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Lamentations.

By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.

THE FOLLOWING IS simply a list of the things I identify as mistakes made by the British government in response to the Coronavirus/Covid-19 epidemic. I believe the scale of the government’s incompetence, immaturity and dishonesty is enormous, the consequences, both foreseeable and unforeseeable, disastrous. I have tried to keep as many of the items factual and verifiable but in some cases I have included my own evaluation (I think the term “voodoo science” is apt where used). The sequence is roughly chronological. Many more things could be added and unfortunately more mistakes are still to come.

The government took advice from an expert — ie, Professor Neil Ferguson (and his team), whose track record on forecasting was abysmal and untrustworthy.

The government did not adequately take into account the views of other experts whose assessments went contrary to or were different from the ones they accepted.

The government did not treat the figures of Ferguson and his team with mature scepticism: taking a top death rate of 500,000, more than were killed in the Spanish Flu epidemic, for instance, without serious doubts, is reprehensible. They lost all sense of proportion.

The code used by Ferguson for modelling the course of the epidemic was subsequently revealed to be unreliable, producing different results even when run with the same data, and producing different results on different computers.

In the first week of lockdown Ferguson, appearing in front of a government committee, vastly revised his original estimates downward, saying that with the measures in place he would now expect a death toll of 20,000 to be likely. No one raised doubts about the wild and wide variation in the scale of his predictions.

On 19 March, four days before the imposition of lockdown, the government removed Covid-19 from its list of High Consequence Infectious Diseases (HCID).

There is a clear difference between dying “with” Covid-19 and dying “of” it but this fact was ignored…

The government changed the requirements for recording fatalities on death certificates, requiring Covid-19 to be recorded even when it was not the cause of death. The NHS website providing daily information states it records “deaths of patients who have died [in hospitals in England] and had either tested positive for COVID-19 or where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.” Further information relates to the ONS figures which “report the number of patient deaths where there has been no COVID-19 positive test result, but where COVID-19 is documented as a direct or underlying cause of death on part 1 or part 2 of the death certification process.” This was corroborated early on in the lockdown by Jenny Harries, the government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer. There is a clear difference between dying “with” Covid-19 and dying “of” it but this fact was ignored both by the government in its public announcements and by the media.

The recording process in nursing homes was even more lax.

The result of these changes unavoidably meant that the death figure would be inflated because people would be registered as dying of the virus when they died of something else. The rationale for this has never been explained.

The government did not apply serious and mature thought to the strength of the virus, the threats it posed, the possible effects on various sectors of society, etc. We knew before it took hold that it was relatively harmless to the majority of healthy people under the age of 70. We knew that people could catch it and show no symptoms; we knew that the majority of people would not catch it; we knew that the majority of those who did catch it could be treated and recover (or may not even need treatment); we knew that of those seriously affected a small number would need hospital treatment; and that of the seriously affected some would die; and that that people aged 80+ and with comorbidities, ie, existing serious illnesses, were most vulnerable. We also knew that young people and children were least vulnerable.

There was no evidence that this epidemic would be as bad as or worse than the Spanish Flu.

There was no evidence that the progress of the virus would be different from any other virus, or that there would be the possibility of a “second wave” or “spike”.

The government made the most serious error when it panicked towards the end of March, abandoning its “herd immunity” approach with its limited social measures and plunging straight into a full lockdown.

It lost control of the situation by panicking. This has proved to be the most serious error since it set in motion a chain of bad policy decisions.

Since we have no evidence to the contrary we must assume that before deciding on lockdown the government did not conduct a general meeting or set of meetings with experts and non-experts alike to work out the obvious direct consequences of the policy, regarding the economy, the effects on individuals of different ages and backgrounds and on social life in general. No thought was taken for people already ill or requiring care. No thought for the effects on children and young people, their education or their psychological health.

Crucially, the government did not work out an exit plan or consider the possibility that the populace might be too frightened to return to normality when the epidemic was over.

The initial lockdown period was three weeks. The government gave no indication that this would be extended indefinitely. This drifted, without criticism, into three months. It is clear this drift was down to bad leadership, cowardice, immaturity, indecisiveness and a fear of unfavourable press and public reaction.

An immediate consequence of losing control was that the government felt the pressure to be seen to be doing something. They simply copied the lockdown response because other countries were doing the same.

By copying lockdown they were taking part in an experiment that was still in progress and for which there were no settled data on which to base intelligent judgments.

There was no precedent for lockdown anywhere, at any time, especially at national level. There was no empirical evidence that it would work. There was, and is, no scientific way of verifying how many lives lockdown would save. All its advocates will have apart from self-congratulatory guesswork is more modelled projections. In other words, more voodoo science.

Despite knowing that the elderly were the group most vulnerable the government allowed (or connived with, I have no way of knowing) the NHS to decant elderly patients into care homes, without taking any serious precautions, thus precipitating an increase in the overall death rate.

Instead of concentrating on protecting this most vulnerable (and easily identifiable) group and letting the rest of the population get on with their lives they put the whole country under quarantine, including the perfectly healthy.

Initially the government made “Saving Our NHS” its primary aim. This was a decision made for political rather than medical reasons.There was no evidence that the NHS as a whole or in large part would be overwhelmed by the disease. The decision was made to save face, since the NHS is such a black hole in British politics that no government wants to be seen to be letting it down.

This tactic and the ensuing PR campaign reversed the proper order of things: instead of the NHS being there to protect the citizens, the citizens were now there to protect the NHS.

Once it was clear that the curve had been flattened (in the meaningless jargon dreamed up by the experts) and “our” NHS was no longer in danger of collapse, the wording subtly changed to “the” NHS. I doubt whether many members of the public picked up on this, but that’s the point of the kind of subliminal, psychological chicanery the government has been employing.

In clearing the wards of as many sick people as possible, cancelling appointments, delaying treatments, tests and other procedures, frightening others into not seeking medical help when they had problems, the government has condemned thousands of people to delayed vital attention, operations, etc. Many will have suffered needlessly, many will still be suffering and many will die as a result. Many will already have died.

This inversion of the health system also made it hard or impossible for people to access two of the most important groups of professionals during an epidemic, namely their GPs and dentists.

One of the first tools from the voodoo science workshop the government employed was social distancing.There is little convincing evidence this measure has any substantial effect in reducing the rate of infection. The WHO recommended 1 metre, our government chose (as its civil servants always do when given a choice) to make this worse by extending it to 2 metres.

The government overdid its PR operation. The daily press briefings with assorted experts did nothing to communicate anything important to the public. What they mainly accomplished was the creation of more confusion. Reminding the public every day about the virus was guaranteed to breed panic and not allay it.

Often the responses of the experts were too nuanced for the public (and the media). The public cannot handle nuance; they want easy, clear points of information. The graphs they showed were misleading, even if technically correct. A use of the graphs available from the NHS, for instance, would have been more honest and of greater informational value than the ones they did use.

The government’s experts proved to be inconsistent in their messaging and as time went on began to contradict their earlier advice or to prevaricate. The inefficacy of masks is a primary example. At the beginning the wearing of masks by the general public was not only not recommended but actually discouraged. When the epidemic had effectively burnt out they had changed their tune, ostensibly because of new guidance from the WHO (which, it happens, was not from an advancement in the “science”, but a response to political pressure). More voodoo science.

Another piece of voodoo has been the legendary “R” factor, the measure of the virus’s infectiousness. Despite daily deaths dropping drastically this mysterious number remained persistently high but has been frequently used to justify continued restrictions.

The government’s own vaunted test and trace app proved a dud and had to be scrapped. The test and trace system as a whole has been instituted too late to be of use. If such a system were to prove useful it should have been started before the virus had taken hold.

The government consistently failed to inform the public that the deaths announced daily included some that had taken place days or even weeks previously but which had only just been recorded on that particular day. Again, the result of presenting these figures in this way was to exaggerate the scale of fatalities.

Politicians and experts consistently failed to acknowledge (or admit) that the peak of the epidemic was reached on 9 April and that the virus has been weakening ever since. This would be apparent from an NHS graph, for example, which could have been used to reassure the public.

The government failed to acknowledge that the peak in April indicated the infection level had already been reached by the time lockdown was imposed.

At no point have any of the promulgators of the panic sought to reassure the public or give them a sense that this epidemic is not exceptional or permanent. On the contrary, every single politician who has spoken has simply added fuel to the fire of panic and fear by postulating second waves that may turn up in winter (having failed to appear on previous occasions), exaggerating the size or importance of local “spikes”, repeatedly using language that suggests we are still in the middle of the epidemic, and rolling out the threat of a permanent epidemic just because the virus will still be around.

The government has never given any context to the public for the figures: nothing about the scale of the epidemic in comparison with others; nothing about the standard progress of a viral epidemic; nothing about the meaning of excess deaths and how the current year compares with previous ones, etc. The public has received news of deaths and rates of infection without understanding their relevance, and naturally assuming the worst when those figures appear large. They are now so impervious to context that even the current daily death rate, which is in low and descending figures, is seen as terrifying.

Contrary to its intentions, the detailed advice and guidance issued by the government to businesses, employers, services and the public has sown more confusion rather than clarity. This has not been alleviated by the apparently arbitrary demands made. One of the more ludicrous claims, for instance, for restricting games of cricket was that the ball was a vector for the disease. Teas and pavilions were also terrible dangers.

No clear distinction has been made between what is required by legislation and what is simply recommended by the government. People thought at the beginning, for example, that they were only allowed out once a day and for just one hour in order to exercise. The legislation makes no such stipulations. Various police forces at the start of lockdown also overstepped their power, having misunderstood the regulations.

The open flouting of the lockdown restrictions by various politicians in the UK, by Dominic Cummings and most notably by Ferguson himself, blatantly indicating to the populace at large that the architects of the lockdown had no faith in their own prognostications, made no difference to the government’s juggernaut. Neither did the mass gatherings of VE Day celebrators, beach-goers and rioting agitators, the latter receiving not even a slap on the wrist from the authorities. And remarkably, nobody seemed to noticed that the threatened second waves never appeared after these events.

The economic consequences of the quarantine can hardly be estimated at this stage. The economy had already started contracting by the end of the first month of lockdown. The simplest thing to say is that these consequences will be enormous, catastrophic and probably long-lasting.

Further consequences of that – prolonged unemployment, stagnant or lowered wages and living conditions, higher taxes, bloated borrowing, reduced public spending, etc, will be an increase in physical and mental health problems.

The government has committed the greatest abuse against our civil liberties ever enacted, enforcing what is effectively house arrest, dictating to us what we can do, where we can go, who we can meet.

The government has committed the greatest abuse against our civil liberties ever enacted, enforcing what is effectively house arrest, dictating to us what we can do, where we can go, who we can meet. In addition to telling us how much physical distance we have to maintain between each other it now commands us as to what we should wear. The legislation enabling all of this was passed through parliament with no dissent and no argument.

The government has conducted such a campaign of fear mongering it is proving almost impossible to reverse the public mood. This has not been helped by frequent changes to the recommendations issued by the government, by ministers publicly contradicting each other and by the repeated use, even in the final stages of the epidemic, of emotive language.

The government has entered what can only be termed the psychological phase of its strategy. The epidemic is over, the NHS was “saved” months ago and there is no reason for keeping any lockdown restrictions. But the government has not had the courage to state this openly. Boris Johnson, on his return to public life, could have declared the state of emergency over, no more restrictions, no more lockdowns, get back to work, get the children back to school. He could have deployed the full range of PR tools at his disposal to do this, made sure his team backed him up all the way, and braved the inevitable criticisms of the media.

Instead, partly as a means to turn round the supertanker of public panic, the government has embarked on a long, drawn-out, painful, dishonest and destructive tactic of gradual easing. Unfortunately this too has no end date and the signs are that the government will be unable to resist the temptation to continue exercising its power for what appear to be arbitrary reasons. In other words, they are still not in control of the situation.

To conclude: I cannot think of a single more catastrophically bad decision made by a British government apart from deciding to enter what would become the First World War. The effects of its policies have not left any aspect of our lives untouched and spoiled. Jobs and careers have been lost, businesses destroyed, individuals’ hopes and plans crushed, families split apart, people kept from their loved ones during illness and death, cities and towns turned into ghost zones, shops shuttered up on high streets, thousands of people deprived of medical attention, thousands deprived of operations and treatments, millions cooped up in their flats and houses for months on end, not knowing when all this will end, the normal interactions of everyday life completely shattered.

The human misery caused by this policy cannot be estimated. This is cruelty inflicted, not through deliberate intent, but through the bureaucratic, insensitive, thoughtlessness of policy. And all, it will inevitably turn out (though this will not be much publicised or absorbed by the populace), to have been pointless.


suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.

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