EXCLUSIVE: UK leaders’ refusal to learn from East Asia led to massive virus death count

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China’s firm, fast lockdown model was quickly dismissed as “impossible” for Westerners

  • UK data modellers stunned that China achieved zero Covid so quickly, expecting disaster
  • British scientists initially banned from using laptops “in case of spies” from the east
  • Belief in UK “exceptionalism” led to refusal to learn from Asian findings — and 150,000 deaths  

THE UK’S FAILURE TO follow East Asia’s virus-fighting model led to huge numbers of avoidable deaths, a stunning parliamentary report revealed this week. By refusing to copy the firm response of speedy lockdowns and travel stoppages used by the Asian pioneers of fighting Covid-19, the UK suffered more than 150,000 deaths, one of the worst public health failures in the country’s history.

But the report praised Britain’s science community for quickly developing a vaccine and the government for its speedy vaccine roll-out.

East Asia’s successful methods were considered unsuitable for the British, “a tragic error”

“The veil of ignorance through which the UK viewed the initial weeks of the pandemic was partly self-inflicted,” the report said. “Our committees heard that the UK did not take enough advantage of the learning and experience being generated in other countries, notably in East Asia.”

The experience of “the likes of China and Taiwan” were “completely discarded” in one of several “tragic errors”, the committee was told. A belief in “exceptionalism”, or innate superiority, was the root of the problem, a leading medical officer said.

FARCICAL SITUATIONS

The British government’s default position was that “The East Asian approach is simply completely politically, technically, in every sense, not viable in this country,” the committee heard from Dominic Cummings, former assistant to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Dominic Cummings: laptops, internet connections, were banned

Hostile attitudes led to farcical situations. Fear of the nations portrayed by the media as “cartoon villains”, Russia, China, and North Korea, caused huge practical problems.

Laptops, phones or anything that connected to the internet were not allowed into high level meetings, which made the most basic examination of data impossible. “The whole wiring of how the Cabinet Office is set up to deal with this kind of crisis just fundamentally didn’t work,” Cummings told the committee.

‘WE’RE NOT EAST ASIAN’

Then there was the belief that East Asians, who like their firm-handed leadership model, could observe anti-virus rules, but the spiky, skeptical British could not. “The basic default mode was: ‘This country is not East Asian, the people won’t wear it and it’s just impossible,’” Cummings said.

Belief: Westerners are more likely to value individual rights, while Asians prefer strong leadership. Art by Yang Lin

The study linked to transcripts of meetings and discussions between scientists and government officers in which attempts were made to identify the best response to the disease, which first produced medically confirmed deaths in China’s Wuhan and the US city of Kansas on the same day in December 2019, but stemmed from a virus now known to have been circulating in Europe months earlier.

Boris Johnson: Not following East Asia’s lead

URGENT WARNINGS

Dr Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, told the committee he was struck by “the mismatch between the urgent warning that was coming from the frontline in China in January [2020]” and Britain’s “pedestrian” response. “That suggests to me that we did not fully understand what was taking place on the frontline.”

He published three alarm-raising reports using information from Chinese doctors before the end of January 2020, but none were passed on to SAGE, the UK government’s virus-fighting committee.

SAVING LIVES IS A HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATION

In hindsight, it can be seen that Chinese doctors, working against an unknown enemy, quickly developed a system of lockdowns, social distancing, travel bans and contact tracing that saved untold numbers of lives, but this was initially portrayed in the West as an over-firm response, or even a program of human rights violations.

The saving of millions of people from illness and death was portrayed by several in the Western media as a “human rights tragedy”

As it eventually became impossible to deny that the Chinese system worked, the media flipped from saying that pandemics could only be successfully fought by Western-style democracies, to saying that they could only be successfully fought by non-democracies.

‘Hong Kong has done really well by community cohesion, and using electronic data and all the rest of it very effectively’

Sally Davies, chief medical officer

Ultimately, neither appears to be true, the committee heard. It’s wrong to say that China only succeeded where others failed “by being a dictatorship”, Professor Dame Sally Davies, former Chief Medical Officer for England, told them.

It wasn’t about the mode of government, but about the ability of a community to work cohesively instead of in a fractured manner. “Taiwan and Vietnam have [also] done well and Hong Kong has done really well, and they are not dictatorships. They have done it by community cohesion, and using electronic data and all the rest of it very effectively,” she said. “One might ask, why then have we not learnt from them?”

Professor Dame Sally Davies: “Why have we not learned from them?”

She identified a key problem as “British exceptionalism”, using a socio-political term expressing the belief that one’s country has a unique status above all others. The report revealed that one SAGE meeting, involving 87 individuals, featured 86 people from UK institutions and only one from overseas.

LOCKDOWNS OPPOSED

Many media mentioned the report without noting its message that the UK failed to learn from East Asia’s experience

The transcripts also reveal that in one discussion in October of 2020, committee member Mark Logan specifically asked scientist Dr Max Roser whether the UK should take China’s more serious approach.  “Looking back to the outset of the pandemic, to what extent do you feel that the more severe type of lockdown that was used in China was successful in the long run?” Logan asked.

Dr Roser, at that time, still opposed lockdowns. “It has always been clear that the pandemic should not be controlled by lockdowns,” he replied.

Today, the UK’s delays in implementing lockdowns and quarantining travellers are seen as a tragic error—and some would say a continuing one, giving the country’s continued open doors to tourism and high infection rates.

CHINA’S SUCCESS CAME AS A SHOCK

The report and transcripts also reveal that China’s success in achieving zero covid in a huge, developing country was totally unexpected.

UK data modellers had initially calculated that China would suffer 100,000 infections a day from a virus which could not be eliminated, and that 80 to 90 percent of Chinese would get it.

“Then something remarkable happened,” said Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh. “Countries started to control it. South Korea controlled its first wave. China brought down the numbers through quite a stark approach; I do not think we should take away everything from what they have done.”

DOES NOT SPREAD LIKE FLU

The work of medical authorities in China, South Korea and elsewhere in East Asia showed that Covid-19 could be eradicated from society. “Other East Asian countries, such as Hong Kong and Singapore—some of the ones that were earliest hit—started to manage it,” Professor Sridhar said.

Professor Devi Sridhar: “China brought down the numbers through quite a stark approach; I do not think we should take away everything from what they have done.” Picture: Wellcome Trust

“All of a sudden, it became clear that it was not going to be an uncontrollable infection. It does not spread like flu. It spreads through clusters. You can contact trace it, manage it and eliminate it.”

ASIANS HAD EXPERIENCE

The UK should have been open to adopting methods from elsewhere. “We have not been good at learning from others in this outbreak, as far as I can see,” said Dame Professor Sally Davies.

The fact that East Asians had experience in dealing with SARS (which mainland China and Hong Kong governments had to handle in 2003) was also a big advantage, a point made by Professor Davies and others. “They were more resilient, they had more in place, they had practice and, as a whole community, they came together to do it.”

Hong Kong government: already experienced in dealing with a coronavirus

INFRINGEMENTS OF LIBERTY

Dominic Cummings told the committee that the UK government believed “the British public would not accept a lockdown, and, secondly, the British public would not accept what was thought of as an east Asian-style track and trace-type system and the infringements of liberty around that.”

He added: “Those two assumptions were completely central to the official plan and were both, obviously, completely wrong.”


Link to full report here: UK lessons from coronavirus report


Images from government sources unless otherwise indicated.

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