A grim toll and a question of responsibility

World’s worst? Britain’s death toll compares poorly in both absolute and per capita terms.

Should Boris Johnson resign? As the UK passed a terrible milestone, the Prime Minister faced hard questions about the government’s response to the pandemic, and how it measures up.

“I take full responsibility”.

It was the second time Boris Johnson had said this in 24 hours. Facing the leader of the opposition yesterday, the British prime minister repeated that he had done all he could to save lives.

According to his main political opponent, Labour leader Keir Starmer, it had not been enough. The UK has crossed the threshold where, by all measures, 100,000 people have died from Covid-19.

Britain is only the fifth country to lose so many and is the smallest to do so. The UK coronavirus death rate stands at 148.48 per 100,000 people, higher than any country of comparable size.

More than twice as many British people have died of Covid-19 as died in the Blitz. The Archbishop of Canterbury has called on the nation to pray and reflect on the scale of the loss.

But people are also reflecting on how this happened, and whether the prime minister is to blame.

The case breaks down like this:

1. Dither and delay: The first charge against Johnson is that he did not lock the country down fast enough. Neil Ferguson, an advisor to SAGE, has argued that if the UK had locked down a week earlier, up to 20,000 lives could have been saved.

2. Care homes: One reason UK deaths were so high is that the government, fearing the NHS would be overwhelmed, allowed the release of hospital patients being treated for other illnesses, untested, into care homes. The virus ran unchecked through care homes during the first wave, killing 16,000 residents, compared to 3,000 in Germany.

3. Work till you drop: The government was criticised for failing to provide support for those on low pay to isolate, and for encouraging people to return to work, even though workplaces have been hotbeds of infection. One office in Swansea, for example, has been linked to more than 500 cases of Covid-19.

Boris Johnson’s defenders argue that to explain the UK’s dire performance requires more than pointing to decisions by the prime minister and his cabinet. There are other factors to consider:

1. New strain: The Kent variant of the coronavirus that emerged at the end of last year is said to be at least 30% more virulent than the original strain. As the epicentre of this mutation, it was inevitable that Britain would be harder hit than its neighbours.

2. Public health: Britain has more obese people than many of its European peers, and has, by global standards, an older population. Both age and weight are risk factors for Covid-19.

3. Underlying conditions: Some have made similar points about the health of the state; the UK ranks 30th out of the OECD countries in terms of hospital capacity. This is a problem that preceded Johnson, and that arguably led to the tragedy in care homes.

As he addressed the nation, Johnson said that when the crisis was over “we will make sure we learn the lessons” of the pandemic. For Johnson’s critics, these lessons will come too late.

Should Boris Johnson resign?

Bye bye Boris

No, say some. The PM has led the country through the worst crisis in living memory. He was right to weigh up the dangers of Covid-19 against the damage of a national lockdown. He delayed the first lockdown because he was following scientific models – not a whim. What is more, he is now overseeing the roll-out of a vaccine much more effectively than his European counterparts.

Yes, he should, say others. Even members of his own party are attacking his approach. Johnson has not been able to make any of the hard decisions necessary to face down the virus. Defenders who point to structural problems behind Britain’s high death toll are pointing to the legacy of governments he has served in. He cannot avoid taking real responsibility for his actions any longer.

You Decide

  1. Would it make a difference if Boris Johnson resigned?
  2. Is there any justification for blaming the public for the UK’s Covid-19 death toll?

Activities

  1. The UK is currently planning to introduce enforced hotel quarantine for visitors from certain countries. Write a story about how you would stay entertained in a small hotel room for 2 weeks. Use some of the reports on quarantined athletes training for the Australian Open for inspiration.
  2. Imagine you are an opposition MP. After researching one aspect of the UK’s coronavirus response, and watching or reading some parliamentary questions, draft one that you think would oblige the Prime Minister to admit a failing on the part of the government.

Some People Say...

“Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

John Donne (1572 - 1631), English Poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that countries in Southeast Asia have managed to limit the impact of Covid-19 more successfully than their counterparts in Europe. Vietnam, for example, has had only 35 deaths, while Taiwan has had seven and Cambodia none. One explanation offered is that the region had learned the lessons of the SARS epidemic. A similar explanation has been offered for the relative success of Senegal, which faced a deadly Ebola outbreak in 2014.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is on the role of private companies in the UK’s response to the virus. Some have pointed to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine as proof of the importance of private enterprise in fighting Covid-19. Others have argued that government outsourcing of test and trace programmes has been wasteful and inefficient. These debates reflect a longer-term argument about the function and shape of the British state, which Covid-19 has only made more heated.

Word Watch

Leader of the opposition
Currently Kier Starmer, who was elected leader of the Labour Party last year.
By all measures
Covid-19 deaths are commonly measured using one of two statistics: the total number of deaths mentioning Covid-19 on the death certificate, or deaths registered within 28 days of a positive test.
Comparable size
Belgium has a worse per capita rate, but many choose to ignore it and other smaller countries when assessing comparative performance.
Blitz
The German bombing of Britain in World War Two is estimated to have killed around 40,000 civilians.
SAGE
The scientific advisory group for emergencies is responsible for keeping the government informed on how to respond to the pandemic.
Epicentre
The origin point, originally meaning the location of an earthquake.
Global standards
Many European countries, such as Italy, have older populations, so looking at the age of a population alone does little to explain what happened in the UK.
OECD
The organisation for economic cooperation and development was founded to promote liberal market economies in opposition to communism during the cold war.
Dither and delay
A slogan used by Johnson in the 2019 election to criticise parliament’s reluctance to take action on Brexit.

Subjects

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