EU Referendum

Coronavirus: off the agenda


When the government starts playing about with the daily case reports, the temptation is to conclude that it is purposefully fiddling the figures. That's what governments do whenever they are in trouble.

Thus, after the partial figures which we reported yesterday, we get a new tranche where the recording cut-off has been moved to 5pm on 25 March 2020. In future, there will be a time lag of almost a day in reporting deaths, which will be published at 2pm and reflect mortality figures for the 24-hour period before 5pm the previous day. With this new period applied, we get 11,658 cases, and 578 deaths.

Perhaps significantly, Public Health England reports that the deaths relate to those hospitalised in the UK, which means that this figure as well as the case rate is being under-reported, where testing is now confined to patients only when ill enough to be admitted to hospital (unless, of course, you are the Prince of Wales).

It is fair to say, though, that at the height of an epidemic, the first thing that goes is the administration – people at the sharp end tend to have more urgent priorities than filling in the paperwork. Standards slip and delays occur. That is real life.

All that, though, goes to show up the fatuity of the armchair pundits and the modellers who over-interpret flawed data, to draw conclusions which bear no relation to the real world.

How tragic it is, therefore, to see how different things are in that real world, a mere day after headlines carried the words of Foot & Mouth modeller Neil Ferguson telling us that the crisis could be over by Easter and that the NHS could remain "within capacity" and cope with the surge of cases.

The single day has seen multiple reports, with headlines such as this, declaring: "London hospitals facing 'tsunami' of patients", with hospital bosses saying that health trusts will be "overwhelmed in a few days".

This had Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, telling the BBC Radio 4 Today that the hospitals were "struggling with the explosion of demand in seriously ill patients".

The number arriving and the speed with which they are arriving and how ill they are, coming in "wave after wave after wave" evoked the description of "a continuous tsunami". One administrator told Hopson, "it's much bigger and large numbers with a greater degree of stretch than you can ever have possibly imagined".

Not least of the problems faced by the hospitals is the number of staff off sick with suspected coronavirus or in vulnerable groups, with 30-50 percent off work in some trusts.

In this context, one might recall those neat graphs on "flattening the curve", showing that as the disease incidence fell, the capacity of the medical services miraculously increased, thus ensuring that NHS capacity was never overwhelmed.

Now reality is mocking these graph-makers as the hospitals struggle to cope, while the emergency facilities at the ExCel conference centre are not yet ready, despite the Army taking over the conversion operation (pictured). It is being described as the most ambitious medical project Britain has seen since the end of the Second World War. At 4,000 beds, it will dwarf all other hospitals in the UK.

Although the unit may be able to take some patients next week, a more realistic estimate is that it will take a fortnight to get the operation up and running, with equipment sourced and staff in place. Those weeks of delay, when Johnson frittered away his time preaching about hand-washing, are now going to cost lives.

The point, to contradict Hopson's informant, is that the current situation could easily have been imagined, after the graphic examples from Italy pointed to how serious this epidemic could become.

As of now, we learn that 41 health workers in Italy have died from Covid-19 since the outbreak there began. More than 5,000 doctors, nurses, technicians, ambulance staff and other health employees have been ill, the majority affected at the start of the outbreak when protective equipment was lacking.

"It's as if a storm hit us", said Roberto Stellini, a doctor of infectious diseases at Poliambulanza hospital in Brescia. "The problem is that when this storm hit us we were unprepared, perhaps ignoring what might have been the consequences. Some of the dead were doctors who died at the beginning of the emergency, when we knew nothing about this storm. I knew some of them. Now we are more prepared and we continue to fight".

Now that storm is about to descend on the UK, front-line services are massively under-provided at a time when it really matters, while the authorities play catch-up. All too soon, it looks as if the NEC will have to be roped in as another emergency treatment centre, as the Birmingham and West Midlands illness figures continue to rise.

For all that, there are those who would play down the seriousness of this crisis, and the nature of the government response, with Sherelle Jacobs in the fanboy gazette arguing that Johnson has been "panicked into abandoning a sensible Covid-19 strategy, and has plunged society into crisis".

For sure the degree of economic disruption here (and elsewhere in the world) has been unprecedented, but this gifted infectious disease expert is asserting that the UK should have stuck to the "herd immunity" strategy of "getting the most vulnerable to self-isolate, while allowing lower risk people to get infected on a scale that wouldn't overwhelm the NHS".

But, she says, "doing the right thing at the right time" has proved no match for wails about the need to be seen to be "doing whatever it takes". Thus, Johnson and other leaders "have ignored the unquantifiable damage of their actions (from the sinking of the world economy to the sacrifice of the global middle class) in order to meet spurious quantifiable targets".

Ironically, the same newspaper rails against "covid deniers", the "shadowy social media groups" that are spreading myths and conspiracy about coronavirus. Perhaps the journalists should have a good look at their own office and the myth that relying on herd immunity would bring this epidemic to a halt.

For the media at large though, much of the focus is on the chancellor's aid package for the self-employed, on a "don't call us, we'll call you" basis, where those in need will not get any assistance until June, and will not even know whether they qualify for payments until then.

Some newspapers are concentrating on "checkpoint Britain", where the police yesterday acquired powers to enforce the lockdown and were setting up vehicle checkpoints to turn back drivers who were out and about without reasonable excuse. Treatment of the police action ranges from the Daily Star describing errant drivers as "morons", to Delingpole who labels some police forces as Covid Nazis.

Another big story is government action which has the effect of freezing the property market, with current buyers being urged to delay completion dates in order to avoid breaching social distancing rules. Thus does the Mail headline: "Don't Move Home".

With millions "clapping for the NHS" in a toe-curling display of gushing sentimentality, that occupies the front page of the Mirror (whatever happened to "Jazz Hands"?), leaving only the Guardian to run with the desperate plight of the health services in London, confronting their "tsunami" of Covid patients. It is almost as if the reality of the actual epidemic is too uncomfortable to report.

If coverage of the actual epidemic has all but been abandoned for a brief period, a more lasting effect awaits the Brexit talks which are effectively in deep freeze.

All planned negotiating rounds on the UK's future relationship with the EU have been abandoned as a result of the pandemic, and the UK has been unable to table a legal text which would form the basis of its ideas for the final treaty. That leaves the 441-page draft treaty, published on 13 March to a wave of indifference, as the only document on the table.

But since UK's position in the texts are in a "different galaxy" to those of Brussels, the talks can go nowhere, the more so since Barnier, is in quarantine having been infected with the coronavirus and the UK's David Frost, has been in isolation after suffering symptoms.

Next up is a serious discussion on whether there should be an extension to the transition period but, like the epidemic for the moment, that is not on the media agenda either.