41. Time to relax? – please think hard!

Peter Burke

18 May 2020

(With data updated to 19 May 2020)

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Time to relax? – please think hard!

“Work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home”.
– Prime Ministerial statement

There are people who tell me that the government’s plans to relax lockdown are clear, comprehensible, joined-up and timely. How to respond to this? Where do I even start? Perhaps I should recommend that they think very hard about their choice of daily newspaper . Perhaps I should caution them against magical thinking. Perhaps they should read some of the well argued, or angry and outspoken rebuttals. Or perhaps they are people who think that simply believing something makes it true. They are uncomfortable with the thought that we are being led by donkeys, and therefore resort to phrases like “in times of crisis we should pull together and we need to trust the government”. Sadly, blind trust in a government which is both incompetent and unscrupulous is the road to dictatorship.

Let’s consider what has happened in the UK over recent months.

Why the fists?

According to the Office of National Statistics, the first deaths from coronavirus occurred in the week ending 13 March. In that week Boris Johnson boasted that he shook hands with everybody, including people with coronavirus (and this is the man who appeals to our ‘common sense’?!). On 12 March he “recommended” that people modified their lifestyles. On 23rd March the government finally implemented lockdown. By this time there had been over 200 documented deaths from coronavirus. In the week ending 17 April, for the first time, the excess deaths directly or indirectly attributable to coronavirus exceeded all other deaths put together. In the same week total excess deaths in the UK peaked, and they have since been on a downward trajectory. This is of course evidence that the lockdown is starting to work, rather than that we should abandon it.

Graph showing when ‘excess deaths’ exceeded all other deaths put together. Excess deaths may be due to Covid, or to other causes which were not treated effectively as a result of the pandemic. We are now seeing a significant downward trend. NB ONS provides the most robust evidence. Figures given at daily press briefings need to be treated with caution.

On 5th May the UK moved into the unenviable position of having the highest number of coronavirus deaths to date, per capita, in the world (On the same date all the tabloid press could think about to discuss was Neil Ferguson’s love life). In the week ending May 10th the Scottish and Welsh governments made it clear that they were sticking with the “stay at home” message and made minimal fine adjustments to the lockdown policy. At the same time newspapers in England were apparently briefed to headline a forthcoming significant relaxation of lockdown, and no sooner had they publicised this than the message was put out that this would not happen, that in fact the government would be broadly following what had happened in the devolved nations, although the new slogan would be “stay alert” (whatever that means).

So the public was all agog for the prime minister’s much vaunted announcement on Sunday May 10th. They had been given conflicting messages about what it would contain, and much of it came as news, apparently even to the Heads of Government in the devolved nations, in clear defiance of the consultation which had been promised. There even appeared to be confusion in the prime minister’s mind as to whether his writ ran to the whole of the UK (it does not) or just England.

The Government’s own slide showing the 5 tests

When making his announcement the PM referred to the five tests which had to be met before easing of lockdown. When explaining these he appeared to have incomprehension written all over his face and the repeated use of a clenched fist was no substitute for the confidence and authority which were so obviously lacking. Without giving any evidence that the five tests had been met, he then went on to tell people that they should work from home if they could but go to work if they could not. He forgot to say when, or under what circumstances, or whether he was addressing key workers or all workers. Simultaneously he maintained strict bans on family gatherings, with increased penalties. Schools would possibly be reopened in 3 weeks.

This creates a situation where a teacher, for example, who has a young grandson living in a different household, will be asked to work in close proximity with other people’s children, but is liable to be fined if she has contact, even at 2 metres distance, with her own grandchild. After all, she is limited to one other person and a young child can hardly turn up on his own. And air travellers from other countries are being told they must go into quarantine, just at the point where the UK has the world’s highest per capita Covid death rate.  

On Monday 11th May large numbers of workers crowded public transport (obviously having no alternative option), because they took the Prime Minister at his word. It was not until that morning that the hapless Dominic Raab had to explain that what the PM really meant was that the work-related changes should come into effect on the following Wednesday, and indeed the detailed guidelines explaining the policy did not appear until later on that day.

Chaos has followed since, and there has been agreement across public organisations, ranging from the BMA to the teachers’ unions to the Police Federation, bemoaning the absence of joined up thinking. Perhaps more surprising was the excoriating response of dyed-in-the wool Tory Peter Bone. It is odd to think that ministers believe they can give such inconsistent and unevidenced instructions without making themselves objects of derision. Maybe we should not be surprised that Jacob Rees Mogg, leader of the house, wants to restore parliament to its previous format, thereby filling the house with baying MPs who he hopes will distract from the killer blows inflicted at PMQs by the new Labour leader. Alas for BJ, trying to bail him out is a bit like trying to put lipstick on a pig.

Whitty, Johnson and Vallance. Note the absence of the slogans ‘Stay Home’ and ‘Protect the NHS’

At the press briefing on the day after the announcement, Laura Kuenssberg challenged both government advisers, Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty, to say whether they agreed with the move from “stay at home” to “stay alert”, and they avoided answering the question.

The government tells us ad nauseum that it is following “the science”. Yet why is the science different North and South of the border? And why is the Independent Sage committee , led by Sir David King, former Chief Scientist, and a very much more eminent group of scientists than the original – and secretive – Sage, convened by the government, telling us something drastically different?

So have the 5 criteria being met? The first 3, possibly to a degree. There is certainly evidence that new cases and deaths are dropping In London, mainly because they reached such a high peak there. However in other parts of the country, and particularly in care homes, they are still rising. In other words, the much vaunted ‘R’ number, which is used as the basis of so much decision making, is not uniform across the country, and this is something that should guide policy.

The problem is the last two criteria. In regard to PPE, as we know this is consumed at a very high rate. Because of the many procedures required, it is estimated that a patient in intensive care will lead to 20 items per day of PPE being used. Not surprisingly, reserves of PPE are now less than they were at the time of lockdown. It is scant comfort if the NHS has enough beds to cope with demand (only because of the virtual cessation of all other activity), if staff cannot be protected from infecting themselves or from passing infection onto other patients.

Even more serious is the issue of testing. WHO has urged all its members to “test, test, test”. However this does not mean doing tests just for the sake of it, it means implementing a systematic test, trace and isolate policy, which is only really possible once the number of new cases has been brought down to manageable levels. The more cases there are, the larger a team of trained contact tracers you have to have, and the UK has nothing like the numbers required. In early April, Matt Hancock undertook to deliver 100,000 tests by the last day of the month. Given the resources available, informed opinion was that this was impossible, and Hancock proved it to be so. On May 1st he claimed 120,000 tests, and at the same press conference It became apparent that a third of these were simply tests which had been sent out and not actually done. The government advisers claimed that this was normal practise, but we had not been told this before. Indeed it was unclear whether the tests were actually being counted twice (more about this on the BBC’s excellent More or Less). The UK statistics authority severely condemned what had happened. Even worse, it later emerged that an email had allegedly been sent out on Conservative note paper to party members informing them that they were entitled to be tested. This at a time when many NHS workers and others with symptoms were finding it impossible to access tests.

The letter allegedly sent to Tory Party members offering Covid tests

This was a clear dereliction of duty by government. At no time was it apparent that tests were being used as part of the type of test and trace policy recommended by WHO. They were being used solely to save Matt Hancock’s career. Is it worth saving? He may be well-intentioned but he has a unique knack for digging holes for himself: Judge from this clip. By wasting tests in this way the government has created a shortage down the line, which without a shadow of a doubt has cost some people, perhaps many hundreds, their lives.

When confronted over this, the Prime Minister seemed not to recognise that there was a problem, and compounded the error by promising to “ramp up” (horrible phrase) testing to 200,000. Surely achieving this figure will require even greater dishonesty and wastefulness? His action shows profound lack of insight , and since this time he made the promise personally, he will have to stand over it and not once again throw his health secretary under the bus.

On the final criterion, preventing a second peak, it is difficult to know whether this has been met or not until after the event. Following on from the rush back to work in the week after the announcement, there is no doubt that the number of new cases will rise, and deaths will start to rise again two or three weeks down the line. This at a time when patients in hospital have to be treated by staff with little or no protective equipment. What NHS staff need is to be protected, as in the original slogan, not to be clapped on a Thursday night or to be handed medals. When will the government recognise that obvious fact?

Of course we must ease lockdown. The only questions are when and how. We deserve a government which can adhere to its own criteria, and which can demonstrate willingness to take the appropriate steps to prepare for a relaxation, rather than devoting 100% of its energies to saving its own already ruined reputation.

A message from our umbrella organisation, the European Movement

So what has all this to do with Oxford for Europe? Now that Brexit has happened, our principal objective is, like those of the national pro-European organisations, the European Movement, Best for Britain, March for Change, and Grassroots for Europe, to mitigate the damage. Our aims include holding the government to account where is it behaved unwisely or dishonestly. Please ask yourself whether you would trust what this government tells you about the future direction of the country. In particular, do you trust it when it tells you that it can negotiate a trade deal with the EU by 1st January, and that if it fails to do so preparations are in place? We all know that even the negligible preparations which were put in place by government and business for a cliff edge exit in March and October last year are no longer possible against the background of coronavirus. The resources needed will long have been used up. Both the UK and the EU are preoccupied with Covid, and devoting time to complex and almost certainly fruitless negotiations is one distraction too many. The last round, according to both sides, was unproductive. Let our slogan be “one crisis at a time”. Right now coronavirus is the biggest crisis do a face the world since the Second World war, and very possibly longer. Seven more months of transition are far too little. And does your heart not, like mine, sink when you hear that 50,000 new trained customs officers will be required in the event of a no deal exit? That is more than the entire civil service of the EU (those “unelected bureaucrats”).

The Labour Leader on LBC dealing with the transition question.

Can we count on the official opposition to defend common sense? We know that with the welcome departure of people like Kate Hoey and Caroline Flint, the parliamentary Labour Party is almost entirely pro European. So is most of the membership, but sadly there is an influential minority, people like Len McCluskey, who take a different view. I had the opportunity to ask Keir Starmer on LBC on 11th May whether he would support an extension, and I was astounded, as I believe was the press, when he responded “we have not asked for an extension”. A careful choice of words : he did not preclude doing so at some time in the future, but he spoke as if he thought time was not of the essence. Some commentators speculated that this was a strategic position, and I hope they are right. It is no consolation for the rest of us if Labour watches the government driving us over a cliff and then says “I told you so”. Good for Labour but bad for the country. The latest pronouncement from Rachel Reeves gives a tiny modicum of hope, but, like Starmer, she spoke as if unaware of the tight timescale. Now is the time for Labour to ally itself with the call from almost all other opposition parties to extend. Wake up and smell the coffee.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessary those of Oxford for Europe.

You can still sign the European Movement petition on extending the transition period by clicking here.

When Boris Johnson tried to mislead the house over care homes, Barrister Starmer, in fairness, was onto him within minutes. The PM now knows he has more than met his match, something he is not used to
Rishi Sunak, possibly the least incompetent frontline member of the cabinet, managed by accident to vote against his party over food standards. He claims he pressed the wrong button. This is the man to whom we are entrusting our economy and our potential £500 billion deficit. If even he is capable of acting so ineptly, what about the others?

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