UK's Covid-19 crisis: How the rest of the world sees our handling of pandemic

National Day celebrations in Taipei, Taiwan in October 2020 - as the UK's second Covid wave took hold. Credit: AP
  • Words by ITV News Multimedia Producer Jocelyn Evans

As the UK begins the year with yet more lockdowns across its four nations, countries around the world have watched and assessed our government's handling of Covid-19.

A look at the headlines and everyday life from across the globe gives an idea of how we compare to elsewhere - and how Britain is seen on the world stage.

One cartoon, published by the New Zealand Herald, went viral for its suggestion of how Boris Johnson and his government managed the pandemic.

Indeed, the scale of New Year celebrations offered a stark contrast of how each country fared during the pandemic.

The success stories of the outbreak - New Zealand and Taiwan - held celebrations like any other year, while the UK stayed indoors for a more muted, Covid-restricted occasion.

Even in countries that had less success keeping the virus under such tight control, restrictions were eased enough to enjoy scaled back celebrations - like in Australia where those with dinner reservations could stay to watch the Sydney fireworks.

What Taiwan did right, and what it makes of the UK:

Covid deaths in Taiwan are in the single figures, with just over 800 confirmed cases at the start of 2021.

A resounding success in limiting the impact of the virus, despite its proximity and regular transport links to Wuhan, China - where the virus originated from.

From early February 2020, the country was screening all international arrivals and placed entry restrictions at its borders.

Taiwan quickly established a strict, monitored 14-day quarantine procedure for close contacts of positive cases and those returning from high risk areas.

A crowded metro train in Taipei in November 2020 - the same month England entered its second national lockdown. Credit: AP

With the emergence of the new, more infectious variant the country has now banned international arrivals from the new year.

That move, a columnist in the Taiwan News writes, "is tough but necessary".

Journalist David Spencer compares Taiwan to the UK - "another island nation, albeit one with a larger population".

"At no stage during the pandemic has the UK established effective border controls. Flights in and out of the country [...] continue today, even though most of the country languishes in lockdown".

Mr Spencer's article was written days before parts of the UK - England and Scotland - finally brought in the requirement for a negative Covid test at the border.

An illustration from an article in the Taipei Times about contingency plans should ventilators run out in the NHS. Credit: Mountain People/Taipei Times

Mr Spencer describes "failure" on controlling borders, testing arrivals, and on establishing an effective quarantine system as "nothing less than catastrophic".

"The UK's failure to secure its borders that has allowed the virus to continue to spread and new strains to arrive," he writes.

Taiwan's response does, of course, have the benefit of having handled the SARS outbreak in 2003 - a crisis that infected nearly 700 people in the country and killed at least 181.

But the UK was witness to Taiwan's response then too - as it was for Covid now.

What New Zealand did right, and what it makes of the UK:

Like the UK, New Zealand went into lockdown in March - but compared to the UK's nearly 3 million cases New Zealand has reported just over 2,000.

Throughout the pandemic, the island has had controls at its borders, with restrictions in place from February 2020.

Passengers arrive at Christchurch Airport in New Zealand before the country shut its borders at the end of March. Credit: AP

Even as the country returned to increasing levels of normality in June - when the Covid alert level was at its lowest - all arrivals were required to quarantine for 14 days, with later regulations requiring two separate Covid tests in this time, too.

A centralised digital contact tracing approach was adopted in New Zealand from May - replacing earlier, less effective locally based approaches.

The UK's much delayed test and trace app was eventually launched in September, but suffered multiple set backs through the harshest months of the first wave.

Dr Suze Wilson, a senior lecturer at New Zealand's Massey University wrote a case study on "pandemic leadership" that identified Jacinda Ardern's "resolute and persistent focus on minimising harm to lives and livelihoods" as key.

The academic suggested that by prioritising "both health and economic considerations as central concerns", New Zealand was able to avoid "largely unfettered economic activity alongside weak levels of control over the virus’s spread".

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern talks with colleagues at a cafe in Auckland in October 2020. Credit: AP

Dr Wilson described the UK government's approach, by contrast, as "yo-yo-ing between either health or the economy".

Evidence continues to mount, she says, that such an approach "ends up costing both lives and livelihoods".

Indeed, Chancellor Rishi Sunak's Eat Out to Help Out scheme saw Brits packing out restaurants, pubs, and cafes over the summer months - ahead of the second wave that hit in the autumn.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon later told ITV's Peston that the scheme may "have been better if it hadn't happened".

"I know that that scheme was about trying to incentivise people to help the economy, and we can't be blind to the economic impact here," she said.

Economic benefit over health - exactly the dichotomy New Zealand managed to avoid.