Could Covid have been stopped? Taiwan’s health minister reveals UK asked for help to control virus

Taiwan warned the UK last year to strictly enforce face mask and social distancing policies and not to bow to public pressure to lift pandemic prevention measures too quickly, according to its health minister, Chen Shih-chung.

He also said the West, in particular, had become over-confident in its health infrastructure and should have been more “humble” in the face of the pandemic rather than neglecting the outbreak in its early stages.

Taiwan’s recommendations, if closely followed, could have saved lives. As the UK comes to terms with 126,000 deaths, Taiwan, which sits just 80 miles from the coast of China, acted fast and decisively and has lost only ten people to date. Cases have barely risen above 1,000, mainly arrivals from abroad.

In an exclusive interview with the Telegraph, Mr Chen revealed that after Covid-19 emerged from Wuhan, China, and spread globally, British officials in London sought the opinion of Taiwan’s Centres for Disease Control (CDC) about how to tackle the virus.  

His comments, along with guidance from other East Asian nations, may figure in any future public inquiry into the pandemic, with the Prime Minister and others already pointing to the failure of the British public health establishment to take on board the lessons from Asia of Sars and Mers.

Pedestrians wear face masks in Taipei, Taiwan, where life has largely returned to normal


Pedestrians wear face masks in Taipei, Taiwan, where life has largely returned to normal


Credit: Chiang Ying-ying /AP

He said they had “a few online meetings” and also pointed to an exchange in June between Chen Chien-jen, an epidemiologist and former Taiwanese Vice-President, and the House of Commons health and social care committee.

The CDC told the British officials that “mask wearing and social distancing need to be promoted because if this basic stuff is done properly then it can prevent most of the viral transmission from taking place,” he said.

“In terms of containment measures, the time has to be complete, because we have seen a lot of times with the UK government that they relax the measures once there is a fall in daily cases, but the timeline should go even further,” he added.

“The government should insist on those policies and not give in to public pressure and relax the measures too early, rendering the pandemic situation uncontrollable.”

Mr Chen said he did not know if UK officials had acted on Taiwan’s advice. But the trajectory of the UK’s Covid-19 response last year suggests the message about not opening society up too soon did not sway top decision-makers.

The first year of the pandemic was a rollercoaster of indecision and government U-turns, causing public confusion. It began with delays to the first lockdown before prematurely permitting mass summer travel without quarantine and prevaricating on tough measures before Christmas, allowing Covid-19 to spread.

By contrast, Taiwan’s strategy focused on quickly suppressing the virus. It closed its borders last March, blocking unrestricted overseas arrivals even though it had already halted local transmission of Covid-19 by April. All inbound travellers are still subject to a strictly monitored 14-day-quarantine.

“Last May we also faced similar pressure – the public demanded to open up the economy but we stuck to our policy not to open up until there had been no new local cases for a certain period of time. I told the public that if the virus situation is not contained then there will be no economy,” said Mr Chen.

The strategy paid off. Taiwan became Asia’s top-performing economy last year, growing by 2.98 per cent and outpacing China for the first time in 30 years. Its citizens have had the freedom to live a normal life, with schools, offices and restaurants remaining open.

Mr Chen himself has risen to the status of national hero as the face of Taiwan’s successful pandemic response. In September, Taiwan’s GQ featured hailed him as “Minister of Steel” in the cover story for their “hero issue,” styling him in Gucci for a front-page photo shoot.

The unassuming, straight-talking politician is normally seen in public addressing a daily press conference in a less glamourous grey and yellow jacket sporting the logo of the National Health Command Centre that has taken the lead in the Covid-19 response.

A clear command structure and consistent, transparent communication to build up public trust lay at the centre of Taiwan’s success, said Mr Chen.   

That message was reiterated to British MPs when Vice-President Chen Chien-jen was invited to an online exchange in June to explain Taiwan’s contact tracing and quarantine systems. At the time, he indicated more than 90 per cent of the Taiwanese public were satisfied with the government’s strategy.

The timing of Taiwan cautioning the UK not to prematurely drop pandemic measures is unclear but it is believed that interactions between officials took place during and after the first virus wave and well before the second.

In early September, Jonathan Van Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, told an online security conference in Taipei that “very rich dialogues” with Taiwan over the last few months have “helped us” and that the UK was grateful for interchanges with the CDC on a “science level.”

In his Telegraph interview, Mr Chen said that humanity in general, and the West in particular, had not shown enough humility towards the pandemic, leading to mistakes.

“A lot of countries thought they have a strong social and health system, so they could prevent any kinds of disease. But that kind of over-confidence led them to take action late,” he said.

“As human beings we have to show humility even if we boast great systems. Once the virus is widespread, it is hard to contain, and the medical system can’t handle it, leading to a vicious circle.”

Another major pandemic was “inevitable,” he warned, and every government needed to learn lessons from Covid-19 and better prepare.  

But his expectation of humanity’s ability to do so appears to be somewhat pessimistic.

“As human beings we can never, in some ways, learn the lessons. People tend to forget. This time we’ve seen a lot of reflection on human destruction of nature, which led to the increase of more viral diseases. But it does not stop humanity’s exploitation.”

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