The Great Retrospective. In the UK at least. See the article below entitled: Covid made the world go mad – Here’s what we know now about the year of lockdown.
Cosas de España/Galiza
Looking at a foto of the feuding PP leaders together – Casado and Aysuso – it struck me that they share at least one one thing – they’re both very pretty. Which possibly benefits her more than him. As the PM is also handsome, I wonder whether this is now a prerequisite for success in Spain. On the other hand, we did have Rajoy not so long ago.
Under Spain’s infamous ‘gag law’ of 2015, you can be fined for lack of respect for or disobedience towards a police officer. And said officer is the sole judge of whether you have or haven’t committed an offence. Between 2015 and 2018, 50,000 folk were done for this, with cases being even higher during the Covid state of emergency. The law is being modified by the current government but these 2 offences will stay on the statute books. In contrast, in the UK, you can swear at a police officer without consequences and even refuse to stop and answer questions. This is one of several things that Spaniards refuse to believe is true. Like the virtual non-existence of notaries in the UK. But demi-gods here in Spain.
What you can do with impunity in Spain, it seems, is ride your bike or e-vehicle illegally on the pavement or in a pedestrian area. Even downhill at speed. With kids around.
Yesterday was dry, so the flea market in Pontevedra city was busy. I noticed that none of the traders was wearing a licence badge made compulsory when the gypsies were last ejected. I guess they’ll re-appear after the next bout of police action. And will be visible for as long as 2 or 3 weeks. BTW: I took a look at some ‘Rock’ CDs but gave up after a few seconds. As with books in libraries and shops here in Spain, the titles on their spines were not all facing the same way. By any means.
En passant . . . Given what else they get away with, I find it hard to believe that gypsies are prosecuted for insulting the police. Should they ever do so.
For years now, it’s been customary for the media to report on decisions taken by ‘the prime minister’, rather than by ‘the government’. Very obvious during the past 2 Covid years – evidence, albeit superficial, that things have become more ‘presidential’. Today’s example from the Times: Boris Johnson to remove all Covid restrictions. Who’d think the UK has a system of cabinet government?
Talking of news . . . The headline in the most papers this morning is that the queen has mild Covid symptoms but ‘will continue to receive medical attention’. Who’d have thought it?
A long – but unsurprising – report here on the nefarious activities of the Swiss bank, Credit Suisse.
Trump has continued to rail against the criminal and civil investigations against him as a “witch hunt”, his tormentors as “racist”. Racist? Because he’s white??
– On horseback
– Doing two things at once. ‘Riding 2 horses at once’
– Moving immediately on from one thing to another.
Finally . . .
If I had a dollar for every email I get saying my $25,000 settlement cheque had arrived, I’d be a millionaire. Another 3 this morning. Correction at 12.00 – 6.
This foto was taken in 1964 on the the first Day of the Tourist in Pontevedra province.
Am I the only one to think it’s a bit unfortunate in today’s sexualised times?
For new reader(s): If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here. If you’re passing through Pontevedra on the Camino, you’ll find a guide to the city there.
Covid made the world go mad – Here’s what we know now about the year of lockdown. Two years on from home schooling and panic buying, an epidemiologist looks explains what we should have done: Harry de Quetteville, The Telegraph
Tomorrow, the Prime Minister is set to announce the end of Covid restrictions. No more free tests, or income support. Most dramatic of all, no more isolation for those infected. If this isn’t the end of pandemic crisis measures, it’s hard to know what is. All of which means that the inevitable reflection upon two traumatic years, and the crisis measures inflicted by government upon the governed, begins now. The official public enquiry, originally set for this spring, is likely to be delayed. But the unofficial accounting – up and down the nation, of each and every citizen totting up their losses and sacrifices, and wondering if it was all worth it – has already started.
For some, the ledger will reveal a simple, terrible grief – a consequence of the 160,000 Covid deaths Britain has accumulated since the novel coronavirus arrived on these shores. But for many others, the price paid will be harder to establish. For it is difficult to number opportunities missed in schooling and higher education; or count the cost of careers stalled and businesses failing; or take the toll of lives still to be lost through mental and physical conditions undetected while services pivoted so completely to Covid.
Whatever happens, one thing is certain: we will be told that lessons will be learnt. But which lessons? In politics, wise old hands talk about the importance of learning from mistakes, of knowing history and acting accordingly. But the wrong lessons, as epidemiologist Prof Mark Woolhouse shows in a devastating new assessment of Covid lockdowns, can also lead us terribly astray.
British scientists and politicians were primed to respond disastrously to Covid-19 long before the virus was even heard of, he argues in his book The Year the World Went Mad – and precisely because of their experience with previously known diseases. First of these was influenza, on which our pandemic preparation was based. That was why Covid models included schools, which are key drivers of flu transmission, but not care homes – with catastrophic consequences. The second diversion was a specific outbreak of flu – the swine flu epidemic of 2009-10, largely forgotten because it killed fewer than 500 people. Those who do remember it are sure to include the parents of around 70 British children who died. “Many more [children],” as Woolhouse, 63, a father of one daughter, points out, “than died from novel coronavirus infection in 2020.” Yet schools stayed open then. “It seems that our collective assessment of the balance of harms changed dramatically over the intervening 10 years.”
Swine flu’s damaging legacy was timidity. Exactly a decade before Covid really did erupt to change the world, public health officials were warning that swine flu would do the same. “Basically, there was a false alarm,” says Woolhouse, who advised on swine flu and became a member of the Sage modelling group SPI-M for the current pandemic. Come 2019-20, scientists were loath “to make complete fools of ourselves” by crying wolf again. Drastic early interventions which could have made a difference, like closing borders, became unthinkable, propelling policy ever further towards the most draconian and, in Woolhouse’s view, wrongheaded, interventions of all: lockdowns.
Lockdowns, Woolhouse says, emerged from the idea that Covid could be eradicated. And the idea that Covid could be eradicated emerged from a third misleading encounter with disease – that other coronavirus, Sars, which in 2002 was confined and ultimately crushed in one of the great triumphs of modern medicine. The problem is that there was a critical difference with Sars. It was almost exclusively transmitted by patients who were obviously sick. “Isolating symptomatic cases stopped most of the spread,” says Woolhouse. But Covid spreads asymptomatically, too, making eradication effectively impossible. Yet convincing those in power to give up on the dream of killing off Covid proved impossible. “We knew from February , never mind March, that the lockdown would not solve the problem. It would simply delay it,” Woolhouse says, a note of enduring disbelief in his voice. And yet in government, “there was no attention paid to that rather obvious drawback of the strategy”. Instead, lockdowns – which “only made sense in the context of eradication” – became the tool of choice to control Covid. The die was cast in China, which instituted ultra-strict measures and, unforgivably in Woolhouse’s book, was praised by the World Health Organisation for its “bold approach”. “The WHO,” he suggests, “got the biggest calls completely wrong in 2020. The early global response to the pandemic was woefully inadequate.” Watching on, the rest of the world found itself following the same template, even though no work had been done to assess the costs of lockdowns. After swine flu, modellers had studied the knock-on consequences of many elements of infection control, but they had never envisaged “an instruction for most of the population to stay at home”.
So in March 2020, Britain issued the most dramatic civilian order since the war, with no idea what the harms might be. Why? Even today, Woolhouse says, from his office at the University of Edinburgh: “I don’t have a good answer for you. It was a frustration from the beginning.” What he does know is that while extremely detailed modelling was being done “on what the epidemic itself might look like and the harms that novel coronavirus would cause… on the other side of the scales, we had pretty much nothing at all. There was never at any stage, even by the following year, any form of analysis of the harms caused by lockdowns. Were they even considered? I haven’t seen any evidence that they were and that is very, very troubling.”
All this despite a report on lockdown’s wider consequences sent to Sage by the Office for National Statistics as early as April 2020, assessing how many years of quality life would be lost to lockdowns. The best guess was that suppressing the virus would cost three times more years than the disease itself. In part, this finding emerged because the ONS report reflected on the relative costs of lockdown to different parts of society – in this case, to the young as well as to the old. In retrospect, this seems like an uncontroversial thing to do. But Woolhouse, from his position on the inside as government policy was formed, saw something very different: the disease being described as a universal killer, when it was clear from the beginning some were very much more at risk than others. “The first good data on this started to emerge in late February 2020,” he says. And as Britain endured the first Covid wave, this data was borne out in the facts. Those over 70 had at least 10,000 times the risk of dying as those under 15 years old. “This is a highly discriminatory virus,” Woolhouse says, still exasperated today. “It’s ageist, it’s sexist, it’s racist. And we certainly knew [that] before we went into lockdown.” Yet the Government decided that telling half the population that they were at extremely low risk would dilute adherence to the harsh rules it was imposing, and instead ramped up the threat warnings. “We are all at risk,” noted Michael Gove in March 2020. “The virus does not discriminate.” But it did then, and it does now. “I heard [the official] argument caricatured as: everyone died, but at least no one was saved unfairly,” notes Woolhouse. Policy became a form of epidemiological communism, with imposed equality, even if it was equality of misery. “BBC News backed up this misperception by regularly reporting rare tragedies involving low-risk individuals as if they were the norm,” notes Woolhouse.
When in April 2020, for example, BBC cameras were allowed into an ICU at University College Hospital in London, the first patient interview for News at Ten was Imran Hamid. “I didn’t take this seriously enough,” said Imran, as the sombre voiceover intoned: “Imran is just 37…” Strategies that challenged this universalist dogma by emphasising the protection of the vulnerable were dismissed. “It became a mantra that protecting the vulnerable was actually unethical. Unethical! I mean how on earth did we find ourselves saying that?”
Yet far from being unable to handle even the broadest statistical nuance, the public has, in Woolhouse’s view, shown itself to be quite capable of dealing with life-and-death detail. He points to the vaccine rollout, which was interrupted by reports of very rare incidences of blood clots or heart trouble. “No one can say that the nuance has had a negative impact on uptake of vaccines. So why on earth couldn’t we have trusted people with a true pattern of risks of the virus itself? I don’t understand that.”
The public’s ability to read the situation for themselves was on show last Christmas, he says, when “behavioural changes were much greater than anticipated… clearly much more than [required by] Plan B”. That’s why there is such great outrage at news of No 10 parties, he thinks. While the public self-regulated, politicians self-indulged. Will that change now? He thinks not. “We will get on with managing the pandemic as a public in the way that we have, and just dismiss them. If they’re idiot enough to have parties in the basement, we’re not going to do that.” For him, such transgressions are not the worst official failing. Worse is the manner in which the Government kept losing sight of “the usual public health priorities, saving lives and preventing illness”, and instead became fixated on benchmarks, like the “R” number, rather than identifying who was most in danger. Process became purpose and the official aim became to suppress the virus, not make it less dangerous. Huge numbers were unnecessarily instructed to lock themselves away as a consequence. “We ended up in this narrative that there was a choice between two strategies,” he says – lockdown, or let it rip. “But this polarising of the debate was extremely unhelpful, even more so among the scientists. We should all be against lockdowns, and we should all be against Covid.” There was, he says, always a middle ground, blending social interventions like masks and distancing with chains of trusted contacts around the vulnerable, protecting them without isolating them. The tragedy was that this ground was “just not occupied throughout the whole of 2020. And that was a huge mistake”.
The result was the worst of all worlds – a reaction that failed sufficiently to protect those who were at risk while imposing hugely damaging lockdowns on those who were not.
In the middle of last year, Woolhouse says, policy suddenly began to move towards this middle ground. “There was a sea change in Westminster when we changed health secretaries. From the point that Matt Hancock left, the Government’s approach shifted from dealing with this [as a] short-term emergency problem that’s going to go away, to accepting we were living with a virus. And I cannot stress how big I think that change was. We suddenly started doing much more sensible things… making all these decisions that we should have been making, well, right from the very beginning.”
It is, of course, easy to say all this in retrospect; to dispense wisdom with hindsight. Woolhouse defends himself from this charge by pointing to a “whole trail of emails, documents, reports” that ground his complaints “in the realities of the time”. But wasn’t he part of the machine making all these errors? After all, he supported the first lockdown at the meeting of Sage modellers on March 23 2020. He describes it as “a sombre moment… but a decision had to be made, and there was no other option on the table”. Still, he argues that it was maintained too long and that it could have been prevented by acting earlier. Yet he also admits that he did not have the stomach to demand border closures at a very early stage, say in January 2020 – even though on January 24 2020, talking through the scale of the looming crisis with his wife, “I broke off in mid-sentence, put my arms around her and burst into tears.” This, from a man who talks with the direct, spare efficiency of the data modeller, and who, his slate grey hair as regimented as his words, seems like an infrequent blubberer. It is a reminder of just how scary Covid was as it emerged.
Hindsight or not, Woolhouse’s book certainly provides useful retrospective. In the endless now of Covid developments, for example, he shows how much we have already forgotten, or perhaps never knew, about how events unfolded. Meanwhile, the big game-changers we were all aware of – asymptomatic transmission, alpha and delta variants – are shocking all over again, set in proper context. Then there are the enduring mysteries, of which the biggest remains why children are so unaffected. “Whatever protects children must be hard-wired into the ageing process,” Woolhouse suggests, “perhaps to do with the ageing of the immune system, particularly around puberty.”
But because there is mystery at Covid’s heart, does not mean there is no blame. The WHO, professors Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, the Government, all take their share. There is one chilling moment described in his book when, attempting to temper terrifying (and as it proved misleading) official projections ahead of the second lockdown, Woolhouse receives an anonymous “invitation” to “correct” his comments. In the end, it was the projections – fruit of a system that he says used data like a ratchet, to justify tightening controls but rarely to loosen them – that had to be corrected. “The case for the second lockdown in England remains weak to this day.” But he does not entirely excuse himself, for he was part of the system, even if it was one he often railed against. And ultimately, he says, Britain’s Covid failure was “a system failure… of not welcoming other ideas, not being sufficiently self-critical, groupthink. The way that science, scientific advisers, officials and government interact in a situation like this is at fault. We panicked”. As he freely admits, the question that matters most now is: “How do we not do that in future?”
How we should have responded in 2020
Prof Mark Woolhouse outlines 9 things that should have happened:-
We needed to act much earlier than we did in March; earlier intervention can be less drastic intervention.
Border controls and international travel bans should have been instigated in February to delay the epidemic, buying time to prepare the NHS and build testing capacity. They were largely ineffective thereafter.
Much more should have been done, more quickly, to protect the most vulnerable (particularly the elderly and those advised to shield) by making their contacts Covid-safe, routine testing of close contacts and helping those contacts protect themselves.
No full lockdowns – the public health benefits were overestimated and there were much less damaging ways to save lives. We should have recognised immediately that lockdown was not the best way to save lives and treated going into lockdown as a failure of public health policy, never the intervention of choice.
School closures and banning outdoor activities were not necessary and should have been reversed quickly, or not implemented at all.
Other social distancing measures should have been relaxed more quickly and replaced by Covid-safe protocols [such as face coverings, ventilation, physical distancing, and self-isolating when warranted], while accepting that some measures would need to be retained at least until the jabs rollout was well under way.
More should have been done to support those asked to self-isolate, with test-to-release adopted earlier.
We were far too slow to accept that it was never going to be over in a matter of weeks, but that we would be living with the virus for the foreseeable future – so our response had to be proportionate and sustainable.
We could not ignore the wider ramifications for mental health, education, the economy and the wellbeing of society – yet the dice were always loaded in favour of suppressing novel coronavirus at – almost literally – any cost.