Today is the anniversary of the imposition of the first lockdown in the UK and we are being told that it is an opportunity to pause, reflect and remember. By the official count, which is dutifully included in the BBC news-bulletins every day, 126,172 people in the UK have now died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test. Anyone trying to light 126,172 candles or tea lights in memory is likely to find the first one going out long before the last one has been lit. The number of people whose death certificates indicate that they have died from Covid-related causes, is over 146,000. Nobody has counted the number of people who might be still alive had they not wanted to avoid going anywhere near a potentially Covid-infected Accident and Emergency Department; had they been able to get to see – rather than merely talk to – a GP; or had their treatment for cancer or other diseases not had to be postponed or paused because the hospitals were full of Covid patients.
Researchers in the United States have come to the conclusion that every Covid-19 death leaves 8.9 grieving family members. Even making allowance for somewhat different family demographics, that statistic points towards the huge weight of grief the UK has to reflect on. My own extended family, being white, middle-class, and not yet dependent on care-homes, has been lucky; all too many others have not. So, rather than reflecting on the lives and deaths of family members and friends, as so many people will be doing today, reflection turns to causes and effects, to questions about what might have been. Questions our government would very much rather leave for another day.
How different might it have been had we had Jacinda Ardern at the helm, with her common sense and compassion, instead of Boris Johnson who boasted about shaking Covid-19 patients’ hands and didn’t start taking the pandemic seriously until he had nearly died from it himself? When it comes to quarantining, New Zealand has the signal advantage of being an island nation with complete control of its borders. But so, of course, is Great Britain, which could have locked itself down nationally as well as domestically in a way the countries on the European mainland couldn’t. If it were to be argued that New Zealand has the advantage of being miles from anywhere, whereas UK is inextricably linked to a continent not much more than twenty miles away, one might reflect that Covid-19 timed itself to arrive very shortly after the UK had supposedly cast off the shackles of its ties with the rest of Europe and become a sovereign island nation supposedly in full control of its own destiny.
Jacinda Ardern’s government’s success in keeping Covid-19 at bay has no doubt been helped by her own practicality, untainted with Johnson’s compulsive ‘boosterism’, and by the absence of a significant cohort of libertarians on her back-benches motivated by commercial rather than public health interests. New Zealand also had the advantage of not going into the Covid-19 pandemic suffering from a decade of ideologically driven austerity and anti-immigrant sentiment which had depleted the capacity of the National Health Service, most obviously by allowing stocks of PPE to dwindle and decay, and by discouraging the recruitment of NHS staff, most notably of nurses. That same ideology then dictated that the success-critical Test and Trace system be kept out of the hands of public health and farmed out, at vast cost, to private sector companies that still, a year later, haven’t got on top of what is needed.
It is impossible to know how many of those 146,000 lives might have been saved had we had a serious and even half-competent Prime Minister, and a cabinet whose qualification for membership extended beyond thinking that Brexit was a good idea. It is equally impossible to know how many lives have been blighted by those deaths; how badly the lives of many of those who survived Covid-19 have been, and will continue to be, blighted by long Covid; how many people’s mental health has been damaged by repeated lockdowns; and how badly the nation’s education has been affected by a year of on-and-off home-schooling. One thing we have not been short of over the past year is statistics. One of the more striking ones to appear today came from the Health Foundation, which has calculated, on the basis that each victim lost an average of 10 years of life when they died, that a total of 1.5 million years – yes, years – of potential life has been lost to the UK as a result of the pandemic: 825,000 years for men, compared to 670,000 years for women. Dr Jennifer Dixon, the CEO of the Health Foundation, fleshed out the bald statistics: ‘Ten years is quite a lot of Christmases that you might have had with your relative or friend.’
There will be a great deal to reflect on as we stand on our doorsteps this evening holding lighted candles, as we have been requested to do. There won’t be any banging of pots and pans this time, no clapping and cheering for the front-line workers. Just silent reflection.