Volunteers at a temporary mortuary erected in the car park of a mosque in Birmingham, England.
Volunteers at a temporary mortuary erected in the car park of a mosque in Birmingham, England.

Nine words that condemned a nation

They say Friday the 13th is unlucky for some. For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who squeezed into a racetrack in a regional UK city west of London, Friday 13 March 2020 was very unlucky indeed.

On the same day the Australian Government banned crowds of more than 500 people to try and get a handle on coronavirus, 70,000 Brits crammed together to watch the final day of the Cheltenham Festival - one of the country's biggest horse racing events.

Over four days, a quarter of a million people swept into the Cheltenham racetrack, drinking, betting and egging on the gee gees.

It wasn't long before racegoers began displaying flu-like symptoms, including Andrew Parker-Bowles, the former husband of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

The local health authority which covers Cheltenham has now recorded 125 coronavirus-related fatalities, more than all the deaths in Australia and roughly double the number in surrounding UK regions.

Pinpointing individual COVID-19 deaths to a single event is tricky but there are now calls for an inquiry into why the Cheltenham Festival was allowed to take place when, around the world, sporting events were being cancelled due to COVID-19.


It could well become the UK's version of Australia's Ruby Princess cruise debacle that saw 21 passengers perish from COVID-19.

But while the Ruby Princess may end up being a black mark in Australia's otherwise gold star response to coronavirus; the Cheltenham Festival could turn out to be emblematic of the UK's botched and muddled strategy to battle the disease.


Indeed, it was on Friday the 13th that the grim reality of coronavirus really seemed to begin to dawn on UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

"We have all got to be clear, this is the worst public health crisis for a generation. Some people compare it to seasonal flu. Alas, that is not right," he told reporters at Downing Street.

"It is going to spread further and I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time."

Those nine words "many more families are going to lose loved ones" became a tragically accurate portent of what was to come. Almost to himself.

On March 13, as Mr Johnson spoke, 769 Britons had the disease and 11 had died. Today, the country has recorded 157,000 infections and 21,000 deaths - a number expected to rise significatnly once deaths occuring in care homes and outside hospitals are taken into account.

The opposition has said Prime Minister Boris Johnson was “missing in action” at crucial virus meetings.
The opposition has said Prime Minister Boris Johnson was “missing in action” at crucial virus meetings.


The UK's tally isn't the worst in Europe. Yet. France, Spain and Italy have had more deaths.

But new transmissions in Britain remain stubbornly high and hundreds are dying each day. It's likely Britain will overtake France's death toll and is on track to surpass even Italy. Germany has had almost exactly the same number of infections as the UK but has seen less than a third of the number of deaths.

What went wrong? Time will tell. But it could be a mix of a lack of focus, genuine mistakes every country has made in the face of an unprecedented health crisis and some very avoidable errors.

Last week it was revealed the Prime Minister had failed to turn up to five crucial so-called "Cobra" meetings - set up to co-ordinate the UK government's actions during the crisis

The opposition Labour Party said Mr Johnson was "missing in action".

"We know that serious mistakes have been made" said shadow health minister Jonathan Ashworth said.

There were "questions as to why the Prime Minister skipped Cobra meetings throughout February, when the whole world could see how serious this was becoming," he added.

Mr Johnson's office has said there was no obligation for the PM to attend all Cobra meetings and he took briefings from his ministers. However, given he'd already boasted about shaking the hands of COVID-19 patients, there were worries he wasn't taken the outbreak as seriously as it deserved.

Volunteers at a temporary mortuary erected in the car park of a mosque in Birmingham, England.
Volunteers at a temporary mortuary erected in the car park of a mosque in Birmingham, England.

Perhaps the Conservative government was distracted by the UK's departure from the European Union on January 31. All eyes were focused on a new trade deal with the bloc, which at the time was much more exciting.

It was just hours before champagne corks popped in Downing St to celebrate Brexit Day that the UK's first coronavirus case was diagnosed in a student who had returned from China. The first death occurred on February 28.


Initially, people returning to the UK from China and a number of other Asian countries were asked self-isolate. But many infected people had got the virus in Italy, France and Austria - not Asia. They still streamed in; some from Spain headed to a football match in Liverpool.

Countries began discussing lockdowns but the UK authorities were concerned it was neither sustainable, could cause immeasurable economic harm, and may only delay a second peak until winter.

Source - World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins, other media


The government has denied it initially persued a policy of herd immunity, where a large proportion of the population would get the virus and so, hopefully, become immune to it. But it was certainly mentioned by the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.

Also, on Friday 13 March, he said Britain wanted to flatten the curve.

"Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely.

"Also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease."


When asked why the UK wasn't cancelling sporting events, like many other European countries, he said: "Most of the transmission tends to take place with friends and colleagues. Not in big environments."

That remark didn't impress Tom Peck, a commentator with the UK's Independent website.

"Sporting occasions do not occur when 60,000 people descend from space into some grand stadium then teleport away at the end.

"They are the focal point of thousands of little get-togethers, in pubs, in cars, on packed trains.

"There is also the certain fact that no one, in any football stadium has ever washed their hands for 20 seconds," he said.


Everything changed the following week when a sobering report was published by Imperial College London that showed 250,000 Britons could die.

Based on what had occurred in Italy and Spain the only "viable strategy" was a policy of "suppression" of the virus, it stated.

Imperial's Professor Neil Ferguson said the Government's previous strategy would result in a "very large number of deaths and the health system being overwhelmed".

On March 20, Mr Johnson announced all pubs would close and social distancing measures would be introduced. But by that point, community transmission was well underway.

Britain actually closed pubs earlier than Australia. But on other measures it has lagged far behind. Australia, for instance, quarantined travellers arriving in the country in late March. Only now is the UK considering the same.

The National Health Service has been universally praised.
The National Health Service has been universally praised.


And there were obvious bungles along the way. There are accusations the UK missed three opportunities to take part in an EU organised program to bulk-buy masks, gowns and gloves which have subsequently been in short supply.

A lack of personal protective equipment has been a major talking point, with multiple reports of care homes and healthworkers having to buy, make, or reuse protective equipment.

Testing rates in the UK were far below that of Germany, South Korea or Australia. The government had failed to stockpile enough kits and only a handful of laboratories could initially process the tests. The government is still struggling to meet its self-imposed target of 100,000 tests a day.



Another entirely avoidable error was the drastic reduction of tube services by the Labour controlled London Assembly in late March.

The plan was to encourage people to remain home. It actually led to commuters cramming into the few trans still running potentially passing on the virus.

Perhaps scarred by its initial reaction to the virus threat, the government is now urging people to keep faith with the lockdowns and has not yet provided a road map as to how they might be relieved. Experts now believe the country has passed the peak of virus deaths, and are happy NHS capacity has not been overwhelmed.

Mr Johnson warned on Monday the country was "beginning to turn the tide" but now was the time of "maximum risk".


Recovered from his own brush with the virus, he said a second spike would mean more deaths.

Senior cabinet minister Michael Gove has admitted not everything went to plan.

"All governments make mistakes, including our own. We seek to learn, and to improve every day."

The question for Mr Johnson, the ruling Conservatives and the UK will be if decisions made in early March were down to a genuine desire to find the right path through the pandemic - or just sheer incompetence.

And if a horse race in Cheltenham that may have led to scores of deaths should have been shut down before it became a life and death gamble for punters.

Originally published as Nine words that condemned a nation

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