Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Let's get back to something approaching normal

By the time the pubs reopen on July 4th, Britain will have been under various forms of lockdown for fifteen weeks. In his address to the nation on March 23rd - now more than three months ago - Boris Johnson’s sole justification for locking down was to ‘protect the NHS’. There can be no doubt that this has been achieved, albeit at enormous cost to our economy, children and sanity.

Covid-related deaths in English hospitals have fallen from a peak of over 800 a day on 8th April to less than sixty a day in recent weeks. A third of English hospitals reported no Covid-related deaths last week. The number of ‘excess deaths’ in England and Wales is now below average for this time of year.

The rest of the UK is doing even better. On Sunday, there were no deaths from COVID-19 in Northern Ireland for the first time in months. Scotland went six days without a death from COVID-19 recently, and its Covid-related hospital admissions are now in the single figures.

The documents from the SAGE meetings make it clear that the idea of a full lockdown came very late in the day. One of SAGE’s objections to banning mass gatherings was that people would simply congregate in pubs instead. It seems obvious now that this would only be a problem if the pubs were open, but the idea of the government shutting them was unthinkable, even to SAGE, until the eleventh hour.

We have done more than was reasonably expected of us for longer than we could have imagined. The original objective of the lockdown was achieved many moons ago. The NHS was never overwhelmed. The five tests that were introduced in April to justify the extension of the lockdown have now been met, including the worryingly subjective requirement that the government be ‘confident that any adjustments will not risk a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS’. Social distancing has become normalised. Scientists have discovered that Dexamethasone significantly reduces mortality. Parts of the country have achieved a measure of herd immunity. Diagnostic testing has been successfully ramped up. Fewer patients require ventilators than was originally thought. Medics have the necessary PPE. At the risk of leaving a massive hostage to fortune, there is no reason to expect a second wave to overwhelm the health service.

But that does not mean a second wave will not occur. From the outset, scientists warned that a second wave was bound to take place in the autumn and winter. Moreover, they always said that the more that is done to suppress the first wave, the greater the second wave will be. Neil Ferguson, the darling of lockdown aficionados, made this clear in his infamous report for Imperial College in mid-March, saying:

‘Introducing such interventions too early risks allowing transmission to return once they are lifted (if insufficient herd immunity has developed); it is therefore necessary to balance the timing of introduction with the scale of disruption imposed and the likely period over which the interventions can be maintained. In this scenario, interventions can limit transmission to the extent that little herd immunity is acquired – leading to the possibility that a second wave of infection is seen once interventions are lifted.’    

In light of Ferguson’s subsequent reputation as a maverick scientist speaking truth to power, it is worth noting how similar this message is to curve-flattening, sombrero-squashing rhetoric of the government at the time. Six months after COVID-19 reached our shores, we appear to be a long way from achieving herd immunity. The chances of a vaccine being developed this year are extremely remote. If the scientists are correct, we must learn to live with COVID-19. We must expect a second wave.

But we must also return to some kind of normality. Staying at home until a vaccine is developed - which may never happen - is not an option. The lockdown has already done catastrophic damage. We are likely to see four or five million people unemployed once the furlough scheme is lifted. Countless businesses will never recover. Children are having their education interrupted for six months, with those from low income households most vulnerable to being left behind.

Flattening the curve to allow the NHS to give every COVID-19 patient the care they need if one thing. Suppressing the curve indefinitely in a futile attempt to prevent anyone dying from a disease that kills people, on average, at the age of 85, is quite another.

Those who predict that the July 4th relaxations will lead to a second wave are unlikely to see their reputations tarnished. If they are right, they will look like (independent) sages. If they are wrong, nobody will remember. The people who wrongly prophesied that a second wave would result from the VE Day celebrations, or the Dominic Cummings affair, or the Black Lives Matter protests, or people going to the beach, or the partial reopening of primary schools, have not been held accountable by the media. Insofar as we remember these predictions at all, we are simply relieved, and rather encouraged, that they were wrong.

Independent SAGE, Sir David King’s assortment of political malcontents, seem to oppose every relaxation of lockdown on principle. Like Groucho Marx, whatever it is, they’re against it. They were against the full reopening of primary schools and got their way. Many health professionals, not to mention parents, now recognise that keeping schools closed until September, when almost every other country has reopened theirs, was an historic error.

Independent SAGE now opposes relaxing the two metre rule, despite most countries - and the World Health Organisation - endorsing a shorter and more practical distance. We must be thankful that the government has not capitulated on this occasion. The cultural life of the nation depends on it being dropped.

The latest excuse for putting our lives on hold is that that the UK’s system of tracking and tracing has not been perfected. It is true that the mobile phone app has been a classic government IT fiasco, but we have 25,000 people by the phone ready to do contact tracing (many of them are stood idle because there are, thankfully, not enough infections to track).

Local public health directors have repeatedly claimed that contact tracing is the job they were born to do. You may lack faith in Public Health England and their local representatives, and I can hardly blame you, but they have had years to get their pandemic planning in place and have had months to calibrate them for this disease. If they are not ready now, they never will be. If we’re going to stay locked down while we wait for these people to attain a minimum level of competence, we’ll be waiting a very long time. Frankly, we might as well wait for a vaccine.

And, to repeat, waiting for a vaccine is not an option. Doing nothing is not a plan. Being cautious with the virus is being reckless with our education, jobs and mental health. Our existence since mid-March has not been life. COVID-19 is not going away. Wash your hands, keep your distance and don’t do anything stupid. Life is returning.

[This article appeared on the Telegraph website last week]

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