Boris Johnson's COVID response 'still too slow', warns leading WHO scientist

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·3-min read
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson returns to Downing Street after attending a Cabinet meeting in London, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Boris Johnson is again responding too slowly to the second wave of the pandemic, a leading WHO scientist has said. (AP)
  • Boris Johnson’s government too slow in response to second wave of COVID pandemic, leading WHO scientist says

  • Dr David Nabarro suggests government is repeating mistakes made during response to first wave earlier this year

  • Claims ‘political’ factors are getting in way of ‘robust and rapid action’

  • Visit the Yahoo homepage for more stories

A leading World Health Organization (WHO) scientist has said the UK is still acting too slowly to deal with the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr David Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy on COVID-19, accused Boris Johnson’s government of “resistance” to quick action for “political reasons”.

Speaking to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus on Tuesday, Dr Nabarro said the UK, which has the highest COVID death toll in Europe and fifth highest in the world, has been too slow at all stages of the pandemic so far.

He told parliamentarians: “Countries that prevaricated a bit as the virus started coming in have got much more virus around in their societies, much more opportunity for spreading events to take place, than countries which moved incredibly quickly… when they first had cases.

Candidate to the post of Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) David Nabarro gestures during a press conference on January 26, 2017 in Geneva - The World Health Organization picked three finalists for the role of its next director-general, a high-stakes choice for the powerful agency described as facing an "existential crisis". (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)
Dr David Nabarro (AFP via Getty Images)

“That, I’m afraid, is the problem that the UK, the US and several other countries have got because they just did not get on top of it as others like New Zealand and China were able to do.”

Asked if the UK still has the same problem, Dr Nabarro said: “Yes. Oh yeah.

"Britain is still, in style, relatively slow and the current situation is that there is resistance to taking the kind of robust and rapid action that is necessary for a mix of political reasons.”

Boris Johnson ultimately responded to the UK’s spike in COVID infections by introducing a three-tier local lockdown system last week.

Watch: How will England's three-tier local lockdown system work?

However, this was in defiance of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which last month had recommended a more severe circuit breaker national lockdown.

Dr Nabarro, however, said “action is not simply doing lockdowns” as they only “freeze the virus where it is”.

He said the “absolute mainstay” is effective contact tracing – which the government has endured major struggles with.

The NHS Test and Trace system has just recorded its worst ever week for reaching close contacts of people who tested positive for the virus: just 62.6%.

In thinly-veiled criticism of NHS Test and Trace, Dr Nabarro argued contact tracing is “best always done locally because you get more confidence between societies and responders through local level organisations that doing it from the top”.

The latest figures show cases handled by local health protection teams managed to reach 97.7% of contacts and ask them to self-isolate. The figure was just 57.6% for cases handled online or through outsourced call centres.

Dr Kevin Fong, who is part of NHS England’s COVID response team, also told the group that the government is acting “far too late”.

He compared the spread of the virus to giving someone a 1p piece and doubling its value every second. It would take 25 seconds for that person to be a millionaire, he said.

Read more: COVID vaccine: 'Light at the end of the tunnel', says expert

Following this, Dr Fong went on: “The decisions we make at political level need to be bold and decisive and urgent because by the time it is obvious to the man or woman in the street that something needs to be done, it is far, far too late.

“And yet, to date, it would feel to me that we have operated at that level.”

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