Covid 19 and the UK

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on April 16 2020. It has been updated in the light of new information.


Sarah Hulton OBE is UK High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. She recently went on Facebook to advise any British citizens still loitering about in Sr Lanka to hie them hence smartish. She noted that some British passport holders were in Sri Lanka visiting family. She reiterated the UK Government advice that all British nationals who normally live in the UK should return to the UK now. If these people, who probably see themselves as Sri Lankans, want to stay with their families in Sri Lanka in this difficult time, why tell them to go to the UK to add to the UK’s burden? One person wryly asked why she was sending them home to a death sentence. Another asked why she didn’t go home herself and help out over there because she was not much help to us.


I had an exchange on Facebook the other day. Someone was complaining about the heavy-handed approach of the English police in their efforts to stop people spreading the virus by gathering in groups and generally wandering aimlessly about and having virus parties. Exercise was tolerated up to a point but park benches were being made inaccessible to stop people loitering. A virtual friend who has lived in Spain said she was not allowed to go walking.


I responded that where we live we were not allowed to go out at all and I was happy about that because the death toll in Sri Lanka was seven, whereas the death toll in the UK was 12,868 (more about this later). I was told that this comparison was meaningless because Sri Lanka’s population is only 21.4 million and the UK’s is 66.6 million. I decided to look at another country, one that has been praised for the way it has handled the crisis so far. Ireland, like Sri Lanka, is an island and the land mass is about the same size. The population of the Republic of Ireland is 4.94 million. As of 15 April, the Department of Health has confirmed 12,547 cases and 444 deaths. The population of Northern Ireland, which is, so far, part of the UK, is 1.8 million. The death toll there so far is 140. “The daily death toll here is not reflecting the number of people dying in care homes and that is worrying,” said Dr George O’Neill, chairman of the west Belfast federation of GPs.


There are many factors to be taken into account but I think this conveys a simple picture: in Sri Lanka seven people have died; in the island of Ireland 584 people have died; in the UK, according to official figures, 12,868 have died.


Actually, many more have died in the UK. David Ottewell is head of data journalism at the New Statesman. He writes that every afternoon, “the UK government announces a grim figure: the number of new deaths connected with Covid-19. And every day epidemiologists, journalists and assorted data wranglers add that number to their spreadsheets and use it to try to plot the extent of the disease, and its likely course.”  And, of course, to plan action. The problem is, the figure is not accurate. The government’s daily count doesn’t include people who weren’t in hospital when they died, or were never formally tested. A lot of people who are dying are frail, elderly or very seriously ill, and may have died without being taken to hospital and Covid 19 may not be the cause of death on the death certificate. Deaths in care homes are not counted. The undercounting could amount to 40%.

Care home inspectors only started asking on April 9 if residents were dying from Covid 19, a month after the WHO declared a global pandemic. Until 6 April, the Care Quality Commission did not ask for information on coronavirus deaths and only started doing so when it realised the information coming back was out of line with reports of a rising death toll.

The British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka wrote: “Serious outbreaks of coronavirus are placing a significant strain on health services globally. In the event of a serious outbreak in Sri Lanka, consular services and flights out of the country could be seriously affected. We cannot guarantee what flight options might be available if people choose to leave at a later date.”

Am I being oversensitive here, or is the High Commissioner really saying “get back to Blighty soon because when it really hits the fan these damned colonials won’t be able to cope with it”? It should be noted that many of those doing their best to cope with the crisis in the UK are immigrants. Most of the NHS staff who have died, including a Sri Lankan, Dr Anton Sebastianpillai, were immigrants, immigrants who survived the “hostile environment” created by Theresa May but perished trying to save others. One nurse who died had been photographed with Boris Johnson. He has been highly irresponsible in spreading the virus and has the Galle Face to praise the NHS for saving his life.

Perhaps nobody can be blamed for a lethal virus no-one knew about before. However, the difficulties the UK government is now enduring are down to an unpreparedness and lack of responsible planning that go back many decades and are the result of misconceived policies by Labour as well as Conservative governments. Throughout the hard times of the 1970s, British citizens were exhorted by governments, both Labour and Conservative, to tighten belts and accept wages that did not keep up with inflation. There was no evidence that the austerity was being shared across all classes.

The main onus must fall on the Conservatives with the complicity of the Liberal Democrats. I wonder if David Cameron can sleep at night? He brought in austerity with a vengeance, cutting public services beyond the bone. This meant that there were not enough police to deal with the epidemic of knife crimes. There were not enough community services to prevent vulnerable children falling into the gang culture. Then he unleashed Brexit on the nation, squandering billions of pounds on propaganda and bureaucracy which could have been put to better use by the NHS. Strange how the need for austerity ended so abruptly to allow Johnson to make the promises that won him a landslide. All that suffering was for nothing. There now seem to be limitless amounts of money to throw at the virus but the infrastructure has been sold off, mainly to foreign governments. “Taking back control?” This current unpreparedness is a direct consequence of decades of kowtowing to financial institutions through privatisation, outsourcing and deregulation. The global economy may be going to hell in a handcart but hedge fund managers like Jacob Rees-Mogg are still making a tidy profit from the suffering of others.

Prof John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for north-west England, strongly criticised the UK government for a lack of preparation and openness in relation to the pandemic. Ashton said: “We have a superficial prime minister who has got no grasp of public health. Our lot are behaving like 19th-century colonialists playing a five-day game of cricket.” The prime minister’s illness revealed what a hopeless team he has. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, is often referred to as Tigger, after Winnie the Pooh’s bouncing, optimistic companion in the AA Milne stories. Some of the bounce went out of him in a recent interview during which he seemed confused and ill-prepared. Dominic Raab will be deputizing for Boris Johnson until the prime minister recovers. Raab often looks sweaty with veins bursting and on the verge of an angry outburst. Home secretary Pritti Patel is giving confusing messages to the police and is refusing to meet the Commons select committee. This is not so much a pool of talent as a very small muddy puddle.


John Ashton accused the government of undermining public services over the past 10 years by cuts in funding of 30% to local authorities. Ashton says: ““It’s a joke when they put up people to say they are really on top of it and if it spreads at a community level the NHS will cope, it’s always coped. The hospitals are full at the moment, A&Es are full, beds are full, intensive care is full.”


The results  of The GRID index are published in a paper titled GRIDTM Index: Tracking the Global Leadership Response in the COVID-19 Crisis by the Institute of Certified Management Accountants (Australia) (ICMA).The index is designed to rank how efficient and effective the leadership of each country was and the preparedness of its health system to tackle  the COVID-19 pandemic. Top of the league is New Zealand. The USA is at number 70. One would have expected the US to rank badly after watching Trump’s clownish performances. It is perhaps a little surprising that the UK fares even worse, coming in at number 89.

Sri Lanka is ranked at number 9.



I know which country I would rather be in during this crisis.