Ham and High article – April 2020

A short time ago, this was to be my last London Assembly member Ham and High article. However the Covid19 virus changed that, with the cancelled elections, so I am around for another year at what is a frightening time for everyone.

Keir Starmer, whom I heartily congratulate as our new Labour leader, has rightly offered his support to the Government in fighting the virus. Yet we must question, at some time in the future, why the country was so ill-prepared and behind the curve It is salutary to see the Conservatives’ greatest media cheerleaders -the Mail and the Telegraph- being so critical of the Government’s lacklustre response.

In October 2016, Exercise Cygnus, involved government departments, NHS and councils. It dramatically exposed Britain’s failing pandemic preparation- its lessons were ignored and findings buried. Cygnus exposed gaping holes in the UK’s Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response plan. In the exercise, there was insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) for doctors and nurses. That’s now scandalously real, with so many health workers in hospitals losing their lives, as the NHS desperately plays ‘catch up’. And let’s remember the staff in care homes, pharmacists and GPs, all of who are at serious risk due to PPE shortages.

Britain’s Brexiteer Conservative Government missed three opportunities to be part of an EU scheme to bulk-buy masks, gowns and gloves. European doctors and nurses are about to receive the first of €1.5 billion-worth of PPE in days. The UK also failed to take part in EU procurement of ventilators, supposedly because crucial emails ‘went missing’. Britain’s own ventilator programme? None of the new ventilators, including Dyson’s, have as yet obtained regulatory approval.

Why didn’t the Government learn from Germany, where deaths are so much lower; and from South Korea where fewer than 250 people have died, in a country with a similar population and capital city size to ours. They have a massive “test, trace, isolate” programme with strict quarantine for those infected, while avoiding nationwide lockdown. Factories, shopping centres, schools, restaurants are open. People are free to walk about. South Korea’s economy is open. Again, the comparison is down to poor testing preparedness – we don’t even have the capacity to test all our emergency workers- like firefighters, who have stepped up to help drive ambulances and move the deceased.

Whilst we can welcome the Chancellor’s economic support package, it is becoming increasingly clear that the holes in his safety net are far too large, especially for London and Londoners, when so many are in desperation as the demand on food banks starkly illustrates.

Three cheers though, for all the NHS staff, emergency services, armed forces and transport workers who have stepped up at the risk to their own lives. They thoroughly deserve their well-earned Thursday night applause.

When it’s over, there must be a reckoning, in my view a public inquiry, into what went wrong, what went right, and what must be done to ensure we are never unprepared for such disasters ever again.