Boris Johnson’s COVID-19 mismanagement: What went wrong?

    With over 16,000 deaths, the UK government faces rising criticism over delayed response to crisis, failure to ramp up testing, and persistent shortages of personal protection equipment for healthcare workers.

    The UK has seen its deadliest week in the fight against coronavirus so far. It is heading towards a situation that may turn out even worse than Italy’s or Spain’s. Although Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been discharged from hospital, the total death toll continues to rise across the country.

    A report by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that the UK will have the highest number of fatalities out of any European country with over 60 thousand deaths [1]. Since the UK is on a trajectory towards eventually having the worst death rate in Europe, Boris Johnson’s crisis management of the pandemic should be questioned and examined in terms of this projected outcome.

    Lack of clear strategy and delayed actions

    The British government, like almost every government, has been caught unprepared in the handling of the pandemic. However, the problem, particularly in the early stages, significantly stemmed from the government’s underestimation of the threat of pandemic while Italy and Spain already constituted alarming examples. Although the government had its first cases as early as the beginning of February, the risk level set by the government’s top scientific advisers remained at “moderate” until March 12.

    As late as March 22, when the number of deaths in Italy exceeded the threshold of one thousand, Boris Johnson was still persistent about not declaring a national lockdown. Unlike many other countries where the lockdown measures were in place, Britain had a different approach to deal with the pandemic, the so-called ‘herd immunity’ [2] that would allow the spread of the virus and supposedly build up immunity in the society.

    Even though the idea was not implemented and abandoned shortly thereafter, it still distracted and prevented the government from taking the necessary measures in a timely manner. Notwithstanding the fact that the ‘herd immunity’ strategy was proposed by the government’s scientific team, and the prime minister simply followed suit, Boris Johnson still cannot be excused for the delay of action and cannot blame it on the inadequate advice of his scientific advisors.

    Hundreds of scientists warned the government that its herd immunity response to the coronavirus outbreak was wrong and risking many more lives [3]. Any responsible leader should have asked for a full set of scenarios, ranging from a full shutdown to keeping the economy fully open. As such, the prime minister should not have limited himself to one course of action.

    Although the following day the prime minister finally imposed a lockdown calling on restrictions on businesses and people’s lives, the government’s delayed decision has already put the people on the wrong part of an exponential curve. Even so, Boris Johnson still lacked seriousness in his language, which caused the nation not to take the threat as seriously as they should. Instead, Boris Johnson, during his hospital visits, was shaking hands with people infected with coronavirus, sending people mixed messages.

    Consequently, Johnson, who acted somewhat complacently against the pandemic, became the first leader of a major country to be hospitalized with COVID-19. While anyone may contract the virus, it is inexcusable for Boris Johnson to contract the virus because of his earlier actions underestimating the power of the virus.

    The prime minister needs to be doubly cautious than an ordinary British person since his fall would not only leave the government without a leader but also lead the nation into panic and despair. Although Boris Johnson has thankfully been discharged from the hospital, he will not immediately return to work until he fully recovers. His absence may create a crisis of authority. The government is left without a leader during one of its toughest times for decades.

    Government’s NHS predicament

    With the total number of deaths exceeding 16 thousand, including 27 NHS workers, the government faces increasing criticism over its delayed response to the crisis, its failure to ramp up testing and persistent shortages of personal protection equipment (PPE) for health care workers.

    Although the National Health Service (NHS) has long been known to be underfunded [4], when Health Secretary Matt Hancock was asked on Jan. 23 whether the NHS would be able to respond to COVID-19, he assured the public that the NHS was prepared and well equipped to fight the pandemic. The NHS, however, has denied it and warned the government about the lack of sufficient resources within the NHS and called the government to take action to address the needs [5].

    There has already been anger over the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline hospital workers dealing with people suspected to have the coronavirus. The government announced that 27 NHS workers have died from coronavirus. Infection and death among medical workers have clearly been results of lack of PPE and testing. COVID-19 testing for NHS staff is restricted due to insufficient equipment. Shortages of swabs, reagents, and testing kits have prevented staff from being tested.

    As of the first week of April, only 2,000 out of 500,000 frontline NHS staff [6] had been tested for coronavirus, and only around 15,000 tests are carried out daily. Unlike Germany or South Korea, where the widespread coronavirus tests played a crucial role in combating the pandemic, the UK has been too slow to implement widespread coronavirus testing as only a small number of UK laboratories have been enabled to conduct these tests.

    The government has pledged to increase the UK’s capacity for coronavirus testing to 100,000 a day by the end of April. However, it will still be insufficient compared to other European countries such as Germany, which is already able to carry out 500,000 tests a week.

    During crises, what matters most is effective management, which strictly rests on the ability to take the necessary actions on time. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has failed to respond to the coronavirus threat fast enough and is now heading towards the highest death rates in Europe.

    Nearly 2,000 people died in the last two days of last week, the highest on record in Europe, making the UK the worst impacted country in the continent. The government is full of aspirations and are “planning” or “intending” or “trying” to do many things -PPE, ventilators, testing, etc.- but its performance still falls rather short of delivering on those pledges.

    Boris Johnson won the election with significant public support. However, given the disastrous management of the coronavirus pandemic, this support may soon wane and leave an unfortunate legacy with regards to his tenure.







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