A top public health expert has said a “legacy of poor decisions” around easing restrictions and travel have led to the current situation – amid a UK death toll exceeding 100,000.
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said bad decisions, coupled with the new variant, have brought us to “where we are now”.
She told BBC Breakfast: “Unfortunately the number of people dying is not going to decline quickly, and even then it will remain for a while at a really high rate so we’re absolutely not out of it.
“I think where we are now is a legacy of poor decisions that were taken when we eased restrictions earlier in the year particularly around travel etc and then of course the variant has created extra pressure.”
She also spoke out about a “system failure” in the UK’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Professor Bauld said the UK was underprepared for a virus like Covid-19, and Europe failed to learn from how south-east Asian countries responded to the pandemic.
She said some of the decisions made in the UK “directly contributed” to the second wave, as she described the failure to ramp up contact tracing in March as a “fundamental mistake”.
“Where we are now is a legacy of poor decisions that were taken when we eased restrictions.”
Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh tells #BBCBreakfast that Covid-19 cases are a result of poor decisions and the new variants.https://t.co/HpugN2pI0p pic.twitter.com/GBLUyGrG6R
— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) January 27, 2021
She told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme on Wednesday: “I think we’re going to look back on this as a system failure, I think that we came into this pandemic underprepared for a virus like this.
“We at UK level chose not to follow the model of south-east Asian countries, and during the last year, the last 11 months, the response and some of the decisions that have been made have certainly directly contributed particularly to the second wave.
“I think it’s really incredibly difficult for people to hear, for example, a quarter of deaths that we’ve seen in this pandemic have occurred really over the last month or so.”
She said Europe and the UK could have recognised from the experiences of Asian countries that viruses move between individuals and spread around the world by travel.
Prof Bauld said one thing the UK and Europe “really struggled” with was the closure of borders, which happened very quickly in countries like Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea and within China.
She said: “The second thing was the importance of testing, testing infrastructure, which those countries had, they were ready with PPE and they also know the really essential importance of contact tracing, test, trace, isolate, protect, and they already had those systems but they increased them at scale.
“We have a legacy of contact tracing but we paused our response in March.
“Australia and New Zealand benefited hugely. They really followed the model of those countries and we didn’t unfortunately until later in the pandemic.”
Prof Bauld said the UK had been preparing for a pandemic flu rather than a Sars-type virus, and a clear decision in “pandemic preparedness” for flu is that once infection levels get too high, contact tracing is not viable.
She said that is why there was a “strategic decision” in March not to ramp up that system.
Prof Bauld also said it is important not to over-emphasise the role of the new, more rapidly spreading variant in the current situation.
“I think we are going to have to apply that more comprehensively”⁰
Professor of Public Health Prof Linda Bauld tells #BBCBreakfast travel restrictions may need to do more than just quarantine arrivals from hotspots.
— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) January 27, 2021
She said: “It absolutely has made what was a bad situation much worse, but I think the Government could not necessarily have predicted the virus would behave exactly this way, but I think they could have predicted there might have been a problem of that kind.
“So the preventable deaths we’ve seen in November, December and January are a combination of two things, the fact that we made mistakes in the summer and didn’t get ready for a second wave and then this variant on top of it.
“As we look ahead we need to prevent more of these different lineages of the virus coming into the country, while also just being prepared for the fact that we might see home-grown variants like this kind, and that means being ready to tweak our vaccines and respond to that in future.”
Meanwhile, an expert has warned that another 50,000 deaths from coronavirus could take place before the pandemic ends, as the UK hits a grim milestone of 100,000 fatalities.
Professor Calum Semple, who sits on the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned that every Covid fatality “represents probably four or five people who survive but are damaged” by the disease.
It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted he takes “full responsibility” for the response to the pandemic and said “we did everything we could” to minimise suffering as the UK Government’s figure for coronavirus deaths passed 100,000.
Separate data published by statistics agencies places the toll at 115,000.
In March, before the Prime Minister announced the first national lockdown, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said keeping the death toll below 20,000 would be a “good outcome”.
But Mr Semple told BBC Two’s Newsnight Programme: “It would really not surprise me if we’re looking at another 40-50,000 deaths before this burns out.”
Elsewhere, UK Government Home Secretary Priti Patel is widely expected to announce a limited plan for new arrivals in England to quarantine in hotels when she later details to the House of Commons border protections against new coronavirus variants arriving from overseas.
In Scotland, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the Scottish Government would “go at least as far” as England in enhancing quarantine arrangements.