Covid-19 – The view from the UK

By Dr K.D. Gopee  

The first confirmed case of Covid-9 in the UK was on the 29th of January, and a pandemic was declared by the WHO on the next day. By that time 9800 people had been confirmed as infected globally and 213 had died. The UK was supposed to be having two weeks of notice to prepare itself for the storm.

Initial approach controversial

Despite warnings from China, the WHO and the worsening situation globally, UK authorities decided to take a controversial approach, also seen as complacent. They opted for the idea of a “controlled epidemic” providing “herd immunity” with 60% of the population being allowed to get infected. Some epidemiologists and the editor of “The Lancet”, a medical journal, were baffled by this stand, more so because stricter measures adopted by south East Asian countries were starting to show results. Advice was given in stepwise fashion: wash hands with soap and water more often, social distancing of 2 metres, work from home. More measures were not implemented at that stage because of cost, social and economic.

National Health Service unprepared

As the death toll continued to rise, it became apparent that the NHS was woefully unprepared for such an event. The proportion of ICU beds was already the lowest in Europe, ventilators were lacking, there were staff shortages of 100,000 and testing facilities were at a derisory level. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was found to be in very short supply. It came to light that a health economic assessment done a few years earlier had found it too costly to provide for eye protection as recommended by experts. WHO recommendations about PPE were watered down; it has been reported that some masks provided to paramedics were out of date.

The blame for the unpreparedness of the NHS is placed squarely at the door of the government for its decades of austerity measures. Brexit and ideology also seem to be playing a part in the management of the crisis. Despite the lack of ventilators Britain refused to join a EU scheme to acquire more, citing a communication problem related to e-mails. A contract for the provision of ventilators has been allocated to a vacuum cleaner company whose owner is reportedly quite close to the party in power.

Public’s reaction, social and economic impact

The government kept mentioning the future possible measures it could take. The public not receiving clear guidance became panicky. It went onto a buying rampage. Toilet rolls, sanitisers and disinfectants disappeared from the supermarket shelves along with foodstuffs and other necessities. Despite reassurance of availability of supply, panic buying continued and quietened down only after lockdown was instituted following an Imperial College report.

The social and economic disruption caused is unimaginable; to a certain degree palliative measures are possible but at enormous cost as the newly appointed Chancellor soon found out. Money, even amounting to billions, does not solve all problems for all people.

Socially the public has taken the lockdown measures in its stride and is adapting because it cannot do otherwise. People are frightened but the stiff upper lip is still present. Confinement does not, in the longer run, bring out the best in ourselves. Distraction welcomed through technological means lasts up to a point but interpersonal relationships also need to be navigated through.

One could easily paint a picture of what could happen when relatives spend a long time together – the brawls of Christmas would be like a pale imitation. There are already reports of an increase in domestic abuse, and other upheavals are expected long term such as an increase in divorce rates and births, amongst others. Loss of one’s job is uppermost in people’s minds as the economy takes a big tumble and recovery is only expected towards the end of next year, provided a vaccine is found within the next few months.

Nobody can be sure what will happen when lockdown is removed, or when will we be really out of this plight. Let us hope that this life-threatening crisis urges us to reflect on life, relationships and what our real priorities should be. To fanatics of all faiths, let this pandemic be a clear reminder that no religion has proved superior to another in protecting its followers. We are all in this together!

KD Gopee

Hailing from Curepipe, Dr K.D. Gopee MD, FRCS is a UK based ophthalmologist where he relocated after his undergraduate medical studies in Belgium, and has been practising in the NHS for nearly 30 years. He has sent us his perspective on the UK government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It appears that there too, as in the worse affected European countries – Italy, Spain, Portugal and France – there has been a lag in the response that may partly explain the sharp rise that has been witnessed. It is of interest that late Dr Li Wenliang, who first identified the cluster of coronavirus pneumonia cases in Wuhan, was an ophthalmologist.


* Published in print edition on 1 April 2020

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