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Written by Joseph Waterfield

2019 was an eventful year, with protests in Hong Kong, a general election in the UK, and Brexit talks being a staple of news broadcasts. However, our lives, and the lives of those around us, continued to function with general normality; that is until the New Year came around. While people were putting up their Christmas trees in the UK, doctors in the central Chinese city of Wuhan were starting to worry about patients quarantined in their hospitals suffering from an unusual type of pneumonia. As the unknown illness started to spread in one of China’s major industrial hubs, a few doctors tried to warn citizens to take care at work and avoid close contact with others. However, it was only on January 23rd when Wuhan city and the surrounding Hubei province was placed in an unprecedented lockdown, that the threat of this new virus, known as Covid-19, would be recognised. 

Some countries responded rapidly and effectively to the spread of this new virus, with New Zealand being one such example. Their government-imposed travel restrictions to and from other countries were introduced as early as February, and on 23 March, New Zealand committed to an elimination strategy, quickly responding to cases that were reported and isolating those affected to limit spread. As a result of this decisive action, the country had reported only 102 cases and 0 deaths by late March. 

So, given that a number of countries were able to react quickly to the situation and limit the number of cases and deaths, why was it the case that, while New Zealand was limiting travel and isolating those effected as early as February, the UK kept its borders open, and only went into a lax lockdown in late March? David Nabarro, professor of global health at Imperial College London, and an envoy for the World Health Organization on Covid-19, spoke to The Guardian about the warnings and information Boris Johnson received at the beginning of 2020: 

“WHO had been following the outbreak since the end of December and within a few weeks it called a meeting of its emergency committee to decide if this outbreak was a ‘public health emergency of international concern’,” said Nabarro. “That is the highest level of alert that WHO can issue, and it issued it on January 30. It made it very clear then – to every country in the world – that we were facing something very serious indeed.”

These warnings however, appeared to not have been heeded by the UK, as while other governments, from South Korea to Germany, had invested heavily in developing testing capacity from the first weeks of the epidemic, Boris Johnson seemed more concerned with Brexit and the economy. In a speech on Brexit in Greenwich on February 3rd, he commented on the lockdowns occurring in Wuhan and other areas of the world:

 “We are starting to hear some bizarre autocratic rhetoric,” he stated, “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.” 

By March 23rd, most governments across the world had either banned travel to and from high risk regions or closed their borders entirely. The UK, however, kept travel open and free from any country until June 8th, and even then, were only quarantining people from high risk areas. In addition to a lack of travel restrictions, and an unheeded warning to the clear threats that other countries acted upon, the government also made some serious mistakes internally as well. Ministers allowed 25,060 patients to be discharged from NHS hospitals to elderly care homes without being tested for Covid-19, they also chose to abandon their contact tracing initiative at the height of the pandemic in March, and failed to adequately provide PPE for front-line workers. Even as late as September, Boris Johnson’s government caused disarray and conflict through the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, which backfired massively, with some experts believing it triggered the country’s second wave, which has seen more cases than initial one in March. This encouragement for young people to support local business may have looked good for the economy on paper, but it allowed Covid to spread through the younger generations, into their families, and caused a divide between the age groups, as young people were now being blamed for the new rise in cases when they were simply following the direction of the government. 

Although the UK has just come out of a month-long lockdown in November, there’s already talk of another happening in January, and with such inconsistency in strategy, (such as the current tier system that has confused people for most of lockdowns) it appears that the UK government still has a great amount of work to do before Covid can be brought under control.