So there it is. It’s going to be a long slow easing of lockdown as the government tries to suppress the virus to as low a level as possible before using testing and tracking to try to keep it contained. These latter are the standard infection control containment methods which, along with quarantine and travel restrictions, the UK government abysmally failed to implement when the WHO signalled the pandemic. Collective immunity, the other way any epidemic comes to an end, has now been abandoned as a goal, largely out of fear of a more deadly second wave. Instead we have continued suppression through mass confinement followed by indefinite monitoring, contact tracing, testing and quarantine efforts. It’s going to be a long, dull and impoverishing year, with a much more active and interfering surveillance state than we’re used to for some time to come.
This smacks of government trying to make up for its earlier errors and lack of preparation – rewinding the clock to January to do what it should have done then, what is standard and recognised procedure for an outbreak of contagious disease, but not, it seems, for our ill-prepared NHS and public health bodies.
Dominic Raab defended the government’s new ultra-cautious approach on Wednesday by pointing to evidence that infections might be resurging in Germany as the lockdown is lifted. However, since then the reproduction rate (R) in Germany has fallen again, so this defence has vanished, at least for now.
Even if Germany does see a new wave of cases, it’s worth bearing in mind that the country has yet to see even a first spike of extra deaths due to Covid-19, for reasons that are not entirely clear at the moment. (Germans have however been meticulous since early March when their first case was identified in tracking those who had contact with him.)
The UK government says it is beginning regular random testing surveys to try to keep on top of how many have the virus and in which regions and demographics, with 18,000 people hired to perform contact tracing. This strategy is already coming under fire from scientists as being insufficient. Public health chiefs warn that the programme could go on until 2024.
Meanwhile there is still no sign of antibody testing that would indicate how many have had the virus, and thus how deadly it is and how much resistance has developed in the population. And the government and its advisers, along with most of the media, still appear impervious to the hard evidence showing lockdowns are not necessary to control the spread. The fact that deaths peaked in the UK on April 8, so that infections can be inferred to have peaked on March 18, six days before lockdown took effect on March 24, seems not to be registering at all. How else are we to explain the Prime Minister’s grand announcement yesterday that ‘for the first time we are past the peak of this disease and we’re on the downward slope’?
We’ve been on the downward slope of deaths for over three weeks, Prime Minister, and of infections for over six weeks. Either he doesn’t know this or he is deliberately lying to the public. Neither is reassuring.
I wonder whether he has yet considered the fact that deaths (and hence infections) have peaked and declined in Sweden at lower rates than lockdown countries such as the UK and France, despite there being no (or very little) lockdown there? Perhaps he is still unaware of that too, though his advisers can hardly claim to be. Even the World Health Organisation is now pointing to Sweden as an example to follow. Instead of taking this on board and digesting its implications, lockdown proponents seem to want to explain Sweden away or discredit it, comparing it unfavourably to its neighbours Denmark and Norway, which had hard and early lockdowns. Many suspect, however, that these countries will experience a surge once they lift their restrictions, having kept the virus at bay through tight but unsustainable measures.
But it’s not just about Sweden. The evidence comes from all directions. There is also, for example, the fact that the official figures show that the reproduction rate of the virus fell below 1 (meaning decline) prior to lockdown in both Germany and Switzerland.
Together this evidence strongly suggests coronavirus epidemics typically come under control through a combination of regular infection control measures, lighter social distancing measures, heightened public awareness and a pre-existing resistance in the population. Less obese and unhealthy populations will fare better. Regardless, costly and oppressive lockdowns are overkill, and themselves increase mortality in a host of ways – with the least healthy again being the most vulnerable to reduced medical services.
The government does not appear interested in this kind of evidence. Instead we have a continuation of extraordinary and unprecedented economic shutdown and house confinement measures as the bluntest of instruments to try to suppress a virus which the data suggests is not so much deadlier than other flu-like viruses.
The UK missed its chance to follow the evidence and bring this crisis to an early close and get the economy moving again. It now appears blind to the further damage its sledgehammer measures are causing.
We must now rely on international experience and internal pressure to accelerate the easing of restrictions as the government is gradually compelled by events to accept that its costly caution and blind commitment to its lockdown policy is misplaced.