Sun 5 December 2021

Dr John Ashton, a former director of public health, warns that the Government must get back on track with its evidence base and messaging around the pandemic if it is to be prepared for a second wave.

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The past two weeks have brought the chaos of the Government’s response to COVID-19 into sharper focus.

Beginning with the Dominic Cummings scandal and the stubborn refusal of Boris Johnson to recognise the damage caused to public trust by the hubris of his puppet-master, the lockdown that has been in place for the past two months has all but ended.

The confused and ambiguous messaging of the Government has had all the hallmarks of a Cummings diversionary tactic aimed at moving the spotlight away from his outrageous and reckless flight from London to Durham and Barnard Castle at the height of the pandemic.

When combined with the efforts of Alok Sharma, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove, Robert Jenrick, Grant Shapps and Oliver Dowden – who put the economy unashamedly before the safety of  public health by recklessly loosening the lockdown before testing and tracing has been reliably delivered – the result has been anarchy in public places.

That the ‘R’ value is already showing signs of creeping back up – especially in some of the most vulnerable communities – should come as no surprise, with Black Lives Matter protests having fallen on fertile soil.

The continuing efforts at political manipulation of the crisis by a floundering administration has surely reached new heights with the censoring of a whole chapter in the Public Health England report into outcomes and risk associated with COVID-19, including in terms of ethnicity.

Remarkably, this was trumped at the weekend by the response of the Home Secretary Priti Patel and other members of the Government to the removal of the statue of one of the countries most wicked slave traders, Edward Colston, in Bristol.

Patel’s incompetence continues to amaze and seemingly has no limits. Whilst her colleagues seem to be desperate to restart the economy at any price, the Home Secretary seems intent on single-handedly destroying the airline industry when what is needed is to use the opportunity to recalibrate it on a sustainable footing whilst continuing to protect public health.

The countries that have performed best in handling COVID-19 are those that followed the World Health Organisation advice to test, trace and isolate at the beginning of the pandemic. Most coupled this with restrictions and monitoring of flights and passengers coming into their countries, particularly from areas with high numbers of the disease.

For reasons known only to the Prime Minister and his advisors, the UK failed to follow this course of action. But now that we have the second highest death rate in the world, we are behaving with the time-honoured colonial and Little England manner of ‘fog in the channel, continent cut off’, whilst doing too much too late.

What the airline and hospitality industries need is some degree of certainty against which to plan their recovery even though this might be slower than some might wish. Public health considerations require that any resumption of economic activity should be informed by the evidence of the – still to be forthcoming – reliable data. At the same time, we should be building a shared vision and ambition for a new normal which is both more equitable and takes the opportunity to rebuild the economy in such a way as to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

The pragmatic approach would be to continue to discourage all but essential travel until it is clear how the Coronavirus is going to behave during the coming months and to monitor both incoming and outgoing passengers through systematic testing with isolation and treatment as necessary. The Home Secretary’s proposal of 14 days quarantine for all incoming travellers, including those from countries that have all but eradicated the virus, is unenforceable and the scientific basis for it is opaque.

As we hover in a pandemic no man’s land between recovery and a potential second wave, this is no time to flounder. We are desperately in need of real political leadership that can rebuild public trust around a vision based on hope and reality.

Dr John Ashton is a leading international authority on public health and a member of the Crown Prince of Bahrain’s Corona Task Force.


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