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How Britain sleepwalked into disaster

It’s not often that I praise the reporting in the assorted organs of News UK. Usually quite the reverse! However this morning I commend to you this frankly shocking article by the Sunday Times Insight team, including on this occasion Jonathan Calvert, George Arbuthnott and Jonathan Leake:

Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster

I strongly suggest that you read the article from start to finish, always assuming that you have a strong enough stomach. Here are a few brief extracts:

On the third Friday of January a silent and stealthy killer was creeping across the world. Passing from person to person and borne on ships and planes, the coronavirus was already leaving a trail of bodies.

The virus had spread from China to six countries and was almost certainly in many others. Sensing the coming danger, the British government briefly went into wartime mode that day, holding a meeting of Cobra, its national crisis committee.

But it took just an hour that January 24 lunchtime to brush aside the coronavirus threat. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, bounced out of Whitehall after chairing the meeting and breezily told reporters the risk to the UK public was “low”.

This was despite the publication that day of an alarming study by Chinese doctors in the medical journal The Lancet. It assessed the lethal potential of the virus, for the first time suggesting it was comparable to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people.

Unusually, Boris Johnson had been absent from Cobra. The committee — which includes ministers, intelligence chiefs and military generals — gathers at moments of great peril such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other threats to the nation and is normally chaired by the prime minister.

Johnson had found time that day, however, to join in a lunar-new-year dragon eyes ritual as part of Downing Street’s reception for the Chinese community, led by the country’s ambassador.

It was a big day for Johnson and there was a triumphal mood in Downing Street because the withdrawal treaty from the European Union was being signed in the late afternoon. It could have been the defining moment of his premiership — but that was before the world changed.

Over on the “Consequences” section of the Arctic Sea Ice Forum we have been discussing the “Chinese coronavirus” since January 25th, and before that in other threads on the forum. By way of just one example:

Judging by footage from a hospital in Wuhan, it is a serious problem over there.

An epidemic would also overwhelm healthcare here in Sweden. Which patients would be given the few available respirator beds when there are too many very sick people?

Since he obviously didn’t heed that early warning signal I can only assume that BoJo isn’t too concerned about an Arctic sea ice tipping point either?

The Insight team continue:

Sure enough, five days later, on Wednesday January 29, the first coronavirus cases on British soil were found when two Chinese nationals from the same family fell ill at a hotel in York. The next day the government raised the threat level from low to moderate.

On January 31 — or Brexit day, as it had become known — there was a rousing 11pm speech by the prime minister promising that withdrawal from the European Union would be the dawn of a new era, unleashing the British people, who would “grow in confidence” month by month.

By this time there was good reason for the government’s top scientific advisers to feel creeping unease about the virus. The WHO had declared the coronavirus a global emergency just the previous day, and scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine had confirmed to [Professor Chris] Whitty in a private meeting of the Nervtag advisory committee on respiratory illness that the virus’s infectivity could be as bad as Ferguson’s worst estimate several days earlier.

It sounds as though Boris Johnson had his eye firmly fixed on just one ball. Juggling two was beyond him. “Get Brexit Done” now belatedly reads “Stay Home, Save Lives” on his Twitter feed:

Please do read the entire article, but for now let us skip to the conclusion of the Sunday Times cautionary tale of staggering incompetence in high places?

A Downing Street spokesman said: “Our response has ensured that the NHS has been given all the support it needs to ensure everyone requiring treatment has received it, as well as providing protection to businesses and reassurance to workers. The prime minister has been at the helm of the response to this, providing leadership during this hugely challenging period for the whole nation.”

Merely business as usual in the age of “Fake News” and “Truth Decay“.

[Edit – April 20th]

Last night the Department of Health and Social Care “tweeted” a response to the Sunday Times article:

Clicking through to the DoH blog we read:

A Government spokesman said: ‘This article contains a series of falsehoods and errors and actively misrepresents the enormous amount of work which was going on in government at the earliest stages of the Coronavirus outbreak.’

‘This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided at all times by the best scientific advice.

‘The Government has been working day and night to battle against coronavirus, delivering a strategy designed at all times to protect our NHS and save lives.

‘Our response has ensured that the NHS has been given all the support it needs to ensure everyone requiring treatment has received it, as well as providing protection to businesses and reassurance to workers.

‘The Prime Minister has been at the helm of the response to this, providing leadership during this hugely challenging period for the whole nation.’

Followed by a long list of rebuttals of specific points in the Sunday Times article. How about this one for starters?

Claim –  ‘This was despite the publication that day of an alarming study by Chinese doctors in the medical journal The Lancet. It assessed the lethal potential of the virus, for the first time suggesting it was comparable to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people.’

Response –  The editor of the Lancet, on exactly the same day – 23 January – called for “caution” and accused the media of ‘escalating anxiety by talking of a ‘killer virus’ and ‘growing fears’. He wrote: ‘In truth, from what we currently know, 2019-nCoV has moderate transmissibility and relatively low pathogenicity. There is no reason to foster panic with exaggerated language.’ The Sunday Times is suggesting that there was a scientific consensus around the fact that this was going to be a pandemic – that is plainly untrue.

Here’s one interpretation of these events:

Will Michael Gove shortly become our next Prime Minister?

Categories
News

Wearing face masks in the community

Hopefully we’ve made our own views on this topic clear by now, but what does the science say about the pros and cons of “the average person in the street” wearing a mask in public? Here’s an extract from a new paper in The Lancet entitled “Wearing face masks in the community during the COVID-19 pandemic: altruism and solidarity“:

The WHO ha[s] not yet recommended mass use of masks for healthy individuals in the community (mass masking) as a way to prevent infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in its interim guidance of April 6, Public Health England (PHE) has made a similar recommendation.

By contrast, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now advises the wearing of cloth masks in public and many countries, such as Canada, South Korea, and the Czech Republic, require or advise their citizens to wear masks in public places.

An evidence review and analysis have supported mass masking in this pandemic. There are suggestions that WHO and PHE are revisiting the question.

People often wear masks to protect themselves, but we suggest a stronger public health rationale is source control to protect others from respiratory droplets. This approach is important because of possible asymptomatic transmissions of SARS-CoV-2.

Authorities such as WHO and PHE have hitherto not recommended mass masking because they suggest there is no evidence that this approach prevents infection with respiratory viruses including SARS-CoV-2. Previous research on the use of masks in non-health-care settings had predominantly focused on the protection of the wearers and was related to influenza or influenza-like illness. These studies were not designed to evaluate mass masking in whole communities.

The authors go on to address that failing of previous studies:

Absence of evidence of effectiveness from clinical trials on mass masking should not be equated with evidence of ineffectiveness. There are mechanistic reasons for covering the mouth to reduce respiratory droplet transmission and, indeed, cough etiquette is based on these considerations and not on evidence from clinical trials. Evidence on non-pharmaceutical public health measures including use of masks to mitigate the risk and impact of pandemic influenza was reviewed by a workshop convened by WHO in 2019; the workshop concluded that although there was no evidence from trials of effectiveness in reducing transmission, “there is mechanistic plausibility for the potential effectiveness of this measure”, and it recommended that in a severe influenza pandemic use of masks in public should be considered. Dismissing a low-cost intervention such as mass masking as ineffective because there is no evidence of effectiveness in clinical trials is in our view potentially harmful.

Mass masking is underpinned by basic public health principles that might not have been adequately appreciated by authorities or the public. First, controlling harms at source (masking) is at least as important as mitigation (handwashing). The population benefits of mass masking can also be conceptualised as a so-called prevention paradox—ie, interventions that bring moderate benefits to individuals but have large population benefits. Seatbelt wearing is one such example. Additionally, use of masks in the community will only bring meaningful reduction of the effective reproduction number if masks are worn by most people—akin to herd immunity after vaccination. Finally, masking can be compared to safe driving: other road users and pedestrians benefit from safe driving and if all drive carefully, the risk of road traffic crashes is reduced.

So there you have it. Mask up if you’re out and about in public. You know it makes sense!