The two-thirds of people who told pollsters Ispos Mori they thought the UK had acted too slowly in response to the coronavirus outbreak obviously had the benefit of hindsight in making that judgement. And it should be acknowledged that it is much harder to make good decisions in the heat of a crisis, particularly about something as drastic as shutting down much of the economy.
However, with Boris Johnson announcing the UK has finally “passed the peak” of the disease, questions do need to be asked about how well or badly we reacted to help inform planning for a feared second wave or even a different virus.
And as part of the process of evaluating our actions, we should look at how our record compares with other countries. Germany has been widely praised for its swift introduction of mass testing and its death toll, of about 6,200, is considerably lower than the UK’s, now at 26,711. We very much hope it does not turn out to be true, but as Labour leader Keir Starmer recently said Britain is “possibly on track to have one of the worst death rates in Europe”.
Economic forecasts also suggest Germany responded more effectively than the UK. Its economy minister Peter Altmaier predicted Germany would experience the “worst recession in the history of the Federal Republic”, founded in 1949, with GDP falling by 6.3 per cent in 2020. Different economies will react in different ways to a global shutdown but, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, the UK’s GDP is likely to fall by 13 per cent this year.
However, even if the UK did not pursue the best course of action initially, it did impose a lockdown and it was absolutely right to do so. This has helped stop the spread of the disease, undoubtedly saved lives and prevented the NHS from being overwhelmed.
The World Health Organisation’s Dr Hans Kluge warned only yesterday about the “speed with which even the best health systems can be overwhelmed and devastated”. And he added: “Health is a driver of the economy – what we see now is that without health, there is no economy. Without health, there is no national security. Once we get out of the pandemic, through united efforts, this is a lesson never to be forgotten.”
Hindsight is usually described as a “wonderful thing” sarcastically, but the reckoning that is coming is vital to ensuring we react as quickly and well as possible if this ever happens again.