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How the UK failed on Covid-19: the international view

In France, Germany, Poland, Georgia and New Zealand, the British government’s handling of the pandemic is viewed as a cautionary tale.

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From delays implementing lockdowns, to uncertainty over the rules that were introduced, the UK government’s failures during the Covid-19 crisis have not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. Here, as part of our special issue on the “Anatomy of a Crisis”, a politician in France, a German correspondent in London, a journalist in Poland, a public health expert in Georgia and an academic in New Zealand share their thoughts on how the UK’s response stood apart.

[see also: Where did the UK go wrong? Leading figures from science, medicine and politics on the UK government’s response]

Alexandre Holroyd in France: The decisions made by France turned out to be the right ones

France has dealt relatively well with a crisis that presented significant challenges on both the health and economic fronts. Early on, when many aspects of the virus were still unknown, the calls France made turned out to be the right ones.

The French government was never complacent about the threat posed by Covid-19. By early March, case numbers were not yet as high as in Spain and Italy, but as we saw a few aggressive clusters begin to emerge in the east of the country, the government acted to flatten the curve and prevent our health service from becoming overwhelmed.

During the week of 9 March, France closed schools, universities, bars and restaurants. To most intents and purposes, the French were in lockdown by the end of that week, though a formal lockdown would not be announced by Emmanuel Macron until 16 March. By contrast, Britain did not close schools until 20 March and locked down on the 23 March. It is clear that the earlier lockdown came in, the more effective it turned out to be. We know that the virus spreads exponentially without lockdown. Every day – every hour – you gain is many thousands of cases that will never happen.

France further acted to close its borders to most travellers while it was locked down. This decision made epidemiological sense and political sense. We could not have asked people to stay cooped up inside if we had also allowed in travellers from abroad.

About 60 per cent of my constituents live in the UK. Many of them worried in early March that the UK was not taking the steps necessary to crack down on the spread of the virus. They question the wisdom of the 14-day quarantine on arrivals abroad imposed weeks after the epidemic peaked.

Leaders in both countries had to make difficult judgements, based on the advice of scientists. France made some mistakes, such as allowing the first round of the municipal elections to go ahead on 15 March. But in all, the government’s prescient and tough response prevented a much higher death toll.

According to figures compiled by the Financial Times, there have been around 25,000 excess deaths in France this year, less than half those recorded in the UK, despite the pandemic hitting earlier in France and the populations of both countries being almost identical in size. These respectable figures are testament to France’s nimble response to an unprecedented threat we knew little about even three months ago.

Alexandre Holroyd is the deputy in the National Assembly representing French citizens in who live in northern Europe

Annette Dittert: The foundation of democracy has been eroded

The calls started coming in early April. Concerned friends from Berlin, horrified by my reports, began urging me to move back to Germany, at least for a few weeks. Boris Johnson was still in intensive care and nobody knew what might be coming next. I responded calmly that I was feeling great, hung up and kept reporting on a situation that was spinning out of control. Johnson returned to Downing Street, but he might as well have stayed where he had been before. He clearly wasn’t the man of the hour; his inner Churchill had left him. Not even the unavoidable invocations of the wartime spirit had their usual effect.

Johnson, the man who had promised he would get Brexit done with a few white lies and some cheeky dinner speeches, had met his enemy: a virus that stubbornly resisted any smooth talking about taking back control. By mid-May he had promised all kinds of gadgets; none worked. Bombast met dire facts. The only global ranking Britain was close to topping was the chart of per-capita death rates. “This feels all a bit like Brexit,” my German editors in Hamburg remarked, stifling a yawn. “Empty slogans until reality bites.” They were beginning to lose interest.

I couldn’t blame them. For many months they had endured my reporting on Brexit, hoping for the most cherished (and overestimated) British characteristic to re-emerge: the voice of reason. It never did. And since Britain irrevocably left the EU on 31 January, most Germans have overcome their deep grief and given up on Britain. It took a while, but they now see Johnson for what he is: a charlatan who would rather destroy his country than acknowledge that he isn’t up to the job. He might not even be able to see that himself – true narcissists never do.

Having locked down the UK too late, Johnson is now opening it too early, with the promised tracing army and app still not fully operational. Let’s hope for the best and get it done. Forward planning has never been the Brexiteers’ greatest strength. Do wear masks, or do as you please. Just get it done. Johnson thinks as he speaks: in slogans. He is campaigning instead of governing. His chaotic handling of the coronavirus crisis is destroying thousands of British lives, and has started to erode and undermine the foundation of the British democracy: trust.

The consequences are dire: a confused nation that will only be able to rely on herd immunity once the dreaded second wave arrives. And arrive it will. Those overcrowded beaches in Bournemouth are a sign of things to come. British anarchy at its new lethal best. How to report on all this without getting depressed, anxious or chronically cynical? I don’t know. Meanwhile I have resorted to Twitter, where sarcasm works best. The German editors rarely call anyway now. Next time my Berlin friends ring, I might think again and not hang up so quickly.

Annette Dittert is London bureau chief for for ARD, Germany's main public broadcaster

[see also: How coronavirus has revealed the unexpected strengths of Germany’s model of government]

Annabelle Chapman in Poland: Some have drawn a link between the British government’s tardy response and politics

The Brexit referendum and its aftermath introduced a new uncertainty into the lives of Poles living in the UK. Then the global coronavirus pandemic struck. Over the past few months, thousands of families living between Poland and Britain have watched the crisis unfold – and noted the Polish and British governments’ very different handling of the virus.

While Poland went into an early lockdown in mid-March, with people required to wear masks on public transport and in shops, many Poles looked on in disbelief at British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s apparently offhand response to the virus. “The UK’s handling of the pandemic was pretty haphazard. The rules were introduced too late and were always very confusing,” says a Polish researcher based in Cornwall. Although he is not a fan of Poland’s right-wing government, he notes that its response was quick and decisive, “probably the best thing they did in the last five years”.

During those weeks of uncertainty, some Poles boarded repatriation flights to Warsaw from London and Edinburgh, part of a series organised by Polish airline LOT after the country halted international flights in mid-March. Most stayed in Britain, social distancing as much as their work and living arrangements allowed. One man in Warsaw says his Polish stepmother – a frontline careworker in the south of England – was hospitalised with COVID-19 after her employer refused to provide PPE (she has recovered but is still weak). “This underscored the seriousness of the virus for me and served as a grim counterpart to the complacency of the British government and those commentators who had begun to question the risks associated with the virus,” he says.

Meanwhile, Poland’s public television broadcaster TVP, which is loyal to the ruling party, has used the death count in other countries, including Britain, to support its narrative that the Polish government is protecting citizens against the virus. “The Poles are winning the fight with the virus” said a banner on the TVP evening news on 26 May, which featured a chart showing the low death rate in Poland compared to that in Spain, Britain, Italy and other countries.

Inevitably, some Polish commentators have drawn a link between the British government’s tardy response and politics. “The message about Brexit was supposed to go out, and information about an unknown threat could not overshadow it,” wrote Marek Rybarczyk, a long-term London correspondent, in the liberal Polish weekly Polityka on 20 April, referring to how Johnson skipped Cobra meetings on the virus. In a later article entitled “More equal than others”, Rybarczyk wrote about Dominic Cummings’ breaking of lockdown rules, while reminding readers that Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s ruling party, did something similar when he visited a cemetery in April. Clearly, double standards are not limited to Britain.

Annabelle Chapman is a foreign correspondent in Warsaw

Paata Imnadze in Georgia: Even before we began experiencing community transmission of Covid-19, we had already taken measures

The Covid-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented challenge that has changed how we live in ways that would have been impossible to imagine mere months ago. Georgia’s response has been characterised by early and decisive action. As a result, our confirmed cases stand at less than 1,000 and deaths at just 15, one of the lowest figures in Europe.

When China announced that it was experiencing an unusual pneumonia outbreak, experts at the National Centre for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC), which I help lead, began closely monitoring the situation. On 6 January, the Georgian government was notified of what was happening in China. Shortly afterwards, the NCDC set up several bodies to begin liaising with the government to guide its response to the spread of the virus.

By early February, Georgia had developed the capacity to test for Covid-19. Our country began to take various measures against the potential importation and spread of Covid-19 within our borders, including cancelling flights with high-risk countries, closing borders, thermal screening at border crossings and tracing international travellers coming to Georgia. After the first confirmed case, Georgia strengthened its control measures with tight multi-sectoral collaboration between different bodies involved in the response.

Unlike the UK, where restrictive measures (including the cancellation of flights and a quarantine for incoming visitors) were imposed long after the disease had reached the country and spread within the community, Georgia took a strict approach even before we had confirmed a single case. After the NCDC confirmed community transmission, the measures we recommended which helped to flatten the curve were the declaration of a state of emergency, a curfew between 9pm and 6am, and strict local lockdowns of highly affected municipalities where we had detected the emergence of clusters. We also worked to trace the contacts of every detected case and imposed a mandatory quarantine on all arrivals from abroad.

Georgia’s response has been a success because the NCDC took the threat of the disease seriously early on. Experts worked in coordination with the different sectors likely to be affected by the pandemic. Finally, the government was trusted and its recommendations largely adhered to by the public.

Paata Imnadze is deputy director of the National Centre for Disease Control of Georgia

Rebecca Priestley in New Zealand: Residents heeded Ardern’s appeals to “be strong and be kind”

New Zealand’s Covid-19 response was ranked the best among 21 OECD countries, according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) released on 17 June. The country is out of lockdown, businesses are open, students are at school, and the virus has been virtually eliminated from the community. How did this island nation end up with such different results from the UK?

New Zealand’s elimination strategy, which involved one of the strictest lockdowns on the planet, was a pivot from the government’s initial "keep it out, stamp it out, manage it" approach. This pivot, says Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s chief science adviser Juliet Gerrard, was “science-led” and “evidence-based”, informed by scenario modelling and observation of what was happening internationally.

New Zealand’s first case was reported on 28 February. Three weeks later, with 28 detected cases of Covid-19, the government sealed the country’s borders to everyone except citizens and residents. On 26 March, with 205 cases of Covid-19, community transmission confirmed and data suggesting the country was on a similar trajectory to Italy, we entered lockdown. A national state of emergency was declared, and Covid-19 testing and contact tracing was scaled up. By contrast, the UK entered lockdown at 6,650 cases, when community transmission was rampant, and kept its borders open throughout the period from March to June.

Heeding Ardern’s widely praised and empathetic appeals to “be strong and be kind”, New Zealand’s five million residents stayed at home, only venturing out for grocery shopping, medical appointments and exercise. At daily briefings, Ardern and the director-general of health announced new Covid-19 cases. The first death was reported on 29 March and daily cases peaked at 89, on 5 April.

Restrictions began to be lifted once daily cases had fallen to single figures. On 9 June, after 1,154 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 22 deaths, but with no active cases, the country lifted all restrictions except those in place at the border. Modelling by researchers from Te Pūnaha Matatini shows that without an early lockdown, testing and contact tracing systems would have been overwhelmed, resulting in uncontrolled spread and thousands of deaths.

Today, new cases of Covid-19 are limited to recent arrivals, held in quarantine, as New Zealanders return home in record numbers. The same week the EIU released its glowing report, two UK arrivals who left quarantine on compassionate grounds breached the terms of their release and then tested positive for Covid-19, breaking a 24-day streak with no new cases and necessitating tracing of more than 300 “close contacts”. The New Zealand Defence Force was subsequently charged with managing border isolation facilities and a poll of New Zealanders showed those rating the government response to the Covid-19 crisis as “excellent” or “good” fell from a peak of 84 per cent to 74.6 per cent. As for that EIU list, the UK is one of four countries – along with Spain, Italy and Belgium – whose response is rated as “poor”.

Rebecca Priestley is associate professor at Victoria University of Wellington

[see also: The left should look again at Jacinda Ardern's domestic agenda]

Read more from this week's special issue: “Anatomy of a Crisis: How the government failed us over coronavirus”