How is Britain doing in the battle against coronavirus? Many have repeatedly declared we have the worst track record of any country, with both the highest death rate in Europe and suffering the highest economic hit. Newspaper headlines have constantly loud-hailed our alleged failings, from the shortage of ventilators to putting ourselves at the back of the vaccine queue by not joining the EU’s programme.
The only trouble is that this is just not true. In many ways, the UK’s response to coronavirus is quite literally, dare I say it, world-beating. Clearly there have been many setbacks and hiccups. Clearly there are many lessons to be learned. But just as clearly, we are leading the world in many of the most important ways.
Some of the things where we didn’t lead on in early days, such as ventilator numbers, turned out not to have been that important. Covid patients were being put on ventilators too early, and we now know it is best to hold back mechanical ventilation.
But on the most important issues, we got it right. The UK is world-beating on testing, on vaccination and on genome sequencing.
We have done over 713,000 tests per million of our population, ahead of the US at 688,000, and, until earlier this month, as much as France and Italy combined, and twice as much as Germany. We are behind just a handful of countries such as Israel, Denmark and the UAE. But given that we started without a diagnostics industry, that is still an astonishing achievement by any standards. The pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca (declaration: their global HQ is in my constituency) did not do testing before, but has turned its formidable powers to the task, and now has a major testing operation.
On vaccinations, it is not just that we were the first country to start deploying a vaccine approved to international standards, but we have vaccinated more of our population than any other country whatever sort of vaccine they are using. We have now done 600,000, or 0.74 per 100 people. Obviously it is early days, but that is double Israel’s Pfizer rollout, nearly four times the rate of the US (at 0.19 per 100), more than five times the rate of Russia (0.14), ten times the rate of China (0.07) and 12 times the rate of Canada (0.06).
It is sad for the citizens of the EU that, at the time of writing, not one of their governments has started its vaccination programme. The UK’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is due to be approved imminently, is widely predicted to become the default vaccine across much of the world given the comparative ease with which it can be rolled out. For developing countries without advanced refrigerated transport links, the UK-developed vaccine will be the way out of the pandemic.
The UK is world-beating on testing, on vaccination and on genome sequencing
On genome sequencing of the coronavirus, we are again towards the top of the league table. We are sequencing the genetic code of a greater proportion of viruses found than any other country with a major outbreak — 56 per 1,000 cases. That is 20 times as much as the US, and 60 times that of France, (which does less Covid sequencing than Kenya) and nearly 100 times as much as Germany (which does less than Bangladesh). The UK sequences a smaller proportion of cases than Denmark, Iceland and Australia, but their total number of cases is comparatively very small.
In the UK, this work is led by the Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium, pulled together and financially backed by the UK government. I wouldn’t be doing my job as an MP if I didn’t point out that this programme relied heavily on the work of the — yes, world-leading — Wellcome Sanger Institute in my constituency, with its giant laboratories with wall to wall genome sequencers. They have been tracking every minor mutation of the coronavirus every step of the way, with samples sent in from around the world. When it comes to this new mutant variety, we don’t know which country was first affected by it, but it is no surprise that the UK would be the first to identify it.
Finally, the charge that we have the worst death rate in the world is simply untrue. In Europe, Spain, Italy and Belgium all have higher death rates, as does Peru. We are just above the US and France. On the economic front, again, the idea that we’re the worst hit in Europe is difficult to substantiate. The IMF’s projections for the start of Q4 suggested Spain, Portugal and Italy would all be harder hit by recession, with the UK and France around equal with a 9.8 per cent contraction. Neither deaths nor financial woes are happy topics — but this notion that the UK is somehow failing on all fronts doesn’t stand up to the evidence.
Of course, our media’s obsession with bad news means you hear very little about our national successes and a lot about our failures. And of course, as I’ve said, the UK has much to learn and there are things we should undoubtedly have done differently. But as someone from an international family, I find it fascinating how determined British commentators are to do down their own country. They seem to celebrate our failures and bury our successes. But when the history of the fight against coronavirus is written, the UK will be seen to have been leading from the front.