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Shifting the Blame

As Britain's Covid death toll exceeds 100,000, the government has set out to blame the public – but from the very beginning its recklessness, ineptitude and cronyism have paved the way for this tragedy.

My friend is currently languishing in ICU with Covid-19 related multi-organ failure. Aside from the initial shock and sadness at the prospect of losing her, my overwhelming feeling is one of anger. How could Britain, one of the richest countries in the world, have one of the highest mortality rates from the virus? Over 100,000 people are dead. This is a shocking statistic – far surpassing the 20,000 deaths optimistically predicted by an ebullient Boris Johnson at the start of the pandemic.

Because reality showed Boris to be wrong, the government has firmly decided that we, the supposedly feckless general public, are primarily to blame. During one of her rare public briefings on the coronavirus, Priti Patel proudly declared that the police have issued 45,000 fines to people who have flouted the rules, saying that a minority of people were putting the health of the nation at risk. Scrolling through Twitter feeds of my fellow doctors, I often see remarks on how the flow of traffic has not reduced, unlike the first lockdown. They ask: “where are all these people going and why aren’t they staying home?”

This past week has seen headlines about police making draconian, inconsistent judgments on people exercising outdoors. Two friends driving in separate cars to a local spot for a coffee were fined for their supposed infractions, yet the prime minister was deemed to have not broken the rules by going for a seven-mile bike ride. By the government’s own admission, only a minority of people are flouting the rules. While it has been extremely vocal about how rule-breaking is putting peoples’ lives at risk, it is understandably silent on the huge impact of its own policies, incompetence and cronyism.

The responsibility for containing the virus has been passed onto the public who have been largely compliant with lockdowns in order to shift focus away from the government’s own failures. Due to a misguided belief in ‘herd immunity’, Johnson delayed lockdowns at a time when experience from other countries showed that earlier measures reduced transmission and saved lives. For months, there was uncertainty over the use of face masks.

Even recently, the presence of a new strain of the virus was known for several months, but the government claims that a significant increase in its transmission rate only became known on 18 December. In spite of this, Christmas household mixing was still allowed, and a comprehensive lockdown only introduced at the start of January.

Meanwhile, contracts for PPE were awarded to firms with no experience in this field, but with close links to the Conservative Party, often leading to delays, substandard equipment and the waste of millions of pounds. Since 11 March, at least 216 frontline health and social care workers have died from Covid-19, with many complaining about inadequate PPE before succumbing to the virus. The British Medical Association is now calling for all healthcare workers to be given face masks identical to the ones used in ICUs.

Johnson promised a “world beating” test and trace system. But like so many of his promises, the reality was a source of national shame more than pride. The outsourcing to companies with next-to-no experience led to an overwhelmed system with poor communication between private companies and the NHS. The initial policy of discharging elderly patients from hospital back to care homes without testing for the virus was an unforgivable move that led to the virus spreading among some of our most vulnerable people; the fact that this coincided with strict lockdown measures, meaning that many care home residents were denied visits from loved ones, only added to the tragedy.

Since then, Johnson has shifted focus from test and trace to the vaccine programme, with a tone that pins all hope that this will bring an end to restrictions in our lives. The experts disagree, with scientists such as Susan Michie – who sits on the SAGE committee – saying that test and trace is still urgently needed. And while test and trace improved with the adoption of a more local approach, many are still reluctant to self-isolate and do not participate in the scheme.

During the pandemic, there has been an inverse relationship between the duration of the pandemic and the government’s financial and social support for the population. Furlough is not offered to enough people; the definition of ‘key workers’ has expanded since the March 2020 lockdown; the most vulnerable workers can’t afford to self-isolate on meagre statutory sick pay, and many are not entitled to the additional £500 top-up on sick pay that the government has offered to some.

In one of the most costly errors made, schools were kept open far longer than was safe – at the behest of both major political parties – at a time when the evidence was becoming clear that younger children are a significant source of the spread. Days before a U-turn, education secretary Gavin Williamson threatened to sue Greenwich Council if it shut their schools. In defiance of alarms raised by the National Education Union regarding the spread of the virus in schools, Keir Starmer demanded that they remain open with a stringent “no ifs, no buts,” and only changed his mind around the same time as the government.

Unlike most countries that have successfully controlled the pandemic, our borders had virtually no checks or screening of new arrivals until recently. Many of our vulnerable children are starving, but we are in the perverse situation where the prime minister can taunt Starmer that a footballer is more effective at holding the government to account on child hunger than he is.

When judged against this litany of failures, it is hard to imagine how over half of the public believe that they are to blame for the spread of the virus. Yet this is the situation we are in; in order to distract us, the Tories have successfully shifted responsibility for Britain’s pitiful state squarely onto the shoulders of ordinary people, and far too many have accepted it. When I think of my young friend in ICU, perilously close to a lonely death in the company of kind but exhausted strangers, I blame nobody but the government.