The British government is coming under mounting criticism over its response to the COVID-19 crisis. As Britain’s overall coronavirus death toll overtakes its European neighbours, opinion polling shows the British public think only the USA has handled the pandemic worse.
The UK government’s latest slogan (“Stay Alert!”) has been labelled confusing, and leaders of devolved governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have refused to adopt it. Healthcare and care home staff have complained about PPE shortages, and widespread community testing (which was discontinued by the government on 12 March, only to be resumed later) has been slow to ramp up.
Scientists are also sending warning signals about the UK’s lockdown exit strategy. David Hunter, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the University of Oxford, has warned that the UK’s lockdown is being relaxed without a clear strategy to “test, trace, isolate” (something central to the approach in countries that have so far contained the spread of the virus, including South Korea, Taiwan, China, Australia and New Zealand). In recent days, worrying images have been circulating on social media of commuters packed onto buses and tube trains.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson believes it is too early to make international comparisons (though that’s exactly what his government has been doing for the past seven weeks, only stopping when the UK rose to the top spot in Europe). However, researchers are already beginning to group and compare strategies and outcomes from the initial phase of the pandemic.
In Europe, the UK tends to be grouped with Sweden and the Netherlands as countries that acted relatively slowly and adopted so-called ‘herd immunity’ strategies. Indeed, while the UK and Netherlands eventually reversed their approaches, Sweden has been held up as an example of a more liberal response to the pandemic, without a full lockdown in place and with much greater responsibility placed on individuals behaving responsibly and social distancing.
However, Sweden’s approach is controversial. Paul Franks, professor of epidemiology at Lund University, points out that Sweden has the highest fatality rate among the Nordic countries (more than three times higher than neighbouring Denmark), adding “I wouldn’t say right now it looks like open society approach has worked really well”.
In addition, Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies programme, has stated he believes it is “dangerous” for countries that have had “lax” pandemic responses to think they might “all of a sudden magically reach some herd immunity”.
The Swedish government, however, argues that their pandemic response represents a “marathon, not a sprint”. They believe fatality rates will rise in neighbouring countries over the long-term, as those countries relax their lockdowns, while economic damage will be limited in Sweden.
Have the UK and Sweden mismanaged their COVID-19 response? Or is it simply too early to make international comparisons? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!