Friday, 13 March 2020

From bad to worse, and worse again.

One day they are telling us that they are not going to shut down mass gatherings and now they are saying something different. Though we are supposed to simply bow to the experts, it seems there is considerable pushback. While the government refused to give the order, a number of large institutions have taken the lead independently.

I suspect this won't be the first shift in the government's plan. Within forty eight hours we could see a complete reversal. There were already holes in the government's case and a number of contradictions in their logic we are supposed to accept without question. But we can't. It's too much of an ask, especially when they roll out their herd immunity scheme which means intentionally allowing vast numbers of people to be infected.

Here has informed doubts that any such scheme could work, but even if it could, there is one missing component. Consent. It's all very well having a master plan but people will rightly take their own precautions if the basic policy of government is to take none at all. I certainly have. I have no intention of contracting the virus. It's probably inescapable but if symptoms do not present anywhere between two and four weeks after contracting it, then I could be unwittingly spreading it.

If carriers are free to go on buses and trains and gather in cinemas and concert halls then they are going to rapidly accelerate the virus when the NHS is nowhere close to prepared and is likely to be overwhelmed in three weeks or less. If there was a delay strategy in play doing nothing at all is a funny way of doing it - especially when the World Health Organisation has stepped up its calls for intensified action to fight the coronavirus pandemic, imploring countries “not to let this fire burn”.

Ultimately there are experts the world over working on this and they don't agree with the UK approach at all. The main supporters of this policy appear to be Boris Johnson loyalists who defer to prestige and officialdom. That inconsistency alone is enough to ring alarm bells. There is something grimly utilitarian about what amounts to a managed cull when most other governments are still working on containment.

But then containment is not an exact science and some measures are potentially more harmful. There is a major public campaing underway to close schools, with a petition to parliament reaching half a million signatures. But its not straightforward. Kids largely don't get ill. If you take them out of school, they will still circulate and interact with adults so you'll still get them passing on disease as asymptomatic carriers - and you'll lose a lot of your healthcare and public service workers who will have to take time off to look after their kids.

Schools have not closed in Singapore because there was no widespread community transmission and few cases among children. Precautionary measures such as reducing mixing across classes or schools have been implemented. That's a starter for ten, but we haven't seen this kind of detailed procedural advice. It might be there somewhere but it's not being broadcast. Critics have pointed out that useful practical advice is thin on the ground - where repetition of the hand-washing mantra is not going to cut it.

There are a number of complex dilemmas where we have to implement containment measures but also keep basic facets of civil society running. There is a galaxy of considerations that would wrongfoot even the most competent of administrations. But then there are some pretty obvious targets, particularly the London tube which has already claimed one driver. Anywhere where there is warm moving air is going to be a high risk environment.

But then there is the propaganda war. If the government wants us to trust it, it has to be seen to be acting and taking viable measures to protect people from illness and death. This is will not manage with a "herd immunity" strategy - especially when there appears to be no coordinated efforts to protect the vulnerable. 

This isn't going to get easier either. A great many will have managed to stock up on food but supplies are not going to last forever and without a food distribution scheme and people to run it, eventually people are going to have to venture out of their caves to forage for sustenance. The government has a point about timing of controls but there doesn't seem to be a credible way to model when this is likely to occur. All the same, you would think the government would be keen to buy itself all the time it can with containment while resources are gathered to massively expand our medical facilities. In either of the modelled scenarios, they must know the NHS will be rapidly overwhelmed. All the lessons are there to be learned from Italy.

Ultimately I have no confidence in this government. I think we have probably missed the window for containment and we are going to face the full brunt of it long before we are ready and it's not going to be pretty. There may come a point where a lockdown may be necessary if only to secure public order. 

We saw in 2011 during the Croydon riots how disorder can spread when the criminals realise the police are otherwise occupied. I sincerely hope it doesn't come to that, but keeping law and order in London especially is not going to be easy. We saw how public anger over Grenfell saw Kensington council HQ besieged. All it takes is a catalyst event and you have potentially murderous conditions. This could happen in every city. We've already seen fights over toilet roll. What happens when medical staff are turning people away? And it only takes a wrong word from a PCSO to make a bad situation worse. 

Though this all sounds terribly apocalyptic for a virus anticipated to have a morality rate of less than four percent, but it actually doesn't take very much. Civilisation is far more fragile than most assume, as are supply chains which is why this blogger so fiercely opposed a no deal Brexit. All those warnings that were written off as "Project fear" may have been mangled by the press to the point of disbelief, but all it takes is a few rumours on social media for the panic buying to start. 

Assuming this epidemic is managed even halfway adequately it's still going to be pretty grim. It's hard to say when it will peak but after the fact we then have to turn our attentions to the social and economic fallout. Businesses will have gone under, rents will be in arrears, benefit payments delayed, invoices late, shortages, you name it. It's going to to take a while to establish anythign close to normal functioning and a recession is sure to follow.  

By that time the government will be in full blame deflection mode, but after the public have been through the rinser, wondering why the government didn't act sooner and why contingency measures were so poor, Johnson could be facing credible calls from his own benches to resign.

I think this is probably already written. To start off with a murderous "herd immunity" policy and do nothing for a week only to change tack later, will always leave him politically vulnerable. He can try and blame the chief medical officer but ultimate responsibility for the strategic decisions lie with him. You may point to the absence of an opposition and assume he is probably safe but at that point, the public becomes the opposition - and this incident will cause a radical re-evaluation of our politics. Possibly Corona will succeed where Brexit failed (or never got the chance).

Earlier I saw a YouGov poll that gave Johnson a 55% approval rating for his handling of the crisis thus far. I'm not sure how much stock we can put in it, but that was immediately following a slick presentation press conference flanked by plausible sounding experts. It doesn't take much to inspire confidence - but then it doesn't take much for it to evaporate either. The reappraisal of the decision to allow mass public gatherings is the first crack in the dam. Being that the public does not consent to be lab rats in an epidemiological experiment his authority is already on the wane and that is likely to snowball.

What's interesting about this is that the divisions of opinion are not following any previous left/right, leave/remain patterns. I'm falling out with Eftarians while agreeing with hardcore progressives and ScotNats. The division is now one of those who trust government to keep them alive and those who do not. I'm firmly in the "do not" camp. If there is one constant in British political scandals over the years it's that if you trust government with your life then it will kill you. 

This is much the same. The Tories who demand our obedience to Johnson remind me of the suffragettes who pinned white flowers on conscientious objectors. It's the same kind of peer pressure to go and be slaughtered for the greater good. Only this time, if they lock me up in Richmond castle it's probably the safest place to be. 

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