Exclusive: UK sees more deaths from Covid than WWII, what went wrong?

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Talking with Gerry Stoker, a British political scientist and former government advisor, Eat News explores the key institutional failures that led to over 100,000 British deaths in just one year.

Britain’s grip on the invisible war wading through its nation has been embarrassing at best, and catastrophic at worst. Earlier this month it was revealed that more British civilians have died from Covid-19 since February last year than were killed in the entire Second World War.

The fifth largest economy in the world has allowed a six-year global war to be dwarfed by its poor pandemic handling. Now, in a study of 98 countries assessed on Covid-19 performance – the UK sits at 66th place. So, how did the UK reach this grim milestone?

Private sector

Gerry Stoker, a British political scientist and former government advisor. Photo: University of Southampton

Privatisation has had a profound impact on pandemic prevention and mitigation services, Stoker says. The government turned away from its National Health Service (NHS) which has a wealth of experience in healthcare and disease control and instead looked to fix short term needs within the private sector.

The British government has traditionally “downplayed capacity” to look to provision through contracts and private sector providers, Stoker says.

“One of the characteristics of private sector contractors is that they tend to over promise in order to get the contract and then they seem to have quite a significant track record of under-delivery,” Stoker says.

The UK’s test and trace system, like many other pandemic provisions, relied heavily on private companies with little to no experience in health services or pandemic prevention. The companies, which were favoured over the UK’s already established and successful NHS, frequently had affiliations with the Conservative party or were party donors.

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The test and trace scheme was designed so that 80% of people who had come into contact with the virus would be traced and instructed to self-isolate within two to three days, according to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

“They were recruiting people to undertake these functions who had no past experience or to be honest, any real engagement in that interface between state and citizen which was at the heart of track and trace,” says Stoker.

73 private companies were contracted to run the test and trace system which caused an administrative nightmare, led to the outsourcing of jobs to underqualified call centre staff instead of healthcare professionals and cost £22 billion in the process.

Government image

Beyond the commitment to the privatisation of state services, the government has been overly concerned with image and political presentation which interfered with how new Covid-19 rules were explained and interpreted by the public.

“Embedded in our government system is a growing commitment to spin or political presentation. And that doesn’t fit quite so comfortably with information provision,” Stoker says.

“The government never really gave up on the spin or political presentation and was trying to do information communication at the same time.”

This led to confusion in the public’s mind, Stoker adds, and resulted in widespread memes online surrounding the contradicting government-given narratives: ‘Stay home, save lives’ vs ‘Eat out to help out’.

“The prime minister has considerable communication skills but he’s more gifted at creating an image around a big picture, as opposed to explaining in detail what it is the people needed to do.

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“The combination of those two factors created a situation where it was very difficult for the government’s communication strategy to work well. One is a structural feature of the way in which our government system has developed, and another is a characteristic of the person who was prime minister.”

Economic inequality

The growing issue of economic inequality led to many unable to self-isolate, which exacerbated the spread of the virus. Poorer communities needed financial incentivisation to self-isolate because most families will choose to work instead of self-isolating if they are in a financially uncertain situation.

The government was concerned about the additional finance involved in supporting people in self-isolation, Stoker says.

“It’s a bit like trying to develop a stool but never putting the third leg on. You have to track people; you have to trace their contacts and the third leg of the stool is where people have to self-isolate and you have to support them in that process.

“The fact that we didn’t do that is one of the reasons why we’ve ended up with one of the highest death rates amongst European countries.”

Centralised power

With so much resource concentrated at the national level, there is a “degree of arrogance” in the government, Stoker says, which is reflected in some of the decision making around Covid-19 and the pandemic.

The power of government is highly centralised, leaving local governments with a greater understanding of their communities unable to help as efficiently.

“The decision-making flows from the national level and there is a combination of arrogance and ‘group think’ that emerges out of that which has been problematic,” says Stoker.

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“It contrasts with that of many other European countries who have more decentralised systems and therefore perhaps had the opportunity for different voices to be heard and different strategies to be developed to help cope with the challenges of this Covid-19.”

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Millie Turner is an Eat News correspondent in the UK who has received accolades for her features. She writes with special focus on international politics, corporate corruption, and the climate crisis.


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