THE mooted near-complete shutdown of London, and possibly the whole country, in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus is ill thought out and more dangerous to the wellbeing of the country than the virus will be. We must stop the panic. Times commentator Matthew Parris was not wrong to argue yesterday that crashing the economy will also cost lives.
Under constant pressure at the daily news conferences to do more, from the siren cries of ‘journalists’ who are better described as professional scaremongers, the government has changed from a half-sensible policy to a potentially disastrous one.
Contrary to the repeated assertion, the new policy is based not on science, but on statistical projections full of assumptions, unknowns and extrapolations that will be wrong. It’s not science. It’s an answer derived from those assumptions fed into a computer program and is being used to give pseudo-support to unjustified measures, spreading fear and panic.
Under this pressure to change course and ‘do more’, politicians start believing that the situation is under their personal control. It isn’t, but the damage they can cause by thrashing around looking busy and turning everybody’s life upside down most certainly is.
It is their job to strike a balance between competing calls. We do not hear of any doctors or nurses calling for caution on lock-downs that would disrupt everything that makes living possible – supplies, jobs, other medical treatments people need, anxiety and all the other aspects of economic and social wellbeing – because they don’t consider those effects.
The doctors are in hospitals with one perspective and one priority. They rightly care about what’s in front of them. In that sense they are a lobby group, and a perfectly valid one. But there are lots of other factors that matter too. It’s not just about the NHS, it’s the overall effect on the whole population. This is not to deny the terrible stress hospitals are under in the absence of basic equipment and beds, but this, quite simply, reflects the shocking failure of government and NHS planning.
The facts around the epidemic are changing all the time but the ones we have so far are worth remembering. The most detailed information is from Italy, with sadly the largest cohort of deaths. Italy has just announced that 99 per cent of the first 3,000 who have died had underlying medical conditions, and 75 per cent had two or more. The average age was 79.5 years. This is the trend we see elsewhere and is confirmed by the UK’s medical authorities.
If you are healthy and under 70, and 91 per cent of the UK population is under 70, there is a high chance you will recover if you become ill from the virus. You will probably have a mild illness but a debilitating four or five days knocked out in bed is probably the worst that will happen, although there are cases of a much worse reaction in younger people. A high number of those who are healthy and older than 70 may well be fine and recover too. We’ll soon know more about that when testing ramps up.
Western health systems have become very good at keeping the frail and elderly alive with new drugs and procedures. But that frailty is a vulnerability when a nasty flu virus comes along, and when it does, as now, we should expect a high death rate, just as we sometimes see with seasonal flu, which is responsible for an average 17,000 deaths per year in the UK.
From the information available to date, we should encourage (or something stronger) those who would get severely ill and are at risk of dying because of serious underlying health conditions to stay as isolated as is realistically possible for the sake of their own lives and to assist with the NHS capacity problem.
For the rest of society, stopping all social activity, working in a workplace and going to sports events is about the same as saying no one should go to work for fear of getting the flu. Until we can test more widely and understand the risks better, and how long it takes for sufferers to gain immunity, it does make sense to advise caution over visits to vulnerable people, who are mostly elderly, though without screening and testing of health and care workers it is hardly foolproof.
The economic collapse that could result from the ‘lock-down’ measures entail would mean less income for workers, families and the government. Unemployment would rocket, with all the implications that entails.
Once leaders start declaring war on things we should be on red alert. Bad decisions and collateral damage, including misery, injury and death, have been common. Just think of the damage caused by the ‘war on terror’ which killed far more people than terrorists ever did or were likely to. It’s the same in this case with the likely economic consequences.
We must not allow scientists to be policy-makers or politicians to think they know ‘the science’ and declare that they are controlled by it in their actions. Real science can tell presidents and prime ministers a little even though that science often changes. That’s the big error. They are putting far too much store by one (and a momentary one) version of ‘the science’.
The government is introducing emergency legislation that looks to be unnecessary and gives unprecedented powers to the police to arrest people and forcibly isolate them. It’s what you do in wartime. But whatever your views on the right course of action, we are not at war.