Thursday, 30 April 2020

2020 Pandemic - some thoughts

The Covid-19 Pandemic has turned the entire World upside down within a matter of weeks.

Most of us have been hunkering down letting the Government roll up its figurative sleeves and get on with tackling it.  Personally I’ve tried to switch-off normal news media as I find the constant negative and pessimistic approach depressing - although not as depressing as the young “liberals” on social media wishing death on Government Ministers and dancing with glee at every setback we encounter in attempting to fight an unknown and fast moving disease. I’m sure I can’t be alone in detesting the joyous way Boris Johnson’s own contraction of Coronavirus was greeted by many on the left who have exposed a singular lack of the humanity and community spirit they pretend to espouse.

The left’s cries of “murderer” at Boris because he didn’t (in their view) shut down the economy fast enough are now replaced by cries of “incompetent” as they belatedly realise the horrendous cost of the shutdown in terms of economic hardship,  additional deaths from “normal” diseases such as cancer and (not least) the mental health of a lot of people.

I’m entirely supportive of the super-human efforts of everyone from Ministers to NHS Front-line staff as they work tirelessly towards getting us through this crisis. However, I do think the Government’s approach of being “led by the Science” has exposed a problem.  It turns out that “the Science” of epidemiology is not the clear definitive block of wisdom we may have thought it was and it is in fact far more akin to economics or meteorology where differences of opinion are the norm and accuracy of predictions are shaky to say the least.

The “flatten the curve” mantra has been almost universally accepted as the thing to do – it must be the correct approach if the entire World has agreed on it, surely? Cut the opportunities for the virus to spread and it will avoid a disastrous exponential spike in cases and fatalities, extending the life of the pandemic but buying time and making everything more manageable. However, just as models of weather systems on super-computers have impeccable mathematical algorithms behind them yet can’t reliably predict next week’s weather, the modelling of pandemic outcomes is just as uncertain. Apart from the sparsity of reliable hard data one of the key weaknesses is the so called “Ro” factor. This is defined as “the average number of secondary infections caused by one infected individual during his/her entire infectious period at the start of an outbreak” – this “reproduction factor” is key to the size and shape of every mathematical curve.  Small changes in the Ro make enormous numerical changes in the slope of the prediction curve, whilst an Ro of less than 1 will result in the disease wilting away.  But – how on earth can a realistic figure for average secondary infections be arrived at given the enormous differences in geographic and social circumstances even within one city? The leverage such small changes in Ro produces violent swings in outcomes and it seems to me to be based on a “best guess” rather than solid measurements.

Even more worryingly, Dr John Lee, a recently retired professor of pathology writing in this week’s Spectator, posits the suggestion that the virus could be evolving all the time and its spread via people with no symptoms is a good thing because it helps the virus get milder more quickly. If that were the case, the lockdown strategy is actually counter-effective with hospitals creating the perfect viral storm, containing everything needed for rapid evolution.  The policy of “shielding the vulnerable” and carrying on as normal does have a certain intuitive appeal but the only Country to go near that route so far is Sweden.

These are desperately difficult decisions for Governments to make and my only plea is for all of us to be positive and support those who are tasked with making those decisions without descending into cheap political point scoring. It’s too serious for that.

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