There haven’t been a lot of positives about the Covid lockdowns, but one of the few which has been widely reported is that we can hear birdsong again. As traffic volume has diminished and we work at home, the level of noise around us has fallen to a point that most of us can’t remember. It means that we can hear things we haven’t heard for many years. On the flip side, we’re missing the sound of social interaction. As restrictions are relaxed, it’s interesting to consider whether we have learnt anything from this period of unexpected quietness and how it might change our lives going forward.
We regularly read about fraud in sport, whether that’s cricket, football or horse racing, where a player accepts money to affect the result. There are arrests, trials and the culprits either banned or sent to jail. But what happens when a Government Minister takes a bet on a Government policy and then manipulates the data to win it?
It may sound bizarre, but that’s what has happened here in the UK, with Matt Hancock, our Secretary of State for Health. In an interview on LBC with Nick Ferrari, he was asked if he would take a £100 bet on reaching his target of accomplishing 100,000 coronavirus test each day by the end of April. Anyone with a scrap of morality would have answered “I don’t gamble on people’s health”, but not young Matty. Although not an ex-Etonian, like many of this cabinet colleagues, Matty always looks as if he wants to be seen as one of the posh boys who likes a flutter. After a brief hesitation, he accepted the bet on behalf of NHS charities. I’m sure that Nick Ferrari thought he was betting on a certainty, unaware that the result was about to get fixed.
Looking back on the past few months, everything I’ve written has been about the effects of Covid-19 and lockdown. It’s all still best described as a global experiment, where most of our politicians are still guessing.
It felt that it was probably time to lighten the tone. I grew up with the songs of the great American satirist, Tom Lehrer, which still feel as fresh as when they were written. Lockdown seemed to be a good opportunity to revisit and update them, so here’s my offering based on one of his classics – My Home Town.
As most of the world starts to ease lockdown, it seems timely to ask the question of “What next?” Many will believe that the new normal is just a stepping stone back to the old normal, but the reality is that Covid-19 has not gone away. Nor are we likely to see a vaccine in the near future, for which read years. As epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse told New Scientist in early April: “I do not think waiting for a vaccine should be dignified with the word ‘strategy’. It’s not a strategy, it’s a hope.” Which raises the question of what the strategy is?
As long as the virus is around, it will continue to infect and kill. Unlike the Spanish Flu pandemic, it seems to be more discriminating, predominantly resulting in the death of those already at risk. It’s almost as if it’s sticking two fingers in the air to the last century of medical advancement, saying that for all of the machines we now have which go “ping”, the medical profession is as helpless as it was back in 1918.
What that means is that the elderly and those with underlying conditions will remain at risk and society will probably try to be over-zealous in protecting them. Without a vaccine, here in the UK, the implication is that we will probably never see the Queen make a public appearance. In the US, Donald Trump, assuming he doesn’t succumb to the virus, will still be promoting quack cures as he steps down at the end of his second term, and anyone with a parent in a care home may never get to hug or kiss them again, which is a strange definition of care.
I’m old enough to remember being sent to play with other children who had measles and chickenpox. That was before we had vaccines for either. We’d have a happy time picking off each other’s chickenpox scabs, leaving our generation marginally scarred for life. It was an understandable practice – neither disease had a high child mortality rate – it was far more dangerous in adults, so keeping up herd immunity this way had pretty good odds.
We’re about to come out of lockdown and enter the “New Normal”, whatever that may be. It means that as far as Covid-19 is concerned, we’re back in the pre-vaccination world. Throwing technology at the problem appears to be the first choice of most Governments, but we should think about whether there are some pre-vaccination strategies which are worth revisiting.
In the previous article I looked at the tools the UK Government has available to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Essentially, they have two. The first is to increase the number of ventilators and ICU beds, which gives more people with severe respiratory infections a chance to recover. That means that doctors and politicians can avoid the unpleasant choice of deciding who gets treated and who does not, but only if the number of infections are curtailed in the first place, so that we don’t run out of ventilators.
The second is the lockdown tool. It is currently a crude On/Off switch, which limits infections by keeping everyone at home. At the moment, it’s not flexible – you’re either locked down, or you’re not, unless you’re a key worker or in an essential industry. The hope is that few key workers will be infected, either because they have sufficient Personal Protection Equipment, or they’re able to social distance whilst doing their jobs. Everyone else has to stay at home. A lucky few can continue to work, but most are either furloughed or become unemployed, putting the economy in stasis.
The Government, quite rightly, is desperate to find ways to ease the lockdown. The question is how to do that without immediately seeing infection rates rise?
The flavour of the day is to roll out smartphone apps which can trace whether you have come into contact with someone else who is infected. The theory goes that if you do, you can be alerted and stay at home until you’re tested. If you have coronavirus, you self-isolate. If you don’t, you’re free to go back to work. Like many proposals for phone apps, it sounds simple, which is why it’s so appealing. Particularly to people like Matt Hancock, who has always had a bit of a penchant for phone apps, which he believes will save the NHS. What nobody is mentioning, is that for contact-tracing to work, we will need the ability to provide at least half a million additional tests that can be administered at home every day.