Richard North, 24/05/2020  
 


The Observer digs into the story, declaring: "New witnesses cast doubt on Dominic Cummings's lockdown claims", with the claim that an eyewitness saw him 30 miles away from his isolation site.

Thus, we have the Sunday Mirror headlining: "Cummings broke lockdown twice" – the second Cummings indeed – although the Mail on Sunday has Johnson's "maverick ally" breaking lockdown rules three times.

By way of contrast, The Sunday Telegraph screams "totally false", and has Cummings deny the "fresh claims", while the prime minister and cabinet ministers rush to "shore up" his position.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Times publishes a long report telling us that "three weeks of dither and delay" on coronavirus "cost thousands of British lives". Although the paper has it that scientists, politicians, academics and advisers "reveal the inside story" of the ministers' desperate battle with the virus before the country finally locked down, it actually tells us very little we didn't already know.

The report, however, breathlessly tells us that the intrepid Sunday Times reporters "found that a key government committee was informed at the beginning of the month by its two top modelling teams that Britain was facing a catastrophic loss of life without drastic action".

By then, they tell us, "any hope of containing the virus through contact tracing had fallen through because the government had failed to adequately increase its testing capacity in January and February". 

And yet, while we are also informed that the government was intent on pursuing a "contain" and "delay" policy, "based on the flu model", the reporters fail completely to explore the ramifications of this. Thus, while the explanation for the lack of government activity stares them in the face, they do not understand what they themselves are reporting.

Interestingly, they make great play of the government allowing the four-day Cheltenham festival to go ahead, with the Festival organisers stating that "government guidance" was for the business of the country "to continue as usual while ensuring we adhere to and promote the latest public health advice".

So intent are the reporters on their "secret squirrel" stuff, though, that they can't bring themselves to read the published scientific advice. Perhaps someone should stamp a copy "top secret" and drop it on the pavement outside the Sunday Times building.

Nevertheless, we can reveal that the government believes there are "limited data" indicating that mass gatherings are associated with influenza transmission. Some evidence, it says, suggests that restricting mass gatherings together with other behavioural interventions may help to reduce transmission, but this would be insufficient to consider restrictions by default in a pandemic.

For this it relies on a 72-page document, the latest version of which was published in May 2014. But just to make sure that no one reads it, it is prominently labelled: "Impact of Mass Gatherings on an Influenza Pandemic", as part of the government's scientific evidence base review.

This reports that "there is no convincing evidence that major organised sporting events are associated with significantly increased influenza transmission in those attending the event" and thus concludes that, "in all but the most severe pandemics, compulsory restrictions offer little advantage given the delicate economic and political balance associated with mass gathering restrictions".

Undoubtedly, that was the advice that Johnson was getting – the assumption being fairly sound, as this is actually the official government position. Thus, the prime minister would have been told that the evidence was "not strong enough to warrant advocating legislated restrictions".

As to the definitive policy, this was set out in the 2011 plan which, under the heading, "business as usual", stated:
During a pandemic, the Government will encourage those who are well to carry on with their normal daily lives for as long and as far as that is possible, whilst taking basic precautions to protect themselves from infection and lessen the risk of spreading influenza to others. The UK Government does not plan to close borders, stop mass gatherings or impose controls on public transport during any pandemic.
This policy has been around for ten years, published and unchanged – accessible to anyone who cares to look it up on the government website. When the likes of Sunday Times reporters airily note that the government response was "based on the flu model", the very least they could do is look up that policy and find out what it says.

What we see, therefore, is the basic mistake of failing to produce a plan specifically for diseases such as Covid-19, and then a lack of flexibility in adapting speedily when the situation looked as if it was getting out of hand.

Nevertheless, the Sunday Times comment is pathetic. It complains that "the government had failed to adequately increase its testing capacity in January and February", which meant that "any hope of containing the virus through contact tracing had fallen through". It seems incapable of understanding that, with Public Health England having only 260 staff devoted to contact tracing, an increase in testing capacity would have made very little difference.

Why the media seems to be having such difficulty with this is rather perplexing. The issues have been well aired, with former secretary of state Jeremy Hunt complaining that the service had been cut to the bone. And yet the media continues to ignore the implications.

Interestingly, things might at last be about to change. Firstly, a letter from the NHS Confederation on 20 May complained about weaknesses in the government's "test, track and trace" strategy, stating: "we cannot emphasise too strongly how important it is that local organisations and systems are involved alongside Public Health England".

Then, in a response only two days later - suggesting an element of coordination – the government announced that it was providing £300 million additional funding for local authorities to support new test and trace service.

Local authorities, the press release said, will be central to supporting the new test and trace service across England, with each local authority being given funding to develop tailored outbreak control plans, working with local NHS and other stakeholders. Work on the plans was to start immediately, focused on identifying and containing potential outbreaks in places such as workplaces, housing complexes, care homes and schools.

That we are nearly three months into this epidemic and only now is the government recognising the vital role of local authorities is an absolute scandal, but the news of the development drifted out with very little media comment.

And today, the media is saturated with the news of the second Cummings, while "secret squirrel" reporters elsewhere ignore the real issues in their pursuit of "exclusives" that they can claim to have revealed.

This is all so tedious. I shall have to attend once more to my mental health needs and build another model. My stance on this, is that I am only building one model – the inside of Bovington tank museum. So far, Mrs EU Referendum does not seem convinced.

But my argument is a lot more plausible than anything we have on offer from the media this weekend.






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