U.K. COVID-19 death toll surpasses 32,000, making it deadliest coronavirus outbreak in Europe

A plucky Second World War veteran approaching his own centenary leans on his walker and marches across his garden 100 times and raises millions for Britain’s beleaguered National Health Service (NHS).

A larger-than-life Prime Minister Boris Johnson boasts of shaking hands with coronavirus patients and later falls gravely ill to the virus himself, recovering just in time to be with his fiancée for the birth of a bouncing Downing Street baby.

The Queen makes a rare address to the nation, offering comfort, urging people to stay at home and evoking that wartime can-do spirit with a promise that blue skies will again return to this land.

So shiny and almost fable-like are these strands of Britain’s encounter with COVID-19 that they can sometimes seem to blur the horrors at the heart of it. Even though the strands are themselves a product of it.

British media reported Tuesday that more than 32,000 Britons have now died from the virus, about a third of them believed to be in long-term care homes.

That number, which is based on data from the Office for National Statistics, the National Records of Scotland and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and exceeds the official Department of Health toll of 28,734, far surpasses what government scientists called their “best case scenario” of 20,000 COVID-19 deaths.

With Britain now having overtaken Italy, where around 29,000 people have died of COVID-19, as the country with the deadliest outbreak in Europe, Johnson’s government is facing intense scrutiny over its actions in the early days of the pandemic.

“It just wasn’t acted upon and taken as a serious enough threat,” said Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh.

Viruses ‘exploit delays’

Sridhar describes a government still very much consumed with Brexit, which finally occurred on January 31, a personal victory for Johnson, who had won a landslide election victory in December on a pledge to “Get Brexit done.”

Johnson is reported to have missed five meetings on the coronavirus threat by Britain’s special security committee early in February and March, and eight calls or meetings with European Union leaders about it.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to work on April 27, more than three weeks after being hospitalized with COVID-19 and spending three days in intensive care. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

Sridhar says the United Kingdom squandered time as it toyed with the idea of trying to develop “herd immunity.”

“I think the decision was made quite early in March to give up on containment and to assume that this virus was unstoppable and that everyone would get it.”

The government advice to the vast majority of the British people was to go about their business “as usual,” and on March 3 the prime minister gave a now-infamous news conference boasting that he was still shaking hands and had recently done so with coronavirus patients in hospital.

His tone changed on March 12, a day after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. He emerged from Downing Street to warn that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

Johnson didn’t impose a lockdown for another 11 days.

Sridhar says that was a mistake. “What we know with viruses is they exploit delays every day … It’s just waiting for [this kind of] lack of strong leadership, because then it just explodes and it’s very hard to get a handle on it again.”

As of Tuesday, more than 190,000 people in the U.K. had tested positive for the virus.

‘Judgment call’

The government has consistently maintained that it ordered the lockdown at the right time.

“If we acted too early, then you have the problem of crushing the economy,” Dr. Luke Evans, a Conservative MP who sits on the parliamentary select health committee, said in a Skype interview on April 28.

“What you’re trying to do is prevent the NHS from being overrun, save as many lives as you possibly can while not crushing your economy. So to try and make a judgment call on this in the middle of a pandemic is really, really difficult.”

Despite government assurances dating back to February that the country was prepared, Britain has consistently struggled to meet the demands for personal protective equipment (PPE) for its front-line health workers, and to explain why.

A government pandemic simulation in 2016 called “Exercise Cygnus” highlighted shortages of PPE and ventilators. The report on that exercise remains confidential, but the NHS has identified shortages amid the pandemic and provided advice to health care workers on stretching resources.

More than 100 health care workers have died from the virus in the U.K.

Anxiety and fear

Amun Sandhu is a Canadian who came to study medicine in the U.K. a decade ago and stayed. She now works as an acute care doctor in an NHS hospital in London.

“It was towards the end of February that we started to see [a pattern] emerging — people that were unwell with flu-like symptoms but that weren’t quite fitting the influenza picture,” she said.

Sandhu describes the anguish of watching people succumb to the virus without loved ones by their side and the worries she carries with her not just for her patients but for her husband at home given all that still remains unknown about the virus.

“I take off my scrubs at the door and wrap everything in a garbage bag and then wash straight away,” she said. “Then straight into the shower before we even say hello to each other.”

She says she has felt anxiety and fear “the whole way through” the pandemic.

“Initially, I think a lot of us felt [angry], and we felt that our safety was being compromised, [But] you put that aside, and you move on, and you continue working and trying to do the best you can for your patients,” Sandhu said.

WATCH | Dr. Amun Sandhu demonstrates part of her routine arriving home after a shift

Dr. Amun Sandhu demonstrates part of her routine when she gets home from the hospital, aimed at protecting her household from COVID-19 2:09

By many counts, more than 100 health care workers have died from the virus in the U.K.

‘A real complacency’

There has been widespread confusion over the U.K.’s decision not to sign up to a European Union procurement scheme it was entitled to join.

In April, Sir Simon McDonald, who heads the civil service at the foreign office, told MPs it was a “political decision,” implying that it was taken because Britain had left the European Union.

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told reporters on April 21 that he personally had agreed to join the scheme. “It was put up to me to be asked and we joined. So we are now members of that scheme. However, as far as I know, that scheme hasn’t yet delivered a single item of PPE.”

Hungerford Bridge near the London Eye would normally be teeming with people, but like other parts of the city has emptied during lockdown measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

But when contacted by CBC News for comment, an official with the European Commission in Brussels said the U.K. “had not expressed interest in joining any of the four [procurement] calls.”

Alastair Campbell, one-time spin doctor and special adviser to former British Labour prime minister Tony Blair, says even putting aside his “inbuilt inherent bias” against Johnson’s Conservative government, he thought there “was a real complacency.”

“I think there was a sense of British exceptionalism,” said Campbell. “All this kind of war talk started, you know: ‘We got through the war, we’ll get through this.’ And quite a lot of briefing against the Europeans in particular, [that] they were panicking or over-reacting and so forth.”

Campbell also says that Johnson’s own health woes after he contracted the coronavirus in mid-April, eventually finding himself in intensive care, distracted from the rising numbers of dead not just in hospitals but in nursing homes, especially in the tabloids.

“I’m not saying it’s not a big story, because it is — the prime minister in hospital. But I think there came a point where parts of the media used it to kind of avoid focusing on rather bigger, more important things, like the fact that, you know, we were overtaking Spain and Italy in terms of the death toll.”

Virus is ‘going to keep spreading’

When Johnson emerged from his recuperation period last week to take on a Downing Street daily briefing, he told reporters that while lessons were being learned every day, “broadly speaking, we did the right thing at the right time.”

Sridhar, from the University of Edinburgh, disagrees and says the country is still paying for decisions made in those early days.

A view of London’s skyline from Primrose Hill Park as some stretch the rules of lockdown, now entering week seven. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

“Because when you work in outbreak situations, you know that every day, time is basically your currency, right? Because the virus is going to keep spreading whether it’s a weekend, whether you’re on your holiday, whatever is happening.”

The United Kingdom has so far managed to keep headroom in its intensive care capacity. Sridhar says the U.K. will need massive testing and tracing capacity in place before should consider lifting the lockdown.

A pledge by the health secretary to be testing 100,000 people a day by the end of April was at about 85,000 on Sunday.

Sridhar says she is seeing signs in the right direction but adds that more should have been done during the long weeks of lockdown. “It feels like Groundhog Day in my mind where it keeps repeating — the delays,” she said. “No one seems to understand that time is the currency.”

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