The Long Game

Lots of people both expert and pseudo-expert have questioned the UK Government’s strategy in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. Many have suggested massive incompetence of the Executive which announced it was alternately following then ignoring then selecting then directing ‘The Science’ and since science logically is based only on facts and is essentially unchangeable then this seemed an impossible task.

Some have sympathised with Johnson’s position, having successfully cut us off from all our European trading and support partners at the beginning of 2020 he would have expected a relaxed discussion over the detail of the Withdrawal Agreement in the twelve months until the tarmac had set on the Kent lorry parks. However this was not to be as the inscrutable orientals had other plans.

His chief adviser, the equally inscrutable Dom Cummings, realised the potential of Covid-19 early on. By February he had spotted the opportunity to rid his fiefdom of all its unproductive elements in one go. Supported by rogue elements of SAGE – the ‘Scientists‘ he embarked on promoting a plan of something called ‘herd immunity’, dripping the poisonous idea into the blond buffoon’s ear. It seemed ideal, let the virus pass through the population and create a permanent immunity in record time making him, via his blond puppet, the Superman of Capitalism. This would get rid of swathes of the old, the poor and the infirm, a permanent drain on the public purse. It had worked with measles, smallpox and chicken pox. Simples!

The only snag was that these examples were generally non-lethal and most had a vaccine to protect those most vulnerable. When the world at large pointed this out, the strategy of ‘herd immunity’ was quickly dumped, never to be spoken of again. Or was it? Let’s look more closely.

The general strategy adopted by the rest of the world except Sweden was to restrict contact through lockdown, test for infection and trace those potentially infected, isolating, testing again and reducing the numbers of infected as fast as possible. New Zealand, with a land area of 268,000 square kilometres similar to that of the UK, but with a tenth of the population, was hugely successful by immediately closing borders and locking down its population with a ‘zero-Covid19’ strategy.

And it worked. Twenty five deaths overall, comparable to the Isle of Man which had 24 deaths over the same period. Extrapolate upwards to account for the difference in population and the comparable death rate would be 300 while the UK boasts a ‘world beating’ 42,000 using the most sympathetic measuring protocol or 65,000 excess deaths if measured by the Office of National Statistics. So why do we seem to be doing so badly?

  1. Our first deviation from the advice offered by the World Health Organisation was to keep our borders fully open throughout the pandemic. Where Spain closed its borders within weeks (and New Zealand within days) this conveniently situated island opened its borders to every potential carrier in the world, only latterly imposing a voluntary two week ‘stay at home’ instruction to visitors from a rapidly changing list of countries with still no testing at ports or airports.
    At the height of the pandemic in March we were still taking in 1.4 million visitors a month. Now we are locking down selective towns and cities we are still taking in 3,800,000 visitors a month (Source: More than half a million of those came from the most infected country in the world, the USA. If we had closed our ports and airports to foreign visitors on the same date as Spain stopped flights into Tenerife on 12th March then our infection rate would have been measured in hundreds rather than tens of thousands per week.
    So why would we not do this? We had almost a month advance warning of what every other country was trying to do. Importing infection into the country would only spread it wider and faster across the population. Which would be the best way to achieve herd immunity….. oops!
  2. Next the WHO recommended a strategy of ‘test, test, test’ suggesting that countries put all their efforts into a testing and tracing regime which quickly identified infected people and then traced and, where possible, isolated those capable of spreading the infection. Most countries like Germany, Italy and inevitably New Zealand took this to heart and rapidly created and then improved a testing regime which did the job and gave them a platform on which to prioritise their health services.
    What did the UK do? After ignoring the testing regime for some time it then offered a paltry 4,000 tests a day. Clearly the Executive didn’t see the need for mass testing. In fact even in late September the Prime Minister was saying: “Testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread or the transmission of the disease.”
    Most recently the ‘NHS Test and Trace’ app has experienced a huge number of problems by being inefficiently designed. The fact is that it isn’t an ‘NHS’ app but one developed privately by a company linked to the Tory party and under a massive £12billion contract which was never subjected to competitive tender. The app failed to track thousands of contacts of infected people, its software was designed to set too high a level on purpose and the private company operating the ‘trace’ component of the system failed to contact even half the affected contacts.
    One has to be concerned about a process which may tell you at any given moment that someone you may have been in contact with may have contracted the virus and therefore you must isolate yourself for fourteen days. This might well cost you your job, your livelihood, your possible promotion or even your relationship. Who, under the circumstances, would answer the call from an unlisted number bearing such news. The lack of an effective testing system and inability to trace infected people is crucial to reducing the spread of the disease. Promising then failing to deliver a system seems almost deliberate considering that the lack of control inevitably leads to much higher infection rates and eventual progress towards herd immunity. Umm!
  3. The final part of the slow progression towards widespread infection is the contradictory series of restrictions, u-turns and selective lockdowns which change on an almost daily basis. If you had to point to areas of societal activity where infection spread was most likely then that would be schools, universities and social gatherings.
    So what does this government do? It bans outdoor meetings with friends but allows indoor drinking with strangers. It bans children playing football together – the same children who spend all day together in the foetid environment which is the modern school. It insists that you go to your unsterile workplace wherever possible, travelling on enclosed public transport and, with ‘Eat out to Help Out’ to encouraging city lunches and busy dining the spread is almost guaranteed.
    If you then encourage young adults to mix in a carefree university environment and then confine them to their halls of residence you are doing almost everything you can to create super spreading environment. Super spreading leads to a higher percentage of the population becoming infected and progressing towards the holy grail of herd immunity.

The Government did all this and more under the guise of ‘following the science’ while conveniently ignoring the science if it conflicted with more mercenary considerations. Whatever we may believe, some facts are indisputable. The UK has an unenviable record in comparison with the rest of the world both in the number of cases and the appalling level of additional deaths. A considerable number of Tory donors, friends and hangers-on will have made a considerable amount of money after this pandemic dies away. The effect of the Government’s actions combined with the disastrous negotiations of a ruinous exit from the European Union will be with us for a generation.

There is an old Chinese curse – “May you live in interesting times”. It’s impossible not to imagine that these are ‘interesting times’ brought on in part by a virus which originates in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Which sci fi author could have imagined it?

Lighthouse Labs – showing the way?

An investigation funded by The Independent has uncovered widespread concern over the “Lighthouse Lab” system for processing coronavirus tests.

UPDATE: …and now wow!

Experts including Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, have branded the decision to commission the ‘Lighthouse’ laboratories – funnelling millions to private companies – a tactical mistake that was made too late, without consultation and remains shrouded in mystery

It was decided that a centralised approach would be more efficient and give greater control, rather than mobilising NHS or academic labs, and funding them to expand operations. This may have been a mistake, freezing out existing public sector laboratories in order to create private businesses.

Sir Paul Nurse, told The Independent he believed it had been a mistake for the government not to mobilise local laboratories across the country.

“I reached out to Downing Street early on but it seems that the local route was not even considered,” he said. “That was a tactical error in my view, because it was self-evident from the beginning that a locally managed solution would have been effective.

It was needed until the big labs got going, which was going to take time given the lack of preparation.

What we did at The Crick could have been done and activated at university and medical school labs across the country, which were dormant because of lockdown.

“Our local Crick lab can turn around tests in 24 hours, even under 12 hours. In these big labs it’s been as long as five days – that is next to useless. There was a failure to think creatively about how to deal with testing and the decision to set up these labs has been shrouded in mystery, at least to me. Who made the decision? Why was it made? Who advised on it? What did it cost?”

What is clear is that it was expensive, accused of contracting irregularities and not as reliable as promised. Perhaps unsurprising since it was overseen by accountancy giant Deloitte, fined for Serco tagging scandal and improperly awarded contracts in South Africa.

See the full article here.

8th June 2020 – The New Normal

After 7 weeks confined to quarters, self isolating from this killer oriental virus, spread by G5 masts and infesting the ill-advised purchase of cheap Chinese nicknacks, we became just a little stir crazy. It’s easy to recognise the signs – when your partner breathes in and then, annoyingly, breathes out again. Then it’s just a case of hiding all sharp objects and whistling a happy tune until the urge to spill blood subsides. Since we needed some essential foods we decided to enliven our boredom and drive the couple of miles to our local supermarket. What a revelation!

I realised that I had almost completely forgotten how to drive after seven weeks – well more like nine weeks not behind the wheel. Lots of traffic on the road so I proceeded, as my police friends would say, ‘with due care and attention’ and parked up in the car park opposite the longest slowest conga line I had ever seen. We joined it and shuffled forward slowly until we gained entry to the palace of wonders. It was only by employing the steely determination for which I am renowned that I refrained from sticking my left leg out, hopping and then sticking it in again.

I have to say that our supermarkets in the North seem to have done a superlative job of organising their customers; including regular distance markings on the floor and a well signposted one-way system directing shoppers onward. Clearly the guidance was lost on many, particularly aged men and hordes of trolley dollies collecting for online orders who sped hither and thither willy nilly to and fro dodging the continuing soundless conga pausing only to glare at anyone halting for more than a couple of seconds at ‘their’ shelves.

Shopping swiftly over, we repaired equally cautiously chez nous and continued our mundane daily routine. Having cleared our sizeable garage and manicured our diminutive garden I had turned my attention to our chaotic loft space. Some years ago I had part-floored the loft but since then both MBH and I had squirrelled away a multitude of unwanted or redundant ‘stuff’ up there to the point where infrequent groaning could be heard ‘up there’ which suggested that the roof beams were straining but which I maintained was a recalcitrant ghost intent on evil revenge.

My daily routine therefore consisted of a couple of hours in the loft digging out forgotten treasures and extending the flooring until it became too hot to work. The rockwool insulation necessitates the wearing of a face mask (bought from China some months ago). My respect for our health workers rose a hundredfold. Anyone who can wear these masks for an eight hour shift or more, day after day deserves the salary of a politician with added daily attendance bonus.

This is often followed by an hour or so of archery practice in our back garden.

After lunch I spend a couple of hours on a jigsaw puzzle. Not particularly challenging you might think but this puzzle was one I found stored in a puzzle case in the loft. It had belonged to my mother in law and we had sort of inherited it when she died. She had joined perhaps a couple of dozen of the 5,000 pieces and then it had been packed away. Unfortunately the box with the picture showing the finished rustic scene had not been packed away with it so my challenge was to complete the puzzle ‘blind’ so to speak. Where this image is 40% blue sky, 30% thatched roofs and 30% flowers you start to get the picture (pun intended) of how difficult a task I had set myself. Added to that, I’m pretty certain that my dear mother-in-law had either lost or secreted away a few key pieces to make life more difficult still. I bet she’s chuckling as she watches my pathetic attempts for her position of absolute authority on high.

After dinner the dismal fare of the television channels is supplemented by one of a number of good books. At the moment I’m deep into the third of the Shardlake novels by CJ Sansom and this can usually distract me until it’s time for bed. As I close the curtains on the world outside I notice, as is usual, that we are inevitably the last ones still awake on our quiet cul-de-sac.

Goodnight all.