For many in the UK the Covid crisis is a thing of history. Despite current high infection numbers and large numbers of children forced to take time off school, the hospitalisation rates are steady and the daily death tolls are a fraction of what they were in 2020. The vaccination campaign, whilst not reaching the whole population, has reassured many into taking advantage of the almost complete easing of restrictions.
In recent times people had to ensure they didn’t gather in groups larger than six, at other points they were only able to leave the house once a day, the wearing of masks was mandatory and large parts of normal life were off limits. Visitors to the UK from countries with continued restrictions react with surprise as to how a pre-crisis normality seems to have returned. Packed restaurants, sporting events, nightclubs and public transport with only lite touch and occasional requirements for wearing masks, washing hands or proving vaccination status.
However, winter is approaching, and already medical experts are warning that the flu season will be more serious that previous years and it’s fair to say that the UK approach is heading into a highly unpredictable phase with all options being on the table if things get out of control before the end of the year. All this is the live context to a Parliamentary inquiry into the UK’s handling of the crisis which was scathing in its criticisms.
The report outlines the challenge of Covid to the country resulting in 150,000 lives lost but describes the Government response as one of the worst public health failures in UK history, with ministers and scientists taking a “fatalistic” approach that exacerbated the death toll. Oppositional politicians have described the report as ‘damning’, yet the Government has stressed the unprecedented challenge that this once in a generation pandemic had on existing policies and infrastructure.
This is the critical question visa ’vi the British public; whether they see Covid as overwhelming any political response regardless of party or individuals in charge, or whether the specific individuals and particularly Prime Minister Boris Johnston will find there is a political price to pay for the mistakes made. One of the demographics around this dichotomy is the public’s approach to lockdowns or Covid restrictions. Polling has showed the British public is continually more supportive of tougher restrictions than the Government. The Government would argue that their responsibilities towards the wider economy mean they need to chart a different path.
What is more the Government were able to surge in popularity in their rollout of vaccines, helped by the UK having developed its own vaccine as well as being in the front of the queue to purchase others. Interestingly the UK’s early lead in vaccine rollout compared to neighbouring Europe was eventually lost. Similarly, the Parliamentary inquiry found that despite the UK being one of the first countries to develop a test for Covid in January 2020, the UK “squandered” its lead and “converted it into one of permanent crisis”.
Again, whether this permanent crisis sticks to the government or not is an open question. The Conservative party remains ahead in the polls and perhaps paradoxically the country has come together around its response to the Covid crisis in a way that will prevent further political fallout. What is more any crisis in the UK will be put into a perspective of the worst of elsewhere in the world, with countries like the US and Brazil demonstrating what appear to be a more chaotic response to the virus.
Nevertheless, this recent inquiry will be one of the plethora of examinations of the UK’s response, the most major being an upcoming full public inquiry which will be the most defining test so far. This is planned to be launched in early 2022 although its full scope and remit has yet to be confirmed. Political cynics worry that the inquiry’s results will be scheduled for after the next general election, again putting further distance between the Government and accountability for the failings of the Covid response.
A final argument suggests that the British people want to put Covid behind them rather than rehash the crisis to hold their political leaders to account. Famously the time of the Spanish Flu was followed by the “Roaring Twenties” and with people wanting to look ahead more than ever it could be that the Covid crisis is confined to history far sooner than you’d imagine.
by: James Denselow