Coronavirus – the first thousand days

Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

The earliest stats on the coronavirus that I can find  – numbers of cases and deaths – were recorded by John Hopkins university on 19th January 2020, with 204 cases and 3 deaths.  There are persistent reports that the Dreaded Lurgy was around much earlier, with satellite pics of chinese hospital car parks being unusually full in Q4 2019 and isolated cases popping up in Western Europe about the same time.

Today is 14th October 2022, exactly one thousand days later and we’re heading for our third winter with the virus.

The BBC are generally very big on anniversaries, I wonder if they will pick up on this one?  Maybe a ‘where is he now?’ special on that doctor on a skiing holiday in Italy who took the disease with him, or analysis of the footage coming out of China on social media showing people dropping dead in the street?

We have been told a few things that contradict each other.  Let’s look back at some:

On masks:

Masks don’t work, said Jonathan van Tam, social distancing is the key.

Well actually masks do work but they have to be N95 standard.

Oh, any piece of cloth over your face will do.  And you can still catch the virus despite wearing a mask!

On vaccines:

The vaccines are safe, effective, and prevent you catching it or passing it on.

Well actually the vaccines don’t stop you catching it or passing it on, but they do make it less likely you will get a bad case.  And forget about all those vaccines you had in childhood, which you had once and gave you lifelong protection.  These new vaccines give protection that fades so you need repeated boosters.

I do believe that there was panic within government in the early part of 2020.  The scary social media pics from China, the reports from Italy of hospitals being overwhelmed, and the apocalyptic forecasts of half a million UK deaths, combined to put our lords and masters into a blue funk.  They threw out the country’s pandemic planning, which was basically to go for population immunity, and came up with lockdowns.  Remember ‘three weeks to flatten the sombrero’ on 24th March 2020, when the first lockdown was imposed?

Perhaps there was some reason for the panic.  The worldwide death rate (deaths as a % of closed cases, ie folk had caught it and then either recovered or died) was 19% in April 2020, steadily falling ever since to just over 1% today.

Source: Coronavirus Worldwide Graphs

The thing that surprised me is that it took almost no time for us to move from a reasonably free and liberal democracy to an authoritarian state.  We have had over fifty years of ‘my body my choice’ since the 1967 Abortion Act, and in a moment we moved to ‘no jab no job’ if you worked in social care.  How did that happen to us?  It seems as if we were being assailed from all sides.  We had the press conferences with suitably gloomy scientists flanking Boris, and social media firms shutting down accounts that dared to question the lockdown orthodoxy.  We even had specially-commissioned storylines in the daytime soaps, about the sensible chap who went for his jab.  Our government deliberately scared the population into submission.  That’s no way to run the proverbial whelk stall, let alone a country.

And all the while we were being told to lock down, it was a case of ‘do as I say, not do as I do’.  Professor Ferguson, he of the half-a-million-dead forecast, ignored the lockdown rules to see his girlfriend.  That Scottish chief medical officer who travelled to her holiday home during lockdown.  The SNP MP (Margaret Ferrier I think) who tested positive while in London and decided to take the train back home.  Dominic Cummings’ trip to test his eyesight.  The parties in Downing Street, one on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral.

The image of the Queen sitting alone during Philip’s funeral, conspicuously obeying the rules, will stay with me for a long time.  Philip should have had a glorious send-off with massed choirs, not four socially-distanced soloists in a cellar.  The contrast with Her Majesty’s own funeral could not be starker.

About those Downing Street parties.  The people at the centre of government, supposedly with the best information on the disease, felt sufficiently unconcerned about the disease to hold parties.  The panic in the corridors of power had dissipated, it seems.  They didn’t think there was any danger in breaking The Rules.

And the Rules that they imposed were senseless and riddled with contradictions.  You were in danger in a pub but not if you were sitting down.  I forget, was it ever decided whether a scotch egg counted as a substantial meal?  The devolving of health policy to the four nations led to them competing to set the most arbitrary rules.  Supermarkets in Wales taped off aisles displaying non-essential goods.  Enterprising small shopkeepers elsewhere in the UK took to adding cans of food to their range, so as to be able to stay open.

The maladministration that went on is unbelievable.  We cleared out hospitals by transferring elderly patients into care homes without checking whether they had the disease.  We awarded contracts for PPE to politicians’ mates down the pub.  We then burnt the PPE in power stations.  We built hospitals in conference venues and didn’t use them.  We gave furlough to some people but missed others through arbitrary cutoffs in the rules.  We gave out bounceback loans willy-nilly and are now surprised to learn that we won’t be getting much of it back.  Our police harassed people out walking because they had a cup of coffee with them.

Most egregious of all, we closed down the NHS to anything but coronavirus patients.  Out went routine care.  Just one example – there was a lady called Helen Jeremy, who lived in South Wales.  Aged 73, she lived independently, drove her own car, played the piano.  Just needed monthly eye injections which were stopped in the first lockdown.  Helen went blind.  Completely predictable and yet we let this happen.  (BBC report here:  Cancer screening largely stopped.  People didn’t stop getting cancer though, so the folk who would have been caught with Stage One treatable disease will now be presenting with Stage Four terminal disease.  The ONS has been quietly reporting a thousand excess deaths a week for the past year:

Source: ONS

Lockdowns were – in case I’m not making myself clear – a Bad Idea.  From the lost social development of children who couldn’t play with each other, to the missed social interactions we couldn’t have with other adults, to the failed businesses that couldn’t trade in lockdowns, we have really not put our best foot forward.

In a liberal democracy, we are supposed to be able to question our leaders, but we couldn’t.  The first duty of the Opposition in Parliament is to oppose, but they didn’t.  Labour didn’t oppose anything the government did, except to say it should have been done sooner and harder.

Cases will rise this Autumn – only slightly, but enough for the media to tell us the sky is falling.  Notice that there are many measures available:

– raw numbers of cases

– cases per million people

– number of positive tests

– percentage of tests with a positive result

– the R number

– surveys asking a sample of people if they have the disease

It only needs one of these metrics to spike and that’s the only one you’ll hear about.  Surely it’s not beyond the wit of Man to come up with a dashboard so we can take a balanced view?

The only good thing about Boris as Prime Minister was that, having been caught breaking the rules, it was going to be hard for him to announce another lockdown.  Today we have Liz Truss who doesn’t have this handicap, so when the case numbers start rising again, as they inevitably will for a winter disease, the siren call from SAGE and NervTag will be heard again.

(As an aside, is it just me, or do the acronyms jar slightly?  Presumably they went for NervTag as Smersh and Spectre were already taken?)

And Liz will be powerless, like Mowgli under the spell of the snake Kaa, hissing ‘Trusst in Meee’ and she will make the only response she is capable of:

‘Another lockdown?  Yes Master.  How long this time?’

I would like to be proved wrong but the words of Han Solo keep coming back to me:

‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this!’

© Jim Walshe 2022