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Covid update: Perils of ‘muddling through’


THE Office for National Statistics (ONS) releases its weekly data around 9:30am each Tuesday. For administrative reasons, it runs a couple of weeks behind, so today’s figures take us up to Friday, April 10. 
In the first graph below, I show the average number of deaths from respiratory disease in the decade 2010-2019, plus the highest figure for each week in that period, and compare those with:  Ÿ ONS figures for 2020 excluding Covid. Ÿ Registrations where Covid was mentioned on the death certificate. Ÿ Hospital deaths reportedly related to Covid, as mediated by Worldometer. I start from Week 10 (ending March 6, 2020) because that is when the first death from Covid was reported, though it doesn’t appear there in the ONS, which records date of registration, not of death. 

According to the first graph, the death trend from respiratory disease (excluding coronavirus) is slightly above average, though not the highest. But the new virus claimed three times as many victims in Week 15 as from all other respiratory illnesses combined. There is a temptation to hope that, at least in some cases, the causal connection with Covid is mistaken or tangential. However, if we focus on total deaths from all causes whatsoever, it looks as though the recent increase roughly tallies with the official count for coronavirus victims: 

In Week 15, this year’s number is around 6,000 higher than the maximum in the equivalent week a decade before, and 8,000 above the average. Something is certainly going on, and the onus is on the doubters to explain what that may be, if it isn’t the pandemic. That’s not to say that we have adopted the correct strategy for dealing with it. Here is a report from a 74-year-old professor in Canada: ‘We live in an Ontario health district, about the size of Connecticut (with 200,000 population), in a small city with a medical school.  ‘Our public health officer in January alerted nursing homes and hospitals to prepare, e.g. get supplies and train staff for higher hygiene standards. Example, auditing handwashing practices in nursing homes. As a result, we have 50 total positive cases, almost all cases traceable to travel. No nursing home outbreaks. No deaths. No ICU care. Two people currently in hospital.’ In the floundering UK, whose position has moved from complacent, through risky to draconian, things seem to have led, not to lying about the facts (which could be very serious for those involved), but to contradictory advice and dismal precautionary planning and preparation.  For example, first we were told that masks didn’t really make a difference, then that they did, and now that we shouldn’t use them because that would leave the NHS short of supplies.  

Good old British ‘muddling through’ has brought us to the brink of absolute disaster more than once in our history, the incompetence perfumed by myth-making and sprinklings of medals. There will be other, quite possibly even worse threats in future. So wouldn’t it be wise to begin to prepare for such eventualities systematically, rather than wave Cobra at them like Sooty’s wand?

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Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk is a former teacher and retired independent financial adviser.

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