As the UK prepares for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pronouncements on Sunday when he is expected to unveil a roadmap to unlock the economy after six weeks of lockdown, Britain has achieved a sobering statistic: the highest number of officially recorded coronavirus deaths in Europe, passing 30,000.
And as the grim count continues, the UK Government’s late response to the crisis appears a vital factor in why there have been so many deaths. The true final reckoning as to which country topped the death league won’t be known for perhaps a year, but the calculations to date suggest much has gone awry.
Even the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, admitted this week that locking down earlier could have limited the scale of the outbreak: “Days either way would have made a difference,” he told MPs this week at the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, adding that evidence now suggests many of the cases identified in early March, and which “seeded right the way across the country” came from Europe, almost certainly from Italy and Spain, rather than directly from China.
It’s an irony that Italy, which the UK has now overtaken in the ever-rising tally of officially recorded deaths, is geographically separated from its southern European neighbour Greece – which has by far the lowest recorded deaths in Europe – by less than 200 km of the Ioanian Sea.
Greece locked down early, shutting schools and banning large congregations on March 10. Strict restrictions on movement followed soon after, including mandatory quarantining of overseas arrivals. Greece’s approach has worked to an extraordinary extent, at least for now.
With 148 officially recorded deaths as of May 7, and 2,678 confirmed cases in a population of 10.7 million, Greece’s experience to date of Covid-19 is almost miraculous.
This week the Greek government began to ease their strictly enforced lockdown, but with only 90,000 of its citizens tested to date, some feel nervous. Others have a confidence born of the immense respect Greeks have gained during the crisis for the actions of their government.
To get a sense of the situation in Greece, Nation.Cymru spoke to Welsh expats living there, and invited them to reflect on comparisons between Greece and the UK.
Lindsey Shone, a retired nurse who worked for the NHS for 40 years, lives in Epirus in the north of the country. Still in close and regular contact with her family in Wales, Lindsey says the gulf between her and their experience is huge.
“As soon as Italy started having so many cases, due to its close proximity, I was really afraid, but Greece did the right thing in acting early.”
As for relaxing the lockdown, she feels confident, but less so for her former home.
“I was and still am, really concerned about my family and friends in Wales. My mother is elderly and lives alone near Mold. She has found the lockdown very isolating. I’m here in Greece and my sister lives seven miles away from her, and is working.
“Rural Wales is difficult for those at higher risk. They would need to start using public transport again, and be out of the house for longer, increasing their exposure. Public transport is sketchy in these areas of low population. If I could, I’d bring my family to Greece now, I feel they would be safer here than in the UK.”
Greece began to ease its lockdown on May 4, with small non-essential businesses reopening – including hairdressers, bookstores and florists (all are required to use masks for staff and customers, as well as social distancing). .
From this week Greeks no longer have to send an SMS giving a reason for leaving their home. Regional travel – limited to a resident’s local authority area – is now allowed Churches have reopened for individuals to pray, and from May 17, church services in this highly religious society will begin again.
Schools will open gradually from May 11 with high school students first in line. Archaeological sites are scheduled to be open to the public on May 18, and restaurants, cafes and year-round hotels are schedules to re-open on June 1. Cafes and restaurants will be restricted to outdoor seating, and social distancing rules will mean 2 metres separation between tables with a maximum of 4 people per table. With tourism representing a quarter of Greece’s economy, the plan is that by July the first overseas tourists could arrive.
Venice Baron, a retired teacher originally from Newport, has lived in Greece with her husband Glenn since 2007. Their home is in the village of Sapounakeika in the Peloponnese, with its picture-perfect views across the Gulf of Argolis.
Shocked by the Brexit referendum result, a year ago Venice and Glenn decided that with uncertainty over their future status in the EU, they would sell up and return to the UK. South Wales is their favoured destination.
“Our son lives in Cardiff so we decided to move to the Newport area where properties are more affordable. For this reason, I’ve been following the local news there, and found out, to my horror, that Gwent is a Covid hotspot.”
For now, the pandemic has put an end to Venice’s moving ambitions, with property sales severely affected. Returning to Wales will have to wait. Venice says she’s appalled at the UK government’s handling of the crisis.
“Apart from the long-term underfunding of the NHS, it’s clear that advice was ignored on how to prepare for a possible epidemic. When cases started to appear, I was alarmed at Johnson’s downplaying of the situation… boasting about how he’d been around a hospital ward shaking hands with patients.
“I worry about family and friends in the UK. Apart from the economic problems of my children, I have an aunt in a care home, a cousin who just had her chemo cancelled, and many of my friends are vulnerable.
“The Greek government has stressed it will be very cautious about coming out of lockdown. Because of so many years of crisis, maybe Greeks feel a sort of fatalism, and their economic expectations aren’t set so high. My fear is that tourism will resume too soon, and bring a new wave of the virus to areas that will be unable to cope.”
Greece is a country whose public health system was short of resources before the devastating economic crisis that hit the country from 2009. Further debilitated in the years that followed by severe austerity measures Greece couldn’t afford to get its response to the pandemic wrong. It appears it has defied the odds and undoubtedly swift action saved countless lives.
They used to call Greece “the sick man of Europe.” No guesses for the country that deserves that title today.