With 110K dead, U.K. government hopes vaccine rollout will redeem pandemic failures

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently said he takes full responsibility for the government's response to COVID-19. That includes a formidable vaccination effort, but also failing to establish a "world-beating" test and trace system and often resisting the advice of health experts, writes Margaret Evans.

There are currently more than 30,000 people in U.K. hospitals with COVID-19

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently said he takes full responsibility for his government's response to the pandemic. More than 100,000 people in the U.K. have died as a result of COVID-19. (Alberto Pezzali/The Associated Press)

London's Hampstead Heath is a glorious, sprawling patch of wilderness that defies the urban density around it and is at odds with the brutalist architecture of the Royal Free Hospital, which stands just beyond the tree line on its southern edge. 

One month into the United Kingdom's latest pandemic lockdown, the park is full to brimming on weekends with cappuccino-carrying crowds, many clearly stretching the rules on the size of groups allowed to meet outside, while ambulances queue outside the hospital to deliver patients.

It's a good metaphor for the growing psychological distance here between those confronting the daily reality of the fight against COVID-19 ― in the hospitals and in the morgues ― and those on the other side of the curtain, who have become numbed by the sheer volume of the daily death count on the nightly news. 

Despite the fact that the U.K. is currently in another lockdown, crowds pour into London's Hampstead Heath every weekend. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The end of January marked both the anniversary of the first reported cases of coronavirus in the U.K. and the grim milestone of more than 100,000 deaths, the fifth-highest total in the world.

"I can hardly believe that there isn't a riot at the moment," said David King, a former chief scientific advisor for the U.K. under former prime minister Tony Blair. 

"Because if you examine what the government has done and you compare it with every other country in the world, you can see that our decision-making has been terribly, seriously at fault." 

There are currently more than 30,000 people in U.K. hospitals with COVID-19, up from around 18,000 over Christmas. The lockdown has reportedly begun to slow infection rates in the country, but government scientists still describe numbers as "alarmingly high."

"The numbers that we're seeing of death and people dying, it's something that I don't think anybody can really fully grasp," said Dr. Amun Sandhu, a Canadian working in acute medicine at another London hospital. 

Dr. Amun Sandhu, a Canadian working in acute medicine at a London hospital, said the numbers of people dying during the pandemic is 'something that I don't think anybody can really fully grasp.' (J.F. Bisson/CBC)

"We were having to triage [patients] outside in the parking lot. We just did not have the capacity to actually see them in the hospital," said Sandhu, describing scenes on some of the heaviest days of hospital admissions. 

Widespread criticism of PM

On the day the counter tipped over to 100,000 deaths, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he took full responsibility for everything his government had done in fighting the pandemic. 

But when pressed in Parliament to explain why the U.K.'s death rate is among the highest in the world on a per capita basis, Johnson said now is not the time to "learn the lessons." 

WATCH | The U.K. reaches a grim COVID-19 milestone:

U.K.’s COVID-19 response criticized as deaths top 100,000

1 year ago
Duration 8:31
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership of the country’s COVID-19 response has faced harsh criticism by other politicians, health officials and the public as deaths from the virus topped 100,000.

"Mr. Speaker," he said, "I don't think that moment is now, when we are in the throes of fighting this wave of the new variant with 37,000 people in hospital." 

For his critics, it is precisely Johnson's failure to learn from his missteps in the spring ― when he delayed imposing a lockdown and stricter border controls ― that led to an even more devastating fall and now winter.

"It's unbelievable," said King. "Once again, our hospitals are crowded with patients who really need help and haven't got COVID-19 but are suffering from cancer, need operations, whatever, and can't get into the hospitals." 

King set up a group of independent experts to offer advice on the pandemic back in early May, concerned over what he called a lack of transparency from the government's own official body of experts, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, known as SAGE.

"It's a problem of leadership," said King. "I'm quite convinced that if an alternative leader was in place, it could be Theresa May, could be the present leader of the opposition [Labour's Keir Starmer], we wouldn't be in the situation we're in now."

Resisting advice of experts

Johnson waited until Jan. 4 to impose the latest lockdown, England's third, despite weeks of warnings from his SAGE experts. In September, Johnson also resisted their advice calling for a "circuit break" to curb rising numbers after a summer where the government opened up travel corridors to other countries and urged people "to eat out to help out" the economy.

When he was asked in Parliament at the time to comment on rising infections in Britain compared to European countries, Johnson replied that Britain was a "more freedom-loving" country.

"Virtually every advance from free speech to democracy [has] … come from this country. And it is very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in a way that is necessary," he said.

Critics say Johnson's British exceptionalism has consistently undermined the fight against the pandemic.

The government argues the reason things have spun so badly out of control in recent months is because of the detection late last year of a new, more contagious variant of the virus in the U.K.

Given the number of Britons who have died during COVID-19, 'I can hardly believe that there isn't a riot at the moment,' said David King, a former chief scientific advisor for the U.K. under former prime minister Tony Blair. (J.F. Bisson/CBC)

King said that shouldn't let the government off the hook. "We really gave that new mutant a big boost by having that Christmas break ― people travelling all around the country was just the best thing to do to spread the new virus, and now it's all over the U.K."

Johnson's great success, though, and the U.K.'s hope for a potential way out of the pandemic, rests with the country's vaccination program. 

The government secured contracts with pharmaceutical companies early on, and, relying on the spine of the National Health Service's network of local health authorities, has already given more than 10 million people a first dose of the vaccine.

Vaccine rollout will 'save many lives'

Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt, a former British health minister and foreign secretary who now chairs the parliamentary select committee on health and social care, said the vaccine offers Johnson a reprieve. 

"I think history will factor in the fact that Britain has been the most successful large country when it comes to the vaccine rollout, and that may well save many lives during the course of this year. And so I think from the government's point of view, they will point to that as well being a very important part of our overall response." 

Hunt admits the government made some mistakes in the early days of the pandemic, but he said the U.K. was not alone in that. 

Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt, a former British health minister who now chairs the parliamentary select committee on health and social care, said the vaccine offers Boris Johnson a reprieve from some of the shortcomings of the government's response to COVID-19.  (J.F. Bisson/CBC)

"I think that we in the U.K., and in fairness in many other countries in Europe, North America, were too slow to learn from the way they were tackling the virus in East Asia," said Hunt.

The success of the U.K. vaccination program, which relies on the NHS and local health authorities, contrasts with Johnson's failure to deliver what he promised would be a "world-beating" test, trace and isolate system. 

The government's decision to pay millions of pounds to private companies with little experience in the field of health care has been heavily criticized, and the system is still experiencing problems. 

"Some people say [the system's shortcomings are] a sort of public sector, private sector thing," said Hunt. "I'm not so sure it's that. I think it's the fact that if you're contacted by someone in a call centre 300 miles away and asked not to go to work and potentially lose income for your family, you're far less likely to comply than if you're contacted by your local council and asked the same thing."

'We don't need to be clapped for'

As new COVID-19 variants arrive on the scene, worry over the potential for the virus to mutate beyond the reach of the current batch of vaccines is growing, especially with the recent confirmation of community spread in the U.K. of the variant first discovered in South Africa.

Hunt said that makes it all the more critical to ensure that alternative measures to keep the virus under control are working, including test, trace and isolate.

"This is the single biggest flaw in our pandemic handling strategy at the moment," he said. "That we have this huge number of people who are asked to self-isolate every week because they've been near someone who's got COVID, and they're not [doing it]."

He said it's another area where Western countries should look to Asian examples, with South Korea and Taiwan putting financial support in place to help ensure compliance from citizens.

There are also fears that people suffering lockdown fatigue will see the arrival of the vaccine as a reason to ignore public safety rules. 

The scenes on and around Hampstead Heath are surely indicative of that. The current lockdown feels nowhere near as strict as the first one back at the end of March, even though the strain now on the NHS is much heavier.

Although a recent effort to revive a weekly 'clap for carers' fizzled, some in the community continue to honour front-line workers. Above, London street artist Nathan Bowen is seen drawing a tribute to paramedics. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The recent death of Capt. Sir Tom Moore, the 100-year-old veteran who raised millions of pounds for the charities serving the doctors, nurses and other front-line employees in the NHS, is a reminder of the very different mood that existed back at the start of the pandemic.

Then, people across the U.K. would come out once a week to clap for caregivers and other key workers in the fight against the pandemic.

An attempt to revise the practice in December fizzled, which doesn't surprise Sandhu. 

"We're just trying to survive currently and we don't need to be clapped for," said Sandhu. "People just need to listen to what the government guidelines are to try and help reduce the numbers and really listen to the scientists and to the vaccine programs and to health-care workers that are trying to improve this [situation], you know." 

She also wishes the government would act more quickly on the advice of scientists.

CBC News spoke to Sandhu during the first wave of the pandemic in the U.K., after Johnson himself spent time in an NHS intensive care unit recovering from COVID-19. At the time, she said she hoped his experience might lead to more respect for the NHS. 

Today, she said most health-care workers feel taken for granted by the government.

"The timing of the [January] lockdown is reflective of that, where our doctors and scientists are saying no, these restrictions needed to come sooner and they didn't," said Sandhu. "I think that speaks for itself, in a way."


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now