The SNP’s Shadow Health and Social Care SNP Spokesperson, Dr Philippa Whitford MP, writes that extensive testing and contact tracing must be established before the current lockdown can be reviewed.
Boris Johnson’s Government was apparently warned in mid-January about the threat posed by COVID-19, yet took little significant action, beyond advising us all to ‘Wash our hands’ until mid-March. Nor, despite the failings highlighted by the 2016 flu pandemic exercise, Operation Cygnus, were efforts made to prepare health and social care services, by purchasing additional ventilators and PPE while they were still available.
As late as 11 March, the day COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the reality of asymptomatic spread was still being denied by the Secretary of State in the House of Commons.
During the ‘containment’ phase, the UK chose not to follow the WHO guidance on testing, contact tracing and isolating cases to break the chain of infection. This meant that when, on 16 March, the UK Government finally recognised the potentially appalling death toll of sticking with their ‘herd immunity’ policy, the only option left to them was to initiate physical distancing; followed on the 23 March by lockdown.
Prior to the lockdown, the number of new infections was accelerating exponentially as every case of COVID-19 was able to infect two to three other people who could each, in turn, infect three others. Cases were doubling every few days but, for a long time, the numbers seemed quite low and UK Government ministers appeared complacent.
Having missed the opportunity to contain the infection, maintaining ‘safe distancing’ has become critical to minimising the number of people ill with COVID-19 at any one time and ensuring health services are not overwhelmed but have sufficient resources to treat everyone, including those who become ill from other causes during the outbreak.
There have been suggestions that the number of new cases is stabilising rather than accelerating. While any improvement is welcome, it is simply too early to tell when we will reach the peak. The number of people infected is still rising and, while the UK might be approaching the peak, it is certainly not yet coming down the other side.
To avoid taunting the public, it would have been better to be honest from the start, as was the case in Scotland, that the lockdown would require about 12 weeks rather than be up for review in three. The suggestion that those under 30 years could soon come out of lockdown is particularly concerning as the young have often, mistakenly, thought they were immune to COVID-19 and may now start to rebel against current advice. Based on the predicted mortality of 0.03% for those aged 20-30 years, this could result in the loss of 630 young adults – surely far too high a price to pay.
Throughout this crisis, there has clearly been a tussle within the Cabinet about the balance between the health impacts and economic damage. The leak of recent Home Office discussions has raised concerns that the dangerous herd immunity strategy is still being pursued, particularly as the UK Government encouraged construction and manufacturing to continue in England despite the supposed ‘lockdown’.
No reduction in the lockdown should be considered until the peak of the epidemic is passed, and extensive testing and contact tracing established. Otherwise we are likely to see another surge in cases and further loss of life.
The UK Government failed to use its two months’ grace to properly contain the epidemic or prepare healthcare services for what they would face. They must not now compound those mistakes, through impatience, by lifting the lockdown prematurely.
Dr Philippa Whitford is the SNP’s Westminster Spokesperson for Health and Social Care & Europe. She is the MP for Central Ayrshire.