Friday, 13 March 2020

Okay, I thought I'd put my tuppence forwards on the current Covid-19 crisis, and the decisions that the government have to make. I am not an expert; I have no particular knowledge on medical matters or pandemics - so I'm in the same boat as most of us!

Feel free to disagree, but these are my current thoughts, and please forgive the length:

1) We are working on incomplete data, and are having to make decisions based on assumptions. This is always risky. Just a relatively small change in one piece of data might invalidate one approach, whilst validating another. For instance, if a working vaccine is not developed before the end of the year, then isolating everyone now becomes a less valid approach. If a working vaccine is developed by mid-year, then isolating everyone now makes more sense.

Likewise, the number of asymptomatic cases (that means, the people who get Covid and are not recognised as such because they don't get major symptoms) is important. As we don't have a reliable mass antibody test yet, this is a major unknown that again has a major effect on the decision made. If there are a small percentage of asymptomatic cases, then isolating now makes more sense than if there is a high percentage.

Experts and politicians can look at the data and come up with different conclusions. Reasonable people can reasonably differ, especially in the presence of uncertain data.

2) Every country is different: in their stage of the epidemic, the way it is progressing, and in their social mores. In some countries, the epidemic is in only one or two regions, and therefore the rules applied to those regions can be specialised. Here in the UK, we do not have particular hotspots, and no reason to believe it can be contained in particular areas or regions of the country. Likewise, we do not live in a state where (allegedly) doors to apartments can be welded shut to keep them from leaving. We appear to be a week or two behind other countries in the outbreak; what works for them now might not work for us, now; it (or another approach) may work for us in a week.

Blindly comparing our decisions to those of other countries without factoring in such differences is, at best, pointless. This is not about some Union Jack-waving British exceptionalism; it's about the reality that our situation differs - as does every country's.

3) There might not be a 'right' way to handle this. There is a good chance that no approach is perfect, and that even when the current situation has died down, we won't know what the 'right' thing to do was. We are living through a massive experiment.

4) What is 'obvious' is often non-obvious. A common call is for schools to be closed, as has been done in other countries. Yet that can have side effects: children (who, unlike the 1918 flu pandemic, appear to be least affected by the illness) have to be cared for, and that burden will often fall on grandparents - who are most affected. Likewise, Madrid has had to lock shut the gates to playgrounds, as children were just meeting up there instead. What happens with exams? Coursework? A 'simple' decision has massive consequences - and not all in one direction.

5) I'm very glad I'm not the one who has to make these decisions.

In the UK's case, I don't see any reason to believe that Boris Johnson, the government, the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Science Adviser et al *want* this awful disease to spread and for lots of people to die. They're having to use incomplete data to come to a decision in a terrible situation. I hope they've made a good one.

6) Finally: much of this is up to individuals. If you want to keep you and yours well, don't be silly, and follow the advice. Bulk-buying toilet roll is of little use. Wash your hands. Avoid touching your face. If you feel unwell, rest and isolate yourself as much as possible.

Help your relatives. Help your friends. Help your neighbours.

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