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It Didn’t Have to Be This Way

One year ago today, Britain entered lockdown after days of prevarication and delay – it would set the stage for a government response which was catastrophically inadequate, and contributed to over 125,000 deaths.

On this day one year ago, after prevarication and, at times, reckless behaviour, Boris Johnson reluctantly accepted what scientists had warned him about for months: that the coronavirus pandemic would lead to a monumental death toll and the worst national crisis since World War II unless tight restrictions on people’s behaviour were implemented as soon as possible.

My daughter was born two weeks into the first UK lockdown. Childbirth during the early stages of the pandemic was a strangely isolating experience. Despite being in the company of several people in the delivery room, everyone—including my husband—was wearing masks, gloves, and gowns. My relief when I heard my baby cry soon changed to sadness when, after a few precious moments together, my husband was asked to leave the hospital in line with infection control regulations.

The birth of a baby brings joy and optimism, but as the midwives gently explained that I too needed to leave the hospital as soon as possible due to the risk of infection, I felt scared. I was frightened for the future, and I wondered whether or not we would ever get back to the way things were.

While I was on maternity leave, my husband, who is an NHS doctor, noted that there was confusion over which type of PPE was appropriate to protect against the coronavirus, as well as a lack of supplies. When some medical staff took to wearing face masks while walking in hospital corridors, one manager forbade them from doing so. At the same time, there were new reports of NHS staff—many of whom were people of colour—dying disproportionately of coronavirus.

The government’s daily press briefings, in which they proudly declared the procurement of plentiful supplies of PPE, did not reflect the reality facing medical and social care staff having to improvise with sub-standard equipment and the lack of clarity on when to use resources. My husband eventually caught coronavirus, probably from the hospital where he works, and it soon spread to the whole family. Thankfully, we recovered – but far too many colleagues, friends, and family members did not.

In the twelve months since, there has been a string of shocking revelations regarding the government’s unpreparedness, cronyism, and incompetence that goes well beyond the procurement of PPE. The eugenicist ‘herd immunitystrategy assumed a hierarchy of deaths according to age and productivity, and led to delays in starting lockdowns and implementing social distancing. The scandal of discharging patients from hospitals back to care homes without testing them for coronavirus led to countless elderly people dying unnecessarily.

The £37-billion test and trace system remains chaotic, and has exposed most acutely the limitations of using the inexperienced private sector alongside the NHS – not to mention the government’s ideological commitment to ineffective outsourcing. The furlough scheme was insufficient, and researchers have said that the reckless ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme led to an increase in infections of up to 17 percent.

At time of writing, the number of deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid test, according to government figures, is at 126,172. The number of deaths with Covid on the death certificate is 146,487. On 20 January, the UK reported 1,820 deaths in a single day – more than some countries have experienced in total.

Despite those numbers, nothing seems to dent the popularity of the Conservatives; despite the clear failings outlined above, most of the public blames itself. Somehow, Keir Starmer is also reluctant to call for any Conservative politician to resign – even after they have been found to have broken the law.

The government has sought to divert attention away from its handling of the pandemic to whip up jingoistic nationalism: politicians and the media seem to be obsessed with both literal and metaphorical flag-waving, to the point that merely questioning the government’s failed pandemic strategy and calling for any kind of accountability is condemned as an act of shocking and severe disloyalty.

Twelve months into this new world, though, the early invocations of the ‘Blitz spirit’ and ‘all being in this together’ feel more naïve than ever: the poorest have suffered the most, while the wealthy have weathered three lockdowns relatively unscathed.

During the first year of my daughter’s life, much of my time was spent attempting to home-school my other child. The psychological impact on children of being confined indoors with long periods of time spent away from their peers is immense. My baby has not attended playgroups or met any of my close friends and family. She is accustomed to seeing strangers wearing face masks.

Boris Johnson supports calls for a ‘day of reflection’ today to mark the one-year anniversary of the UK’s first lockdown. As we remember those who have died, it is both impossible and irresponsible not to also reflect on today as the culmination of a catastrophic year of missed opportunities, abuses, and incompetence – one that will continue to affect our lives for many years to come.