“The current tiers are working,” said Matt Hancock today, just seconds before decreeing that “we’ve all got to take responsibility for our own actions as well.”
He would do well to take his own advice. While Hancock and his government may prefer that you focus on the actions of individuals, the real reasons for our dire situation lay firmly at his feet.
It is tempting to follow the narrative that lockdowns do not work, or that people cannot be trusted to follow the rules. This is false. Compliance with the initial lockdown was very high.
The real reason for where we are now is a failure of governance.
Unlike the UK – which is still locked in an endless battle to ‘flatten the curve’ – others, such as Australia and New Zealand, have instead aimed for ‘COVID Zero’ – where the virus is suppressed through a combination of lockdowns, contact tracing, and restrictions on international travel in order that the country can be reopened with little-to-no restrictions.
This is something that some UK MPs, as part of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, have been calling for since August, when daily reported positive cases were roughly 20-30 times lower than they are now.
The UK, unlike some other countries, does not require negative coronavirus tests for international arrivals – many travellers are even exempt from having to self-isolate. Those that do have to self isolate must only do so for 10 days, in a place of their choosing. Anyone they stay with, such as family, “do[es] not need to self-isolate, unless they travelled with you or you develop symptoms of coronavirus.” The UK reported over 36,000 new cases on 22 December.
In contrast, arrivals in Australia, which reported just 19 – yes, 19 – Covid cases on 23 December, “must quarantine for 14 days at a designated facility” – where they will not mix with friends and family.
Spot the difference?
Individual rulebreakers, such as Kay Burley, Rita Ora, or a Londoner leaving the city from a busy St Pancras Station, act as convenient scapegoats for a litany of governmental incompetence:
- The Eat out to Help Out Scheme, which encouraged people to mingle in restaurants in droves, has been called “epidemiologically illiterate;” according to a report by the Institute for Government, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was not even consulted on its potential effects.
- Test and Trace has repeatedly failed to reach tens of thousands of contacts, leaving many who should have been in isolation unaware of the potential risks they pose to others. In one case this was due to an easily avoidable technical error – a spreadsheet was saved in a file format that has been out of date for 13 years.
- The government’s contact tracing app was repeatedly delayed and was not released until the end of September, despite being based on the same Apple-Google developed technology as that used in other countries, such as Germany – whose app was released months earlier, in June.
- Rules and guidance have been invented, announced, and disregarded with little notice – the existence of ‘Tier 4’ was announced just hours before it came in to force; the Christmas rules were changed just days in advance, despite government figures previously rejecting calls to tighten them. Bristol was moved from Tier 3 to Tier 2 and then back again, within a single week.
All of this has led to where we are now. Lockdowns can and do work, but only if the endgame is to suppress and eliminate the virus.
It is time to change course. The UK government must get a grip. Restrict international travel, sort out test and trace, and impose a national lockdown with the aim of getting to COVID Zero, which will save both lives and the economy. With the vaccine already being administered in the UK, we might even have an easier time of it than our successful Australian and Kiwi cousins.