strength of the economy, his politics were not prepared to battle a pandemic. On top of the welfare systems propped up on a decade of austerity cuts and empty promises, Britain’s odds were set for disaster.

Part of the COVID Comparative Project. View the complete series.