Sunday, 15 March 2020

The public needs reassurance - and they're not getting it.

If you have a bad cold your boss will usually tell you to stay home so that the entire office doesn't come down with it. Offices are pretty unsanitary places - especially with all those grubby telephones and keyboards. Similarly warm tube trains with moving air are a ideal conditions for the transmission of bugs. As to cinemas, they tend to be viral petridishes at the best of times. Most people understand that much about the spread of viruses.

It is difficult then for the public to reconcile the government's stated aim to slow the spread of the virus while taking no tangible measures to close down those places most likely to spread the virus. The government has argued that timing is crucial whatever action they take - which is entirely reasonable since a lockdown is difficult to enforce and maintain, but there are basic measures they could be taking - such as closing down universities - and they're doing no such thing.

Because there are no tangible signs of action we are now seeing the public panicking and taking matters into their own hands. "Covid19Walkout" is currently trending on Twitter, with parents now saying they will unilaterally take their children out of school if the order does not come soon. As many are now aware, this course of action comes with its own problems, but there trust in government is crumbling as the public sees other countries taking action while the British government appears to be sitting on its hands. Coupled with mixed messages about herd immunity, the public is left to guess whether the inaction is deliberate.

With the government seemingly inert, and viral pictures of empty shelves in supermarkets, and with the situation in Italy rapidly disintegrating, you actually can't blame the public for panicking. Furthermore, the government's position is simply not credible. By the time we do take action we will be where Italy was last week when their health system was already at breaking point. Nobody believes the NHS will fare any better. Under-equipped and stressed front line health services will see a high rate of absenteeism as the infection rate climbs, so just as the capacity is needed most, it will be reduced.

All the while public opinion is very obviously divided. Some are already self-isolating and keeping their exposure to people to a minimum, while a great many are seemingly oblivious, carrying on as normal. With symptoms taking weeks to appear, carriers are unwittingly spreading the virus. This at a time when advise should be to stay at home wherever possible, if only to give isolation efforts a fighting chance.

It would help if there were unity of opinion among scientists, but the UK approach is entirely at odds with the rest of the EU now taking measures to go into lockdown. Both can't be right. The government's approach, therefore, is a gamble. Our fate lies in the toss of a coin. Why then would the public not take their own precautions?

As points out, "social distancing" can only be considered a partial course of action, but as far as the layman is concerned, it's the clear and obvious course of action. If the government wants to secure the confidence of the public it needs to show some sign of pragmatism, balancing their working theory with the common understanding.

What I suspect, though, is that we have already lost control of the situation and it's going to get worse - and whatever our policy response, it's not going to be enough. If their current strategy was ever going to work it needed to be enacted sooner, and it wasn't likely to work without first securing the confidence and cooperation of the public. Instead they've done everything possible to exacerbate fears.

For now the prime minister has widespread support and nobody wants to be seen to be undermining attempts to deal with the virus, but that is likely to change quickly. There is every reason to believe the UK will follow the trajectory of Italy in which case we'll have failed at delaying anything - and as the deaths mount, so will the public anger. Johnson's excuses aren't going to cut it.

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