Numbers carry weight. They, in themselves, are unambiguous and precise (within the rounding applied to them). They do, however, in the hands of most of us, often masquerade as facts when they are actually anything but this. Numbers as parts of recommendations or predictions cannot be factual, and are therefore always going to be open to interpretation and dispute. This all explains why they are so beloved by politicians and propagandists, as famously encapsulated in this quote that I usually attribute to Mark Twain (I love Mark Twain).
Research suggests it actually originates with ‘anonymous’, was popularised by Twain, who mistakenly attributed to Disraeli, for whom there is no evidence of him ever using the phrase at all!
I use this to illustrate my point that we have to understand that numbers used in recommendations and predictions especially, but all numbers dressed up as facts, need to be properly contextualised and the methodology used in producing them understood before we can have full confidence in them.
So let me turn to the numbers being bandied around every day in the media at the moment with regards to the Coronavirus epidemic. There are three sets of numbers in particular that I’m going to look at:
- Social distancing guidelines
- Death/mortality rates from the virus
- Projected deaths from the virus.
The first two are relatively straightforward, but the latter is a real can of worms!
SOCIAL DISTANCING GUIDELINES
All the guidelines I’ve seen in the UK have stated keep two metres away from everybody other than those you live with. That has seemed entirely reasonable to me as the principle is get out of reach of the spray of small droplets emitted from mouth and nose when people cough or sneeze.
As someone renowned for the power/volume in my sneezes, 2 metres strikes me as the very reasonable minimum distance. As such, people’s failure to adhere to this guidance, primarily because they seem to have no notion of what 2 metres looks like, prompted me to make this up in my workshop. I am 6’3” and most people equate two metres with six feet and think I’m over 2m tall. I am in fact 1.93m and 2 metres is in fact 6’6” to the nearest inch. So with USA and many in this country thinking 6ft is fine, does that extra 6 inches make any real difference? That does, of course, depend on whether you ask the actress or the bishop, but the short answer is not really.
What is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidance on this? What do you think? Higher or lower?
To be honest, I was expecting to find it recommending 2m/6ft in line with the above. It came as something of a shock to find this on their website and on YouTube (click image):
So, they reckon one metre is adequate with someone showing symptoms, let alone anyone else!! Intuitively, this feels totally inadequate to me, but does help reduce my level of paranoia in supermarkets especially, where aisles are never 2 metres wide and therefore passing people at all infringes that 2m/6ft zone.
Why are we being bombarded with the message of keeping 2m/6ft away? A couple of things occur to me. Firstly, perhaps it is a sensible precautionary measure that acknowledges the ignorance levels in the country as to what 2 meters/6ft actually looks like on the ground, and thereby in stating 2m we might actually achieve the 1 metre guideline. Or else, perhaps, it is part of a deliberate policy to crank up paranoia. Surely not.
Overall, I am all in favour of the precautionary principle, so I will continue to respect and expect the 2 metre distance around me as much as possible, but with a now greater understanding that it is far from a critical thing in itself. Indeed, I know of places where they are encouraging up to 4 metre social distancing – but that is in places where there is plenty of space available to make that practicable, and better safe than sorry is a perfectly reasonable stance to take. More of which later!
DEATH/MORTALITY RATES FROM THE VIRUS
These are pointless and impossible to calculate with any degree of accuracy worthy of the name. This is a matter of simply understanding the statistics. As a geographer by training, demographic statistics were a stock tool of my trade. In a generic form, mortality rates can be seen as calculated using:
where d represents the deaths from whatever cause of interest is specified that occur within a given time period, p represents the size of the population in which the deaths occur (however this population is defined or limited), and 10n is the conversion factor from the resulting fraction to another unit (e.g. most commonly multiplying by 103 to get a mortality rate per 1,000 individuals, or 102 to give a percentage, which is per 100, and is being used in most reports of the pandemic.
In simple terms, to calculate the death rate percentage from covid-19, we need:
- The number of deaths from covid-19
- The total number of people who have contracted the disease.
The number of deaths is very straightforward. You simply count the corpses. It is hard to hide this figure and we can rely on it being very accurate in most parts of the world, and certainly in the UK. Although it has to said that China is not ‘most parts of the world’ and has quite a track record of ‘disappearing’ people and corpses.
But as for determining the total number of people who have the disease, that is an entirely different matter and totally beyond any country to produce accurate figures at this stage.
It is entirely dependent on testing the entire population to see who has had it. It has to be the entire population tested as many are asymptomatic; in fact everybody is for a number of days before the symptoms emerge. The symptoms are also relatively common ones, which in their milder forms can very easily be confused with other conditions, especially the seasonal influenza variants that are also out there.
Thus these figures will be utterly meaningless to us until calculated after the epidemic is passed and every single person is given the antibody test to establish whether they had it or not (not forgetting to add on the subset of the population that have died from it along the course of the pandemic)
There has been some spurious talk about the fact that a lot of the dead had underlying conditions and/or were very old and therefore some would have died anyway during the course of the pandemic. While this is undoubtedly true, this has no relevance as to whether or not the coronavirus was ultimately the final straw. Once this virus gets a foothold in care homes, it will likely prove catastrophic.
I need to qualify the ‘utterly meaningless’ comment before I get taken to task for it. Wrestling with these inaccurate figures is the area of expertise of epidemiologists. They manipulate the raw data on the basis of assumptions derived from past experiences and other data analysis of risk factors and the like. It is an imprecise science at the best of times, yet can, and does, play an important part in public health policy and practice. It is used (and occasionally abused) as a tool to rationalise resource allocation decisions for health services. It will have been used, I expect, in the decision, in 2017, not to stock PPE for NHS staff up to pandemic levels!
Until we have definitive data that we can make sense of, these on-the-hoof, knowingly inaccurate statistics should be kept out of public discourse, or at the very least ignored.
PROJECTED DEATHS FROM THE VIRUS
This is one, simple-looking statistic that epidemiologists can be asked to conjure up. This they do with varying degrees of rigour and based on differing sets of assumptions. It makes for an interesting academic exercise that can outline the range of likely outcomes and be an aid for planning, but in the hands of the media and politicians it can take on an insidious propaganda role.
Throughout most of this crisis, the projections bandied about the most have been these from the reputable source of Imperial College, London University, Epidemiology Department:
This successfully built the pressure to implement, and public acceptance of, measures such as school closures, social distancing and the isolating of the vulnerable; more of which shortly.
In mid-February, Imperial epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson went public with a comment that 400,000 deaths in the UK was ‘not absurd’, but inferred that he expected the government response to succeed in bringing this figure down drastically.
4 weeks later, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Vallance, was saying that 20,000 deaths would be a ‘good outcome’ in the circumstances, but admitted that “If you put all the modelling information together, that’s a reasonable ballpark way of looking at it. It’s not more accurate than that.”
However, on 28th March, we see the publication of another paper from Professor Tom Pike, also of Imperial College, that reckons the death toll could be kept to a relatively modest 5,700 if Britain succeeds in maintaining social distancing, as in China. However, I do have a number of issues about this paper. First and foremost, Tom Pike is not an epidemiologist. In fact it is difficult to see how he is significantly better qualified than I am, given that his area of academic expertise, while at a significantly higher level, is in the less relevant discipline of electrical and electronic engineering, with, on a closer look, a specialisation in micro-engineering for space exploration vehicles.
In addition, from what I can gather, he has simply looked at the progress of the disease in China, using their reported figures, and then extrapolated that to the UK from the point of lockdown here. There are fewer holes in a colander than in this research design! Nonetheless, his report is being bandied around without any such qualification as if it is of equal merit to Neil Ferguson’s work and as some sort evidence that the UK strategy is having the desired impact. To use appropriate academic language, that is bollocks.
To be fair, Pike pretty much admits as much. Answering questions about the new paper on Twitter, Professor Pike says the estimates are purely data driven and ‘there is no epidemiological modelling, or in fact any modelling, in our analysis.’ In other words, it’s tantamount to rough calculations on a bit of scrap paper, done over a tea break.
This is where we run into problems with experts. It’s not that they try to deceive anyone at all. They only ever seek to enlighten us. But there are experts and then there are ‘experts’. A bricklayer may be regarded as an expert in their field, but you wouldn’t want them extracting a tooth for you. Neil Ferguson is a respected expert in a relevant discipline. Tom Pike is a respected expert in a completely irrelevant field. He should have known better than to get involved, to be quite frank, and I would expect Ferguson to be pretty livid about it. And I suspect the government are not too impressed either, even though it might seem to be endorsement of their strategy. Are we to lay every death over 5,700 at their door? Hold that thought.
THE USE & ABUSE OF ‘EXPERTS’ FOR PROPAGANDA PURPOSES
In terms of the use of these projections, be they be by experts or otherwise, their main use to government is in managing expectations among the general public. There is nothing unusual in this. It is standard marketing strategy. Talk up the size of the problem and your solution will seem all the more efficacious.
So, scary, apocalyptic predictions based on worst case scenarios, whereby nothing is done, are a great starting point. Look what will happen if our Government does absolutely nothing! 400,000 to 500,000 deaths according to this trustworthy expert! (I have seen figures of up to 650,000 dead in the UK from less trustworthy non-experts).
This appeared to be exactly the Johnson/Cummings masterplan up until a mere two weeks ago. (Click on image)
This is Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser trying to justify the target of allowing at least 60% of the population to contract the virus in order to produce “herd immunity”. This is on the 13th March. Note the ticker tape comment about PM deciding to keep schools open. Johnson repeated the herd immunity policy on breakfast TV, including his now-notorious ‘take it on the chin’ quip!
This was clearly a huge miscalculation in terms of the PR, and the uproar, as people began to see 500,000 deaths as a real prospect, forced a change of approach within 48 hours, as reported in Tory rag, the Express:
Up until 15th March, official government advice consisted of wash your hands for 20 seconds regularly and self-isolate if you have either of the two main symptoms of a fever and/or a persistent cough. That was it.
Despite no such pressure from the government, the FA Premier League and EFL decided enough was enough and suspended their programmes with immediate effect on 13th. They were being pressured by all sorts of bodies and the example of leagues all over Europe (shut down by their governments mostly) to cancel fixtures.
This may well have been in part due to this damning indictment by Professor John Ashton (a passionate and well-known Liverpool FC supporter) on Question Time on 12th March.
Is John Ashton worth listening to? The fact that he is a member of the Labour Party may arouse suspicion in some, he is an outstanding and well-respected expert in the field of public health.
John Ashton was far from being alone in being critical of Johnson’s approach. Even the Tory-faithful Telegraph readers were queueing up to take a pop at him on 13th March
The Tory-inclined Business Insider ran with this, also on 13th March:
So, by Monday 16th March, the government was in total disarray and had to try and get a grip somehow. When you have the Right’s pierced organ that is Piers Morgan laying into you over breakfast, describing your response as ‘completely unacceptable’, you really are in a bit of trouble.
This saw the instigation of the PM’s daily coronavirus updates to the nation, flanked by (I said “flanked”) the less than dynamic duo of Prof Chris Whitty (UK’s Chief Medical Adviser- CMA) and Prof Patrick “herd immunity” Vallance (UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser- CSA).
Let us examine the progress of these press conferences to the nation and other key events from this wake up point.
Monday 16th March
- Whole families should self-isolate for 14 days if anyone has symptoms. No news on any support for businesses or families, financial or otherwise, in doing this.
- Don’t go to pubs, clubs or other mass gatherings. We’re not actually closing any down or banning any events though, so it really is up to you. That would cost my buddies in the insurance sector way too much!
- Over 70s please stay away from everybody for at least 12 weeks (no matter how fit and well you are, as a one-size-fits-all approach is much simpler, and we like simple)
- Blueprints of designs for ventilators are being sent out to UK manufacturers (of anything, because we haven’t much manufacturing left these days) with a view to ordering 20,000. Maybe. If needed. Wakey, wakey Jim Dyson (this one is for you, buddy).
Tuesday 17th March
- Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveils the new tag line to replace “Get Brexit Done”. It is the equally naff “Whatever It Takes”. Sounds no more convincing after saying it 6 times in three minutes than it did on first hearing.
- He does announce an impressive sounding, but totally inadequate £330bn in LENDING (“at favourable rates”, despite the base rate being as good as zero!), for large and medium businesses. (Will obviously help if you’re a Tory donor!)
- £20bn to be made available (not sure how yet) to small businesses in the form of grants of between £25-30,000. (Only need £10k? Grovel to your bank?)
- UK-EU trade talks called off indefinitely, but don’t fret Brexiteers, No.10 assures you that the transition won’t be extended, virtually guaranteeing you the Holy Grail of that No Deal Brexit we have dreamed of for so long. Our victory is complete! (Shhh…. Keep this one quiet, as we are hoping nobody notices.)
Wednesday 18th March
- Schools, colleges and nurseries in England to close on Friday. The time was patently NOT right for this a mere two days ago. Despite pressure from just about everyone, except my trusted CMA and CSA, we stood firm supported by the (carefully selected) science. But now that same science says now is that right time. It’s nothing to do with those bastards in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland daring to use their devolved control over education to step out of line and announce it this morning (with immediate effect in Northern Ireland, where neighbouring Eire have had schools closed since 12th March). We do do the right things at the right time, honestly, because our scientists really are the best. So when this proves not to be the case, I will be blaming these suckers.
- London is at crisis point, so if they don’t behave and go home to starve without two quid to rub together, then the pubs may have to be shut down after all. Or something like that. (Maybe Wetherspoons could be exempt?)
- Evictions to be banned for three months as renters probably won’t be able to pay rent. Kick them out later when they can’t clear the arrears.
Thursday 19th March
- “We can turn the tide in 12 weeks” if everyone does as they are told, without actually being made to comply (cue “Land of Hope and Glory”); and the PM is “absolutely confident we can send Coronavirus packing in this country” (cue “Rule Britannia”). Winston would be proud!
- UK Vaccine trials may start within a month (but don’t hold your breath)
- No new measures at all. “We’re guided by the science” (when we find some we like) and “nothing is ruled out” (when our arms are twisted hard enough). Btw, I’m getting bored with this charade so may not bother soon.
Friday 20th March
- Sorry Tim Martin et al, but the pressure has finally tolled and all nightclubs, pubs, restaurants, gyms and other social venues really must close now. Well, tomorrow will do; it is Friday night after all!
- Chancellor agrees to pay 80% of wages up to £2500 to employees in the companies of (mostly Tory supporting) large and medium businesses. The Institute of Fiscal Studies suggest this will cover a mere 10% of the workforce and on that basis cost £10bn over first three months). Self-employed? Don’t be silly, that’s a bit too complicated (and not enough of you vote correctly). Make do on Universal Credit if you can jump through enough hoops.
- Talking of which, in recognition that no-one can survive on the current UC of a pitiable, nay derisory £73.34 a week (single childless adult), that will go up for a whole year (boundless generosity being the trademark of this peri-socialist chancellor!) to a just woeful £92.57 per week (and you can’t even blow it in Wetherspoons – sorry again, Tim)
Saturday 21st March
- Please stop panic buying.
- Don’t see mum on Mother’s Day (tomorrow).
Sunday 22nd March
- Social hubs will be set up to provide supplies for those asked to stay indoors for 12 weeks. (This is in memory of Dai Cameron’s famous ‘Big Society’ notion of getting you to rely on each other because you can’t rely on Tory governments to look after you).
- Today also saw French President Macron steam in to attack Johnson’s inadequate response. He basically declared that the UK’s border with France and the entire EU would be closed if Johnson didn’t get his shit together and impose a proper shutdown.
Monday 23rd March
- You bastards are not listening so I’m being forced (by a threatened cabinet revolt,as well as Macron) to do even more stuff I don’t want to do.
- Stay the fuck at home (unless you fall into a wide range of loosely termed exceptions) because if the Police don’t like the look of you (we all know who that means) they will harass you more than usual and fine you money you probably haven’t got.
- We’re trying to buy millions of test kits but its really hard because so many other countries snapped them up weeks ago. Sorry.
Tuesday 24th March
- Army to build a 4,000 bed makeshift hospital in the Excel Centre in the east end of London (cue Theme from M.A.S.H.).
- 35,000 former NHS workers lured out of retirement etc. because they, more than most, know just how effectively we have trimmed it to the bone and driven them out in the first place. (It could have been more, but those that chose better pay and conditions, shelf-filling and the like, are now equally key workers in their new less stressful careers.)
- That still won’t be anywhere near enough staff so would you all mind bailing out the NHS by volunteering. (You’ll be fast-tracked into the frontline before you know it!). We need at least 250,000 of you or we’re fucked it would appear.
Wednesday 25th March
- So many of you know how dire the state of the NHS is these days, and/or have nothing better to do now you’ve been laid off, that a genuinely impressive 405,000 people have volunteered to help out in 24 hrs. It will probably take 6 months to wade through all those applicants, of course, by which time 10,000 of you will be dead, but thanks anyway.
- Still sorry we cannot seem to buy many test kits. We really should have thought about it a bit more in January when this thing first kicked off, but the wi-fi in Mustique was a bit ropey and Carrie (aka ‘Apples’) was ripe for the plucking and taking my mind off of everything (well almost everything 😉 )
- We might have to think about legislation to prevent unscrupulous wideboys profiteering during this national crisis. This is infringing on the territory of the big boys who fund our Party, so unlike most other things, it really does have to stop immediately!
Thursday 26th March
- We have finally thought about the feckless sole trader and self-employed tradesman and if you complete a ream of paperwork to prove your average monthly trading profit over the past three years, you might get 80% of that (up to £2500 max) in June if your lucky. Not been in business that long? You’re still fucked. Set up as a limited company employee? You’re still fucked too. Hopefully all the laid off airline and hotel staff can be conned into doing the admin work to give you half a chance of seeing something in June.
- Oh, btw, we’ll claw it back by raising national insurance for the self-employed when it’s over. (Shh!!!!)
- If you’re not covered by everything now, forget it. Its UC or nothing. Nothing would be our preference.
Friday 27th March
- Whoops. Boris Johnson (PM) has tested positive. Perhaps brazenly ignoring the ‘no handshakes’ protocol wasn’t so clever after all. And before anyone gets too excited, Dominic Raab will step into PM’s shoes if necessary (define necessary, please!).
- Oh dear. Matt Hancock (Health Secretary) has tested positive.
- What a shame. Chris Whitty (CMA) has started to display symptoms, but he’s not special enough, like NHS staff in general aren’t either, to be given a test. It’s establishment members only at the moment (PM, heir to the throne, selected celebrities).
So, that is it to date.
“We will do the right things at the right times”
“Whatever it takes”
Is anyone really buying this anymore?
Or is it just cynical old me giving Johnson et al a hard time because I loathe the Tories on principle?
I really do not think so. If the above doesn’t convince you that Johnson has done the least he could, as late as he could, with untold consequences for the eventual death toll, then perhaps a closer look at the timeline, from the very beginning will help.
The disease was first identified on 1st December 2019 in Wuhan. It was still confined to Wuhan and Hubei province at the end of December. In early January it started to break out into the rest of China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand.
At this point the WHO and UN started to sit up and take notice and on 9th January the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) issued its first risk assessment and guidance. The ECDPC consists of the EU members plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. The UK left it on 1st of January!
This is roughly the point at which the whole world was put on notice that it was on its way and the wise started to make plans. The word ‘pandemic’ wasn’t even muttered at this stage, but started to gain traction by the end of January as the first cases outside of Asia were beginning to get reported, in Australia, Canada, Japan, Sri Lanka, Germany, Austria, Romania, Ecuador, Poland, France, Brazil, Armenia, USA, Italy (first case 30th January) and UK (first case 31st January).
By the end of January, China was effectively locked down and despite soaring infection rates and death rates, was beginning to see a degree of control established.On 30th of January, 120 Britons were evacuated from Wuhan, flown to Brize Norton and then driven, somewhat bizarrely, to a campus on the Wirral for 2 weeks quarantine.
During the course of February, it started to become clearer and clearer to most that this was no ordinary flu bug and that this was going to have far-reaching consequences across the globe. But the numbers, while increasingly widespread, were still pretty modest outside of China. Only the wise and proactive were seeing the writing on the wall. Guess who that wasn’t.
By 14th of February, most European countries were making detailed plans and preparations. Simple basic stuff, like getting orders for PPE and ventilators processed, checking over and servicing existing equipment, training staff. Should the UK be taking such steps? Two Labour MPs Lilian Greenwood and Alex Sobel, that had been in contact with a confirmed case, certainly thought so as they took themselves off into self-quarantine. But in the UK advice to procure PPE for NHS staff in case of a pandemic was rejected back in 2017, on the basis that NHS finances were too tight to cover what-ifs!!
By 23rd February, Italy was imposing a lockdown on the large area at the centre of their rampant outbreak. Iran was being isolated by its neighbours closing its borders and airspace, as it too was spiking alarmingly.
The daily WHO Coronavirus Bulletin reached edition 40 on 29th February. It was now evident that Italy was the new hotspot rising to third behind China and South Korea, with Spain also beginning to take off, and the UK clocking up its 23rd case (one in Wales). Pressure was mounting for a more proactive response from the Government. This was fairly typical:
That first COBRA meeting duly took place after the weekend, on Monday 2nd of March and produced nothing but soundbites. It amounted to agreeing a plan to devise a plan, with the first draft of “the right steps, at the right time” being glimpsed as he spoke to the media afterwards. But this does at least mark the start of the government taking a modicum of serious notice. I’m far from alone in thinking that at least 6 weeks were wasted.
Nothing much was seen or heard over the next few days, other than assurances that all the right plans and preparations were being looked after. Its anyone’s guess what that actually meant in practice as it sure wasn’t getting PPE in place for front line staff, or ensuring adequate ventilators would be available.
Ventilators were already scarce, as the rest of Europe shared them out. Not that they were being mean or selfish about it. The EU invited the UK to collaborate in a joint program to boost the supply of ventilators, but the PM’s spokesman is on record as saying the UK would not be taking part because “We are no longer members of the EU”. Instead Johnson said he would seek the thousands of ventilators needed from British manufacturers.
But even this relatively noble, if misguided sounding aspiration is now mired in controversy. Instead of getting established existing manufacturers to upscale, such as MEC Medical, they shunned these. turning instead to high profile engineering companies with no direct experience to design and produce new equipment, such as the Tories very own ‘Technology Tsar,’ James Dyson.
So 10,000 ordered, and 15,000 pledged of these deluxe beauties, despite them not yet seeing the light of day, let alone being tested and approved for use. And the cost? Well, that’s a secret!
Upscaling existing production could have seen deliveries starting within a few days. MEC reckon they could have had 500 ready to deliver at very short notice, but that ship has apparently now sailed. Whereas this from-scratch approach will take many weeks. MEC know this as they have been contacted to make parts and accessories! The turn-around time for these alone, will be measured in weeks. Quite frankly, this stinks and is patently not in anyone’s but Dyson and Tory Party interests.
And now we hear, from an admittedly utterly unreliable source, that Johnson is begging Trump (yes, Trump is the source) for any spare ventilators lying around the USA. As if!!
No matter what your political disposition, I struggle to see how anyone can seriously defend Boris Johnson’s handling of this admittedly unprecedented crisis. I also struggle to imagine any other PM in my lifetime being as bad and acting against the whole nations well-being so damnedly, and there are plenty of contenders. Yes, I really do think May, Cameron and Blair would have been marginally preferable.
The great irony is that Johnson has been backed into a corner whereby he and his chancellor have had to enact and enable a whole raft of essentially socialist policies in order to allow their precious neoliberal market-are-king capitalism to survive at all. Although, in reality there is nothing really socialist about it at all, of course. It’s part of the disaster capitalism we saw with the 2008 banking crash. Most of the money dished out will end up in the hands of the mega rich while the plebs will be back grovelling for minimum wages again, grateful to have a job at all.
When Torygraph columnists are clamouring for this, you should know it is not all it seems:
Does this mean that we would have been better of with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm? In principle, most certainly. He would have enacted most of these socialist policies and more much quicker and with a lot more conviction and attention to detail. But I simply cannot see the masses, that have been so successfully poisoned against JC, being any more respectful of pleas to respect social distancing rules, and I really struggle to imagine the Tory media supporting and lauding Corbyn implementing socialist measures, as they would be in place for good, rather than as a short-term crisis strategy to save their world for the return of normal capitalist service as soon as possible. But hey, I never thought I’d see many of the things I’ve witnessed in the last few weeks, so who knows. We will never know, sadly.
What we can be certain of is that Boris is and will continue to be responsible for an indeterminably large number of deaths that could have been avoided. It will probably end up being many tens of thousands. It may yet prove to be the cataclysmic total of several hundreds of thousands. The Financial Times suggests that the UK strategy is likely to cause 35,000-70,000 excess deaths. I’m not going to dispute this. He has probably pretty much achieved his herd immunity strategy through the back door through his persistent tardiness in doing anything.
For this he ought to be held properly accountable, like any mass killer, but instead he will probably end up being knighted for services to the establishment and capital. At the very least, he can be seen to be continuing in the long-established tradition of culling the poor and the vulnerable. Add the 70,000 mentioned above to the 130,000 excess deaths attributed to Tory austerity over the last few years, and you have 200,000 thousand largely unproductive people that the state no longer needs to support. That represents a ‘result’ to many sick Tory minds.
In the end, the actual numbers barely matter to how we should judge Boris Johnson and his handling of this crisis. Remember where we started from in talking about statistics. The undeniable state of affairs is that whatever the death toll from this virus in the UK, it could have and should have been less. It is also undeniable that that it would be more but for the interventions of others too force Johnson’s bloodied hand. Thank you, devolved administrations, for forcing through the school closures. Thank you, President Macron, for forcing through the semblance of a proper lockdown. Thank you, Tory cabinet ministers, for standing up and threatening a revolt to get him to act. Although you should take him down anyway.
So we find ourselves with another PM, like Blair, with blood on his hands and innumerable lives cut short by his thoughts and deeds.
I’ll have to leave this here, as I’m choking up with a mixture of anger, frustration, resentment and desperate sadness. Aneurin Bevan was right enough about Tories, but he never really met a Tory quite like Johnson.
A few days after publishing this article, on 31st March, perhaps the most damning and incendiary revelation of Tory culpability for the scale of this crisis was revealed by, of all people, the Tory stalwarts and chief propagandists of the Telegraph!
It transpires that Exercise Cygnet is the code-name of an exercise undertaken in October 2016, a few months into Theresa May’s tenure as Prime Minister, with Jeremy Hunt as Health Secretary and Boris Johnson tucked away in the Foreign Office, but very much part of the Cabinet , present and involved.
The Telegraph writers paint the scene in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBRA) vividly:
“Ministers from across government were seated, ashen faced, in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room. On a large flat screen, epidemiologists from Imperial College London were showing a slide which detailed the scale of the epidemic that was enveloping Britain.”
“The first cases of the virus had been confirmed in south east Asia two months previously. Britain reported its first cases, imported from returning travellers, a month later. Now there was widespread and sustained domestic transmission and the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared a global pandemic.”
“But it was not the pandemic itself that was causing those gathered in Whitehall to grimace but the nation’s woeful preparation. The peak of the epidemic had not yet arrived but local resilience forums, hospitals and mortuaries across the country were already being overwhelmed.”
“There was not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for the nation’s doctors and nurses. The NHS was about to “fall over” due to a shortage of ventilators and critical care beds. Morgues were set to overflow, and it had become terrifyingly evident that the government’s emergency messaging was not getting traction with the public.”
Apart from the whole Cabinet, it transpire that the were also representatives of the NHS and local authorities present, presumably gagged by the Official Secrets Act. I have found no evidence that there was any involvement of the devolved administrations of Wales, Scotland and N.Ireland. That would be useful to know for sure.
The modelling was prepared by the same team at Imperial College whose projection I have already highlighted. The whole exercise made patently clear to all present that there were gaping holes in Britain’s Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response (EPRR) plan.
OK, the exercise wasn’t for Covid-19 coronavirus, which didn’t exist then, but was based on modelling for the H2N2 influenza virus. However, both spread rapidly and kill by causing acute respiratory illness.
The Telegraph highlights the other key difference:
While the real Covid-19 epidemic is being played out in public, the report detailing the findings of Exercise Cygnus have never seen the light of day. A senior former government source with direct involvement in the exercise said they were deemed “too terrifying” to be revealed. Others involved cited “national security” concerns.”
“There has been a reluctance to put Cygnus out in the public domain because frankly it would terrify people,” said the former senior government source yesterday. (‘Yesterday’ would have been 27th March).
“It’s right to say that the NHS was stretched beyond breaking point [by Cygnus]. People might say we have blood on our hands but the fact is that it’s always easier to manage the last outbreak than the one coming down the track. Hindsight is a beautiful thing.”
So why has this exercise been buried from view? We can all speculate about that, but we do know a few other damning things that happened consequently. For example, at a meeting of the Public Health England (PHE) advisory board on 26 April 2017 (six months later), Paul Cosford, the quango’s director for health protection, has said that a report “setting out the learning and recommendations” from Cygnus “was in the process of being finalised” but it never saw the light of day.
As for NHS England, the Telegraph has only managed to uncover evidence of cursory consideration of the Cygnus exercise and findings. Apparently, the editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton, has called on the NHS board to “resign in their entirety” once the current crisis is over on discovering this Cygnus cover-up. Whatever, the revelation the government and the NHS leadership knew of the gaps in Britain’s surge capacity ahead of the current outbreak cannot go ignored.
The Telegraph has also uncovered references to Cygnus in the records of a range of local authorities in England. It cites Croydon, Rotherham and Northampton in particular. The Croydon one is within the last few weeks. Croydon Council’s latest Pandemic Response Plan makes mention of Cygnus. A key lesson from the exercise, it notes, is the need for “a better understanding of the likely public reaction” to a pandemic in order to “help the development of a robust communications strategy to assist the response”. The irony of this is not lost on the Telegraph writers, who suggest “the importance of this will not be lost on Number 10 communication chiefs who have faced criticism in recent weeks for their failure to communicate clearly and effectively with the public.”
So here we have it laid bare by die-hard Tory supporters. I’ll leave the final word to them, and allow you to formulate your own opinions accordingly:
“Exercise Cygnus starkly revealed what a worst case pandemic scenario would do to Britain but ministers did not respond by building capacity enough to cover it.”