Through the cruel months of pandemic, raw statistics have been drained of their power to shock. Yet reaching 100,000 deaths — more than twice the civilian toll in the Blitz — has struck a nerve across the UK. As the archbishops of Canterbury and York note in an eloquent letter, each number is a person — “someone we loved and someone who loved us”. Even this figure understates the true toll. We cannot forget the tens of thousands of indirect fatalities: cancer patients, heart attack sufferers — all the victims of avoidable or premature deaths due to delayed diagnoses or a lack of intensive care beds.
The UK is the fifth country to pass the 100,000 threshold, after the US, Brazil, India and Mexico. Yet, strikingly, it has a far smaller population than any of the others, and is far wealthier than all except America. Its total deaths are, by some distance, Europe’s highest, its fatalities per capita the third highest in Europe and the world, after only Belgium and Slovenia.
The reasons for this grim accounting are by now well-rehearsed. Boris Johnson’s government was slow to recognise the seriousness of Covid-19, slow to mobilise resources against it, slow to impose border restrictions, slow to boost testing capacity, and slow to order a national lockdown. It came out of that lockdown too early — with infections higher than those of European counterparts at the same stage — failed to put an effective test-and-trace system in place, and was slow again to go into a second lockdown in November. It cannot be blamed for a contagious new variant emerging in Kent, but its handling of this, too, has been fumbling.
Mr Johnson says it is too early to learn lessons. Yet a better understanding of what led to delays and mistakes — how procedures might be improved, scientific advice more rapidly acted upon — could still be valuable in handling a crisis which, it is now clear, has many months to run. The Financial Times advocated last summer a rapid, interim review of the government’s actions, as has happened in several other countries. The caseload was then much lower. Once the current peak is past, however, the case remains for a stocktaking.
A full-scale public inquiry should follow once the pandemic is over. This must be not just into all elements of the UK response but the longstanding vulnerabilities that inflated the death toll, including rising income and health inequality, and insufficient investment in public services.
For now, the government has two overriding priorities. One is to ensure its so far successful vaccination programme stays on track and achieves its full potential. Ministers should order a scientific review of the decision to extend from three weeks to 12 the interval before second doses of vaccines are administered: Oxford/AstraZeneca is happy with the practice but BioNTech/Pfizer is not, arguing that trial data does not support it. Some experts warn that mRNA vaccines, such as BioNTech’s, are a new technology, and how long protection lasts after a first dose is unclear. Few countries have followed Britain’s lead. It would be a tragedy if the decision marred the vaccination effort’s effectiveness.
In parallel, whatever the pressure from some Tory backbenchers for a swift easing, the exit from today’s lockdown needs to be prudently handled. A phased reopening of activity, including schools, should be based on objective targets for reducing transmission rates, not arbitrary date-setting. Experience has shown that premature easing stores up problems for the future. Too many lives have already been lost. All possible efforts must go towards limiting the numbers that will follow.