‘Twas the Night before lockdown.

The Mutual Self Help WhatsApp group set up on our road is now mostly used for neighbours to post up some spectacular photos, advertise lost cats and check with each other if the Virgin Broadband internet connection has gone down AGAIN.

On the walk past the park down to the shops J remarks that she keeps being sent ads for for something she has only talked about on the phone and not clicked on. Alexa is watching you.

An electric sign above the entrance to Aldi asks people to stop and wait if it is showing red and come in if it is showing green. It is showing red. Everyone is going in. Some jobs have to be done by people. A sign on a door is advice from a technological slave. A person on a door sets up a relationship with a peer. Even if they’d put the stop/go lights in a cardboard cut out of a person – like those replica Policemen they use to nudge people not to shoplift at Morrisons – it would have worked better. Even a picture of eyes looking at you clicks on your conscience.

Coffee with COVID?

In the vast Lebanese eatery by the tube station, where we risk a coffee, a brisk trade is given a slightly edgy feel by impending closure – and the way that the black clad, elegant staff, who sashay between tables carrying trays above their shoulders in one hand with an almost French flourish, are all wearing masks that don’t cover their noses. S showed us a poster that compared wearing a mask without covering the nose to wearing a condom that just covers the testicles. With picture. This is now impossible to un-see every time someone comes past wearing their mask in an “off the nose” style.

Out of the windows of the Bus, people scurry past the shops in the twilight wearing masks, stocking up. Posters spell out the current level of warning and measures to be taken. A recorded announcement proclaims the need for all passengers to wear masks. Several people without them show no sign of having heard it. The style is dystopian and isolating – feels like being on a different planet – rather than humane and mobilising. Probably the best the Tories can do. They can only mobilise in national terms. Humanity is a bit beyond them.

On the way back up the hill, our local UKIP supporter’s cinema screen TV lights up the street with the interminable US presidential results programme’s hypnotic red and blue dyptich glowing in a darkened living room. Biting their nails for the wrong result.

Listening to Radio 4 while washing up – as you do – I realise that Michael Buerk’s voice is two parts sigh to three parts sneer.

Biting the sound bites – “its no worse than the flu…”

As the pandemic has rebounded and restrictions are necessarily being brought back in – however reluctantly – some discredited old chestnuts from the Spring have been picked up, dusted off and pressed back into service in the hope that – if they are repeated enough with sufficient self confidence – people will take them seriously – and even repeat them under the impression that they are being bravely iconoclastic.

This is easy to check. The World Health Organisation figures for annual global deaths from seasonal flu give a range from 290,000 to 650,000, depending on the virulence of the strain. This is with normal health measures an vaccines deployed. The comparison looks like this.

So all the exceptional measures taken have kept COVID deaths down to somewhere between one and a half and three and a half times the annual impact of season flu in an eight month period. Imagine the death toll if we’d actually have tried to “let it rip” and “take it on the chin.”

In the UK, on average seasonal flu kills 17,000 people a year. Official government figures (which are on the conservative side in more ways than one) state that there have been 43,726 deaths so far. The ONS statistic for the number of excess deaths for the COVID period compared to annual averages is over 67,000 – a more accurate indication of its impact. That looks like this.

The columns for COVID should have an arrow head on them – because they are still going up.

With no vaccine and with exceptional hygiene and social distancing measures deployed, global deaths from COVID19 are over 1,008,000 so far; and with a daily death toll at a steady 5,000 or so it clearly has a long way to run until either an effective vaccine is found or effective measures are taken to eliminate the virus. It bears repeating that it took China just six weeks to eliminate domestic infections – keeping their total death toll below 5,000; so the aversion in the West to learning from their experince is looking more and more like self harm as time goes on and the casualties mount.

All figures accurate as of 20/10/20.

Quiet, but not quite quiet enough.

With the sudden sharp and shocking increase in Coronavirus infections there are fewer people out and about, and they seem to be moving slower, more carefully, more wary and considerate, aware of the fragility of life and taking the time to live its most mundane moments more fully.

The traffic is sparser and has lost the feverish quality of the return to normal that everyone knew wasn’t a return to normal, a sense of living on thinner ice than we’d thought, with too many cars moving too fast, hurrying through, cutting each other up, drivers with frightened eyes, vehicular Social Darwinism; now back to the calm between storms.

Outside Tesco, it is peaceful and tidy. A few weeks ago there were flocks of discarded plastic bags doing dances in the air on the vortexes of wind that were whipping and wheeling, floating up and drifting down, like some elegant, new, ugly life form.

In the meadowed part of the park, the wildflowers planted by the council to save the bees are having a late surge; now head high in places, an impressionists palette of magenta, buttery yellow and cornflower blue waving in the wind and pale autumn light. Magnificent.

Passing the local High School – on the “concern” list for the Local Authority after cases of COVID – and a year group “bubble” is out in the lower school playground. A couple of hundred students scattered in the usual tight clumps, giving no impression that anything unusual is going on.

Though the Moot of eight old chaps that used to sit in a circle smack in the middle and take it in turns to hold forth and put the world to wrongs has dispersed, the socially distanced Yoga class on the far side of the park carries on as normal with all thirty of its participants doing the downward dog in a wide circle, rule of six or no rule of six. Were they to be arrested, the charge sheet would be surreal. A few elderly people without masks puff and wheeze on the outdoor gym.

Picking up some light reading from the library and both the latest Le Carre (1) and Mick Herron (2) efforts involve increasing tension between UK and German Intelligence in the context of Brexit; with double agent plots in both. Herron’s barely disguised satire on Boris Johnson gets full marks from a battery of reviewers in the Telegraph, Mail and Express; indicating more self awareness from those titles in their culture section than they would ever admit to in News and Comment. Surprising they didn’t called it treasonous.

In my local Tesco they have moved the toilet rolls into the same row as the Newspapers. Looking at the headlines this morning, I can see their point.

1. Agent running in the field.

2. Joe country.

Virus to Johnson. “Feeling lucky…punk?”

The UK economy has been hit worse by the Coronaviris crisis than any other in the developed world. (1) The OECD projects an 11.5% drop in economic activity.

Under the impact of this economic pressure, the government is compounding its problems by trying to unlock the economy before the virus is contained and without adequate systems for containing it; which sets us up for chaos.

The measures announced by the Chancellor on July 8th are hopelessly tactical, lack any strategic vision capable of mobilising people behind it; and amount to little more than a set of minor bungs to Conservative supporting sectors – the stamp duty holiday primarily benefiting private landlords, the £1000 retention bonus just a top up for firms that are secure enough to retain their workers until January.

The decisive question for any economic recovery is investment. If the government and/or companies invest, the economy is stimulated, work is done, goods are made and services provided, income is generated, tax revenue comes in, workers are hired and so on, in a virtuous cycle.

The problem we have is that we have a government which believes that the purpose of economic activity is not “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, nor the most efficient use of available resources to enrich the lives of the people, or address deep rooted threats to our civilisation like poverty or ignorance, let alone the degradation of the environment we live in and the breakdown of the climactic conditions we need to survive. They believe that the purpose of the economy, and society come to that, is to produce profits. All else flows from that.

That’s why they are not committed to state led investment to put as many solar panels as possible on as many roofs as we can find and wind farms in all the potential places, to retrofit our housing and public building stock to reduce energy demand and bills, to strategically invest in urban mini forests and rewild swathes of the countryside, to electrify our remaining railways – to mention just four initiatives that could generate jobs while cutting carbon emissions as drastically as we need to. Instead, they are giving tiny nudges to the private sector in the hope that they will invest – in anything, they are not fussed about what – instead.

The problem with that is that they won’t. The private sector is risk averse and will only invest if it thinks a profit can be turned on the investment. If the experience of ten years of austerity – in which this approach was tried to death – isn’t enough to convince, a recent survey of company finance directors by Deloitte should be enough to administer the coup de grace. Sixty five percent of the companies surveyed said that they will be cutting investment in the next three years.

The Private Sector is not going to invest.

That is because eighty percent of them expect their revenues to decrease in the next year.

80% also believe that their business faces uncertainty – could close – in the next year too.

This is underlined by the latest projection from the Office for Budget Responsibility. And what a reassuringly anal retentive title that is; conjuring images of mean spirited accountants in their counting house, counting out their money, and taking care of the pennies so the pounds can take care of themselves. They project that – left to itself – the economy will not recover until the end of 2022 and unemployment will rise rapidly to 10% in the meantime. One in ten workers having to claim and scrape by on Universal Benefit.

For the government’s approach, there is an even more serious problem. Investment from the private sector is contingent on profitability, and most of the companies in the survey are cutting dividends to share holders and cutting down on share buybacks, which inflate the salaries of top executives. No profits, no “animal spirits”, no investment. Boris Johnson can wave all the Union Jacks he likes; his patriotic verbal bluster does not affect the hard nosed financial calculations currently being made, except, perhaps negatively as the gap between his “global Britain” rhetoric and the reality of what we are heading for at the end of the year is clearly understood in business circles.

Fewer than a quarter of firms are increasing Dividends (profit payments) almost two thirds are paying nothing.

This is overwhelmingly the case for manufacturing, in which 90% cut payments. The Manufacturing and Engineering employers organisation MAKE UK reported on 20 July that only 15% of companies are back to full time working and begged for an extension of the furlough scheme for another six months to help prevent the worst loss of skilled jobs since the 1980s. (2) With the cut off point for the scheme in October, firms are already starting redundancy processes so they can carry out the legally required consultation period before the axes fall. This is on a very large scale in manufacturing, with just over a half of them planning redundancies in the next 6 months. Other hard hit sectors, like hospitality and retail, are not going to be saved by a few half price pizza vouchers for slow days in half of August.

Of those planning redundancies, 8% are looking at between a quarter and a half of their workforce, while a third are looking at a tenth and a quarter. Imagine how it feels to be working in one of these places now.

The Chancellor’s statement that “this is not a time for orthodoxy and ideology” is about to be exposed. Without drastic government action, and direct investment, thousands and thousands of workers are about to lose their jobs, which will prevent any recovery taking place at all and put people all over the country into desperate straits. The ending of the eviction ban this week just as this kicks in adds a whole extra layer of insecurity and threat.

No doubt the government considers this bracing and character building because, instead of investing, they are planning to cut regulation and launch twenty Free Ports, which will suck such investment as there is to zones that don’t pay tax and blight everywhere else. As if what is holding these companies back from the scale of investment that is needed is the “red tape” that holds them to minimally acceptable standards of behavior towards their employees and the environment.

Crucially, this is not what the company finance directors told Deloitte. They did not say they were primarily concerned with regulation. They were very clear about the three factors which inhibited any investment plans.

1. The Coronavirus pandemic.

2. The prospect of a No Deal Brexit.

3. Worsening Geo-political conflicts (for which read Trump’s trade war with China and the fear that worse could follow). (3)

So, the three big issues preventing the private sector from investing are the central plank of the government’s agenda – “get Brexit done”- their willingness to be dragooned into a fight with China by the USA and their failure to get on top of the virus.

The paradox of this is that had a Corbyn Labour government been elected in December neither a supine response to pressure from the USA to engage in a trade war, nor a no deal Brexit would have been on the agenda. Nor is it possible to imagine that such a government would have handled the Coronavirus crisis worse than this one has. Almost without exception, the countries that have performed most catastrophically have been wedded to neo-liberalism. The allegiance of the business class to Conservative rule therefore comes across as a form of self harm, but underlines the essential perception that, for them, economic well being, even of their own firms, comes second to continued control of the economy by their class. If they are prepared to hammer themselves in this way, the harm done to the rest of us is collateral damage that barely registers on their radar.

Faced with the scale of this crisis, the response to all these issues from the Labour opposition should be clearer, louder and sharper and demonstrate the vision that the Conservatives lack.

  1. The Coronavirus pandemic. Its clear from this that squashing the virus down to nothing is a precondition for a serious economic recovery. That’s what was done and is happening in China. And New Zealand. That should be Labour policy. Not hinting that the UK will be “left behind” if it tries to do so. Particularly because the government here is instead hoping that the number of cases will continue to decline, even as they remove the conditions that enabled it to do so. Scientific advice, including from SAGE, is that this is rash and unlikely to come off. Countries in Europe that reopened when their level of infections was lower than the UK are now facing a rebound. While the UK is as yet nowhere near being in the sort of mess the USA is in, with exponentially rising infections and a daily death rate double what it was last month, there’s a sense that Johnson is looking down the barrel of the threat is crossing his fingers, touching wood and feels lucky. Labour has called for the furlough scheme to be maintained in specific sectors, which is a sensible bottom line and the least that could be expected from a half competent government, but to retain jobs we need a far stronger commitment to a jobs guarantee that involves retraining and redeployment from sectors that are going belly up and to actually put the vision and plans for a green transformation right up front as an alternative to the collapse that the Conservatives are about to preside over. A Green Jobs campaign is imperative. The UK commitment to this – £3 billion -is excruciatingly small.
  2. No Deal Brexit. 65% of companies have made no preparation for conditions after 31 December because they don’t know what they are going to be. Here we go, over the cliff. What the wreckage will look like on the beach next year is anyone’s guess. Labour made a mistake in not pushing for a transition extension. We should argue for a unilateral declaration of continuity with existing arrangements until a deal can be made and ask the EU to reciprocate.
  3. Connivance in the growing US Cold War with China. This is already impacting on inward investment. Tik Tok has already shelved plans to build its HQ outside of China in London – losing a potential 5 000 jobs. The removal of Huawei from the 5G network, and proposals to extend this to 4 and 3 G, will both cost directly and cut the efficiency of the broad band service available (because Huawei technology is in advance of any of its competitors). The increasingly aggressive campaign from Ian Duncan Smith and his allies on the right of the Conservative Party to join with the US in breaking the world economy into two spheres of influence will be very damaging for all concerned – even if, as too often happens, trade war does not lead to the real thing as it escalates. A nervousness about this on the part of the government, who have given quite a slow time scale to strip out Huawei technology and hinted to the company that they are doing so under duress and might back off once no longer under Donald Trump’s heel (so much for taking back control), has not been matched by any doubts from Labour’s foriegn policy team, who are trying to prove to the US that they are back to being Atlanticist true believers and have been urging the government on. This is a disastrous policy that should be reversed.

Anneliese Dodd’s comment “If people felt Labour was only criticising and not suggesting solutions, they would question what on earth we’re doing” is quite right, but requires some solutions to actually be put. That would mean

  1. Argue for whatever action is necessary to protect public health and eliminate the virus as the fastest way to be able to regenerate social activity (not just the “economy”).
  2. Put forward a plan for massive state led investment in green transition both as an end in itself and a way of generating the employment we need to avoid economic collapse.
  3. Resist the demands from Trump for the world economy to be broken in two and for the UK to tie itself to the less dynamic half – with the USA projected to account for 3.3% of world growth in the next two years to China’s 51%, according to the IMF, and developing countries, most of which will align with China, accounting for over 40% of the rest.
  4. Argue against a No Deal Brexit and for an extension of current arrangements to prevent even further economic disruption as we go into 2021.
  1. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jun/10/uk-economy-likely-to-suffer-worst-covid-19-damage-says-oecd
  2. https://www.makeuk.org/news-and-events/news/furlough-extension-vital-for-key-industry-sectors-to-prevent-jobs-bloodbath
  3. Figures and quotes from the Guardian 20/7/20. Few signs of optimism in boardrooms as firms cut investment, dividends and jobs.
  4. https://www.wri.org/resources/charts-graphs/green-stimulus-spending-country

Not so much a mountain more a roller coaster?

If you look at figure 11 in the government’s latest coronavirus weekly surveillance report (1) which covers the sites for the spread of infectious respiratory disease going back to last autumn, you will notice several things.

1. Schools can be a very serious hub for disease transmission. Weeks 46 to 52 – the end of the autumn term – show schools as the main hub for transmitting last winter’s seasonal flu.

2. Schools were beginning to be a hub for the spread of Coronavirus at the end of March (week 12) until closing them for the overwhelming majority of pupils snuffed that out.

3. Now that more students are going back – even in relatively controlled conditions – schools are again becoming a hub for transmission. This is still quite small thankfully, but in week 23 (the week from June 1st – which was the first week that the government wanted students in Nursery, Reception and Years 1 and 6 to go back) there were 14 outbreaks in school settings. An outbreak is defined as two or more people getting the same illness which “appears to be linked to a particular setting”. Two points should be stressed. This is a real but small increase. It remains to be seen if this is sustained. But this is in the context of relatively few, even of the students the government had targeted for that week, actually going back. More went back in week 24 and yet more from this week (Week 25). The next report will indicate the impact of this.

4. The overall number of acute respiratory infections went UP for the first time since Week 15 in mid April, indicating that passing the peak is not the same as controlling the virus.

1.https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/891721/Weekly_COVID19_Surveillance_Report_-_week_24.pdf

Wearing down the front line

 

😳😳😳😳😳😳😑😑😑😑 

See ITV NHS Staff survey below.

If, in a life or death struggle, your front line workers are feeling like this, even though they are putting on the bravest face they can manage, you have a serious problem that you need to address.

Since warfare is the lowest common metaphor for any struggle, it should be noted that it is a commonplace of military strategy that a successful offensive – or defence come to that – is dependent not simply on soldiers being well trained and equipped, with plenty of back up in reserve and a plan flexible enough to innovate under the impact of opposition and the unexpected; it also, crucially and decisively, depends on the state of the soldiers themselves. What is their morale? How far do they trust their leaders? Have they been fed? How long have they been fighting? Have they slept. How exhausted are they? How are they coping with the deaths they have seen. How many have shot their nerves, are shell shocked, have PTSD? How worn out are they?

Its not just where they stand, what their strength is on paper. Its whether they have any strength left. This is particularly crucial if the struggle is projected to go on for a long time.

On Friday, Boris Johnson held up the UK as a positive example to other countries because our Health Service has not been overwhelmed by Coronavirus. This took some Chutzpah because on Friday 9 (and still today) the UK’s daily death rate was second only to the USA; so we are no example to anyone.

More to the point, Johnson was assuming that staff in the front line are in a position to cope for the prolonged period of partial lockdown and ‘living with the virus” that too many factions in the UK government and – worryingly, the opposition too – envisage as the “next stage’ – possibly starting as early as May 18th. A shorter, sharper campaign to eliminate the virus; with the lockdown tightened until new infections were well down and deaths in single figures took China 6 weeks across the whole country and 11 in Wuhan before there were cautious steps taken to ease off. The problem here is that our infections per capita – thanks to the complete failure to prepare and get a grip in February and early March -are massively above the worst peak in China, so even this will take us longer.

Instead, the entire debate is about how much and how fast things can be relaxed. That will mean that there is a danger of the virus rebounding. Germany – which has a much more effective testing and tracing system than anything in the UK relaxed restrictions last Monday when death rates were down to just over 1000 a day. Every day since the number of new infections rose. It had reached just over 1400 by Friday. What happens in Spain and other countries with even higher infection rates, let alone the US States that are determined to “reopen” with no safety net at all will be even more instructive.

The  pressure this will put NHS staff under will be intense. it cannot be taken for granted that the line will hold. A survey of NHS staff carried out by ITV last week came up with some alarming results. Just under 6 out of every 10 workers reported feeling stressed beyond a point they could cope with (57%). 1 in 10 reported having suicidal thoughts (11%). One in 30 reported self harming (3.4%). Half report that there has been insufficient support. (1)

What this means is that NHS workers need more than claps and badges. They need PPE, respect and support from managers (and no gagging orders on telling it like it is to protect official myths); and above all a clear strategy from government to eliminate the virus, not the prospect of continual ongoing “management” of it.

(1) https://www.itv.com/news/2020-04-30/more-than-half-of-frontline-nhs-workers-unable-to-cope-with-stress-brought-on-by-coronavirus-itv-news-survey-finds/

Institutional racism and deaths in the front line.

“Its the National Health Service not the International Health Service.” Matt Hancock.

Charity begins at home, but solidarity, by definition, doesn’t.

The disproportionate fatality rates among BAME front line workers in the Health Service is clear and shocking (1). Matt Hancock’s assertion above, and the Conservative election leaflets promising to “protect the NHS” by limiting immigration are shown up as the mean spirited disgrace they are by the deaths of so many doctors, nurses and health care support workers who have been sent into work without adequate PPE with the same insoucient carelessness with which the Conservatives have dealt with the Grenfell fire – before and after. The figures for Doctors are particularly overwhelming.

chart (7)
Death rates among Doctors and Dentists

 

chart (8)
BAME proportion of workforce: Doctors and Dentists

The sheer number of Doctors and Dentists from BAME communities should be enough for those benighted sections of “the white working class” unwilling to extend solidarity beyond their own ethnicity to reflect that the “immigrants overwhelming the health service” are largely the people who are working in it and a huge proportion of the people we are clapping and cheering for every Thursday night. The horrifying number who are dying in the front line of this crisis should be something to make them show a bit of respect, if they can tear themselves away from that latest bit of online Sinophobia from Tommy Robinson.

The disproportion is even more stark for BAME Nurses and Midwives, who are 20% of the workforce but 71% of the fatalities.

chart (9)
Death rates among Nurses and Midwives

chart (10)
BAME proportion of workforce: Nurses and Midwives

And Healthcare support workers, who are 17% of the workforce and 56% of the fatalities.

chart (11)
Death rates among Health care support workers

chart (12)
BAME proportion of workforce: Healthcare support workers

 

Caroline Nokes MP Minister for Government Resilience and Efficiency in 2017, said this in relation to emergency preparation.

‘Resilience does not come easily but the UK has long experience. Call it what you will, but whether through the fabled ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘Blitz spirit’ or just a stubborn determination, our resilience can be seen at the forefront of our handling of emergencies.’

This is essentially an admission that they never bothered to be prepared on the basis that “British pluck” would make up for an absence of PPE stocks, testing equipment, emergency systems set up and ready to go. The savage irony of all this narcissistic nationalist mythology is that the most resilient communities in the country, those that have had to deal with the Windrush scandal and the hostile environment, are those that have also had to “take it on the chin” in the coronavirus crisis too. The old normal – that we are “all in the same boat’ but, as in the Titanic, some are in first class with access to lifeboats looking down their noses at the people in steerage without, and thinking they should be damn grateful to be on the boat at all – has carried its way through this crisis. We cannot allow it to define “the new normal” too.

Remember the dead. Remember their names (2). Fight for the living. PPE for all. No end to the lockdown without WHO conditions being applied in full.

(1) The figures in this blog come from this recent study. https://www.hsj.co.uk/exclusive-deaths-of-nhs-staff-from-covid-19-analysed/7027471.article

(2) All are listed here. https://thinklab.com/ToryFibs

Who can you trust?

The UK government’s explanation of why it has decided to stop comparing the UK’s Coronavirus infection and death rates with China’s is deeply ironic. They say that Chinese stats can’t be trusted.*

There is a more obvious explanation; that China has been very successful in keeping its death rates down while the UK has not, that this is deeply embarrassing, and becoming more so as time goes on.

This is what that looks like in deaths per million as of April 26 (1).

. chart (5)

This is significantly worse than the previous week. The Chinese figure is unchanged (on 3.3 per million) – because the virus is under control – while the US and UK figures deteriorate (from 101 to 168 per million for the US and from 206 to 305 per million for the UK) (1). This figure means that the Chinese can now start to safely reopen their economy. It is quite clear that the UK and US cannot do so safely at this level. Denial is essential to even contemplate doing so. ** Whitewashing out the discrepancy with China, is a further aspect of playing down or ignoring their experience and any lessons that could be learned from it – could be preparing the ground to do so at an unsafe level.

The trustworthiness of UK official figures is also questionable. While the daily death rate is confined to those who have died in hospital after being tested and serves a purpose in tracking trajectory, it does not include anyone who has died anywhere else; and no one in government is keen to point out that the headline figure is not the total of people who have actually died: which is considerably larger. This may be considered a sin of omission, but it nevertheless serves a purpose in downplaying how bad things actually are; another form of denial.

Financial Times analysis (2) incorporating the Office for National Statistics figures on all deaths concluded that the official UK figure of 17 337 deaths up to Tuesday 21 April is less than half the actual figure. That looks like this.

chart (4)

 

*This is odd, because the WHO does trust them (as does the Financial Times; whose job it is to provide accurate information for the business class). A logical next step in this trajectory will be to downgrade relations with the WHO – which also serves a purpose in that it stubbornly insists on tighter conditions for easing lockdown’s than the UK government is prepared to contemplate. See previous blog.

**It is clear that the ground is being prepared to do this. Train operating companies are preparing to open up 80% of services by May 18th. Statements by Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford on behalf of the Scottish and Welsh governments on Friday on easing the lockdown to “live with” or “live alongside” the virus indicate that a reopening is being planned that is a response to commercial, not health, pressures. When Keir Starmer says that the UK risks being “left behind” in its consideration of “exit strategy” in the context of other countries beginning to ease restrictions, this applies pressure in precisely the wrong direction. The UK has the second highest daily death rate in the world right now. As of April 25, that looks like this.

chart (6)

The points he – and the rest of the Labour and trade union movement should to be making are:

1. That the only safe exit is one in which the WHO ‘s 6 conditions are met in full and

2. That the current lockdown should be tightened to include ALL non essential work; as the quickest route to an exit is through cutting off all possible routes to infection.

3. We can no more “live with” the virus than we can live with climate breakdown.

(1) https://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants/

(2) https://www.ft.com/content/67e6a4ee-3d05-43bc-ba03-e239799fa6ab

Re-opening to the virus? How the UK government’s conditions for ending the lockdown differ from the WHO.

These are the WHO’s conditions for a safe ending to lockdowns These are very clear and are aimed at eliminating the virus.

  1. Disease transmission is under control
  2. Health systems are able to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact”
  3. Hot spot risks are minimized in vulnerable places, such as nursing homes
  4. Schools, workplaces and other essential places have established preventive measures
  5. The risk of importing new cases “can be managed”
  6. Communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal

These are very clear and are aimed at eliminating the virus. In China, the point at which disease transmission was under control was when deaths were down to single figures.

As in China, at that point the Health system has to know where any new infection takes place and have the equipment and infrastructure to rapidly intervene, test, contact trace and isolate to prevent it getting out again. This virus is very infectious and spreads very quickly.

At that point, anyone coming in from an area where the virus is still in spate will need to be tested and quarantined if need be and all schools and workplaces will have to have the appropriate preventive measures in place and be fully equipped.

The last point is as crucial as the others. Communities have to know the risks, know the procedures and recognise that this is not a blip that will “disappear like a miracle” (D.Trump) but a threat that will still be lurking at least until a vaccine is produced – which is scheduled to take 18 months if all goes well. So, even when we are out of the woods, we could still meet a wolf; and have to be on our guard.

The UK government puts different conditions. They say

  1. The government must have confidence that the NHS can still provide sufficient critical care and specialist treatment across the UK.
  2. Secondly, there is a need to see a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rate to be confident the UK is beyond the peak of the outbreak.
  3. There also must be reliable data from SAGE that the infection rate has decreased to manageable levels.
  4. Testing capacity and PPE must be in hand to meet supply for future demand.
  5. There also must not be a risk of a second peak of infection that could overwhelm the NHS.

As the words are not the same, the differences must be deliberate. While some of them sound similar, the devil is in the detail.

  • Being “beyond the peak” can be any time from when death rates start to decline in a “sustained and consistent” way. It does not necessarily mean that the death or infection rate would be under control if the restrictions were lifted.
  • There is no specific mention of schools or workplaces, no mention of imported cases, no mention of having to minimise the risks in vulnerable hot spots.
  • There is an emphasis instead on making sure that the NHS is not overwhelmed. A laudable aim in itself, but when you consider that it is currently being achieved by pre-triage on the one hand and rapid removal of the elderly into hotspots like care homes on the other, you can see its limitations.
  • There is no mention of communities being fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal, which reflects the UK’s relatively lackadaisical lockdown.
  • Having infection rates at “manageable levels” does not mean the same as having them “under control.” “Under control” means on the path to elimination. Manageable means copeable with, not overwhelming.
  • Avoiding the “risk of a second peak” is not the same as eliminating the virus. Their bottom line is that the second peak should not be so great as to overwhelm the NHS. That could describe the current situation. The NHS is not being overwhelmed, but the UK has the second highest daily death rate in the world.
  • The phrase “testing capacity and PPE must be in hand to meet supply for future demand” implies that there is going to be a future demand. This is not the same as having a system ready and primed to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact”. Managing. Not eliminating.

So, we have a half way house policy here. Just as the UK “lockdown” is half a lockdown.

The danger is that there will be a return with infections at too high a level; so the rate of infection will go up again, without adequate PPE, without a testing and contact tracing system in place – with schools one of the first places to open simply to have kids taken care of during the day so the economy can “open” (in Trump’s phrase) and their mums and dads can go back to work.

This would let the genie back out of the bottle and then require restrictions to come back in to stop it running out of control. So instead of getting a grip and crushing the virus in one determined go, we end up with a reactive yo yo of restrictions going up and down; with the presumption that a vaccine will arrive like the cavalry coming over the hill. The problem with this – of course – is that it might not.

So, an apposite question for Labour (and others) to be asking is why it is that the government is not adopting the WHO guidelines without equivocation.

Lives rest on this.

Do What Works.

The per capita death rates from COVID19 are expressed here in how many deaths there have been in China, the USA and UK per million people. The figures are taken from here from 15 April.

https://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants/

The Chinese figure has been uprated from 3 to 4.5 to reflect the backdated increase in deaths in Wuhan announced yesterday. In case the figures for the USA and UK are not clear on the graph, these are; USA 101. UK 206.

While the US response is widely and rightly seen as a mess, there is a tendency in the UK to give the government far more of a benefit of the doubt than it deserves. chart (3)

It should be clear from this that China’s experience should be studied and learned from, while the UK and US are not models to be followed.

The bottom line right now is that China did not end its lockdown until deaths were in single figures. The relaxation of social distancing now being contemplated in parts of Europe and being discussed in the UK will let the genie back out of the bottle. Disaster will follow if this course is pursued. The only safe path to an exit is through a tightened lockdown.