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Coronavirus: Johnson's reckless gamble

2020-05-04 07:46:23

It is a seriously topsy-turvy world when Sir David King can offer himself as our public saviour, setting up a "rival panel of experts" to deal with the UK's Covid-19 epidemic.

He claims that the public's trust in science is "at risk" over the "lack of transparency" and is planning, with his group members as yet unnamed - to broadcast live on YouTube today, taking evidence from global experts as yet unnamed.

King is worried about ministers [and] the prime minister continually saying "We're following the science advice all the way" and complains that the government is hiding behind the scientists. He thinks it's fair to say that scientists give advice but "it is governments who have to make political decisions".

I don't entirely disagree with King on this, although this is the man who, more than most, has been evangelising on climate change, pushing successive governments to take action, having been the government's Special Representative for Climate Change from September 2013 until March 2017. He is far from being the passive advisor, and has been active in seeking to frame policy.

More to the point, this man was the chief scientific advisor to the UK Government the post currently occupied by Patrick Vallance. Concurrently holding the post of head of the government office for science, from October 2000 to 31 December 2007, under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown.

It was during his tenure, therefore, that the successive administrations made their fatal errors on SARS. Ignoring WHO advice to set up pandemic response plans for this disease, they instead focussed most of their efforts on pandemic flu, a dangerous cul-de-sac.

When the errors were replicated by the Cameron coalition government, the nation was left with a flawed and entirely inadequate plan which is partly responsible for the mess we are currently experiencing.

Such is the power of prestige, though, and the media's general incompetence in its evaluation of the government's response to Covid-19, that King can waft in to pontificate about the response, without ever having to explain his part in its failure, attracting not the slightest murmur of dissent from the collective.

Famously, his scientific specialism is "surface chemistry", and it was this which so uniquely equipped him as an advocate for climate change. Now, it seems having dropped the ball when he was chief scientific advisor it is coming to his rescue as he pronounces on the finer points of epidemiology, about which he was previously so silent.

In Sir David King's expert opinion or "feeling", as he puts it "the extent to which the virus is still in the population means we are not yet close to coming out of lockdown". Therefore, he concludes, "Undoubtedly the biggest potential pitfall is removing lockdown too early and too quickly".

With that shameless occupation of "no shit Sherlock!" territory, he then indulges in his own personal brand of flatulence, pompously declaring that "a second peak could not only increase casualties, but could also lengthen the overall period of time before the country is able to fully exit lockdown".

Thus, according to this great epidemiological genius, "If you go into a second peak, it just becomes more and more difficult to end the pandemic". It's a pity he didn't think about that more when he was chief scientific advisor.

Needless to say, King is not into criticising any of the scientists who are putting advice before the government, which is perhaps just as well. If he broke ranks, even our notoriously inadequate media might be moved to question his role in the debacle. Pigs have been known to fly, even if just as air freight.

Instead, as he tells The Sunday Times, he is focusing on the lack of government transparency, wanting to catch out the Johnson administration when it says it is following scientific advice when it might not be.

This plays nicely into the hands of the media which no doubt scent some "secret squirrel" opportunities in the offing, where they can play "gotcha" when apparent differences emerge between government policy and the [supposedly] underlying scientific advice.

The timing of his intervention quite obviously indicates that King is deliberately playing to the gallery. He plans to live-stream his YouTube "committee" just before the government's evening press conference, thereby hoping to set the agenda and provide the witless hacks with some easy questions.

The ultimate irony, though, is that in the early days of its response to the first outbreaks of Covid-19 in the UK, the government seems to have followed, almost to the letter, the "scientific" plan bequeathed to the Cameron administration.

Only when that started to unravel does it seem to have departed from the script and imposed the full lockdown only then to have King complain that the government was too slow in doing so.

And yet, from his loose grip of the terminology, it doesn't seem as if King has much constructive to offer. Like his successors currently in post, he talks glibly about a "peak", making the common but nonetheless important error of assuming we are dealing with a single epidemic curve.

And just because so many, from the greatest of the great and the good like King keep making the same error, doesn't make it right. As long as the government continues to treat the UK epidemic as a single outbreak, we will find it extremely difficult to make any sustained progress.

From the look of it though, King and his little gang styled as a rival to the Sage committee aren't going to trouble themselves with grand strategy, and will focus on the minutia. Therefore, we can expect to hear about facemasks, and next to nothing about the government error in treating Covid-19 as a flu epidemic.

Meanwhile, it seems that the prime minister is conceding defeat and is putting all his eggs in the vaccine basket. Only a mass-produced vaccine will defeat the coronavirus, he is to tell an international conference (held by video link), describing the hunt for a vaccine as "the most urgent shared endeavour of our lifetimes". Unable to step outside his own self-imposed conflict paradigm, he characterises the endeavour as "humanity against the virus".

This is the embodiment of the flu plan, with the lockdown as a variation on the theme of buying time until the "magic bullet" can be found. Eschewing any idea of resorting to old-fashioned shoe-leather epidemiology, this man thinks he can throw billions of other peoples' money at the problem the figure of 7 billion is being mentioned "to build an impregnable shield around all our people".

Predictably, therefore, Johnson is marking time on the lockdown, with Gove warning that we are all going to have to "live with some degree of constraint" a stance that will not be too unpopular in the short-term.

One wonders, though, whether Johnson is aware of the extent of the gamble he is taking. Public pressure to lift the lockdown may be quiescent at the moment, but it is bound to increase as people start running out of money, and the novelty factor wears off.

If the only shot in his locker is a vaccine, this may not emerge for another year and, even then, there is no guarantee that any of the 80-or-so candidates will be effective. The lockdown may be holding for now, but what will it look like in a year's time, especially if the vaccine is still under development.

Of course, this may be a gamble that Johnson could pull off, but if he does relax the lockdown, even slightly, and is rewarded with a surge of infection, he might find it difficult to sustain public confidence, and the economy might not be able to take the "hit" of a more restrictive lockdown.

A less reckless gambler might be inclined to hedge his bets, with a rigorous "trace, test and isolate" programme for cases and contacts. But the indications are that, even with the second-rate programme under consideration, any isolation might be voluntary thus defeating the whole object of the exercise.

That leaves the whole of the nation to gamble, between the risks of returning to work (for those who have jobs), and the risks of catching a potentially fatal disease. As the death rate recedes as indeed it is doing the balance of advantage will change, and the nation may lose patience with waiting for the magic bullet.

With that, I wonder if David King, as he hogs the media with his own nostrums, will even realise that Johnson is actually staying true to the plan that was hatched on his watch, even if this is the "science" that he may have cause to regret he is following.