The initial failings of the first wave
The UK is merely a collection of small islands consisting of Northern Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland. They have a collective population of only 66 million – yet make up over 42,000 of the 1 million confirmed deaths due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Since their election in 2010, the Conservative Party have had their fair share of ups and downs with the public’s support. Now led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the coronavirus pandemic has only strengthened perceptions already held by the public – but are these justified?
When COVID-19 emerged at the culmination of 2019 in Wuhan, there was no immediate response from Johnson. The outbreak had yet to be classified as a pandemic, or even a global threat. The British population were still clashing swords with one another over the most recent general election, and the country was yet to be in a true state of panic. However, come 30th January when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a public emergency of international concern, Johnson was still resting on his laurels.
On 31st January, the UK had its first two confirmed cases of COVID-19. The patients were taken to a specialist isolation facility in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in hopes to contain and control the disease. On the same day, an evacuation flight from Wuhan arrived at an RAF site in Oxfordshire, carrying British nationals. Despite all passengers not presenting symptoms of COVID-19, they were still placed into quarantine. Not all the people booked on the flight were present. There had been no official conversation over whether the UK Government should assist in the evacuation of UK passport holders in China, and as a result, the procedure was complicated. China’s rules for the flight meant that any UK passport holder could leave, however, family of Chinese passport holders could not. Despite this rule being overturned at a later date, many missed the flight and were stranded as a result of the UK’s lack of initial input. That same night, Johnson finally addressed the UK – not to discuss the looming pandemic, but to announce the departure from the European Union – an already 4-year-long ordeal. At the end of January, Wales and Northern Ireland had no confirmed cases of COVID-19 but had not begun testing, and Scotland had tested 5 people for the virus, but all came back with a negative result.
By February, the UK had a third confirmed case of COVID-19. With the borders still open to all international travel, over 3,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and still no clarification from Johnson himself, people were becoming increasingly concerned. During this time, the UK’s Chief Medical Officers (CMOs) announced that people who’d contracted flu-like symptoms after entering the UK from China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand or Republic of Korea were to self-isolate for 14 days and call 111 for further information. By the 10th February, the UK had 5 more confirmed cases of COVID-19. The total now sat at 8 active cases. These new cases were proven to be linked to the third case. This same day, Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced the 2020 Health Protection Coronavirus Regulations. These gave public health professionals more power to keep affected people, and those considered to be at risk of having the virus, in isolation. Following this, a ninth case of COVID-19 in London was announced. The BBC also announced two of those in the previous affected cases were General Practitioners (GPs). A hospital in Merseyside and a hotel in Milton Keynes were then turned into designated isolation units. It was announced at the end of February that Wales and North Ireland both had their first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus. Both were from people who had recently returned from Italy.
Yet still there was no direct announcement from Johnson, or any confirmation that he and those below him had a plan should the outbreak get worse. This only heightened people’s fear. The public were not being advised on the right safety precautions to take in order to protect themselves from the virus. Everyday life was continuing as normal.
During March, further cases of COVID-19 were reported and significant spikes were evident. By the 23rd day of the month, the UK was placed into lockdown.
This was how the UK Government initially responded to the first wave. Their response to the second has been all too familiar. However, this wasn’t before summer brought with it a temporary end to the nightmare, though…
Summer sees an ease in restrictions
By Daisy Olyett
The British summer time, though fleeting, became the light at the end of the tunnel for locked-down Brits. The lure of cheap flights to the continent, Eat Out to Help Out and mixing households for the first time in months gave people around the country a small dose of normality. But as we progressed into the summer months the consequences of easing lockdown became apparent as holiday makers faced weeks of quarantine on arriving and returning from their trips and entire cities starting with the North of England found themselves in a state of lockdown once more.
By 6th July, thirteen weeks of lockdown had passed and UK holiday makers were eager to book their flights to France, the Mediterranean, Turkey, etc, now that the government had given them the go ahead. Family and friends crossed county borders to attend thirty-people weddings and the very first socially distant music festivals were being put in motion, but these were by far the largest easement of restrictions that the British summertime would experience.
As positive cases started to rise around the UK and wider Europe, local lockdowns were enforced and “airbridges” to the continent were sealed. The first local lockdown in the UK started with Leicester, by 17th July the city accounted for 10 percent of all positive cases in the UK with 944 positive results per 100,000 people. The area saw a regression to the original March lockdown where pubs, restaurants and small businesses closed once more to encourage the people of Leicester to stay and work at home. Suddenly, the government’s initiative to reinvigorate the economy became a public health crisis.
“It’s time to eat out to help out. To enjoy the arts to help out. And to work out to help out.” – Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden at the Coronavirus Press Conference, 9th July.
Despite the growing prospect of a localised quarantine, young people and the working population of Britain were encouraged to return to work and try to reboot the hospitality sector. As this progressed, larger areas like Manchester imposed tougher COVID restrictions from 31st July as they hit their peak of cases as the virus became less deadly and therefore more easily spread. Nevertheless, the vulnerable and shielding were coaxed out of isolation by 1st August to gradually meet family members and holiday keeping social distancing in mind. As we ventured out of our homes to acquire 50 percent off at our favourite chains and hit the gym to loose the lockdown pounds COVID’s reach expanded until by the end of that month positive case rates were growing exponentially.
Meanwhile in Downing Street, plans to extend the Eat Out to Help Out scheme were well under way, and past trips to Barnard Castle were very much forgiven and forgotten. Brits who journeyed to their favourite holiday destinations with the Government’s blessing faced a two-week isolation upon their return, some even being forced to isolate after travelling through locked down countries without even leaving their cars. The hospitality sector did what they could to accommodate for the influx of customers who spilled over into the streets making social distancing harder and harder to maintain. Although positive cases in the UK amounted to less than 1,500 by the end of August, the looming threat of a national lockdown is starting to become a reality.
Autumn falls, but will positive cases?
By Sam Portillo
In a year that has felt like an epoch, it is not surprising that only in September, summer seems a distant memory. In summer, more hours of daylight and warmer temperatures provided opportunities to mix outdoors, while a healthy dose of the Sun’s UV rays could kill the virus in two hours. Every government across the UK peeled back regulations, expanding social bubbles, lifting bans and allowing – even encouraging – the public into pubs and restaurants.
Having come achingly close to the “old normal”, the country is now accelerating in the other direction, taking the life we all crave out of reach once more. On the first day of September, the UK reported 1,295 new cases of coronavirus; by the end of the month, the figure had ballooned to over 7,000.
Over the course of the month, millions of schoolchildren and university students returned from their summer repose to populate busy campuses again. The result of a mass migration of students moving into communal accommodation with little support or communication: low levels of compliance with the rules, and fast-spreading outbreaks in campuses across the country. The “rule of six” dictates that new students are limited to mixing with their flatmates, despite having only met each other a matter of weeks ago. Some universities, including Cambridge, have moved entirely to online teaching, meaning that students are paying the usual fee for an experience which lacks the crucial aspect of face-to-face teaching. At Manchester Metropolitan University, around 1,700 students were asked to self-isolate for two weeks after over a hundred tested positive for COVID.
The rise in cases began with young people, who were increasingly mixing with other people, usually in social settings. In Nottingham, a 19-year-old student was handed a £10,000 fine for refusing to shut down a large birthday party when asked by police. Outbreaks across the country were linked to “illegal” parties like this, with large crowds, little to none social distancing and the level of hygiene one would expect at such events. Rising community transmission in Newport was linked back to a single house party, which ultimately led to the city being placed under local lockdown.
But such stories of ignorance and disobedience represent a small majority of the public. Most Brits have followed the basic principles of “Hands, Face, Space” and limit themselves to socialising in small groups, against the temptation of a large get-together or party. Some would suggest that the problems the country is facing now stem directly from the failure to thwart the virus in the spring. Stalling over entering lockdown – a decision taken collectively by medical officers and governments across the country – allowed the virus to spread exponentially, fast, and reach a higher ceiling than that of other European countries.
At the most comfortable stage in the crisis, early in July, the UK was still recording over 300 new cases a day. At this point, the government took to “unlocking” the country, allowing businesses to open, friends and families to meet, and holiday-goers to travel abroad, often to places with looming COVID spikes themselves.
To date, PM Boris Johnson has been eager to avoid “international comparisons” and framed the national death toll as a success (albeit a tragedy), having prevented the Imperial model’s forecast of 510,000 from manifesting. The government needs not to look abroad for lessons, though; it has enough material in its own back-catalogue of errors. A highly-infectious, oftentimes invisible and potentially lethal virus demands swift action. The UK will only defeat the spread once it becomes proactive in controlling the virus; until then, the virus will be one step ahead.