Richard North, 20/07/2020  

It seems to me that some of the same types of logical flaw which pervade the Brexit "debate" are creeping into the discussion about Covid-19. Classic of the genre of flawed logic is this piece headlined "Lockdown may cost 200,000 lives, government report shows".

However, things are not quite as they seem. The text refers to more than 200,000 people dying "from the impact of lockdown and protecting the NHS". But to get it right, the reference to "lockdown" needs to be removed. That should not be included in the narrative.

The point is that the lockdown didn't kill anyone – at least, not in the sense claimed. The problem was stripping out NHS hospitals and turning them into mass Covid treatment centres, a task for which they were neither designed nor suitable.

There is something particularly crass about long-term health planning that made no provision for medical treatment of large numbers of sufferers of a communicable disease which could not be mediated by vaccination or prophylactic drugs.

And it's not as if the politicians are totally responsible here. Going back through the literature over time, it is remarkable how muted the voices have been in warning about this threat. For sure, there were some, but not enough to make the difference.

As for the lockdown, that was going to happen anyway. The government was not in control of events when F1 races were being cancelled, Premier League football was shutting down, universities were no longer teaching and offices were sending workers home. The government was reacting, not leading.

Where lockdown went wrong is that it wasn't used properly. It bought us time and that time should have been used to develop an effective test, track and trace system. Even now, we still don't have that. The deficiencies in the system remain a serious vulnerability.

Another article, exploring the likelihood of a "second wave", puts it succinctly, stating that, unless "we have an effective test, track and trace system in place – which to be honest isn't looking promising at the moment – then we, almost certainly, will go into a second wave".

It is here, of course, that there is perfect symmetry between Covid-19 and Brexit. In both areas the government has exhibited high levels of incompetence – not only historic but ongoing.

That much seems to be confirmed by this report which has "senior doctors" pleading with the public to help prevent a second wave, that could "devastate" the NHS, amid concern at mixed government messages about face masks and returning to work.

Featured is Prof Carrie MacEwen, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. She says medics and healthcare workers feel "totally reliant on the public understanding" that the disease has "certainly not disappeared and could come back and cause even more suffering for the population".

Dr Alison Pittard, head of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, warns that the NHS could be "overwhelmed" by a second wave coinciding with seasonal flu and the consequences of the backlog of treatment for serious illnesses including cancer.

"People might think Covid is over with, why do I have to wear a face mask", she said. "But it isn't over. We still have Covid patients in intensive care. If the public don't physically distance and don't wear face coverings we could very quickly get back to where we were earlier this year".

Downing Street asserts that new infections are falling at a rate between one and five percent a day across the UK. But on Sunday, the Scottish government confirmed a rise in new cases for the fifth consecutive day with 23 people testing positive – the highest daily rate since 21 June.

Meanwhile in Blackburn and Darwen, where health officials last week ordered new restrictions to reduce virus spread, Dominic Harrison, the director of public health, says that the national tracing system was only managing to reach half of those who had been in close contact with a coronavirus patient.

The ultimate irony is the report of a potential North Lanarkshire cluster linked to an NHS contact-tracing centre. If it wasn't so serious, one would almost have to laugh. At least they won't have too much trouble tracing the contacts.

But, for all that, nothing much is going to change. Suddenly, everyone is an expert, and we're seeing cohorts of them filling space and time in the media, churning out their nostrums.

And yet, sitting on my bookshelf is a book I'd almost forgotten I had - prepared by P Brès, formerly the chief of virus diseases for the WHO. It is entitled "Public Health Action in Emergencies Caused by Epidemics", and published in 1986, it serves as the basic field manual on how to deal with diseases such as Covid-19.

Manuals such as these tell us all we need to know. It isn't so much expertise one needs, as a basic working knowledge of the procedures, a modicum of experience and an amount of aptitude. We could do with fewer experts mouthing off, and a few more people on the ground who actually know what they are doing, and are prepared to follow basic, well-established procedures.

But when so many experts are involved, all they produce is noise. It's basically why I've given up writing about the subject. Any possibility that anyone can make the difference is a forlorn hope.

Even the scientists at the centre of events now seem to be more concerned with blame avoidance and back covering than working on an effective programme. And if they are not having an impact, then there is little hope of outside influence making a mark.

As far as the individual is concerned, therefore, it is a matter of sauve qui peut. Ignore the noise and stick to the basics. Here, there is some good advice in this article: avoid the "Three Cs"!

What this amounts to is avoid: closed spaces, with poor ventilation (or artificially ventilated spaces); crowded places, especially when people are forced into close proximity; and close-contact settings, such as close-range conversations. But above all, avoid the combination of all three.

Predictably, advice of this clarity does not come from our own government. This is the message from the government of Japan. That really does tell us an awful lot about the Covid experience. All we have really learnt from it is that, when the chips are really down, it is unwise to rely on our government.

In a nutshell, they will totally mess up everything they do, putting lives at risk, and then reinvent history after the event to make it look as if they performed brilliantly – while rewarding the failures. The only people you can rely on are you and yours.

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