Science and politics make awkward bedfellows. Science is more concerned with the truth, or ought to be; politics more concerned with expediency, survival and the avoidance of blame. For that reason, politics is closer to human nature.
It is natural to simply hope for the best, to take precautions a little too late, and relax them a little too early. In the UK there was a reluctance to go Full Chinese, and shut everything down, particularly in the early days when there seemed no reason to panic. Business is business, and the lack of gainful employment brings poverty, gloominess and even ill-health. Instead, the Government’s response was hesitant, often somewhat contradictory, and generally too optimistic. The virus was faster to adapt than the government was to control it.
Bureaucrats followed an influenza model they had designed in 2011. They screwed up by not stopping Wuhan flights immediately; kept worrying about globules (wash your hands) and not aerosols (wear a mask indoors), so thus screwed up about masks; and did not enunciate or illustrate the key advice: don’t breathe in what other people have breathed out. Too many infected people had come into the country for the test and trace systems to be able to function. Too little was done to protect care homes. Too many people breathed in stagnant air in buildings and public transport. Too many rules were established, with too many variations and exceptions, and not enough repetition of the general principle that the contagious element is airborn and hangs around in crowded, closed spaces where people are exhaling a lot. Don’t breathe in what others breathe out.
Has too much fuss been made of Covid-19? Many skeptics felt it was just a bad case of the flu, plus general hysteria. Of course, asking whether a seasonal epidemic is bad invites the reply: “Compared to what?”. It now seems pretty clear that compared with the usual 5-year death rates, Covid-19 has been bad. It is hard to be precise in the middle of the current resurgence of cases, but it looks as if excess deaths are about 12% higher than base-rate. Here is a snapshot:
Just by eye, current death rates are similar to the first outbreak in March/April. The next 4 weeks will show if they go any higher, but given the almost 82,000 deaths, we are highly likely to be over 100,000 deaths before Easter. Given that about 600,000 Brits die a year it is an appreciable increase.
Long term data is often far more instructive. The Office for National Statistics has been churning out the figures. As befits a sturdy and thorough institution it has an extremely open website which quickly gives you everything except what you want to know. So, here is an abstracted picture derived by others from the ONS data. I like this one far better.
What they list as WW1 could also be described as WW1/Spanish Flu. That was the worst, worse even than the Irish potato famine. WW2 was pretty close, the 1951 flu very bad, the Hong Kong one far less so. Covid-19 in its early stages had certainly been against trend and clearly significant. The current leap in cases gives it the status of the worst event since the World War 2. And remember, these are just deaths, not measures which rely on diagnostic tests or death certificate categorizations. People are dying in larger numbers than usual.
Vaccinations have been given to roughly 2.5 million.
This is good news. I pay most attention to 1st dose totals, which seem to provide far more protection per jab than the second one (which just makes a good level of protection somewhat better), and quickly reduce the likelihood that a person will need a hospital bed. As you know, I don’t do policy, but if I was asked, I would suggest the second jabs supplies should be redirected towards giving more people their first jab.
Less good are the accounts of some vaccines going unused on some occasions; of vulnerable people having to sit together indoors for 45 minutes as they go through the entire bureaucratic procedure; and of some people missing their precious appointment slots (possibly because appointment messages did not get through) and staff then having to ring round their friends for last minute vaccinations of short-shelf-life phials.
Tales abound of some young 81-year olds getting their jab before their more worthy 90 year old seniors. An 82 year old male friend had to talk staff into also vaccinating his 77 year old wife (eventually they agreed to do it if she could arrive in 30 minutes, which she did); and a few impetuous 71 year olds have jumped the queue, apparently because health workers in some parts of the country are just jabbing anyone who looks mildly decrepit. Queuing is a very important activity in this country. It celebrates fairness, justice, status, precedence and a supreme contempt of those deficient immoral deviates who try to push ahead to rise above their station. Latecomers (those who are young, or healthy old) should be further down the pecking order, and preferably out of sight in another distant street. “We are all in this together, but I was first.”
Variations in rates of immunization are referred to in the Press as “postcode lottery”. This is seen as a bad thing, so much so that some successful clinics are being denied supplies until others catch up. This has been denied, but in a way which suggests that the laggards have been favoured, on the principle that those who are poorly organized need to be rewarded in some way. A good policy, justly delivered, will still have some regional variations, and there should be less alarm at some inevitable differences in the speed of advance, given that we are all advancing.
More recent data, obtained by the simple expedient of phoning and emailing friends and colleagues suggests that things have changed for the better over the last week. A local centre is said to be working with great efficiency, texting appointment invitations and waiting times are only about 5 minutes out in the street before being called in for vaccination. We await the call.
Although the initial focus was on the different types of vaccine, attention has now shifted, quite rightly, to the UK’s ability to deliver the vaccines that they had pre-purchased months ago. There is an international battle to get more vaccines now, and to jab them into arms as quickly as possible.
The UK missed a trick. As a supposedly rational, science based nation, it was in a position to have run a very large (say 400,000 health workers) volunteer Phase 1 study of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in March 2020, and to have done so without a formal control group. Showing the efficacy of the vaccine would have been done by comparing the vaccinated with the far larger unvaccinated population. If the trial had been extended in stages from the young healthy to the older healthy, and then the even older but less healthy, we could have effectively vaccinated 2.5 million people by late Autumn 2020 (supposedly as part of a very large trial for volunteers), and would not be going through our current lockdown.
It will be great if we are better prepared next time.