• Antonia Trevini

Boris Johnson vs COVID-19: Between madness and recklessness

How long will Boris Johnson continue to avoid the liability of an irresponsible and "short-term" management of the Coronavirus pandemic before the consequences of this administration's choices become permanently disastrous for the future of an entire nation?

One year after the first appearance of the mysterious Coronavirus, with more than 10 thousand new cases of COVID-19 and over 400 deaths a day, Boris Johnson has announced that he will carry out a plan to exit the third lockdown from the next few weeks.

This time it won’t be an “open sesame" as it was after the first lockdown, said the leader of the Conservative Party. The reopening will be slow and monitored: students will return to school from 8 March and a mass screening program will be implemented to monitor any possible outbreaks. The hospitality and leisure businesses will be the last to reopen, while people will return slowly to socialise outdoors in small groups following the “household” rules.

After three lockdowns and a cascade of failures, finally Johnson has started to understand that we should not underestimate this virus. Yet, as this year has taught us, we must not claim victory just yet.

The number of new COVID-19 cases has decreased in recent weeks and the vaccination process has halved the number of infections and hospital admissions. As of today, more than 19 million people have received the first vaccine dose, about 28% of the total UK population. Yet, the infection rate remains at the level of September and the number of hospital admissions exceeds the one recorded at the peak of the first wave in April 2020, generating too much pressure on the NHS.

If Johnson wants to drive the nation out of this lockdown, he must consider every move carefully to avoid a health and economic catastrophe as well as a social and human one. The only path to victory is to continue to promote an inclusive vaccination campaign and mass testing accompanied by a system of Trace and Tracking, which allows limiting the possible increase of new cases, and the preservation of restrictions and social distancing rules, to be relaxed over time based on constant supervision of the infection rate.

But if the management of this new plan is the same we saw during the previous lockdowns, then the hope we have of escaping this pandemic will be reduced to pure utopia and we will see the possibility of returning to normality disappearing before our eyes once again.

After a delayed control and intervention against the COVID-19 threat, not only internally but especially externally, barriers on entry were imposed by the government to prevent the new variants from continuing to enter the country. "Better late than never" seems to have been the motto of this administration that since the beginning of this emergency has been dormant in acting decisively.

While conservatives seem to have understood that acting late means undermining the health defences we have acquired so far and endangering the lives of 67 million people; on the other hand, the cost of this delay seems to impact on those who have travelled in and out of the country with Whitehall permission and now they have to quarantine in a hotel before crossing the borders at the "modest" price of £1,750, test and room service costs excluded.

What is not yet clear is how Boris Johnson intends to monitor and reduce the transmission of the virus, since the Test, Track, and Trace system has been put in place during this year has completely failed to prevent a second and third wave.

According to a Reuters study published in November, the cause of this 12 billion pounds flop was the persistent denial of the failure of a disconnected and too centralised system by the British Health Ministry, preferred to a targeted and local response advised by experts. Despite the increase in testing capacity, celebrated by the government as a major victory, the slow and inefficient communication and data sharing capacity between the central government, the various private bodies entrusted with the task of testing the potential infected and separately contacting and tracing their contacts, and the local authorities only created the impression of a false victory during the summer.

This distorted optimistic atmosphere has allowed the local governments to loosen anti-COVID restrictions too early, particularly in the North, hindering the prevention of a new wave and making it inevitable.

Not to mention the inefficiency of contacting and tracking down those who had come into contact with the virus via the famous NHS app. Promoted as the flagship of Johnson’s strategy in the fight against Coronavirus, this app was immediately the focus of controversies both for its relative effectiveness in recognising and warning other devices of possible risks of infection and for the lack of practicality and security in the management of user data. Its delayed release has been accompanied by conflicts between the government and the two largest tech companies in the world, Apple and Google, ending with a stalemate.

This (dis)organisation was supplemented by a confused and disorganic communication, made of a continuous alternation and overlapping of slogans, politically effective but socially harmful. A recipe for a continuous succession of failures and a growing nihilism of a nation increasingly tired and less inclined to respect the rules, as well as fearful towards an uncertain future.

"We don’t just need a plan, but a campaign to build trust", the Guardian said, reaffirming the importance of protecting those minorities which this year have been abandoned by an unequal health system.

This pandemic has cost the UK over £271 billion so far and resulted in an unprecedented economic recession. The closure of businesses, the reduction of tax revenues, and the huge expenditure of funds incurred by the government will lead us to an unprecedented national debt since the government will continue to apply for loans to finance policies that allow businesses to stay afloat.

And who will be paying the cost of these choices are those who have paid so far not only with the loss of family members and friends but with their physical and mental health. A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), revealed that many surgeries were cancelled or postponed during the first wave. Also, about a quarter of those who needed a medical examination found it difficult to book an appointment with a GP or preferred not to book at all to avoid contracting the virus or overload the NHS, exasperating one’s conditions to irreversible levels.

According to Cancer Research UK, more than 2 million people in the United Kingdom are currently waiting for cancer screening, testing, and treatments that would help to save their lives. COVID-19 has strongly affected the health sector, in particular, cancer research and prevention. Not only Cancer research has been cut off more than 45 million pounds, but the pandemic has also greatly slowed the diagnosis and treatment of numerous patients, with disastrous consequences. "Delays to diagnosis and treatment could mean that some cancers will become inoperable. Patients shouldn’t need to wait for this to be over before getting the treatment they need”, said Professor Charles Swanton, an oncology and cancer research specialist.

How far does Boris Johnson want to go before the situation becomes untenable?

With the rising levels of taxation, unemployment, and COVID-19 deaths, at this point, we can only hope that the government will stop making political choices based on short-termism and that this new roadmap will lead us out of this pandemic as soon as possible, "slowly but irreversibly".