Covid-19 and doing the sums
The government response to the Covid-19 virus has assumed something of a religious quality. There is a creed, a statement of faith, which is repeatedly recited and those who dissent from the statement of belief are treated as heretics, as people deserving opprobrium, as people worthy of ostracisation.
The daily briefings were almost liturgical in their presentation and sequencing. The government minister behaving as a bishop flanked by lesser clergy. Of course, like the church did for centuries, the government changed its declaration of what it believed. There was the doctrine of mitigation and herd immunity. Then there was the doctrine of suppression and flattening the curve. Then there came the holy grail of the zero R rate.
The ministers charged with presenting the government response insist they have been entirely consistent in their statement and have always acted on the best scientific evidence, despite the fact that the scientists themselves have been far from unanimous in their conclusions as to what the evidence suggests.
The theory upon which the government has rested its response is that only widespread closures and general social distancing can reduce the number of Covid-19 cases. On the basis of the model the government has used, the reopening of shops and pubs and the general return to work should have increased the number of cases. In those situations where there has been an extensive disregard for the rules, there should be an identifiable spike of cases.
In some locations, there are obvious examples of the validity of the theory. When Weston-super-Mare was inundated with visitors in the spring, such was the local spike that the hospital had to be closed to admissions.
Yet the local evidence does not always correspond with the theory. At the University of Leicester, Dr Manish Pareek has produced evidence that the rate of infection had continued to increase among Black and Minority Ethnic communities for three weeks after the lockdown had begun. Conversely, the return to the pubs on 4th July, and resumption of social life since, might have been expected to have led to an increase in cases, yet, more than two weeks after a day when distancing was ignored in many places, there is so far no sign of a spike.
The government response needs to be much more nuanced. If public support is to be retained, there needs to be an admission that there is uncertainty and that numbers do not always correspond to what was expected.
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