Coronavirus: Lockdown delay 'helped cause UK's high death toll'

11 May 2020, 23:46

Sir Lawrence Freedman said the UK's delayed lockdown response helped cause the high death toll
Sir Lawrence Freedman said the UK's delayed lockdown response helped cause the high death toll. Picture: Getty
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The delayed decision to impose lockdown measures in the UK helped cause the country's high coronavirus death toll, a leading expert has said.

Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman of King's College London suggested the government was too focused on responding to public opinion rather than shaping it in the early days of the UK's Covid-19 outbreak.

Lockdown restrictions were introduced in Britain on 23 March despite other western European countries introducing similar rules earlier.

Sir Lawrence, a leading expert in strategic studies, said that while the government had succeeded in preventing NHS from being overwhelmed, the threat faced by care homes was not given enough attention.

The professor - writing an article for Survival, the journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies - assessed the UK's management of the pandemic.

"With government following rather than leading public opinion, a graduated approach was abandoned," he said.

"The collective effort to suppress the spread of the coronavirus began before government announcements and had an effect before 23 March.

"After 23 March, the measures enjoyed wide public support and compliance was good.

"The government met its main target. The NHS was not overwhelmed. Yet the death toll is high."

He continued: "One reason for this, hard to quantify, was the delayed moving to lockdown.

"Another was simply that London is a global city and Europe's largest.

"But it is now clear that while preparing the NHS for an influx of cases, the threat to care homes was not only given insufficient attention, but even aggravated."

Sir Lawrence added that though the initial advice may have appealed to the government's desire to avoid social and economic costs that would result from more stringent measures, that should not have put them off.

"It is always the responsibility of ministers to interrogate advice and also to read movements in public opinion, in this case becoming anxious and impatient with half-measures."

Department of Health figures show that a total of 32,065 people had died in hospitals, care homes and the wider community after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 5pm on Sunday, up by 210 from 31,855 the day before.

However, the number of deaths involving Covid-19 that have been registered across the UK currently stands at 33,021.

This includes 29,710 deaths that occurred in England and Wales up to 24 April - and which had been registered up to May - according to the Office for National Statistics.

The figures from NHS England show that a further 3,964 hospital patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 died between 25 April and 10 May - which, together with the total figure of 33,021 registered deaths, suggests the overall death toll for the UK is just under 37,000.

Sir Lawrence wrote on Twitter: "Two factors reduced the sense of urgency in January. One was past experience: we had avoided SARS in 2003 while ‘swine flu’ had turned out to be a ‘damp squib’.

"Another was reassurances coming from country where C-19 outbreak had occurred (China), leader of the country that historically led international responses (US), and organisation responsible for keeping the world informed (World Health Organisation).

"Whatever the quality of prior planning the UK response was shaped by available capacity in a system designed for efficiency rather than resilience. This meant UK had to ‘flatten the curve’ because NHS would not be able to cope with projected peaks.

"From early February the clear advice was that the UK would be hit by the virus at some point. The issue was how hard and when. Until 12 March advice conveyed the impression that there was time to develop and implement effective responses.

"Benefits of implementing number of measures at once recognised in terms of impact but doubts about compliance. Instead of moving immediately to a stringent response advice encouraged a more graduated approach.

"Government did start with decent testing programme. Once attempts to trace contacts faltered and eventually abandoned because of sheer number of random cases so did testing strategy. London as global hub and largest city in Europe cause of a lot of UK’s problems.

"Graduated approach suited the government’s predilections but did not work because a) public anxiety and reports of what other governments doing. b) Imperial study of mid-March showing threat to NHS coming in much faster than anticipated.

"Herd immunity was never central to strategy but poor communications (designed to explain why cocooning elderly but not large gatherings) gave impression that was.

"High risk to NHS led government to move quickly to a full lockdown. By framing the issue as a problem of ‘saving the NHS’ however insufficient attention was paid to problems in social care sector.

"These problems made worse as people moved out of hospitals back into care homes. Situations in both health and social care sectors were aggravated by problems with PPE and testing.

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