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Tuesday, September 22, 2020
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Home COVID-19 Self-isolation is a fatal flaw unless we test, track and treat …...

Self-isolation is a fatal flaw unless we test, track and treat … now

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ON Monday, Boris Johnson appealed for further self-isolation and unity. He even threatened fines on the infected who refuse quarantine. But the Government has not changed the flaw in its prior strategy: It is not testing, tracking, or treating the self-isolated. 

The World Health Organisation and most experts agree, as Professor Anthony Costello of University College London puts it: ‘You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is.’ Undiagnosed and voluntarily self-isolated cases are more likely to spread infection than officially diagnosed and controlled patients.

South Korea, by proactively testing, quarantining, and treating at local level, got its pandemic under control in seven weeks, with a death rate of 0.77 per cent, compared with a global average of 3.4 per cent.

Our government has spent longer than that justifying a separate strategy, which it characterised as ‘contain, delay, research and mitigate’. But containment never happened: Self-isolation was predictably disobeyed and the public was deceived by the reassurance to continue life as normal.

The first cases of Covid-19 in Britain emerged at the end of January (that’s 12 weeks ago). Two Chinese nationals had entered the country without any screening or tracking, and spent some days exposing their neighbourhood in York, until they developed symptoms and reported themselves. 

At the time, the Government was full of reassurances that the infection was unlikely to spread, because the pair were hospitalised. Yet, days later, the Government admitted that it was searching for 239 other persons who had flown in from Wuhan. The date was two weeks after Wuhan itself had banned travel in and out of the city, and after the US and other states had imposed quarantine on arrivals from China.

Even then, the Government did not screen inflows from other Chinese cities. British airlines took the initiative to suspend flights from China, but other airlines expanded their services. Two weeks after the first two cases, nine cases were confirmed within Britain. The date was mid-February.

Even when Italy extended its travel bans nationally (March 9, by when it had the highest casualty rate outside of China), Britain did not change policy. Instead, the Government still advises voluntary self-isolation for two weeks for anyone who judges for themselves that they might have been exposed. Imagine the likelihood of two tourists, arriving on a long-planned vacation, voluntarily self-isolating for two weeks.

Britain’s pandemic is catching up with Italy’s – we’re three weeks away, said the Government’s chief scientific adviser on Monday. Professor Anthony Costello gives us less than two weeks. 

Not surprisingly, the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is most infected, given a large French and Italian population. London’s pandemic is now officially estimated to be running a couple of weeks in advance of the rest of the country. Therefore, given the chief scientific adviser’s estimate, it is just a week behind Italy’s crisis.

Within the last month, Britain’s official count of cases has jumped from nine to 1,543 (as of Monday). Of these, 55 have died, which is a lethality rate of more than 3.5 per cent. You can assume that more have been infected than diagnosed. The Government warns of cases doubling every other day.

Yet the Government continues to rely on the same unreliable voluntary behaviours to control the exponential growth. At the same time, it encourages ever more draconian behaviours. Yet even these are contradictory: Work at home, but keep your kids in school; don’t go to the pub, but coffee shops are fine; don’t go out except to exercise. The elite’s resistance to any criticism of the Government’s inaction is difficult to comprehend.  It should not be letting it hide behind a myth of a ‘science’ all its own. 

Italy proves the consequences of such indecision and contradiction. Eventually the Government is forced to over-compensate with compulsory restrictions on international travel, then inter-city travel, and finally movement outside the home. Such a lockdown ruins the economy and overwhelms the health service. The pandemic expands wider and longer than would have been the case if it had been nipped in the bud.

Just last week the Government said that the crisis would last a few months and that its policy would prevent the worst-case scenario. However, over the weekend a leaker revealed that the Government expects the worst-case scenario: Duration of 12 months, infection rate of 80 per cent, hospitalisation of eight million. Of those eight million, 300,000 would die at a lethality rate of 3.5 per cent. Professor Costello estimates 400,000. Another public health veteran estimates 500,000. 

Nevertheless, the Government has not come clean. On Monday, the chief medical officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty, when asked about the leak, retreated to the euphemism ‘prolonged period’. 

This government’s posture of dispassionate ‘science-led policy’ is collapsing into spin. To change how you think about Covid-19, it is paying half a million pounds to social media ‘influencers’ (lucky them). And that’s just the Department for International Development’s spending on the private H2H Network, which isn’t publicly accountable. Downing Street has a social media ‘truth’ unit of its own.

The Government claims to be countering misinformation, but the effort looks like propaganda and trolling to its critics. For example, the Government’s line that epidemics cannot be stopped has been spun to defend its failure to test outside of hospitalised cases.

Too often, the Government conflates national unity with freedom from criticism. I hope that the Committee on Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport investigates this shadowy social media campaign.

Thankfully, Parliament’s Health Committee has belatedly opened an investigation into the Government’s perverse policy of ‘herd immunity’, which amounts to managed infection rather than containment. The term’s many problems include the fact that coronaviruses tend to re-infect. 

The balance between proaction and reaction is too easy to abuse, and the Government has abused it. If you get proaction right, the risk is less than you warned it could be, and you get criticised for crying wolf. If you neglect proaction, and wait to be reactive, then you should, in turn, be rightly criticised for getting it wrong.

The costs of belated reaction are worse than cautious proaction. Italy has already proved this. Britain is on the same track, although the Government can still mitigate much by moving to test, track, and treat all cases.

The Government should not rely on its residents voluntarily to close down their own economy and society, to save it from treating what it should have prevented. National emergencies demand national proaction, not just private sacrifice.

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Bruce Newsome
Bruce Newsome is a lecturer in international relations at the University of California Berkeley and an expert on global security risks, international conflict and counterterrorism. He is @riskyscientistson Parler.

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