By Natasha Hakimi Zapata / Original to ScheerPost
LONDON–Reader, I’m furious. Writing from Charlotte Brontë’s England, that’s the first thing that comes to mind as I digest the news delivered by U.K. Prime Minister and U-turner-in-chief Boris Johnson during a Saturday afternoon press conference. For over a month, Britons have been told by Johnson and his right-wing government that despite alarming COVID-19 rates, the nation–and here I mean England, since Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are able to set their own regulations regarding the pandemic–would be allowed to gather over a 5-day period starting Christmas day with 3 households in total. Many doctors, scientists, politicians and, well, you-name-them, publicly expressed their alarm at what they saw as a reckless loosening of restrictions that could lead to catastrophe shortly after the holiday period. Labour leader Keir Starmer joined in the warnings, indicating that if Johnson were going to abruptly change his mind–as he has done throughout the pandemic, with bumbling regularity—about the holiday regulations, he should do so as soon as possible to give the country time to process and plan.
That was a lot to ask of a prime minister as profoundly inept as Johnson has proven to be throughout his premiership. Instead, on Saturday, after freshly accusing Starmer of wanting to “cancel Christmas,” Johnson went ahead and cancelled Christmas for the roughly 17 million people living in London and the South East of England where–and this is where much of my anger really comes in–a new strain of the coronavirus has been detected that is 70% more transmissible than others, and, as far as U.K. scientists have been able to ascertain, no less deadly. The new strain has apparently been spreading through swathes of the U.K. for months and is the reason that, even during the most recent November lockdown in England, COVID-19 cases continued to rise at shocking rates. On Saturday, as Johnson appeared on our screens from the prime minister’s residence on Downing Street, 27,052 new cases and 534 new deaths were reported. On Sunday, there were an additional 35,928 new cases and 326 new deaths. To add insult to infection, the new restrictions caused unmitigated chaos at train stations on Saturday as Londoners tried to escape the city before the midnight deadline arrived–havoc that is likely to have caused even more spreading of the virus and may have been avoided had Johnson made the new regulations effective immediately.
My partner and I had hesitated and negotiated with his family for weeks about whether to visit them during the holiday break and how to do so safely. While Christmas is not a holiday we have any particular attachment to, it offered a reprieve from the daily lockdown routines we’d been living with over the past nine months and, most importantly, an excuse to see family we have barely been able to visit since the start of the pandemic in March. We had, within the best of our abilities and adhering to regulations, found ways to plan for a safe holiday gathering–his mother set up an outdoor space with distanced seating and heaters for us to share a meal in, we had booked lodgings, rented a car, packed thermals, hats, gloves and our Secret Santa gifts. Both of us–and I write this recognizing we were in a privileged position to do so–had begun self-isolating in our apartment where we work from home in order to limit the likelihood of carrying the virus with us to his family.
To say Johnson’s announcement was disappointing just a few days before the holiday break is a bit of an understatement, but the truth is, we were immediately far more worried than sad. The new strain, about which scientists know very little so far, adds so many other concerns to our long list of worries about the pandemic. The fact that it is so much more contagious means our likelihood of exposure is much higher than we’d previously considered, not to mention that of essential workers who have been laboring throughout the pandemic to keep us all safe, fed and cared for. It also may mean that the virus is spreading in ways that had been previously ruled less concerning–such as through surfaces–though, again, this is unknown. Currently, about 62% of the COVID-19 cases and 34% of hospitalizations in London are linked to this new strain. While it seems so far that the vaccines that have been created, approved, and have begun to be rolled out in the U.K. before anywhere else, are still likely to protect against the new strain, I’ve learned a new term over the weekend: vaccine escape. COVID-19 could, in theory, mutate to dodge existing vaccines, essentially rendering them useless. Like many, I had begun to let a bit of hope regarding a vaccine ending the pandemic sneak in, but after this weekend even that thought seems a bit naive.
Possibly the most rage-inducing part about this new strain is that, while government officials have insisted profusely that they only understood the gravity of the situation on Friday, as Starmer put it, alarms had been “ringing for weeks.” It’s even possible the new strain was actually brought to the island nation over the summer, which begs the question of why the U.K. government never bothered to take a leaf out of other island nations’–like Taiwan’s or New Zealand’s–COVID-19 playbooks and quarantined incoming visitors and residents in government-funded hotels upon arrival. There are also plenty of questions remaining regarding the recent relaxation of pandemic guidelines in London, where for most of December, indoor dining and shopping was still allowed despite rising cases.
But Johnson’s incompetence is in no way restricted to the new strain. In the eyes of many, his Tory government has mismanaged the pandemic response from start to finish, often putting Brexit and other political reasons above the safety of the citizens he’s meant to be safeguarding. Studies have shown that if his government had called a lockdown a week earlier than it did in March, up to 20,000 lives might have been saved. While the furlough scheme, which provides those unable to work with 80% of their salaries, has been helpful, it’s allowed many self-employed workers to fall through the cracks. Over the summer, rather than offering more effective forms of aid, the government spent £522 ($695) million on its “Eat Out to Help Out” program, essentially paying Britons to dine at eateries for several weeks during the summer. Given that COVID-19 has been proven to spread rapidly in indoor restaurants and pubs, it will come as no surprise to readers that subsequently, up to 17% of new COVID-19 “clusters” (more than two infections) were linked to that program. Masks and face coverings weren’t mandated in public indoor spaces until late in the summer, despite what we’d all already learned about the virus being airborne. The government’s contact-tracing program was outsourced to companies like SERCO which had proven in the past to be incapable of carefully dealing with sensitive data, and which profited from helping set up a system which, by most standards, has proven to be ineffective at best. Johnson has spent billions of taxpayer money on a range of pandemic-related efforts, including a whole slew of money wasted on contracts given to totally inexperienced companies–including a bouncy castle maker–to produce everything from private protective equipment to vaccine vials, some of which ultimately didn’t meet medical standards. In what’s being dubbed the rise of “chumocracy,” some of these contracts were given to companies with personal links to Health Secretary Matt Hancock and other Tory government officials through a system that fast-tracked applications from people that Hancock and others essentially vouched for. PPE shortages throughout the pandemic have endangered essential workers, with one physician, Dr. Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, famously dying of COVID-19 shortly after trying to ring the alarm about the lack of equipment in hospitals. Throughout the pandemic, the Tory government’s testing efforts have also been subpar, with a flawed system that was frequently overwhelmed and made it difficult– at times impossible–for people to get tested nearby.
Right now the National Health Service hospital beds are almost at 90% capacity in much of England, and, as rates rise to shocking new levels, routine operations unrelated to the coronavirus are being cancelled left, right and center. The European Union and other nations are banning U.K. visitors, and France is not allowing any accompanied freight to cross through Dover, England due to concerns about the new strain. This will likely mean fresh food shortages, something that some of us had already been worried about given the U.K. has yet to negotiate a Brexit deal with the E.U.–where the majority of Britain’s fresh food hails from–ahead of the January 1 deadline. Oh, and you guessed it, the Johnson’s government has made no–zero, zilch–preparations for food shortages, leaving it entirely up to private industry.
Perhaps the worst part about hearing this latest news straight from Johnson’s proverbial mouth has been knowing that, whatever comes next, the British government under his leadership can be expected to continue down a dangerous, haphazard path that routinely puts financial interests over public health. It is, after all, how the U.K. has consistently been at the top of Europe’s COVID-19 death tolls list, with 67,401 deaths reported to date. It is an infuriating tragedy that I desperately hope no one who is fortunate enough to have lived through will forget when the next election rolls around.