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Friday, September 25, 2020
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Home COVID-19 Operation Second Wave – the most absurdly costly exercise in history

Operation Second Wave – the most absurdly costly exercise in history

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UK reported coronavirus cases hit a new high since June 12 of 1,522 on Thursday. This needs to be set against a continued downward trend of deaths and hospital admissions, with the seven-day average for deaths falling from 64 on July 24 to 11 on Thursday while just 767 coronavirus patients remained in hospital as of August 25, the lowest number since March 27. 

Nonetheless, the government’s eyes seem transfixed on the raw case numbers and the supposed second wave they portend, with local lockdowns and travel quarantines being imposed apparently entirely on the basis of cases per capita despite any contrary trends in deaths and hospital admissions. How is it nearly September and ministers still haven’t got the message that raw case data gives a totally misleading picture of the epidemic?

Health Secretary Matt Hancock was back spreading the doom at the weekend, apparently playing the bad cop to Boris Johnson’s good cop trying to chivvy everyone back to work. Whether this is the plan is unclear, but it doesn’t add up to clear and consistent messaging that reassures people and businesses.

Hancock told the Times that England could face nationwide restrictions and very extensive local lockdowns in the event of a second wave of coronavirus this winter. He said that a second wave was ‘avoidable but it’s not easy’ and under a ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ (which is what got us into this mess in the first place) Britain could find itself contending with a surge in coronavirus and a bad outbreak of seasonal flu as people spent more time indoors.

‘A second wave is clearly visible in other parts of the world,’ he claimed, though he did not say where. ‘It is a very serious threat. But so far in the UK we are managing to keep the number of new cases flat through a combination of test and trace and local lockdowns. This is the reasonable worst-case scenario, that we have a bad flu and a growth in coronavirus as people spend more time indoors. Cases go up again, and we have to use very extensive local lockdowns or take further national action. We don’t rule that out but we don’t want to see it.’

Leaked SAGE documents show the government is working to a ‘reasonable worst case’ prediction of 81,000 winter Covid-19 deaths – around twice as many as have died with the virus so far. Official figures released on Friday showed the R number standing at between 0.9 and 1.1, where a figure greater than 1 represents a growing epidemic – though this is pretty much where it’s sat since April.

It is for fear of this ever-looming second wave that the health secretary said social distancing measures will remain for the ‘foreseeable’ future and that only a vaccine will allow grandparents to hug their grandchildren again. Hancock anticipates a vaccine being ready ‘some time next year’, and in the meantime social distancing, test and trace and local lockdowns will continue. He hopes these measures combined with a massive flu vaccination programme will ensure the NHS can cope.

It is incredible that the health secretary is still talking in terms of ensuring the NHS can cope, given that it was never close to overload in the spring, particularly once the Nightingale hospitals were available, and right now surgeons are describing their deserted hospitals as ‘like the Mary Celeste’. This is surely the most absurdly costly exercise in ensuring a health system can ‘cope’ in history, and totally unnecessary now that the emergency capacity is ready to roll.

So where is the supposedly ‘clearly visible’ second wave? Is it the ‘second wave’ in the southern United States, that is now over and barely made a ripple, and anyway was really a first wave? That’s been quickly forgotten. Now it’s all about France and Spain, where cases are ‘surging’ (mostly due to increased testing), and there is even some rise in hospital admissions and deaths. When this too levels off with little to show for itself, will the government accept the second wave is a myth and let us go back to normal? More likely they will keep casting around for other reasons to remain afraid and hunkered down, irrationally prioritising this one risk above all else. All the while the economy is tanking and people are dying for want of medical treatment, and the UN is predicting that hundreds of millions will starve as a result of lockdown measures globally. 

I’m keeping an eye on hospital admissions in Spain to see where it goes. The Spanish Ministry of Health began reporting daily admissions to hospitals again last week and this is what the picture looks like since then:

Source: https://www.mscbs.gob.es/profesionales/saludPublica/ccayes/alertasActual/nCov/situacionActual.htm. Note: there are no reports on weekends so the Monday figure has been divided equally between the three days to aid daily comparison.

Admittedly it is only a short period, but the daily rate of increase visibly declined last week, suggesting this ‘wave’ may already be coming to an end. I’ll keep you updated.

The conceit, repeated by Matt Hancock, is that it is government intervention that is ‘controlling’ this virus. Yet there is no second wave in Sweden where there was no lockdown, and the Brazilian city of Manaus has shown once more how a coronavirus epidemic can go into spontaneous decline once around 20 per cent of the population develops antibodies, this time with no lockdown or social distancing to speak of. Immunologists are trying to make their voices heard above the clamour and fear, pointing out that they are not surprised to find people being reinfected as this is standard for coronaviruses but it certainly doesn’t rule out herd immunity. 

A lockdown that was brought in without precedent or planning for three weeks to ‘squash the sombrero’ and relieve peak pressure on the NHS is still going on five months later. We face a future of continued social distancing and unpredictable new restrictions that are socially debilitating and economically disastrous. Even the much-vaunted vaccine is very unlikely to do more than mitigate the impact of the illness, making it a likely false dawn for those waiting around for it. 

Yet the World Health Organisation continues to call on governments to ‘do it all’ to ‘suppress, suppress, suppress’ the virus, holding up New Zealand as an ‘exemplar’. Britain, like Sweden, must reject this preposterous and nihilistic narrative. It is not possible to suppress this virus, as New Zealand is now discovering, but only to mitigate its impact while developing collective immunity and, ideally, returning to normal as quickly as possible. The measures introduced for this mitigation must be balanced against other risks and the high importance of normal, healthy living. Right now, the government does not even seem to be attempting a sensible cost-benefit analysis of its approach, working instead on the basis of a ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ derived from discredited models. This is no way to run a country, nor a world.

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Will Jones
Will Jones
Dr Will Jones is a maths graduate with a PhD in political philosophy and author of Evangelical Social Theology: Past and Present (Grove, 2017).He blogs at https://faith-and-politics.com/

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