AThese sentences were exactly one year ago, but hard to forget to this day. “What we are doing now has never happened before: we are depriving the free-born citizens of the United Kingdom of the inalienable customary right to go to the pub.”
In fact, those were the words the UK Prime Minister chose on the evening of March 20, 2020 to prepare the nation for the first lockdown. “I understand how difficult it is for people. It hurts, ”he added.
While Boris Johnson crawled towards lockdown with almost unbearable jokes and shocking slowness, Europe was already closing. In Bergamo, military transporters drove coffins with Covid dead, and justified panic spread from Madrid to Warsaw.
The UK government, however, believed that it was invulnerable, with advisors even promoting the idea of herd immunity. The Cheltenham horse race with 250,000 visitors was allowed to take place in mid-March. The “British Exceptionalism” practiced during Brexit was now also used in the management of the pandemic.
At the time, I was happy about my editorial team’s assurance that, in case of doubt, I would be able to relocate my job from London to safe Germany with its well-equipped health system. While the British dismissed and discontinued corona tests as “inappropriate”, the German authorities impressively got a system up and running that tracked chains of infection.
Only a seventh of the intensive care beds
While only 4,000 intensive care beds were available on the island, there were 28,000 in Germany. With the last week of March the horror news began in London. Hardly two months later, Great Britain had the most corona deaths in Europe.
A year later the picture was reversed, Germany is truly no longer a safe haven. Rather, a conviction of “German Exceptionalism” seems to be spreading in many cases. That virus mutations will not take hold, that despite evidence to the contrary, “only the old ones” will be caught, simply that the lockdown after one year really has to be enough.
Now, of all people, it is the British who are getting the pandemic much better under control. The number of new infections at the weekend in Germany was 17,500, almost three times as high as in the Kingdom. This is mainly due to the strict lockdown that has been in place since the beginning of January, which Johnson will only lift very slowly and with many hurdles.
More importantly, almost 26 million Britons have now received at least the first vaccination. That’s 48 percent of adults, including myself. In Germany with a larger population (83 million to 67 million) only seven million people have had the vaccination so far.
The benefits of the National Health Service (NHS), the state and centralized health system, are now coming into play. There is no doubt that the NHS is demonstrably inferior to the German system in “normal times”, for example in the areas of prevention, routine operations and rehabilitation.
But when it comes to the vaccination program, and therefore the only way to get out of the pandemic, it is Britain’s strong point. An indication: since mid-February there have only been very few over 80-year-olds who have died of Covid-19.
At least as important, if not more important, is another British strength: science. Not only the development of vaccines and the necessary production capacities have been tackled by the pharmaceutical industry and experts at universities since February 2020, and weeks later by Boris Johnson gratefully taken up.
The kingdom also has expertise and capacity for genome sequencing that is unique in the world. The experts at the “Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium”, which was founded at the end of March 2020, became aware of the B.1.1.7 mutation at an early stage, which has been spreading at breakneck speed, first in the south-east of England and then throughout the country, since November.
As relentlessly as the researchers pursued the “Kent variant”, they are now pursuing the potentially more dangerous mutations that first appeared in Brazil and South Africa. The English authorities recently launched a nationwide manhunt because a single person infected with the South African variant had disappeared from the radar. She was tracked down.
A few weeks ago, test teams also went from house to house in my district because this variant had emerged in the sequencing screening. The reason: In contrast to B.1.1.7, the existing vaccines only have a limited effect against the South Africa type.
Meanwhile, according to statements by Nial Fergusson, leading epidemiologist at London’s Imperial College, up to ten percent of patients in Germany’s neighboring country, France, are already infected with the South African variant.
In Hamburg, the B.1.1.7 mutation is detected in 80 percent of patients, which has been shown to be more contagious than the original virus. And the more people become infected, the more mutations Covid-19 can develop.
Most Brits have at least internalized this connection. Insight and at the same time foresight can only be credited to the government to a limited extent. In fact, in late 2020, Johnson made the mistake of not listening to science for the second time. Only shortly before Christmas did he pull the emergency brake.
“An unforgivable mistake. Johnson should even have declared a lockdown in September, “said Jeremy Farrar, immunologist and member of Johnson’s scientific staff, in an interview with WELT.
“50 percent of the more than 125,000 corona deaths were recorded within seven weeks in January and February of this year.” Which is why now, a year after the first lockdown, the demand for the establishment of a committee of inquiry is getting louder and louder.
Right now, in Germany and elsewhere, the British “vaccination triumph” is making some people forget how miserable Johnson’s management actually was. That tens of thousands died in two corona waves because the prime minister did not have the courage to make radical decisions – which are easier for a British central government than for German federalism.
Even more, if the next election is three years away, there is a full Tory majority in the lower house and the opposition supports the measures anyway.
Johnson paid a heavy price
As is well known, Johnson personally paid a high price when he became so seriously ill with Covid-19 in early April 2020 that he was admitted to the intensive care unit. Whether this experience of governing really made him so much more cautious cannot be answered unequivocally.
What is certain, however, is that British pragmatism and British expertise will shape London’s decisions a year later. And that that feels pretty good right now for people living in the Kingdom.