The government must learn from its Covid-19 mistakes
BY ADAM HAMDY
On 2nd March, Free Market Conservatives published this piece, which called on the British government to take swift, decisive action to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The research that formed the basis of the piece was sent to Matt Hancock by a former cabinet minister who’d asked for my assessment of the threat posed by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
Unfortunately, all my concerns have been realised – and my recommendations ignored. COVID-19 is not a mild disease in any normal sense, and governments and populations were lulled into a false sense of security by the World Health Organization’s use of the word in a clinical context.
We’ve seen the emergence of Long Covid, a condition we don’t fully understand but which seems to be affecting hundreds of thousands of people around the world. We now have confirmation SARS-CoV-2 infects privilege immune sites, the central nervous system, bone marrow, reproductive system, and all the major organs. We know it causes functional exhaustion and depletion of T-cells and that the antibodies some people produce are off target.
Post-infection complications include brain damage, heart arrhythmias, shortness of breath, intense fatigue, diabetes and other serious conditions that could be short-lived or persist long-term – we simply don’t know yet.
Unlike influenza strains, which elicit long term immunity through infection, the four endemic human coronaviruses that cause the common cold re-infect people on an average 6 to 12-month interval. There have been reports of SARS-CoV-2 reinfection from around the world, but such reports have been dismissed as anomalies. When a Columbia University team studied reinfection by the endemic coronaviruses, it found median reinfection of 9 months, with a small number of very short interval reinfections. I believe we’re experiencing the gentle slope of a bell curve. Reinfections will be rare now because the virus hasn’t been around long enough, and people have been in varying degrees of lockdown. I expect to see reinfections start to register in significant numbers from December 2020 onwards.
COVID-19 doesn’t offer a binary choice of death or recovery. Like many virulent, lethal pathogens, it leaves a wake of complications and short- and long-term ill health that will have a high human and economic cost. The Prime Minister believes he’s protecting the economy by trying to encourage people to get back to normal, but he’s doing the opposite. Governments cannot cheerlead their way out of a pandemic. A significant proportion of the population won’t go back to normal until they feel it is safe to do so. As we head into winter, infections, sickness and death are likely to rise, and so will the number of people who choose to stay at home. Pretending we can go on as normal will simply extend and deepen the economic pain.
I suggested the government needed to innovate its way out of this crisis. It has done the opposite. It wants to carry on with as little COVID-19 inconvenience as possible. Schools are a case in point. The government plans to reopen schools in September more or less as normal, but this will put many thousands of lives at risk. Schools might stay open for a few weeks, but as we head into winter, transmission will rise (SARS-CoV-2 seems to thrive at 5 degrees Celsius) and I believe they will be forced to close. Once again, thousands of largely asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic children will be sent home, risking infecting their families.
Israel has identified schools as the engine of its second wave, and infections among children have risen in America since the opening of summer camps. An extensive and robust study of more than 65,000 people in South Korea identified tweens and teens as the most effective transmitters of the virus, and even younger children transmitted the virus as easily as adults in their twenties.
There is mounting evidence that proves the role children play in transmission, and the government ignores it at its peril. It is time for Sir Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty to discharge the duty of care they owe the public and tell the government in the strongest possible terms that its plans to open schools as normal will jeopardise the health, wellbeing and economic interests of hundreds of thousands of families. If the government will not listen to them privately, Sir Patrick and Professor Whitty have a duty to speak out publicly. People need to know the risks they will be taking by sending their children back to school more or less as normal. Other countries that have successfully reopened schools have had much lower levels of community transmission and still implemented strict infection controls.
If I was advising the government, I would use the schools issue to solve two problems. Instead of packing unmasked children into crowded buildings in the run up to cold and flu season, get them outside. Make September and October about outdoor learning. Support struggling businesses; get children learning how to sail, horse ride, rock climb, orienteer, play football, rugby and so on. Give local economies a boost, keep children in small groups, outside as much as possible, teach them new skills and give them much needed social interaction in a relatively safe way. Use the three months between now and the end of October to build an effective distance learning programme for all ages, because I suspect we’re going to need it.
If the government insists on a conventional indoor syllabus, it needs to implement far stricter infection controls. Learn from countries like South Korea and Denmark, where class sizes have been reduced, schools limit teaching groups to 6 to 8 students, temperatures are taken every day, and students and teachers wear masks.
From Cheltenham to a best case prediction of 20,000 deaths in the first wave, from herd immunity to its care home strategy, the government has made a number of errors of judgment about this virus. If Boris Johnson continues to rely on optimism and willpower to force his way through this crisis, I have no doubt the virus will humble him yet again. Although many of us predicted the characteristics of this virus and severity of the pandemic, the government and its advisers pleaded ignorance as an excuse for their inept response to the first wave. Ignorance is no longer a defence. We know how serious this virus is, tens of thousands of British families have lost loved ones, we can see and hear the tragic stories of people living with the consequences of infection, and our understanding of the science of transmission, and severity of outcomes is much better than it was in January.
Until we defeat this virus through vaccine or a cure, we must adapt our behaviour to minimise transmission. If the government fails to recognise this basic truth and tries to impose its view of normality, it will be responsible for an even greater loss of life.
Adam Hamdy is a novelist and screenwriter who previously worked as a management and healthcare consultant. He is on the advisory board of Ligandal, a US genetic medicine company. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhamdy