Getting closer to it – but still no real strategy in the UK covid-19 pandemic

More on covid pandemic 2020

Getting closer to it – but still no real strategy in the UK covid-19 pandemic

A review of what has been said in the last few days about the coronavirus pandemic in the UK.

Testing

When testing should have take place

In March the World Health Organisation (WHO) was saying ‘test, test, test’. But on 12th March the UK stopped testing in the community and focussed the limited testing capacity on hospital patients.

Boris Johnson’s government failed to impose mass coronavirus testing after being told that COVID-19 was only a ‘moderate’ risk to the UK (1st April).

Senior advisers admit lack of investment in mass testing ‘may have been a mistake’ as they believed influenza was a bigger threat (2nd April).

At the House of Commons Health Select Committee meeting on 5th May, Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government, said he ‘would have liked testing ramped-up sooner’. [Ramped-up is one of the a new words we have come to recognise.]

Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, at the same meeting, said the changes to the policy in early March was because of ‘ insufficient capacity’.

Mass testing earlier ‘would have been beneficial’ (5th May).

How often should care workers be tested?

Sam Monaghan, manager of a group of care homes, arguing for weekly tests on care home staff and resident, on 2nd May;

‘A member of the resident group was diagnosed with the virus and we know that the highest probability how that came into the home was through one of our members of staff. The difficulty is that none of the staff are showing any symptoms at all so it’s a bit like ‘Where’s Wally’ – but Wally’s taken his jumper off and so the manger’s looking across her staff group asking where has this thing come from?’

The numbers game and the current situation

Stephen Powis, NHS England National Director, 4th May;

‘Testing .. has ramped-up very quickly over the last week or so and we are now at a very high level of testing with over 100,00, a little bit of a dip at the weekend but we anticipate that that testing ability will continue to increase.’

On 6th May the Buffoon was saying the aim now was to get testing up to 200,000 per day by the end of May. But it’s probably as useful in defeating the virusas Hancock’s promise of 100,000 by the end of April – which, for some miraculous reason, has only been achieved on 30th April, numbers dropping into 70-80,000 since. But all the classic questions, Who, What, Where, When, Why, remain.

Who will be tested, just those who show symptoms or a wider, random, cross section of the population?

What will the tests be looking for, just if people are infected or as part of an overall strategy of tracking and tracing?

Where will the tests take place, taking the tests to the people or the people to the tests?

When will the testing be part of a strategy?

Why is nothing forward – not even the numbers. 200,000 by the end of May is too low and too long a period for such a minimal increase in testing in relation to the population in general?

A different type of testing

Professor John Newton, the Government’s testing co-ordinator, on 4th May;

‘There are at least two large commercial organisation who have good lab based tests we are currently evaluating. But also people are looking at ways of doing anti-body tests close to the person, the patient. There are a number of options there including a saliva test. And all of the options are looking quite promising and being evaluated.’

Where is testing going – and when?

Jeremy Hunt, Chair, House of Commons Health Select Committee, on Radio 4, World at One, 5th May

‘Everyone accepts that Germany and South Korea have really done a pretty good job. Korea didn’t report more than 9 deaths on any day during the whole course of the coronavirus crisis and are now saying that are getting no new domestic infections. I think the important thing for us is; have we learnt from what is happening in Korea and do we have the Korean strategy in place? I think what we heard this morning from Sir Patrick Vallance and Dr Harries is that that now really is our strategy and that’s the most important thing.’

[Best practice was known about weeks ago. Why, in Britain, is this still going to happen at some indeterminate time in the future?]

Q. To mimic South Korean strategy?

‘Yes, I mean they are are the ones who did this test, track and trace process, very tech centred, very innovative use of apps, backed up with contact tracing on the ground. And remember they had a worse challenge that we had, they’re closer to China, they had less notice than we had, they had a super-spreader who was part of a religious cult. So they had a real challenge to deal with but they did manage to contain the virus. This is what we are now planning to do starting with the Isle of Wight.’

[South Korea and China are amongst those countries that have embraced technology in a big way, much more than in Britain. Many people don’t have Smartphones, many of the Smartphones don’t have Bluetooth and in those countries where technology was used in this way it was followed by extensive testing on a one to one basis. No plans for that have been presented here in the UK.]

Q. Are we past the peak?

‘That’s what the government is saying and I’m sure that’s what their scientific advice is saying. And there’s a lot of gloom about the death figures and to have 11.500 more deaths than you would expect in one week in April is pretty depressing. But the very last question in the Select Committee Hearing to Sir Patrick Vallance, I thought, was, in a way, the most encouraging because I said to him that if we do the test, track and trace, if we observe the social distancing rules, on balance, do you think we can avoid a second wave, and that’s the thing all over the world people are worrying about, and he basically said, Yes. He was an optimist, he said he thought we could. So I think that they are confident we’re not just past the peak but if we implement all the policies that are now in train, we could avoid a second peak.’

Q. When do we get to the point of being able to ease the lock down? When can that system take over?

‘Well, I think we’re going to hear about that on Sunday. And we tried to shed some light on that today. What it appears is that the absolute rule is that the R, the reproductive – rate mustn’t go above 1. They still think we are between 0.6 and 0.9. But within that there’s a lot of variation. So Sir Patrick Vallance was saying that in the community the R rate is probably a lot lower, towards the lower end of the scale, but in hospitals and care homes it is still running higher. So that’s where the risk is that you can perhaps get community transmission down, because people are staying at home, but you have a re-introduction of the virus through an outbreak in care homes, for example. So that’s why I think it’s a very finely balanced judgement.’

Q. That’s where the app may become critical and as well as that human contract tracers will be important. As far as the app is concerned will you be downloading it?

‘Absolutely. I think all of us who have Smartphones should, when we’re asked to do so and I think it can play a very, very important role. But I don’t think they work for everyone. I think 40% of the population don’t have a Smartphone so there will need to be more traditional methods of contact tracing with them. But I do think it has a very important role to play.’

[The British Government recognises that technology will not solve all the problems but doesn’t have an infrastructure in place to deal with those shortcomings.]

Q. Have we been too slow? The SAGE documents were released this morning, under pressure, and the Government is becoming more transparent, except a lot of those documents have been redacted, some to the point of being useless. Were you surprised by the extent to which they had been redacted?

‘Well, there’s a tradition, obviously I was in the cabinet for nine years, and advice to ministers is kept confidential and that is very, very important because you need advice to be completely frank and people giving the advice need to be able to say exactly that they want to say without having an eye over the shoulder to what happens if the advice gets published. But there is something different when you have a crisis like a pandemic and the Governments says that at every stage ‘we are following the scientific advice’.

If they say ‘we’re following the scientific advice’ but they don’t publish the scientific advice then it’s very difficult for MP’s to hold them to account. That was one of the things I asked Sir Patrick Vallance about and I asked Matt Hancock to day in Health Questions, to whether he would consider publishing the SAGE advice that he’s receiving at the same time as he makes his decisions, so that we all have access to the scientific advice that the Government says it’s following.’

[But when will this ‘transparency’ show itself?]

Q. So it’s too slow and it’s too late?

‘Transparency is very important because that ‘s the way you keep the trust of the public. Also, it’s important because there is a lot of uncertainty in these recommendations because it’s a novel virus and I think it helps if the public understand that some recommendations are clear cut but other’s are finely balanced and it’s helpful for us to understand that as well.’

Experts and transparency

Some members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), are arguing for more transparency.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, formerly Director of the Welcome Trust and a member of SAGE, on 4th May;

‘Personally I would make the minutes transparently available after a certain time. I think transparency helps people to understand the uncertainty, the difficulty, the fact that actually science does have to change as the facts change. That is certainly sensible and logical. What we know today is very different to what we knew in February and March.’

Breaking the lock down

On news that Neil Ferguson, the senior advisor to the Government had broken the lock down by having his married lover coming around to his house – apart from the issue of breaking the lock down he obviously had no idea of the gutter press in this country who will be looking for any opportunity to undermine anyone if it helps to sell the paper – or get the name of the paper broadcast on other news media (it’s all about advertising).

Jo Hemmings, Behavioural Psychologist, 6th May;

‘What people are now doing, perfectly understandably, is creating their own version of what they believe to be acceptable. You also have people that were behaving in a pretty sensible way for a while, say when we weren’t going out having obvious public group gatherings. Now the situation is so muddled about what is going on a lot of people have been doing for the last few weeks, and will continue to do is ‘the it’s just me thing’.’

Danger of a second wave

On the chances of a ‘second wave’, Robert West, Health Psychologist at University College London, on 3rd May;

‘With the figure that we have at the moment it looks like, probably, around somewhere between 5% and 10% of the population have been infected. That leaves between 90% and 95% who have still not been infected. So the death rate we’ve got at the moment is with that 5% figure, so we have to be very, very cautious and very careful about how we view the lock down.’

Maria Van Kerkhove, World Health Organisation (WHO), on a second wave, on 4th May;

‘What we’re seeing in countries like Singapore is almost like a second wave. Essentially what it is actually outbreaks that are happening in shared dormitories. So the virus has found a place where it can take hold and can resurge again. So all countries must remain on alert for the possibility of additional transmissions.’

The app that will solve all our problems – or not?

There are a number of issues with the Smartphone app – produced by NHSX (together with an unspecified private company) – that will be tested on the Isle of Wight from 5th May;

the test itself,

  • the Isle of Wight has fewer Smartphones than is the avaerage in the UK (older population)
  • there has been a low incidence of infection to date
  • the island is still on lock down so people won’t be going out of their homes much
  • how effective will the test be?
  • even if the results are ‘positive’ the app won’t be used throughout the UK until towards the end of March

the aspects of the app,

  • still not sure if it will work if the app is not showing on the screen
  • there’s the possibility of the app running the battery down
  • still many people have questions and doubts of the reassurances about privacy

This is on top of the issues discussed in a previous post.

Dame Wendy Hall, Southampton University, Government advisor on technology, on 3rd May;

‘It won’t be storing huge amounts of data about us in central servers, that’s not the case. Almost all of it stays on the phone, it’s all encrypted and what they store is anonymous. There’s no absolute right answer to this but I’m pretty convinced the way the UK is going, for the moment, is the right thing to do.’

Professor Susan Michie, Director of the Centre of Behavioural Change at the University College London who is also on the government’s Behavioural Science Committee for Covid-19, on 5th May;

‘I’m slightly concerned that there hasn’t been enough consultation with the public and a lot of concerns have been raised by the public about the governance of it, the security and privacy of it, the private company that’s owning it and so whether or not the public will take the app in the number that’s needed is a question mark. I do hope the Government quickly gets the trust that’s absolutely needed.’

Robert Hannigan, former National Security Advisor and Director at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the Radio 4 World at One, 5th May;

‘It’s very good that they have said so much about it, there has been a great deal of technical policy detail published by NHSX [the NHS digital section] in the last week about how they’re doing this and I think that’s a very sensible approach and it’s reassuring to anyone who’s concerned about the technical aspects and the privacy aspects. I think they’re doing really well. This is attempting something which has never really been tried before, to use the Bluetooth technology, on this scale right across the country. It’s unprecedented so fair play to them for moving at such speed and trying to get it up and running. I’m sure there will be lots of things that go wrong and they will be putting right but that’s always true with new technology.’

Q. Is it the right decision to go down their own centralised route and not the Apple/Google decentralised route is correct?

‘It’s a balance but I think the downside of the Apple/Google localised route is that it leaves Public Health England and the NHS with no information about the overall spread of the virus and where it is spreading and all things they need to make really important decisions about public health and about how we may be released from the lock down, which is, after all, the major point in this.

The privacy aspect, I don’t think there’s a huge difference. I think given the steps that the NHS have taken to protect privacy and the involvement of the Information Commissioner in all of this it’s sufficiently anonymous not to be a threat to individuals. All the app records is the first part of a postcode and the make of the phone and, of course, this is co-operating with Apple and Google in a sense that it’s using those two operating systems, albeit not with the model they preferred. But having said all that, of course, there will be a good debate about privacy. My own feeling is that this should be time limited, so at the end of the pandemic we need to pause this experiment and have a proper public debate and parliamentary debate about the use of these apps in the future.’

Q. Are you reassured on the security of the data?

‘Yes, obviously the question of a centralise model, for which we are going down, is that the data has to be kept in one place and then it’s a question of who has access to it and for what reason. They have been very clear that it will only be public health authorities or public health reasons, that it will not be linked to other data about people in their health system. There is a question about how this data is kept and when it is destroyed. It will be useful to academics in the future to tackle future pandemics so we shouldn’t suddenly chuck it out, but equally I think we should bring this experiment to a clear close at the end of the pandemic and review it and have a proper debate about it. The key is that it should not be made available to the private sector, to companies to advertise and everybody agrees that this must be severely limited to public health experts and local authorities.’

Q. Do you think that in the way it has been set up it will be impossible for external users to get to this date?

‘Yes I do because I’ve read a lot of detail about how they’re been doing it in the last few days. You can always construct some edge case for how somebody could subvert this and that’s true of any system you build but frankly the conspiracy theories that I’ve seen put out there are pretty far fetched and would require so much effort and would be almost impossible to scale up.’

Q. You will be very happily downloading it?

‘I will and I think it’s important that it shouldn’t be compulsory to downloaded but it is going to help all of us stop the spread of this virus which is affecting all of our families and help all of us to get out of the lock down. So it’s in our interests to download this. It will not keep any personal data about you and I’m satisfied that the very limited data it does have will be properly protected.’

Q. You say is shouldn’t be compulsory but you sound if it’s everyone’s duty to download this app?

‘It’s in everyone’s interest and so far everybody I know, who I meet, wants to stop the spread of this virus, wants to protect the NHS and wants to get out of lock down as quickly as possible and are really desperate for that. And this is a really helpful way of doing it. It isn’t a major solution, it’s only part of a system that really depends on testing and proper tracing. It won’t be perfect, there will be problems, there will be false positives but it’s definitely worth a try.’

If someone who is (or was) a part of the British intelligence ‘community’ likes the idea then that alone is reason to be suspicious. And why is there a former (and not a present) Director giving this interview. That’s a way for the State to distance itself from any comeback.

Contact tracing and the lock down

David Nabarro, World Health Organisation (WHO) Special Envoy for Covid-19, on getting contact tracing up and running, 1st May;

‘This is something that every government is having to make a choice and I understand that the contact tracing process is now well advanced. You don’t need to have 100% tracing in order to get the R number down. You certainly can release the lock down while you’re building up the case finding and contact tracing capacity. That’s what most other countries are doing. They don’t wait until things are absolutely ready.’

Professor Susan Michie, Director of the Centere of Behavioural Change at the University College London who is also on the government’s Behavioural Science Committee for Covid-19, on 3rd May;

‘The Government message has become a lot more complicated, partly because this will need to be a different message for different people. Some people will be asked to go back to work when they are not happy doing that, concerned that there won’t be enough social distancing, giving risks of bringing back infections to the household whilst others, who are wanting to get out of their houses, won’t be able to.’

Chances of dying from the covid-19

David Spiegelhalter, Professor of Statistics at Cambridge University, on Radio 4, the Today Programme, 1st May;

‘If you’ve got the virus your chance of dying is roughly about the same as you would have had this year anyway. And if you’re worried about dying this year you shouldn’t be so worried at getting the virus. But I think we do need to have some sort of campaign to encourage people who are at very low risk to actually get out and start living again, when we’re able to.’

Ending the lock down

Robert West, Professor of Health Psychology, University College London, on how we should get to the easing of the lock down on Radio 4, World at One, 1st May;

‘It’s going to be a very odd moment and people will react to it very differently. Some people will say, ‘well actually I don’t really want to because I feel frightened and others will be champing at the bit and perhaps take it too far. I think it’s really important to say that it won’t be juts an all or nothing, it will be a very graded thing and this is going to present some quite significant challenges, in the sense of how you communicate that.’

Q. What sort of challenges does the nuance present?

‘It’s hard enough to get the message across when you are saying thinks that are black and white like ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, Save lives’. Even there you get exceptions with people saying, ‘well, actually, I realise one should do that but in my case it differs’. When you make a more nuanced message which is that you can go out more, there are certain things you can now do that you weren’t able to to do before you can imagine the problems that you’ve got with people interpreting that is all sorts of different ways. Ad that means that the politicians who are giving the messages are going to have to chose their wording very carefully because a single throwaway remark could be misinterpreted and cause all sorts of critical problems.’

Q. How do you solve that because you have to come down on one side or the other?

‘Yes, the way you handle it is that you, whatever message you put across, you make it very clear who it applies to, what the situations are and give specifics about the situations you are referring to and, as always, you give very clear reasons as to why that is the case and a very important part of that is that if you’ve got an easing of the lock down which applies to some group in society more than it does to others you can imagine that it’s going to start to create problems with a resentment in some cases and people saying, ‘well, why should they be allowed to do this and I can’t’.

Q. The Government says even talking about that is dangerous, do they have a point?

‘They have no choice. They have to talk about it because what people can very clearly see is movement in other countries and that when this Government is already saying, ‘well, we have turned the corner on this one’, they can’t just pretend that it’s business as usual. So they have no choice. They have to talk about it. So then we come to how do you talk about it. The key thing is to help people to realise that this is a very risky time, tight now. This is probably as risky as it has been on any part of this crisis. If we get this wrong then we will be back where we started, possibly even worse. So people have to know that whatever the easing of restrictions, they don’t go beyond it.’

More on covid pandemic 2020

Britain and the Pandemic – May Day weekend 2020

To wear a mask - or not

To wear a mask – or not

More on covid pandemic 2020

Britain and the Pandemic – May Day weekend 2020

Over this weekend workers worldwide should have been demonstrating and marching for May Day – the Workers’ Day. In the recent past in Britain these demonstrations have been embarrassingly small – if indeed they take place at all.

As this pandemic drags on there is more news of workers being abused in the situation of the lock down as well as major companies announcing job losses (more on that in a later post). This means that it is likely that many thousands of people will be told that they have no job to go back to whilst they are either being laid off or on ‘furlough’.

British Trade Unions have forgotten that what makes the working class different from other classes is their solidarity which enables them to face the attacks of the capitalists. It is almost certain that when the ‘new normal’ is established there will be a need for workers to take to the streets to retain or regain their jobs – and this will be in all sectors and will effect all age groups.

When we do go on the streets we should not be demanding a return to the previous period of exploitation but a change in the very structure of society. After all, billions of pounds is already being spent to prop up private businesses – both big and small. Capitalism has been fighting against state intervention since its inception – unless it means bailing them out of their self made crises, as in 2008.

If we are paying for these companies to remain in existence then it shows that capitalism has failed under its own ‘rules’. If we are paying to keep them alive then they belong to us. We should not give them back.

Although a day late Happy May Day to all! (although, of course, not to the Buffoon and his mates)

Testing

Chris Smith, a virologist at Cambridge University, said on BBC Radio 5 Live, on 17th April, when addressing the need of getting Britain moving again;

‘We need to have a strategy to getting out of lock down and part of that strategy is almost certainly going to be testing. And testing to find out who has got the virus right now but also tests to find out who has had the virus, who is immune from the virus, which bits of the country are more vulnerable to getting resurgences and which are not. And until that testing is rock solid and in place I think it’s a slightly risky then to say ‘well, let’s just take our foot off the pedal.’

Britain woke up surprised and shocked, on Thursday 30th April, to the news that the Government’s target of 100,000 coronavirus tests by the end of the month would not be achieved.

And then they were equally surprised and shocked to wake up on 1st May to hear that the Government would reach, or at least get close, to their self chosen target.

They did – or didn’t, depending upon who you belive. It all revolves around around 40,000 tests they were posted out. No doubt this will be kicked asround over the weekend of the 1st – 4th May.

The fact that this is just a numbers game will, no doubt, be forgotten in the celebrations and the noise of champagne corks popping.

Here’s part of Matt Hancock’s presentation of the ‘goal’;

‘At the beginning of last month, at this podium, I set a goal that anyone who needs to be tested should get a test and that, as a nation, we would achieve 100,000 tests per day by the end of the month. I knew that it was an audacious goal but we needed an audacious goal because testing is so important for getting Britain back on its feet.

I can announce that we have met our goal. The number of tests, yesterday, on the last day of April, was 122,347. This unprecedented expansion in British testing capability is an incredible achievement but it is not my achievement, it is a national achievement. Achieved by a huge team of people working together and I tell you this the testing capacity that we’ve built, together, will help every single person in this country.

Testing is crucial to suppress the virus. I know from personal experience, too, just how much people with symptoms want to know if they’ve got the disease. I know that I did. It helps remove the worry, it helps keep people safe and it will help us unlock the lock down. So many people have tragically died and the challenge that we still face is vast but we’re making real progress.’

At the daily press conference at 17.00, 1st May.

But that target bears nothing to the, as usual, even bigger claim by Donald Trump when it came to the USA. At a news conference on Tuesday (28th April) he claimed the US would reach 5 million daily virus tests ‘very soon’ – he’s never specific. The figure comes from some scientists who said that number of daily tests by the end of June would be needed to re-open the economy safely. Presently there are about 200,000 tests being carried out daily.

‘We need army of volunteers to track down virus’

Prof Devi Sridhar, chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University, added her voice to the call for a much wider testing programme associated with tracking and tracing which would require thousands of amateur detectives. Quite rightly she said there would be no shortage of volunteers to do this and also cast doubt upon the cheaper but less effective option of using a Smartphone app to do this. (Since the government said it wasn’t going to use the Apple/Google app this issue – like so many others in the past two months – has gone somewhat quiet.)

CYA

In the very first post in this series I mentioned the reason the Tory politicians always had an ‘expert’ at their side when making statements at the regular press conferences was so they always had someone who could be made a scapegoat in the event of everything hitting the fan.

Those experts have obviously become aware of the situation (very naïve of them if they didn’t understand that from day one – but better late than never) as can be seen in the followiung statement by Stephen Powis, Medical Director, NHS England, on the 26th April;

‘I think it’s highly likely there will be a different combination of measures, some of which are in place at the moment but others that have heard about, such as more sophisticated track and tracing. It’s the role of the scientists to look at that and to provide advice but, of course, it’s the role of Government, quite rightly, to look at these and decide which particular combination is the appropriate combination to take forward.‘ [My emphasis]

Many people have been saying what needs to happen about testing, tracking and tracing (including on this blog) but the Government is just playing the numbers game. Powis is basically saying; ‘don’t blame us [experts and scientists] if the Buffoon doesn’t act on tracking and tracing as the way to go forward.’

The poor always pay the most – surprise, surprise!

More poor than wealthy in Britain die

It always bemuses me when reports that the poor have suffered more than the rich, in such circumstances as the present pandemic, is presented as something which comes as a surprise. You don’t need to be an ‘expert’ to understand that poverty is the cause of the overwhelming amount of suffering, disease and death in the world. Why should it be any different even in a ‘properous’ country such as Britain?

On 1st May it was reported by the Office for National Statistics that those from the poorer areas of England (and it was also the case in Wales and almost certainly the same in Scotland – if not more so) were twice as likely to die from the covid-19 pandemic as those in more prosperous areas – 55 per 100,000 as opposed to 25 per 100,000.

The reasons for the higher death rate?

Professor Danny Dorling, Oxford University, 1st May;

‘People are much more crowded in the poorer parts of our cities and often in worse health overall. This has been the case for years and years but now some of the worse health inequalities in the whole of Europe. The virus moving through the country is revealing some of our weaknesses and some of our inequalities.’

Helen Barnard, Acting Director Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1st May;

‘If you are on a low income a lot of the time you’ve got constant anxiety, the stress of trying to make ends meet when you just don’t have enough money to cover the basics. You’ve often got people who are going out to low paid , insecure, hard jobs which is putting a lot of pressure on their health. And people are more likely to be living in homes that are overcrowded, damp, that aren’t healthy. So all of those things come together and mean that people are a lot more likely to have underlying health conditions.’

Will we continue to permit the existence of a system which allows such a situation?

‘Collateral damage’ in the poor southern hemisphere countries

As a result of the basic close down of the industrial societies over the last few weeks there are fewer supplies of drugs getting to the poorer parts of the souther hemisphere. Diseases which are easily controllable with vaccines, such as measles and polio – which have all but been eliminated in the northern hemisphere – are still a major problem in many poorer countries but international programmes by the likes of UNICEF have been having success in recent years.

In the past much of these consignments have arrived on commercial airlines but as international travel of any kind has ground to a halt these vaccines are no longer arriving to the places where they are needed.

Richer countries have long been myopic when it comes to problems in other parts of the world – or even other parts of the same country. There are north-south divides within countries, London-centrism, Euro-centrism, and decisions are often made without taking into account the collateral damage that might occur in other places ‘where we are not’.

The inability of capitalist governments to get to grips with the pandemic and resolve matters so that society can get back to functioning in a reasonable manner is necessary not just for those particular countries but for the populations in those countries that have been made poor at the expense of the imperialist nations of the past and the present.

Without the vaccines untold thousand, mainly children, will die.

Rough sleepers

It was reported on 29th April that 90% of rough sleepers were now off the streets, some of them in 4 star hotels which would have refused them entry little over a couple months ago. The report didn’t mention actual numbers but it will be interesting to see what happens when the hotels are permitted to have paying customers and the ‘rough sleepers’ are ‘asked’ to leave.

Care homes

On 29th April Dominic Raab suggested that the biggest threat to care homes was the amount of staff who are constantly going in and out of the buildings and they could be bringing the virus into the environment with them.

Another attempt of the Government to place the blame on anyone but themselves. For years they have been following policies which make the situation in care homes almost unsustainable but the past is forgotten in their ‘blame culture’ and don’t accept the fact that the whole service had been on the brink of collapse long before the pandemic outbreak is just conveniently forgotten.

This statement coincided with a report from Scotland which said that 39% of all deaths in the country were in care homes.

Education

Provision of laptops

On 29th April it was announced by the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, that 200,000 laptops are to be provided for ‘disadvantaged’ children, who might be even more effected by the closure of schools as they don’t have the facilities to study – even if they want to. Two issues here; they won’t be available until the end of May and, more importantly, why are do we still think it is acceptable that there should be any ‘disadvantaged’ children at all in such a rich country?

Vouchers for school meals

Yet another national disgrace is the fact there are close on 3 million school children who get free school meals – when at school. Even before the decision to close all schools was taken certain charities recognised that there would be a problem if some children were not going to school. When the decision to close schools was made there was a recognition of this need but it took a long time to get it up and running on a mass scale – and there are still a number of problems to date.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Tory Government decided to give this very lucrative contract to a private company. What might be a surprise to the naïve (but not to those who accept that hypocrisy is embedded in the Tory psyche) as this present government is so anti-Europe that the company chosen is a French owned one, Edenred, which has it’s headquarters in Issy-les-Moulineaux, just outside Paris.

As the Tories believe that the poor will always spend any money they get on booze, tobacco and drugs before feeding their children it was decided that in place of cash the substitute for the free school meals would be in the form of vouchers that could be used in part payment in various supermarkets and other smaller chain stores. The vouchers are worth £15 per child per week.

There have been a number of problems with this scheme:

  • it’s a completely new concept and people, teachers and parents are floundering to get to grips with the system
  • so many people are having to go on the system regularly that the site crashes (described by one frustrated parent as like playing ‘ a really bad fruit machine’.)
  • the infrastructure of the stores that can take the vouchers has still not been fully established
  • it’s a stress that has to be repeated periodically (every week, fortnight or month)
  • government guidelines were poor (e.g., about multiple submissions)
  • the site was never designed for such mass applications

On 29th April Vicky Ford (an ex-investment banker), Minister for Children, in an interview on Radio 4’s You and Yours, was boasting that £35 million was paid out in one week, which covered 2 million children. We will never advance as a society if we allow people who think that throwing crumbs at poor workers is all that is needed to make the problem go away.

Face masks

Former Chief Scientist at the Department of Health, Dr David Harper, also former special advisor to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

He stated that the Government is giving confused and confusing messages about face covering;

‘I still think there are a lot of things we don’t know about covid-19 and the virus that causes it, bearing in mind people might be infectious and not showing symptoms and might not be able to adopt or maintain the physical distancing measures that are the front line protection. In those cases where somebody might need to be in an enclosed space, for example, using public transport to get to work because that are an essential worker, then, I personally, would ask the question; why not wear a simple face covering as a way of possibly reducing the risks to others?’

Should the Government clearly state that if you are going out and travelling then use some form of face covering?

‘It seems to make absolute sense to me to take all the precautions that might help reduce the risk. And it is about risk reduction.’

What about clarity about what happens in the weeks ahead?

I think that it would be helpful [for clarity]. I have no doubt at all that the Government have plans already developed but, of course, the people – they are grown ups, they want to hear more and more about what the Government is planning. And if the messaging is right and people are taken along with the planning process why wouldn’t Government be telling the public what they have in mind to prepare themselves for the sort of situations we are discussing now. To get that messaging right about face covering and so on and if that is going to be implemented at a later stage then why not address it now and particularly to avoid the potential, and real, confusion when parts of the UK is saying one thing and parts of the UK is saying something apparently different.’

The Government says that risks confusing the main message?

‘There’s a real risk that the message could be confused because it feels as if the messaging is confused as we sit here discussing the risks today.’

Are the government treating us like children?

‘I think that is a risk. I think the government have a strategy, that’s what they’re sticking with and they will adjust this strategy according to the changing situation. But at the moment that feels, from what people are saying just in social conversation, that there is this feeling that Government is not sharing as much as they possibly could to help the public understand better what it is that’s being done and maybe to get some reassurance and to increase that trust in what the Government is saying.’

Is the Government hiding behind the science?

‘I don’t think they are hiding behind the science. I think the scientists in this country are amongst the best in the world and the scientific processes should be set up to facilitate that input of the scientific advice. But, of course, the risk assessment, the science, the evidence base, is one part of the whole picture and what ministers, as the risk managers, are doing is take account of the science but putting it into the context of the politics, the finances, the social pressures and so on and so forth. So it’s a very complex process. I don’t think government would be hiding behind science. I think that would be a very bad thing to do.’

Why, therefore, are they not coming up with a plan?

‘It seems as though it is very much along the lines that you alluded to earlier, that the Government don’t want to distract from those key messages at the moment, which are absolutely critical; the staying at home, the physical distancing. And I think it feels as though the Government are saying; there will be time to get these other messages out in the right way but at the moment the focus is absolutely, critically, on the first line protection.’

World at One, Radio 4, 13.00, 30th April 2020.

This confusion in Government was demonstrated only a matter of hours after this interview – so Harper’s contribution didn’t have much effect upon those in Downing Street. A radio news report on 1st May reported that there’s evidence that face covering would have a weak but positive effect on reducing coronavirus transmission. On the 30th April the Buffoon had said face masks could be useful in helping people feel safe as the lock down is eased, i.e., it doesn’t really do any good but is a psychological crutch for the frightened. But still no real guidance from the government.

If there’s no consensus on what should be the policy on face masks in the UK this is repeated in Europe. As part of its relaxing of lock down in Germany anyone who enters certain shops are required to be wearing a ‘face covering’ – it seems there’s a fear that stating ‘face masks’ might cause a run on surgical masks and therefore putting pressure on health services requirements as well as creating a black market for them.

Travelling under the Channel

On 2nd May Eurostar put the following on its website;

‘From 4 May, passengers must wear a face mask or face covering at our stations and on board in line with guidelines announced by the French and Belgian governments.

Please ensure you have a mask with you when you travel. Any type of mask is suitable as long as it effectively covers your nose and mouth.

If you don’t have a mask you may be refused travel on our services. We’d like to advise you that fines may be imposed in France and Belgium if you’re not wearing a mask.’

There’s a creeping expansion of face masks use although the science still hasn’t come to a consensus about how effective they are – with some arguing there are more negatives than positives.

The Tories are afraid to make a decision on this as they know there will be a certain amount of opposition from a sizeable portion of the population and don’t want to take the flack – they would rather it creeps in with certain private organisations and businesses (e.g., Eurostar) making their own rules. That way the Tories can put their hands up and say; ‘don’t blame us’. In fact it’s their weakness that’s on display.

Spain

On 2nd May it became mandatory for all those travelling on public transport to wear masks. To make this easier for people a total of 13 million masks would be made available for free. One of the other reasons the Buffoon won’t say that it is mandatory in Britain is that they couldn’t be able to do similar. There’s still complaints about those in the NHS and care homes finding it difficult to source PPE – so there’s no chance they will be handed out for free in this country.

What’s important in society

Over the last couple of months there have been many fine words spoken about how the pandemic will change how people see the world. We can only hope that is true – we have allowed ‘our world’ (whether it be in Britain or the planet) to go to crap.

A couple of questions I have about when ‘the world’ returns to some sort of normality is how will we really think of those who are of value to society. The Thursday evening (20.00) ‘Clap for Carers’ – and other key workers – is all well and good but will we, as a society, be making sure that these workers are given the respect and recompense they deserve?

The British people have allowed their public services to be attacked and deprived of resources for decades, with the majority of them doing absolutely nothing to fight against it. On the contrary, there are millions within the British population who have been continually supporting the political parties who have been instituting such cuts in finance. The same people, and others, also seem to think that; a modern society functions better with an ever increasing number of people on short-term or zero-hours contracts; food banks in every town is considered a ‘success’; and that it is OK for the poor, in general, to get poorer and for more and more of the wealth of the country to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Their crassness in following, admiring, emulating and aspiring to be a ‘celebrity’ also adds to this distorted view of society and the shift away from what is, or at least should be, important in 21st century Britain. People who contribute nothing to the development of a society are lauded and consequently rewarded with huge amounts of money (various sports-people, ‘social influencers’, financial wheeler-dealers, etc.,) whilst those who produce and keep society functioning are looked down upon and virtually despised.

Will that change when the new ‘normality’ arrives?

Indications on some social habits don’t bode to well. The most important activity for the Danish when restrictions were relaxed there in the middle of April was a rush to the barbers and hairdressers.

In Britain, at least two weeks before any level of relaxation of restrictions would occur, there was a report that 1st May that Greggs, the fast food bakery, would be careful how they re-opened their shops in the Newcastle area – as a trial to see what is possible nationwide – when fears were expressed that customers starved of their sausage rolls would storm the shops and cause a potential virus exchanging hotspot. (Or is it just a marketing stunt à la Ryanair’s ‘proposal’ to charge for use of toilets on their planes?)

Being deprived of fast food has probably improved the health of many in the UK over the last couple of months – as did rationing during the Second World War – but how long that will last after lock down is nobody’s guess.

Who’s views are leading the fight?

Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, Today Programme, Radio 4, 16th April;

‘The scientists can say what they like; the commentators can say what they like; frankly the interviewers can say what they like but WE will do what is best by dealing with the virus’

[Hancock getting a bit ratty here.]

That was in response to what Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College and one of the Government’s scientific advisors, said earlier on the same radio programme;

He had suggested that a small army of people might be needed to trace those who had come in contact with the virus. That relaxing lock down measures required a single minded emphasis on scaling up testing and putting in place the ability to track down cases. He would have liked to have seen more evidence the Government is preparing for this. There was a Government Department for ‘Brexit’, why not for covid-19?

Hancock added that he [Ferguson] was not seeing such action because he was advising the government but was not in the Government.

Personal Protection Equipment (PPE)

Some quotes on this matter which have, so far, been missed;

David Nicholls, Doctor’s Association, 18th April;

‘In January Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that the NHS was prepared and yet yesterday he’s saying that he would love to be able to wave a magic wand to get as much PPE as needed. This hardly encourages confidence for staff, like myself, who have been working this weekend. It’s an absolute disgrace!’

Saffron Cordey, Deputy Chief Executive, NHS Providers, 18th April;

‘Following WHO guidelines has to be the way that we go. They are saying if other stocks aren’t available then this is the way to go [re-use old equipment] and it is safe to use. I think on that basis it is worrying, it is concerning and it’s deeply frustrating for those who are working so hard, but we are in a situation where these guidelines have been issued.’

Neil Dickson, Chief Executive NHS Confederation, 18th April;

‘The decision has to be at each individual level and obviously each individual or member of staff will have to make their own decision. This is emergency guidance which has not been invented by Public Health England, it is guidance that is supported by the WHO but it is meant for emergencies and that’s where we’re at, we’re in an emergency.’

Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, 20th April;

‘The UK, regardless of the position that we maybe in now, has been an international exemplar in preparedness. So the fact that there is a pandemic stockpile is considered a very high quality mark of a prepared country in international terms.’

It’s not surprising that this brown nose support for Government inadequacies was met with derision from the medical and scientific community. I don’t know if she’s been in the limelight of the daily press conference since. How the mighty have fallen.

In an interview on World at One, BBC Radio 4, 30th April, Professor Neil Mortenson, President Elect of the Royal College of Surgeons, on whether there were enough tests and (Personal Protection Equipment) PPE for front line medics;

Q. The Government are not talking about ending the lock down but easing restrictions. Will that still mean lives are lost?

‘I don’t know for sure. I mean if the restrictions are lifted safely then clearly that would be in order but what I’ve been saying is that the latest survey, where we’re again assessing how much PPE, for example, our surgeons, and especially dentists, had on the front line, we were surprised to see that two weeks later still one third of our staff didn’t have adequate PPE and that included both the gowns, the eye protection and the masks. And, of course, there is a problem with testing too because we would like to see all our staff tested on a routine basis and it looks as if that might be happening but it hasn’t happened yet.’

Q. So one of the 5 critical tests of the Government is no where being met?

‘Yes, that’s in fact what I’m saying.’

Q. You warned the Buffoon in using the NHS as an economic punchbag. What do you mean by that?

‘What I mean is that obviously if we relax the shut down and we have increasing numbers of patients coming along, a new surge if you like of covids, and that’s going to have a huge impact on the NHS and our ability to cope. There will be a halting of our planned extension of semi-urgent surgery. That will incur huge costs and obviously, although I can quite understand that everybody wants to get the economy running again, there has to be a balance of these costs and if that’s done too soon there will be huge costs on the health side too.’

Q. Should BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people] health workers be taken away from the front line in the NHS?

‘Well, I didn’t actually say that no BAME surgeon should be in the front line, it’s all about assessing risk. It’s clear that the BAME community are disproportionately effected here, we don’t know why, but we have to take this risk very seriously.

In our survey which found that about 15% of our staff were being coerced into doing procedures without adequate PPE [interjection; Coerced?]. Yes, in other words their hospital management were saying you must still go ahead and do this and they felt they didn’t have adequate PPE. I mean, if there’s a surgeon from the BAME community and they feel they’re seriously at risk then they shouldn’t put themselves at risk and be in a highly risky situation.

Obviously it’s about assessing that risk together with their age, their underlying health conditions and so forth. So it’s about assessing risk and we said to all our staff if they don’t have adequate PPE they shouldn’t put themselves in harms way.’

Q. Ultimately it comes down to having adequate PPE?

‘Absolutely. As I say, if at this moment we don’t have adequate PPE and there is, if you like, a relaxation and the numbers surge then we’ll be in even more trouble that we are already.’

But it doesn’t get any better.

On 1st May, one person attempting to purchase PPE online for the care home sector described the process ‘like the Wild West’.

On a new vaccine

Sarah Gilbert, head of the team attempting to develop a vaccine at Oxford University, 19th April, when talking about what needs to be in place when a viable vaccine is ready for production;

‘So those companies need to have new equipment, they need to have their staff trained to use the new protocols and the new quality control assessments. And all of that can happen but the companies we are going to be working with are going to need to stop doing what they normally do and make this vaccine instead. So we need support for this all to make sure that done in a fair way while trying to do something that’s very important.’

Nadine Dorries, Health Minister, on Twitter (why do all politicians think they must have a Twitter presence?);

‘There will have to be some sort of lock down until there’s a vaccine. Until then society will have to adapt to protect public health and the economy.’ 16th April.

Normally it takes decades to develop a vaccine – why are things moving so quickly now? And if it is because so many resources worldwide are being devoted to the search for a covid-19 vaccine (which might have to be adapted as the virus adapts) why can’t, after the pandemic, the worldwide science and pharmaceutical industry put as much effort into finding whatever is necessary to stop malaria killing millions each year. Or is it because it is only the people in the poor countries that die in droves from malaria?

Immunity or a vaccine the way out?

There has been a fair amount of discussion of whether there is, in fact, any real immunity to this virus by those who have contracted it in the past, whether asymptomatic or in a much more serious manner. It’s obviously an important matter as it will determine whether society will ever get back to what is now being called the ‘new normality’.

A German study at the beginning of April found that there was some evidence for this – and it might have been on this evidence (as well as other) that determined the German Government to relax certain restrictions on 20th April.

However, there have been reservations of the reliability of these tests with a warning that they won’t be able to declare if someone is risk free to others nor will it guarantee they will not contract the disease themselves.

For those, like myself, who don’t fully understand the science when it comes to anti-bodies and testing for them in the situation of a pandemic you might be interested in what I think is a well explained and informative (without being overly jargon based) piece on BBC radio 4’s Inside Science programme of 30th April.

The Buffoon’s offspring

Call me a cynic but; would Buffoon junior have been born in a NHS hospital if it weren’t for the pandemic? I haven’t heard about which hospital it was born in but I can’t imagine one of those that might have had a bad reputation due to its poor response to the cuts over the last 20+ years.

Was the confinement originally planned to be elsewhere? A more salubrious private nursing home for example? As Private Eye says: ‘I think we should be told’. But we won’t.

The Nationalists

It seems that the place of the nationalist in Britain, both those in Wales and Scotland, should appear here just before Trump – birds of a feather.

Scotland

The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon ‘suggests’ the use of face masks. By not making a decision on this it opens the way for all sorts of unpleasant circumstances. All it needs is for a conflict to arise when someone doesn’t want to wear a mask is victimised by a crazy, frightened mob. Those who seek to ‘govern’ should be prepared to make the decsion that makes matters clear to all. This voluntarism just doesn’t work. As the ignorant in Scotland lead – the ignorant of England and Wales are likely to follow.

Wales

On 1st May, Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales made the declaration that between 55,000 and 65,000 (depends upon how extensive the hand out will be) NHS and care home workers would receive a one off £500 bonus. Although it’s within the remit of the developed Welsh government to give this bonus they don’t have control of the tax system and will have to get the agreement of the Westminster Government to waive the tax – which he requested. I’ve heard of no developments on that matter.

What we have hear, again, is another effort of the developed administrations to separate themselves from the national government in London.

However, I don’t know how well Drakeford might have considered this bonus. The Social security system is so complex and bizarre that for some people the bonus might be a bane and not a boon. It must be remembered that many working in the care sector are some of the poorest paid in the country and many will be claiming other benefits. Some of those benefits have crazy cut-offs and £1 over a certain threshold could mean the loss of many of them – well in excess of £500.

Trumpism

This isn’t very current but I haven’t mentioned it here before – although I’m sure people will remember it being reported last month.

According to the Washington Post, Trump insisted his name be added to the $1,200 pandemic relief cheques being sent out to 70 million poor Americans – an ‘unprecedented’ decision that will reportedly ‘slow their delivery by several days’.

No doubt this was done in an effort to encourage Trump supporters to not cash the cheques and just keep them as a souvenir as they will have a personally signed cheque from their hero President.

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