This op-ed is written by Baroness Sal Brinton, ALDE Party Vice-President and Liberal Democrat Health and Social Care Spokesperson House of Lords.
After the year that we have endured this is a good moment to take stock of how the countries across Europe have managed COVID-19. We know that we will be living with COVID-19 for some years to come, and it is vital that we learn from our own experiences to help us to survive it and return to some semblance of normality.
Here in the United Kingdom, we have much to learn. The Government’s initial reaction in February and March 2020 was too slow; everything appeared to be aimed to protect the NHS and to prevent it from being overrun; and worse, the warnings in the Government’s own 2016 Pandemic Exercise were not acted on. This resulted in the worst excess death rates in Europe last Spring, as positive COVID-19 patients were moved out of hospitals into care homes with no personal protective equipment or testing, and the virus ran riot amongst vulnerable residents and staff alike.
In recent years government-funded laboratories had been closed down so there was virtually no testing capacity, post-Brexit a large number of EU health and care staff had returned home leaving the health systems understaffed; we were already running our hospitals at 95% bed occupancy: all of these were red flashing warning signs that were ignored.
I watched Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, and New Zealand with envy. Structural public health systems slipped into action and meant that effective test, trace and isolate worked from the outset. Germany’s spare intensive care capacity helped out neighbouring countries.
Taiwan’s exceptional communications with its citizens meant that they were able to impose mask wearing, social distancing and electronic surveillance via mobile phones for people self-isolating, whilst also paying them their wages and providing shopping and medical support as needed. Their successful isolation rates speak for themselves. As at 3 April 2021, they have had a total of 1045 cases and 10 deaths since they locked down in January 2020. Their economy is fully functioning.
As the UK starts to lift its second wave lockdown, and a number of European countries are entering new lockdowns one year on, we should all be celebrating the effective vaccines developed and approved in record time, showing that our excellent research scientists and pharma companies have come together to make in this crisis. And yet the very public rows about supply and contracts have been ugly. Israel and the UK undoubtedly stole a march on other countries with substantial investment and contracts with pharma companies that enabled them to get access to the volumes they wanted early on, but, at the other end of the scale, the EU did not understand that this was the one time that it needed to be fleet of foot in its own negotiations.
The display by many countries – including my own – of vaccine nationalism has been depressing and worrying. We had a real opportunity to make this work for all.
The World Health Organization reminds us daily that in our global society not one country is safe until all are safe. This week Kenya (population 52 million) will have received one million doses of three million promised by Covax. That will barely cover their health staff and the very elderly. At what point will we as affluent nation states live our rhetoric about international aid and support? It is in our own interests too – there will be no normal until COVID-19 is globally controlled.
As a passionate pro-European and pro EU, I believe that we are greater than the sum of our separate nations. Winston Churchill believed in the European project. He also said, “All men make mistakes. Only wise men learn from them”. Now is the time that we Europeans turn to each other and learn together.