Former South West MEP Molly Scott Cato argues that the public-school approach of fighting COVID-19 like a wartime enemy results in needless casualties and no exit strategy.
It’s time to take back control of this pandemic.
Since the horrified response when Sir Patrick Vallance let the cat out of the bag on “herd immunity”, government ministers have been careful to say publicly that this idea in no way influences their policy. The back-of-the-envelope calculation of around half a million deaths that immediately appeared on Twitter led to public pressure that made them rethink even before Neil Ferguson’s team produced their modelling suggesting the UK was on course for 250,000 deaths.
It took only primary-school maths to understand that ‘letting the virus rip’ would mean at least ten times as many deaths as a containment strategy.
They have lured us into thinking that there is something inevitable about deaths in the UK ‘following the same trend’ as deaths in Italy, when we should have been doing everything humanly possible to stop these deaths.
But the ideology of herd immunity is still suffusing much of what we’re hearing about the government’s response. For example, the message from the daily press conference is not that we should stop transmission and contain the virus, but rather that we should ‘protect the NHS’, the implication being that the ultimate number of deaths may be the same but that the sick can be offered an ICU bed and a ventilator if they are part of the unlucky 5% whose life will be threated by the Coronavirus, along with the 50% survival chance that comes with it.
The log graphs that are shared daily are popular with statisticians but, to the lay observer, turn an exponential curve into a gently rising one, that turns the corner while cases may still be rising rapidly. And they have lured us into thinking that there is something inevitable about deaths in the UK ‘following the same trend’ as deaths in Italy, when we should have been doing everything humanly possible to stop these deaths, as countries like New Zealand and South Korea have.
Likewise, we are told that London saw the exponential growth ‘first’, subtly implying that cases will rise similarly in Birmingham and Glasgow a couple of weeks later, when a government focused on saving life would use the lockdown to ensure that it radically limits further spread outside the capital and that those who live elsewhere are spared the worst of the capital’s horror-show.
The failure to introduce a serious, rapid and community-based testing regime in itself implies that the government has no intention of following a containment policy. The testing regime we have is about getting health workers back to work (‘protecting the NHS’) rather than tracing the virus as it rushes through our society. As Jenny Harries helpfully made explicit, testing – and the contact tracing and containment it makes possible – just isn’t the British way. Her ‘no tests please were British’ represented the worst sort of British exceptionalism that, as Fintan O’Toole described so eloquently, is costing thousands of lives.
This is how we got here; now is the time to look forward. It is clear that, for the British government, the lingering stench of herd immunity is continuing to infect their approach to relaxing the restrictive measures that have stopped catastrophic loss of life in recent weeks. As governments across the world consider the range of unappealing options, the underlying choice is between continuing to preserve life or to subject citizens to the Russian roulette of a circulating virus that, for 1 in 20 of them, could mean death.
A key question that should be put to government scientists and ministers is: do you think that everybody will have caught the disease before a vaccine becomes available?
As an aside, the idea that there is some kind of trade-off between saving life and saving the economy is entirely bogus. A good strategy of containment would achieve both of these objectives simultaneously, and we will be looking on as Europe’s largest economy – Germany – achieves them both in coming weeks. Because they understand where the virus is they can be selective about how they open up and can then chase and damp down the inevitable secondary outbreaks of COVID-19 that will follow. Because of the failure to test, UK politicians are flying blind and have only blunt instruments at their disposal.
A key question that should be put to government scientists and ministers is: do you think that everybody will have caught the disease before a vaccine becomes available? It seems clear that the working assumption of government scientific advisors in the UK is that this is so. Therefore all you are trying to do is to spread out that incidence of disease — and the 1% mortality rate it entails — across the next 12 or 18 months. Given that assumption, it makes sense to allow schoolchildren and young people to be the first out of quarantine. They will spread the virus without putting undue pressure on the health service.
But for a policy based on containment and control, the young, as asymptomatic carriers, are some of the most dangerous citizens, since they make it hard to trace the spread of the virus. So reopening schools and allowing children to share the virus with granny only makes sense if your ideal is to work towards 60% of the population having encountered the virus, and accept the death toll that goes along with such a policy.
A strategy based on containment would keep schools closed and would, instead, identify industries and economic sectors that are most essential and can most easily introduce reliable social distancing and shut down other workplaces to protect employees. I would hope that the HSE has already requested all employers to draw up plans for social distancing that can be signed off by local environmental health departments.
Every policy that is not herd-immunity-by-stealth relies on testing, so that must be the call of all those of us who are committed to the moral equality of citizens and to protecting those most likely to die from COVID-19.
Although the failure to provide adequate protective equipment is more emotive, the failure of testing is the single most destructive failure of the sorry government response to this pandemic. We must all, to the best of our ability, keep relentless pressure on the Health Secretary, who may well be fighting a rearguard action against other cabinet ministers and health advisors of doom like Jenny Harries.
The failure of testing is the single most destructive failure of the sorry government response to this pandemic.
If the government fails to test, they will lose public confidence and any exit from lockdown will fail. Workers will be forced to choose between unsafe workplaces and the loss of their jobs, choosing between the health and the livelihood of their families. People will return to work with fear, not in confidence. Some parents will send their children to school, but many others will not, understanding the risks that the infection they might pick up could kill other members of the family.
With or without an adequate national testing regime, we may be forced organize to protect our own communities through setting up local monitoring and contact-tracing systems. There is nothing to stop local authorities setting up these volunteer-based ‘test-and-trace’ teams and to substitute symptom monitoring for the absence of test results. As Anthony Costello has suggested, we should be building this community shield now. It could be based around returning doctors, or doctors offering volunteer time, but with the legwork being carried out by volunteers. If the government is not going to trace the virus, then citizens may have no option but to take on that role.
Managing this pandemic has always offered a choice between two approaches: the public-school approach of fighting the virus like a wartime enemy and proving you are hard enough to take the deaths that come your way; or stressing the need for solidarity and humanity.
I stand with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeyer who said during his Easter address:
“This pandemic is not a war. Nations do not stand against other nations, or soldiers against other soldiers. It is a test of our humanity.”
That is the test that we must hold our government to as we move towards the mortality peak and consider what the next steps should be.