Responses to public announcements about COVID are interesting. I was touched by this one which is attributed in a Twitter post by someone called Tamara Cohen about a Tory MP who didn’t rebel against the Government’s restrictions and who isn’t usually critical of the Government , he was responding to the Government’s announcement that we can have Christmas.
“It is irrelevant . No-one trusts the scientists or the PM. It is a disaster ……He has to resign, to get the public listening again. What a mess!”
Given that my last article was called Eton Mess I quite liked the synergy.
But that wasn’t the only response. This from Dr Tom Best a critical care consultant whose unit hasn’t seen a huge rise in number – yet :-
“ So we are bracing ourselves for a significant impact. Adding to that is staff sickness, which is a reflection of the community prevalence we’re seeing at the moment .”
Another response, this time from Professor Young a virologist at the University of Warwick :
“This is a very risky approach and it is very likely to result in the need for more stringent restrictions in the near future.”
And another response from Dr Peter English a retired consultant in communicable disease control :-
“ This is an extremely brave position for the cabinet to take. Hospitalisations and deaths arise 10 days to several weeks after infection, so don’t be falsely reassured that numbers of hospitalisations and deaths from the omicron variant haven’t yet hit large numbers.”
Anyone who has listened to “ Yes Minister” will know what the word “ brave “ is code for. “ You are completely wrong but I can’t say that to your face because you are my boss.”
But we live in difficult times, and there are two problems with saying “ we follow the science.” The first is that you have to be clear which science you are following and then you actually have to follow it .
Second is that you then create an impression that science is exact. Having managed scientists for several years I am fully aware that it isn’t. If as I have, you have had to part two scientists who were inches away from fisticuffs on the basis of a couple of decimal points you will know that they don’t always agree. To each thesis there is a counter thesis. Science is inevitably the discipline that relies most on retrospect because it can only be concrete when the experiment has concluded.
Unfortunately in COVID we are the experiment .
There are some things we know, we know that some vaccines work some of the time. It isn’t exact, it is arguably authoritative. And that is the problem.
Also by ” following the science” if for whatever reason the outcome you are trying to avoid doesn’t happen then science per se begins to lose credibility in the public eye.
The Government right now is building absolutely everything they have on vaccines and that is an entirely legitimate position, but the vehicle for delivering public safety beyond that is a mishmash of desperately confusing messaging. It also relies upon “ the common sense” and “ personal judgement “ of ” the Great British Public.”
If you have messaging from 4 different Governments there is an inevitability that there will be confusion. Don’t get me wrong I am very grateful we do, because in my opinion consistently 3 have got it more right than wrong and one has got it more wrong than right and I’m pleased I don’t live there.
But if you are are relying on the Great British Public’s judgement for public health management then without the communication strategy around it you are staring into an abyss. Personal choice and disease control are not good bedfellows.
After decades of “ me first” and “greed is good” politics we have not been left in a good place where we have societal knowledge of what collective action is about and what you might collectively demand of your fellow citizens .
Let me illustrate this with two very recent local examples.
Shopping in Lidl. Two couples meet . The women hug .
“ Oh I thought you had COVID ?”
“ Yes but we are just doing the shopping because we are isolating until Thursday .”
Pause for a moment, I’m not making this stuff up, it happened. It happened on the day after a taxi driver friend reported that he was exhausted because he had never had so much business in a night and he had hardly seen a mask in sight .
I also went to the dentist to have a tooth extracted .
I’ll not give you the gory details ( it wasn’t an easy extraction ) but I will give praise to my dentist Nazarin who is the first person in my life to tell me :-
“ Whatever you do, just eat ice cream for the next 24 hours.”
Hagen Daz ( other brands are available ) salted caramel on the dubious grounds that the salt would keep the wound clean then followed in copious quantities. And it worked! The swelling came down a treat….on my gums, my stomach is another story.
But prior to the appointment I got a call from the Surgery, a COVID questionnaire, a new thing for them, one of the questions was :-
“ Have any of your family had COVID or been asked to isolate in the last 14 days .”
“ Yes, all of them bar my wife” Stunned silence, clearly she was programmed to just tick the boxes . Then my follow up
“ An honest answer to a rather daft question. “
“My Granddaughter got COVID, her parents are isolating …and they are 70 miles away and I haven’t seen them in 5 weeks. You are asking the wrong question. I could answer this honestly and lose my appointment or I could also answer this honestly and there be a bugged up person in my household who is not family. Neither would be right.”
To be fair the questionnaire actually did say “ family and household” she just missed off the last bit by mistake, but this is an illustration of a public health issue. The woman sounded bored out of her skull, clearly didn’t like asking the questions (I heard her ask the same questions while waiting for my appointment and her discomfort was evident.) It was a task. something that the firm had instructed her to do, it didn’t seem to have translated into a useful thing she could contribute to keep her colleagues and herself safe.
But the most important point for me was that they were not asking patients to do a lateral flow test before coming in. I did one, showed them it was negative and the Dentist and her Assistant were very grateful. Even if LFT is not exact it is something so I asked why they weren’t asking. Apparently considered to be too intrusive. Too intrusive? To protect the health of NHS staff who are putting their lives at risk for us ? Too intrusive? Are the Great British Public so precious that we can’t make shoving swab up your nostrils for minute or so, mandatory ?
That perhaps is the problem. The Great British aren’t very Publicly minded. Can we blame them?
Countries are taking different approaches. Germany closes its borders, Netherlands locks down , the French (who have been waiting for this excuse for a couple of centuries) ban the British. We with the worst infection rate of the lot, and figures in London that are skyrocketing to the extent that they have declared an emergency, celebrate that Christmas is saved.
But don’t be fooled it is a circuit breaker. It is a circuit breaker for the PM hoping if he can get to the New Year, people, particularly those like the back benchers above, will have forgotten just how appalling the performance was in December.
Please don’t get me wrong.
I am no fan of lockdown or restrictions though I think those we have in Scotland are more proportionate than those in England right now, because while we are not doing enough our 1st Minister ( and that of Wales) has not entirely sacrificed the precautionary principle in favour of political damage limitation .
I do very much believe that we as a Nation , whether you define that as Scotland or the UK will have to find a way out of this and it can’t be through on/off lockdowns forever.
We can begin to see how that could be achieved. Increasingly if you listen to sensible people in street interviews you can hear a reluctant acceptance that self restraint is the way to manage infection. Wear masks, take sensible precautions. But that is also a dilemma. It is the exceptions that create the problems, those who don’t or won’t be sensible or who consider themselves to be invulnerable.
You cannot run your politics on a libertarian platform that emphasises personal choice while at the same time expecting people universally to follow guidelines. Ask Conservative front benchers who refused to wear masks in Parliament until it became so obviously anti social that they had no choice.
You cannot run a platform on exceptionalism and yet expect voluntary compliance. We have enough examples, who hasn’t seen someone driving and using their mobile phone? The law isn’t enough in the absence of absolute societal condemnation people allocate themselves the right to be the exception.
What will get us out of this is behavioural change allied to legal requirements. It will need true four country compliance. If one country needs folk to wear masks in public places, all four should. That is what “ not putting politics before health” means, it is not one way traffic led by the largest partner.
What behavioural change needs is exceptional consistent messaging. We have examples Jason Leitch, Linda Bauld are exceptional communicators and far less “ Boffin” like than some of their contemporaries.
At the moment we have messaging based upon political need and that has to change, and change fast.
By the way roll up your selves, Israel who have been a step ahead of every country thus far are rolling out their fourth round of Jabs today.
From my family to yours, have a safe circuit breaker Christmas and if you have any , enjoy the ice-cream.