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Thu 29 October 2020
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Byline Times’ chief medical officer, Dr John Ashton, explores the Government’s failings in entering lockdown and now leaving it

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“Statistically speaking, flying is still the safest way to travel,” Superman tells Lois Lane, after rescuing her from a helicopter crash. To which he might have added: “But the most dangerous time of any flight is the take-off and landing.”

For the past five months, the public has probably been exposed to more statistical information than at any point in their lives. For many who are phobic about numbers, making sense of this must have been an additional nightmare to the one we have all been living through.

The initial response in the West to what was happening with the Coronavirus in Wuhan was that of denial, that it couldn’t and wouldn’t happen here. Then, as a handful of cases in February became a cascade in March, understanding the difference between arithmetic and logarithmic curves on daily graphs turned the nation overnight into statisticians and epidemiologists.

At this point, everybody was invited to ‘follow the science’ along with the Government and its very clever advisors. With the leading scientists, modellers and public health system in the world, what could possibly go wrong?

As March turned into April, we soon found out. One death on 5 March in Berkshire turned out to have been five and actually three days before. With 10 reported deaths by 12 March and numbers doubling every two to three days, the real numbers turned out to have been actually 16 but three days earlier and the logarithmic curve was for real, especially when deaths in care homes and the community were included.

By 13 March, when the Cheltenham Festival ended, a total of 11 deaths had been announced altogether, when the true total for hospitals alone was 51. Ten days later, the true total was 802. The Government’s four-point plan of ‘Contain, Delay, Mitigate, Research’ was in chaos, the pathetic amount of testing that had been carried was abandoned, and the bizarre attempt by the Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance to flog the nation ‘herd immunity’ had been aborted over the weekend.

With lockdown around the corner, this effort at pandemic management was never going to fly. Rather, tens of thousands of people were about to die in the mother of all crashes.


Landing Is No Better

If take-off had been a fiasco, landing was no better.

The continuing failure to test, trace and isolate meant that the death toll climbed inexorably until, at last, the lockdown started to bring some sense of control. But, with continued manipulation and obfuscation of the data and bad faith by the Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings and other leadership figures ignoring their own lockdown rules, there was an indecent haste to put the economy before lives – seeing public health as a cost when it is in reality an investment in the economy.

Having taken off too late, the rush was on to land too soon too.

With testing, tracing and isolation still highly problematic and in the hands of incompetent private sector contractors, the nation that was going to take on the world with Brexit had been brought to its knees by being unable to manufacture reagent and swabs.

With a resurgence of the virus in several countries, and a spate of new outbreaks in abattoirs and meat processing factories, the future remains highly uncertain. The Coronavirus seems to be surfacing again in the southern hemisphere and only a reckless gambler would put money on it not returning north for our winter.

Running through the incompetent handling of the entire emergency have been the fingerprints of a lazy, narcissistic Prime Minister, who at every crucial decision point has outsourced responsibility.

All things taken together, for anybody frightened of flying onwards in BJ Airlines, Erica Jong got there first. Fifty years ago, in her novel Fear of Flying she captured the essence of Boris Johnson’s approach to a life lived without responsibility or regret, when she coined the the apposite concept of “the zipless f*ck”.

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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