Jake O'Kane: British action on virus better late than never and also too little, too late

Schools in England reopen in June, but not all schools. Private schools such as Eton will remain closed until September at the earliest, which will be a great relief to Boris and chums as this will allow their children to remain safe

A billboard advert in Dublin for an estate agent depicting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as Dad's Army character Lance Corporal Jones. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA
Jake O'Kane

AS WITH most things in life, how you view any situation comes down to perspective. The decision of the UK government to finally offer Covid-19 tests to anyone exhibiting symptoms and roll out track and tracing can therefore be viewed as either better late than never, or too little, too late.

Those who argue such criticisms spring from the advantage of retrospection are wrong; there was clear, informed advice on dealing with this pandemic from its outbreak.

Back in March, the day after the UK announced it would only test the most seriously ill, the director of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, advised all nations to find and test every case to stop the pandemic. He prophetically said: "You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is." This advice was rejected by Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, who favoured instead the theory of ‘herd immunity’.

This idea of doing nothing, hoping a critical mass of population with immunity would be reached, was reminiscent of eugenicist theories from the 1930s. After projected fatalities from such an approach rose from 20,000 to 250,000, ‘herd immunity’ was hastily dumped and the country was put into lockdown. But time, the most critical commodity during a pandemic, had been lost, and the virus spread exponentially.

While rates of infection and death climbed in the UK, countries such as South Korea and New Zealand – which had embraced test, track and trace – experienced substantially lower fatalities and have already exited from lockdown.

The past two months have seen our health service valiantly battle to recoup that lost time, and due to its workers' tireless and heroic efforts, we are beginning to see the first glimmer of an exit from the lockdown. But this isn’t the end – this isn’t even the beginning of the end, nor is it the end of the beginning. If we allow our guard to slip, the infection rate – that much talked of ‘R’ number – will inevitably rise again.

The latest move by Boris to change advice from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’ has led to public confusion. On one hand, the government argues that it’s time for "those who cannot work from home, to return to work", yet, simultaneously, it acknowledges the virus continues to pose a serious threat to public health.

This latest change of approach involves an unavoidable class dimension. Generally speaking, those who work from home are mainly from the upper half of the income distribution, with those unable to work from home being mainly in the bottom half. So those fortunate to be born into wealthy families and sent to public schools, thus gaining the best possible education – like most in government – are to remain safe at home.

Those born into working-class families, with no such advantages, generally working in a manual job such as labourer, driver or on a factory production line, should go back to work. And with travel on public transport unsafe, Boris kindly suggests those returning to work either walk or get on their bike – now where have I heard that before?

Along with a return to work, schools in England reopen in June, but not all schools. Private schools such as Eton will remain closed until September at the earliest, which will be a great relief to Boris and chums as this will allow their children to remain safe.

Going back to perspective, things could be worse. We could be living in the United States. Boris ranks as a genius compared to ‘the Donald’. Having initially brushed off the coronavirus as "not as perilous as the common flu", Trump has traversed the spectrum of quackery. From suggesting injections of bleach as a cure to news this week that he’s started taking the untested anti-malarial medication hydroxychloroquine as a possible antidote to coronavirus, there seems no end to his lunacy.

With the US pandemic death rate passing 90,000, Trump has decided to fall back on his old tactic of apportioning blame on others. Having called Covid-19 the "Chinese virus", his focus of condemnation has now shifted to the World Health Organisation, which he has now threatened to permanently stop funding, having last month announced a temporary suspension of US payments.

In such times, our crowd on the hill seem, in comparison, to be paragons of good governance. Just as we realised things were bad when they started getting on, we’ll know the crisis has finally passed when they start bickering about really important issues, such as why Stormont doesn’t have Ulster Scots sign-language interpreters.

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