Here we go with another week yet the same old nonsense…
I woke to the headline that our droning wasp of an Education Secretary has said that “there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school”. It’s the kind of unequivocal statement that should raise suspicions before you even look at the science. It’s a bit like a high-wire walker claiming there’s little chance they’d fall to their death from that cable stretched between two skyscrapers. Yes, sure, there’s a chance he’s right but you’d need evidence of a high degree of competence before you’d buy ice creams for your children as they watch him “defy death” before their innocent eyes…
Today is clearly the day when the government wants to convince us that they know that they’re doing around schools. Selective science will be pimped out as Johnson inflates some word balloons for the lovely boys and girls of the media. Engage the alliteration machine, ruffle the hair, prepare some frothy quips that will instil a sense of intellectual veracity…
Accordingly, the science that Gavin Williamson cites is by Public Health England, a body that hasn’t exactly earned our trust in recent months. It also appears to fly in the face of other science, such as that published in The Lancet which has warned that school openings can only take place with robust test and trace.
But before we go further, it’s worth noting how there’s a lack of granularity in the way this subject is already being discussed. Research does suggest that there’s a vast difference between the situation for children under the age of ten, where the virus seems to act differently, and children over the age of ten where the virus acts as it does through the rest of the population. If we’re going to discuss schools, wouldn’t it make sense to have a discussion about primary schools and a different discussion about secondary schools?
Over in the US, a photo emerged in recent days of a packed hallway in a Georgia school. It showed teenagers crammed together in a tight indoor space, none of them wearing facemasks. The student who took the photo was suspended but wisely spent her time being interviewed for network news. Not only did she turn out to be a credit to her school, presenting an articulate response but one that was wiser than many adults (including the one in the White House), she has now been proved right. Today it’s reported that nine students have already tested positive for the virus.
We’re now at the point where it’s almost pointless repeating key facts, such as that schools aren’t places filled with “the young”. Teachers and other staff are now being talked about as though they understand the reality of COVID-19 and signed up for a role in a biologically hazardous working environment. We have politicians across governments in the US and UK who talk about sacrifice and teachers entering the classroom like troops landing on beaches. It’s shameful, as is the sanctimonious stupidity of reducing this crisis into jingoistic catchphrases, as though the only thing we have to care about is to “Bounce Back Britain”.
What’s remarkable is the degree to which politicians seem eager to convince themselves that we’ll be alright. They are already sounding quite dismissive about the “second wave” without entirely acknowledging that it was never expected in July and August and that preparations should be directed towards the “proper” flu season. We needed to use this lull to perfect our test and trace system, which we are failing to do. I notice the Independent SAGE group have just published a document in which they conclude that “We should have had an effective isolation policy in February, with better pandemic planning. Not to have one six months later is nothing short of public health malpractice.” Malpractice, indeed, but hardly surprising. This government still can’t convince the public about the reasonableness of marks. As we see in the US and here in the UK, the “culture war” persists in giving ignorant people a soapbox on which to spread their pseudo-science. I’m reminded of so many science-fiction stories and films where some “Great Event” descends on the Earth and the scientists fight against the lunatic ravings of a minority, except, I never expected the minority to be so large…
Perhaps most depressing of all is the degree to which the parallels between Johnson and Trump and their administrations are now becoming evident. Both behave as though a vaccine is imminent when there’s still so much work to do. Throughout this crisis, both governments have been characterised by the same malevolent urge to play with the numbers. The story of Rebekah Jones, in the US, is one that should be known by more people. She was in charge of health data for Florida when the virus struck, eventually fired for refusing to manipulate the data to justify the state’s reopening. We’ve seen similar happen in the UK, with arguments about which deaths should count (and then protracted arguments about reclassifying earlier deaths) when the simple statistic of excess deaths tells nearly the entire story.
Throughout this crisis, there has been the niggling feeling that the story of the government’s struggle to identify cases was actually a story about a government that didn’t want to recognise the scale of the epidemic. As I’ve repeated elsewhere, the maths of this aren’t exactly complicated. The WHO now give the virus a mortality rate of 0.6%. So, imagine we have a perfect country in terms of testing. Every person in the country with the virus is identified, as are all the people who die from the virus. Divide the latter by the former and multiply by 100 and you will get a number close to 0.6.
In other words, the better job a country does of identifying cases, the more the mortality rate tends to 0.6%. This is why numbers have tended to fall as more testing is conducted. The US figures now give a rate of 3.18%. Brazil is 3.3% with India (2%), Russia (1.68%) and Saudi Arabia (1.09%) giving a sense of where other nations are.
As it stands, the UK’s mortality rate is still 14.9%.
What does that tell us? It means our hospitals must be doing a particularly bad job at helping people recover (a ridiculous argument) or we’re simply not identifying enough cases to bring that number down. It also means, of course, that we can work out what the case number should be. If 0.6% of cases lead to death, then for 46,574 deaths, that means there must have been nearly eight million cases in the UK, rather than the reported 310,825. I can’t get my mind around that discrepancy, nor a government that can ignore it in the way this government has been doing.
If the government lost track of the epidemic to this degree, how much store should we put in the words of the education secretary who speaks as though this crisis is now under control? And, should we open schools and if the virus is shown to travel (like other coronaviruses in the past) through a particularly unhygienic population packed into tight spaces, will the education secretary be held accountable for words that even now appear to be monumentally cynical? Or will it be dismissed along with other mistakes of the past few months as part of the learning process; ignored because of the imminent “threat” posed by a few rubber dinghies in the English Channel?