When Will Britain’s Politicians Have the Guts to Take Lessons From Asia?

by Aaron Bastani

5 January 2021

Yen Duong/Reuters

After a year in which nothing could be taken for granted, one conclusion from 2020 – which can be said with cast-iron certainty – is that no country anywhere in the world has anything to learn from Britain’s handling of Covid-19.

This isn’t to say the UK’s response to the pandemic has been uniquely bad. Indeed, the country has experienced roughly the same number of deaths as Italy, and only slightly more per head than France and Spain. Nor is its extraordinary death count, and ongoing economic armageddon, primarily the result of Westminster incompetence. Death rates in Wales and Scotland are broadly the same as in England, and while neither the Welsh Assembly nor Holyrood possess the political levers they might have wished for in dealing with the pandemic, it’s unlikely their response, either with further devolution or even independence, would have been much different to the rest of Western Europe. At best, they might have matched Ireland, which has suffered half the number of deaths as Scotland despite having a population of comparable size. 

While Britain’s response to Covid-19 has no doubt been an abject failure, the fact is its mismanagement of the crisis has actually been rather typical of an OECD country. The consolation for many Europeans whenever faced with social failure in recent decades – from foreign policy to incarceration rates – is that at least they’ve been faring better than across the Atlantic. Yet Europe’s ‘Big Five’ have lost almost 300,000 lives to the virus – more than the US relative to population. Meanwhile, the economies of France, Britain, Spain and Italy contracted by around 10% last year – more than double that of Donald Trump’s America. 

Compare all of this to Vietnam, a relatively poor country which shares a 1,300km border with China. Since March, only 35 lives have been lost to Covid-19 and, alongside its far larger neighbour, Vietnam is almost unique in posting economic growth for last year. While South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand have all outperformed the West on public health, they also endured recession. What’s more, with the exception of Thailand, all are far wealthier.


As such, HSBC has concluded that Vietnam, alongside Singapore, has been particularly outstanding in its response to the pandemic. Yet even this fails to emphasise what the former has accomplished. While Singapore is a tiny city-state at the end of the Malay peninsula and is, per head, one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, Vietnam has a population of almost 100 million, shares a huge land border with the country where the virus originated, and has only about a third of the wealth of Bulgaria per person. 

The reaction from many Brits to this news, at least in my experience, is disbelief. How can a poor Asian country have fared so much better than ours? How has Vietnam’s loss of life been so minimal and the impact on its economy so insignificant? Wasn’t there meant to be a trade-off between the two? Surely this is just another case of an authoritarian regime cooking the books.

On this final charge, the answer is no, with a number of independent sources corroborating the Vietnamese government’s claims. One is Guy Thwaites, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Oxford, and based in Ho Chi Minh City. After overseeing nearly 20,000 tests in the country, his own conclusions matched official data.

While the default view of politicians and the media has been that no country emerged from 2020 particularly well, on the rare occasions that Britain’s pandemic response has been compared internationally, China and New Zealand have received the most praise. Yet one is the world’s second most powerful country, while the other is almost uniquely isolated and comparatively wealthy. Vietnam is neither – so how did it achieve such success? 

Vietnam, like other countries across east and south-east Asia, learned lessons after the SARS outbreak in 2003. Indeed it was the first country to be recognised by the WHO as entirely free of the virus, with many of its interventions informing its response to Covid-19 last year.

When Covid-19 hit Vietnam, the country was prepared. On 31 January, when the country still had only five recorded cases, the government closed all schools for more than three months. In Britain, that step wasn’t taken until 20 March, some two months later, once the virus had already spread nationwide. Until yesterday afternoon, Boris Johnson wanted schools to remain open despite the UK seeing more than 50,000 new cases of the virus a day.


Alongside this were rapid changes to Vietnam’s border regime, with inbound flights from China suspended from 1 February until July – a measure extended to Schengen countries and the UK on 15 March. By 22 March, Vietnam had halted the entry of all foreign nationals – something the UK has done at no point in the nine months since.

Even after these temporary suspensions were lifted, all arrivals had to remain in a government-administered quarantine centre for two weeks on entering Vietnam, along with anyone in the country known to have been in contact with a confirmed case of the virus. Self-isolation, as adopted by the UK and elsewhere, was seen as wholly inadequate given family members could still become infected. Thus between 23 January and the beginning of May, over 200,000 people spent time in the country’s various quarantine facilities.

All this happened while a vast contact tracing operation was created from scratch, with even ‘third-order contacts’ of known cases (a contact of a contact of a contact) sometimes being sent into quarantine. Anecdotes of how seriously tackling the virus was taken in Vietnam stand in stark contrast to Britain, where even today test and trace times aren’t adequate despite outsourcing companies receiving £22bn of taxpayers’ money

While the UK government’s messaging failures are of course notable, clear communication was only ever one aspect of Vietnam’s successful Covid-19 response, with boots-on-the-ground contact tracing and publicly-administered quarantining of far greater importance. When the UK government should have been initiating a massive re-allocation of resources to beat back the virus in its early stages, Downing Street’s main message was to simply wash your hands. They did far too little, far too late, and even today don’t appear to have a plan comparable to Vietnam’s twelve months ago.

For much of the last three decades, ‘Third Way’ politicians have been eager to emphasise their aversion to ideology, saying they prefer to be guided by whatever works. Yet in the shadow of both the global financial crisis and now Covid-19, it’s clear this only ever applied to policies from the right, from privatisation to austerity. Few leading figures in Britain are pointing to the likes of Vietnam, or others in east Asia, as models from which to learn for next time, thus failing to do what many Asian countries did after SARS at the turn of the millennium.

The hallmark of a confident, successful society is a willingness to imitate the successes of others, yet the jingoism at the heart of 21st century Britain – and England in particular – means this is entirely unlikely. We don’t just have to worry about our government’s response to this pandemic, but the next one too.

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.

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