LONDON – UK is one of the world’s coronavirus death capitals.
On Wednesday, the number of registered Covid-19 deaths rose by 1,820 and again by 1,290 on Thursday. In total, that’s twice as many human lives as when the RMS Titanic sank, comparable to ten Boeing 777s that crash simultaneously.
And as of Thursday, Britain had the highest daily death toll per capita of any other country in the world – about twice that of the United States – according to rolling analysis from Oxford University.
Daily deaths per capita are currently second only to Portugal, but when it comes to major powers, Britain is currently an outlier, boasting as much as having the world’s fifth largest economy and a huge publicly funded national health service.
So what went so wrong? In an attempt to explain the daily tragedy that is unfolding, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is quick to point out a new, highly transmissible variant of the virus that appears to have originated in southeast England.
But many experts say that while Johnson got a bad hand, he played it badly. For them, the key misstep was the decision to allow tens of millions of people to travel and mix on Christmas Day – even though they knew the new variant was widespread.
“We shouldn’t have let the cases emerge as we approach Christmas,” said Nicola Stonehouse, professor of molecular virology at the University of Leeds. “And then it was just … really insane to allow people to mingle for Christmas,” she added, pausing to find the right words to describe this political choice.
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In November, Johnson informed people in England that up to three families could mingle for five days during the holiday season. (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have powers over their own health systems and have taken similar action at the time.)
When the new variant hit the market, he scaled back his planned Christmas relaxation and ordered 18 million people in the hot spots of London and the southeast to stay at home.
Most of the country, however, was still allowed to travel and mix indoors on Christmas Day itself. It’s a decision that some experts say is now bearing its grim fruits, as many have warned before.
Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London, says questions about government policies and existing weaknesses in the NHS are already testing the UK’s pandemic response to the limit.
The new variant “takes a system that is almost broken and breaks it,” he said.
“Hard weeks are still to come”
Today more than 93,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the UK. The NHS is buckling, ambulances piling up in front of hospitals and some cancer operations are being canceled.
Christmas wasn’t an aberration. It was a year that Johnson was accused of being too slow to introduce restrictions, failing to build an adequate “test, track and trace” network, and undermining public trust by refusing to approve his top advisors dismissed who apparently violated the lockdown rules.
It is frustrating what some see as government attempts to hold the blame on themselves the tiny minority who break the rulesrather than tightening their own guidelines. These critics see a trend: a prime minister repeatedly dismissing experts who tell him to act quickly only to let up weeks later. At this point the numbers are much worse.
Prime Minister supporters are turning this equation on its head.
While others have urged Johnson to pursue his coronavirus restrictions, some allies are surprised that he imposed them as much as possible because of his longstanding ideological beliefs.
“Boris was without a doubt a lifelong libertarian who wanted to stay out of business as much as possible,” said Guto Harri, Johnson’s spokesman when he was Mayor of London between 2008 and 2016.
Harri says he saw a marked change in his former boss, possibly marked by Johnson’s personal contact with the virus in April that put him in intensive care and nearly killed him. While Johnson may have hesitated to lockdown the country last March, Harri believes he has since been impressed with the prime minister’s willingness to “profoundly restrict the way people live.”
On Wednesday, Johnson called the rising daily death toll “appalling” and warned, “The weeks will be tough.”
It’s not all bad news. Britain vaccinates people faster than most other major economies. It hit 8 percent of its population, just behind Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. according to the University of Oxford. The US is around 5 percent.
The UK government would also like to stress that this is not a national but a global crisis. Many other countries are fighting even without the misfortune of producing a new mutant strain.
In fact, through March the Centers for Disease Control warned that the British variant could become the dominant strain in the US as well, which could lead to more outbreaks.
However, experts like Stonehouse are keen not to let the government off the hook.
“We can’t blame the new variant for it,” she said. “The new variant makes it worse and there will be a lot of guilt. But the problem was that it came into the population at a time when there was a lot of intermingling and that gave it the perfect breeding ground.”
She added, “I think we would be in this or a very similar situation without the new variant.”