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Mon 6 July 2020
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Byline Times’ chief medical officer Dr John Ashton considers why and how the Government is so keen to return to ‘business as usual’

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As we enter July, five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels like Groundhog Day.

It seems like only yesterday that there had been just 10 confirmed deaths in UK hospitals. It was before the Government remembered care homes, or at least remembered that their staff and residents might be at risk, because they were about to send them 25,000 patients discharged from hospital – enough to start a parallel epidemic that would sweep through them like wildfire.

But, at least the hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. Dr Jenny Harris, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, said she couldn’t reveal how many NHS frontline staff had died because it would breach confidentiality. As for black and ethnic minorities, who was counting anyway?

Now, with only around 4,000 new Coronavirus cases a day, the daily Downing Street briefings have ended and lockdown eased. The Government’s advice is to ‘spend, spend, spend’. 4 July will be our ‘Independence Day’ – like Brexit Day all over again. Let’s party and be damned. And, when it all goes pear-shaped, it will be nothing to do with mixed messages or Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle to test his eyes.

Boris Johnson and Cummings have dug an elephant trap lined with beer taps and live music and the masses are walking into it. Cause mayhem and let somebody else clean it up, it is straight out of the Johnson playbook.

‘You wanted your freedom back and now you’ve got it – just don’t blame the Government’. ‘You wanted the local public health directors to take charge, well it’s all down to them now’. ‘Never mind about testing and tracing, Deloitte and Serco are sitting pretty and so will the party election funds when the time comes’.

Meanwhile, its certainly business as usual for Public Health England, which for the past week has been doing what it does best – anything to prevent local Directors of Public Health from testing, tracing and isolating and demanding that they write elaborate, top-down plans for managing the second wave.

Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity was doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. Not for PHE the improvisation, flexibility and imagination that led the Isle of Mann Government to cut the apron strings from London and buy a second hand PCR machine on eBay to do its own testing from its labs in Noble’s Hospital, squashing the sombrero into the ground.

Not for PHE to encourage teams to pick up the phone and speak to Alex Friedrich, a professor of medical microbiology and infection control in the Netherlands, who followed the World Health Organisation advice to ‘test, test, test’ using an army of students and his local lab. Or to speak to Bahrain about openness and transparency, or Cuba where public health and community engagement shows the way.

Data should stop being hoarded and shared freely and PHE should urgently define the criteria for a local lockdown so the professionals in places such as Leicester can take charge for themselves, rather than hearing a local lockdown declared on the news.

But then it would all be so much easier if we lived on an island, wouldn’t it?

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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