Tag Archives: Matt Hancock

corona marginalia: track-and-trace

Boris Johnson tells Britain that our test-and-tracing system will be “world-beating”. Here’s what I’ve witnessed from the inside.

Writes an anonymous whistleblower [I am calling “Ann”] in a piece published in today’s Guardian. This is what happened shortly after she applied to an online ad for a temporary “customer service adviser”, which read:

You must have your own computer and high-speed internet to download our software and communicate with our customers … Don’t let lockdown stop you getting your dream job.

“The training was very basic”, Ann says, going on to describe in detail the extremely cursory “online training course” each of the candidates had to sit through:

We saw some slides about our role – the public health website we will use, and a script for what we had to say to people. We were told do not go off-script, and if there was anything we could not answer, we should ask our supervisor.

The training was wrapped up early, and we were asked if we felt prepared. There was a chorus of no from many people. Some said yes, but I didn’t see how anyone could be prepared for something they’d only found out about a couple of hours ago, plus we hadn’t even accessed the specific programmes. I checked my schedule and saw that I was due to start the next day at 9am. Panic set in.

The trainer told us there was a further seven and a half hours of self-led training that we had to complete before “going live”. This seemed a little unfair, if not impossible to achieve by the next morning. We were reassured that we could probably get through the training in two to three hours – but we would be paid for all seven and a half.

The trainer declared the training over and was immediately inundated with more questions from those anxious about what to do and when. The chatroom was then closed by the trainer, and were left on our own.

The self-led courses were very basic – with some generic dos and don’ts about customer data, security and so on. I completed it all in less than one and a half hours, with a score of 95%+.

The entirety of Ann’s first day of “work” was then spent waiting for entry into a chatroom. Her online colleagues were similarly left out in the cold. The second day was little different: “The day passed as we waited, re-attempted training, and wrote messages to supervisors and got no response.” This went on for the whole week and by the weekend, she tells us: “I had clocked up 40 hours of key worker pay for doing absolutely nothing.”

Ann continues:

Over the next few days I learned more about my job from watching the news than I did from those who were supposed to supervise me. I still did not feel qualified to do it. Then it was announced by [Matt] Hancock that we were going live the next day. On my chat there was a message from a supervisor asking the more experienced members of our chat to help those who needed help. The blind leading the blind! How were people who started the same day as me, and who had the same short and basic training as I had, supposed to help me do my job?

Ann concludes her account of the whole experience philosophically:

To this day I remain a “key worker”, paid £10 an hour to sit in a chatroom – alone, lost, without support or help. Despite what the government is saying, it seems the relentless problem “with the system” is another pandemic without a cure. Motivated as I am to help out during this difficult time – and after two weeks of doing “pretend” work on the track-and-trace programme – I have decided to quit and try to find a real way to help people.

Click here to read the full story entitled “Why I quit working on Boris Johnson’s ‘word-beating’ test-and tracing system”, published by the Guardian on May 30th.

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Those who have worked anywhere within the service sector are rather too familiar with these sorts of ‘online training courses’. The whole industry is basically a racket and of course every racket is driven by the profit motive. The question that immediately arises therefore is which private company was contracted by the government on this occasion. And it will come as little surprise that the trail soon leads to the outsourcing giant Serco:

Serco is overseeing the crucial track-and-trace system that has been launched today. But people it has recruited to work as contract tracers have already complained about a lack of training and guidance.

Earlier this month, Serco was condemned after it accidentally shared the contact details of 300 contact tracers. The error has led to calls for an urgent investigation into the “alarming” incident.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, wrote to Michael Gove, her counterpart in government, that it was “particularly troubling that a company that is being trusted with some of the most sensitive work in our national effort against the virus seems to struggle with the most basic aspects of data privacy”.

The contract-tracing data breach was not the first fiasco in Serco’s contributions to the government’s pandemic response. In April the company was in the news over concerns about delays at the drive-in COVID-19 test centres that it was managing. At one test site, key workers were left waiting for two hours in hot weather, unable to leave their vehicle or even open the windows.

From an exposé published by OpenDemocracy on May 28th entitled “Revealed: Serco under fire over fresh £90m COVID-19 contract”

Click here to read an earlier post about Serco’s subcontracting role in the fingerprinting of British schoolchildren.

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Update: on the creeping privatisation of the NHS

On May 4th, the Guardian published an article entitled “UK government ‘using pandemic to transfer NHS duties to the private sector’”

The government is using the coronavirus pandemic to transfer key public health duties from the NHS and other state bodies to the private sector without proper scrutiny, critics have warned.

Doctors, campaign groups, academics and MPs raised the concerns about a “power grab” after it emerged on Monday that Serco was in pole position to win a deal to supply 15,000 call-handlers for the government’s tracking and tracing operation.

They said the health secretary, Matt Hancock, had “accelerated” the dismantling of state healthcare and that the duty to keep the public safe was being “outsourced” to the private sector.

In recent weeks, ministers have used special powers to bypass normal tendering and award a string of contracts to private companies and management consultants without open competition.

Click here to read the full Guardian article written by Juliette Garside and Rupert Neate.

One month later, they published a follow-up piece:

[Serco] have taken the bulk of the work, recruiting 10,000 of the new 25,000 contact tracers after being awarded an initial fee of £45.8m, which could rise to £90m.

In an email forwarded to staff, which was then immediately recalled, a message from [Rupert Soames, Serco’s chief executive] said: “There are a few, a noisy few, who would like to see us fail because we are private companies delivering a public service. I very much doubt that this is going to evolve smoothly, so they will have plenty of opportunity to say I told you so.”

It continued: “If it succeeds … it will go a long way in cementing the position of the private sector companies in the public sector supply chain. Some of the naysayers recognise this, which is why they will take every opportunity to undermine us.”

[Bold emphasis added]

Click here to read the full Guardian article entitled “NHS test-and-trace system ‘not fully operational until September’” written by Sarah Marsh, published on June 4th.

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Sign the WeOwnIt Petition:

Serco is already failing to deliver:

  • The head of Serco has said that the contact tracing system won’t be operational until September and is likely to be “imperfect and clunky”
  • Serco has only tracked 1749 people so far, with many staff sitting idle.
  • Staff say they have no idea what they should be doing, are paid near minimum wage and have had minimum training – a recipe for disaster.

Serco has scammed us before:

  • They were convicted of fraud for the electronic tagging scandal, and fined £23 million
  • Their breast cancer hotline only trained staff for 1 hour before putting them on the phones to talk to distressed patients
  • They falsified NHS data 252 times when they ran a GP out of hours service

They’re not fit to run such an important system to get us out of this pandemic safely. But we’re being asked to trust them with our lives.

Click here to sign the petition.

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corona marginalia: timeline of failures

Despite previous claims by the government that it was well-prepared for the coronavirus, Britain is now expected to have one of the highest death tolls in the world. In a video released by Novara Media on April 10th, Aaron Bastani examined precisely what happened in recent months, and how public authorities – broadly unchallenged by the media – let a tragedy unfold:

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Here’s a timeline that refutes Michael Gove and the government’s attempts to shift blame on to Beijing:

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I have added a complementary timeline constructed around notable press reports, TV news and social media items that also focuses on the UK government response throughout the same period and brings the story up to date with today’s revelations in the Sunday Times.

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January 24th

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.

From today’s Sunday Times article entitled “Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster” written by Jonathan Calvert, George Arbuthnott and Jonathan Leake.

The same piece continues:

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. […]

That afternoon his spokesman played down the looming threat from the east and reassured the nation that we were “well prepared for any new diseases”. The confident, almost nonchalant, attitude displayed that day in January would continue for more than a month.

Johnson went on to miss four further Cobra meetings on the virus.

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February 3rd

Boris Johnson speaking in Greenwich:

We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.

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February 25th 

Bruce Aylward – the epidemiologist who led the recent WHO mission to China – returned from Wuhan, where the crisis began, and gave a warning to the world. China, Aylward explained, had done something extraordinary. It had managed to wrest control of an exponentially expanding epidemic. “When you spend 20, 30 years in this business,” Aylward said, holding up a graph that showed the improbable slowdown in cases across China, “it’s, like, ‘Seriously, you’re going to try and change that [curve] with those tactics?’”

From an article entitled “Government documents show no planning for ventilators in the event of a pandemic” written by Harry Lambert, published in the New Statesman on March 16th.

Here’s Dr Bruce Aylward advising the world to follow China’s example:

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March 3rd

Boris Johnson: “I can tell you that I’m shaking hands continually. I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients, and I shook hand with everybody you’ll be please to know, and I continue to shake hands. And I think that it’s very important that – people obviously can make up their own minds” continuing, “… but I think the scientific evidence is… well, I’ll hand over to the experts.”

[Quickly turning and directing attention to Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance who was standing to his left.]

Patrick Vallance: “Wash your hands”

BJ: “Our judgement is washing your hands is the crucial thing.”

The same footage is also available here.

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March 10th

Editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton tweeted:

The UK government – Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson – claim they are following the science. But that is not true. The evidence is clear. We need urgent implementation of social distancing and closure policies. The government is playing roulette with the public. This is a major error.

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March 11th 

[T]he day before Boris Johnson told the nation that the coronavirus sweeping the UK could no longer be contained and that testing for Covid-19 would stop except for the seriously ill in hospital, the head of No 10’s “nudge unit” gave a brief interview to the BBC.

At the time it was barely noticed – it was budget day, after all. With hindsight, it seems astonishing.

“There’s going to be a point, assuming the epidemic flows and grows as it will do, where you want to cocoon, to protect those at-risk groups so they don’t catch the disease,” said Dr David Halpern. “By the time they come out of their cocooning, herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population.”

From an article entitled “‘Absolutely wrong’: how UK’s coronavirus test strategy unravelled” written by Sarah Boseley, published in the Guardian on April 1st.

The same article continues:

It was a window into the thinking of the political strategists directing the UK response to Covid-19, who claimed to base what they were doing on scientific evidence. We would let the disease spread among the healthy. So no need to test.

If there was a moment when the UK turned its back on the traditional public health approach to fighting an epidemic, this was it.

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March 12th

[S]peaking after Thursday’s emergency Cobra meeting, the government’s chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, said the true total [of cases of coronavirus] was likely to be between 5,000 and 10,000. He said 20 people were being treated for Covid-19 in intensive care units and that the UK was on a trajectory about four weeks behind that of Italy, which has had more than 1,000 deaths.

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said that worst-case scenario planning projected that 80% of the country would contract the virus, with a 1% mortality rate. This equates to more than 500,000 deaths.

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, said: “We have all got to be clear, this is the worst public health crisis for a generation. Some people compare it to seasonal flu. Alas, that is not right. Due to the lack of immunity this disease is more dangerous.

“It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

From a report entitled “Johnson: many more people will love loved ones to coronavirus” written by Heather Stewart, Kate Proctor and Haroon Siddique, published in the Guardian.

The same article continues:

Johnson said schools would not close and neither did he join Scotland in banning gatherings of more than 500 people, though he warned that major events may be cancelled in future because of the burden they placed on public services during the outbreak.

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March 13th

The World Health Organization has stepped up its calls for intensified action to fight the coronavirus pandemic, imploring countries “not to let this fire burn”, as Spain said it would declare a 15-day state of emergency from Saturday.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director general, said Europe – where the virus is present in all 27 EU states and has infected 25,000 people – had become the centre of the epidemic, with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined apart from China. […]

Tedros stressed that countries should take a comprehensive approach. “Not testing alone,” he said. “Not contact tracing alone. Not quarantine alone. Not social distancing alone. Do it all. Find, isolate, test and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission … do not just let this fire burn.”

As reported by the Guardian in an article entitled “‘Do not let this fire burn’: WHO warns Europe over Covid-19” written by Jon Henley and Sam Jones.

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March 17th

Sam Coates [from 17:40 mins]: Some people came away from yesterday’s briefing more confused for instance about guidance for the elderly. Do you accept that the buck stops absolutely with you in this crisis? And do you take responsibility for the actions of your father? [after Boris Johnson’s father Stanley had publicly vowed to ignore official government advice]

Johnson: Right, umm, I think I’ve got a bit of a… Patrick [Vallance] why don’t you go first?

Having had plenty of time to think, he then replies at 21:55 mins:

“Of course the buck stops with me and I take full responsibility for all the actions that this government is taking. Decisions we’re taking, difficult though many of them are. And all the advice we’re giving to everybody. What I’d say to people who are thinking about… [inaudible] the more we follow the advice of our scientific and medical advisors, and the more closely we do what they tell us to do, the better our chances collectively of slowing the disease, of protecting the NHS, and of saving life. And also, of course, the better we can protect our NHS, umm, the less economic damage there will ultimately be. And of course people care about pubs, and have a right to care about pubs, and restaurants, but that is why we’re announcing the package, the extraordinary package, that Rishi [Sunak] has just unveiled today. That is the way we should be working to look after our economy.”

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March 21st

Nurses forced to wear binbags at Northwick Park Hospital in London:

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March 22nd

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s senior aide, became convinced that Britain would be better able to resist a lethal second wave of the disease next winter if Whitty’s prediction that 60% to 80% of the population became infected was right and the UK developed “herd immunity”.

At a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings outlined the government’s strategy. Those present say it was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if it means some pensioners die, too bad”.

At the Sage meeting on March 12, a moment now dubbed the “Domoscene conversion”, Cummings changed his mind. In this “penny-drop moment”, he realised he had helped to set a course for catastrophe. Until this point, the rise in British infections had been below the European average. Now they were above it and on course to emulate Italy, where the picture was bleak. A minister said: “Seeing what was happening in Italy was the galvanising force across government.” 1

Click here to read the full article published by The Sunday Times on March 22nd.

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March 22nd

Channel 4 News spoke with Prof. Helen Ward, Clinical Professor of Public Health at Imperial College, University of London. She began by talking about the latest advice coming from the government:

“Well, there’s a lot of public health specialist senior leaders who’ve been discussing this over the weekend, and I think most of them, like me, will be very disappointed. It seems to me that there are mixed messages. I know that the Prime Minister said that people should reduce their social contacts outside of the home, but has not done anything yet to enforce that.

“Going back to the science, which he says is guiding everything they do, the work that came out of Imperial College said that those social contacts outside the home have to reduce by 75 percent, if this is going to work. Now it’s clear from what’s being shown today that is not happening yet, and therefore closures – of some of the shops that are not necessary, some of the parks, etc – are going to have to be enforced. But more importantly, I think making some restrictions on travel and unnecessary travel.

“At the moment it’s all voluntary and unfortunately people are not sure that they want to do that.” [from 5:10 mins]

Asked whether she was “surprised he didn’t take a tougher stance”, Ward continued:

“I was surprised, because I think that the evidence from elsewhere in the world is that you have to take a really tough stance, and you have to take it early. The places that have actually got this under control and got numbers of cases starting to go down – of new cases – like South Korea; they have had a major investment in testing: very, very widespread testing, contact tracing, and reduction in social contacts.

“If you think you’re going to put these measures in place in four days time, if it doesn’t work now; four days is a lot of extra cases. So I think last week when we had the pubs and clubs and ‘don’t go to them’ not enforced, we lost four days, and then they enforced it. I think we are urging the Prime Minister and the government to take the bold steps that are necessary now, and not wait another four days.” [from 6:40 mins]

In response to the question why Johnson is so slow in enforcing these restrictions, she says:

Well, he actually poses it in terms of a Draconian clampdown, as opposed to people enjoying themselves, and I think that’s the wrong message to be giving to people. That it’s one or the other.

“I think you have to say ‘this is an emergency, we have to get people to comply with this, and we have to do that at a local level’. And I think local authorities are quite right to be taking these measures, and they need to have the backing of the government to enforce them. But it’s not just that.

A lot of communities, and shops, and other things, are actually doing the right thing. They are closing down and shifting towards supporting the most vulnerable. We’ve got hotels saying they’re going to be available, [providing] extra capacity, whether it’s for the NHS, or some have suggested for refuges for people suffering domestic violence as a result of the isolation. There’s many things that could be done, but the Prime Minister does seem to want to be one step behind.” [from 8:15 mins]

With regard to whether Johnson really is, as he repeats, ‘being led by the science’, or in fact driven more by political ideology and his antipathy towards ‘the nanny state’, Ward says:

“I think that the science that is informing this has been good. I do think there’s a lack of experience in public health leadership in helping the government to make those decisions. We do have the CMO and the Scientific Advisor, but there is a huge network of public health expertise around the country that I don’t think is being drawn on enough. People that were communicable disease control experts, who have been planning for epidemics and pandemics for years. I don’t hear their voices enough influencing government.” [from 9:20 mins]

Finally, asked if it is already too late to avoid the crisis now faced by Italy, she says:

“If we want to stop this, if we’re two weeks behind, then we have two weeks to stop that in a sense and we have to start today, because it’s the infections that are occurring today that are spreading in Columbia [Road] Flower Market for example. Those are the infections that in two weeks’ time will be causing deaths and intensive care use, and that’s what we have to try and stop now.

“I think there has to be clearer messaging. It is different in different parts of the world. It’s not just about limiting contact between individuals and [stopping] the spread that way: it’s also between hot spots like London and other parts of the country, and I think we need to look carefully about limiting travel between areas…

“But it takes time, so we need to start that now. Not say we’re going to think about it and maybe do it next week. Next week is another several tens of thousands of cases and more pressure on the NHS and more deaths.” [from 10:05 mins]

 

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March 24th

Johnson and the UK government finally issued stricter instructions that initially called on everyone with the single exception of “key workers” to stay at home:

However, within hours their advice substantially altered following a second tweet which lowered restrictions advising “to go to work (but work from home if possible)”:

 

In additional to this softening of restrictions which left both employers and employees at a loss to understand the new guidelines, the government then issued further instruction to workers on construction sites, who were advised to continue working but practice social distancing – the completely impractical advice that they must keep two metres apart.

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March 31st

BuzzFeed News has spoken to health experts in the UK and across Europe to find out why. The answer, they said, stemmed from Britain’s controversial initial strategy of mitigation of the virus (rather than suppression), rendering testing a secondary concern — an approach which has also contributed to a lack of preparedness and the capacity to carry out tests at scale.

The UK’s mitigation approach was devised by England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance. According to a person who has spoken to Whitty and Vallance, they took the view that the UK should not attempt to suppress the outbreak entirely, but rather prioritise protecting the elderly and vulnerable and ensuring the NHS did not become overwhelmed, while allowing the rest of population to build up “herd immunity”.

This strategy meant that widespread testing of every coronavirus case was not a priority for the UK, the person said, since the government’s scientists were assuming that between 60% and 80% of the population would become infected.

Accordingly, no preparations were made to increase manufacturing or imports of testing kits, nor to expand the UK’s laboratory capacity. Imports of testing kits are now extremely difficult as other nations seek more than ever to keep them for their own use. […]

The government has publicly insisted that herd immunity is not the UK’s policy. But the person familiar with Whitty and Vallance’s thinking said they believed it privately remains a long-term objective.

They said they thought the government would continue to prioritise increasing intensive care unit capacity to prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed, rather than widespread testing of the population, because they had accepted that a large percentage of the country will become infected in the next 12 to 18 months, before a vaccine is found. 2

Click here to read the full report by Buzzfeed entitled “Even The US Is Doing More Coronavirus Tests Than The UK. Here Are The Reasons Why.”

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April 1st

The failure to obtain large amounts of testing equipment was another big error of judgment, according to the Downing Street source. It would later be one of the big scandals of the coronavirus crisis that the considerable capacity of Britain’s private laboratories to mass produce tests was not harnessed during those crucial weeks of February.

“We should have communicated with every commercial testing laboratory that might volunteer to become part of the government’s testing regime but that didn’t happen,” said the source.

The lack of action was confirmed by Doris-Ann Williams, chief executive of the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association, which represents 110 companies that make up most of the UK’s testing sector. Amazingly, she says her organisation did not receive a meaningful approach from the government asking for help until April 1 — the night before Hancock bowed to pressure and announced a belated and ambitious target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of this month.

The same delay happened with the procurement of PPE.

The NHS could have contacted UK-based suppliers. The British Healthcare Trades Association (BHTA) was ready to help supply PPE in February — and throughout March — but it was only on April 1 that its offer of help was accepted. Dr Simon Festing, the organisation’s chief executive, said: “Orders undoubtedly went overseas instead of to the NHS because of the missed opportunities in the procurement process.”

Also from today’s Sunday Times article: “Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster

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April 6th

The government has been accused of missing an opportunity after it failed to deploy 5,000 contact tracing experts employed by councils to help limit the spread of coronavirus.

Environmental health workers in local government have wide experience in contact tracing, a process used to prevent infections spreading and routinely carried out in outbreaks such as of norovirus, salmonella or legionnaires’ disease. But a spokesperson for Public Health England (PHE), which leads on significant outbreaks, said the organisation did not call upon environmental health workers to carry out contact tracing for coronavirus, instead using its own local health protection teams.

According to an article entitled “UK missed coronavirus contact tracing opportunity, experts say” written by Rachel Shabi, published in the Guardian.

The same piece continues:

The institute’s Northern Ireland director, Gary McFarlane, said government health bodies “absolutely should be drawing on the skills set of EHOs [environmental health officers] and if they aren’t, it’s a missed opportunity”. He said: “There is significant capacity that is sitting there for this kind of work to be done.”

PHE’s contact tracing response team was boosted to just under 300 staff, deemed adequate for the containment phase of handling the Covid-19 virus up to mid-March. In that time the team, working around the clock, traced 3,500 people and supported the 3% of contacts found to be infected to self-isolate. Tracing was scaled back when the UK moved to the delay phase of tackling coronavirus in mid-March. It is now carried out in limited form, mainly for vulnerable communities.

Rachel Shabi adds:

The government decision to all but abandon contact tracing is not consistent with WHO guidelines, which urge a test-and-trace approach. At a WHO media briefing on Covid-19 in March, director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Tracing every contact must be the backbone of the response in every country.”

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April 19th

Speaking on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge, Michael Gove initially insisted a Sunday Times article detailing failures during this period had numerous inaccuracies and would be corrected. But in a subsequent interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, Gove conceded that Boris Johnson missed five consecutive emergency COBR meetings in the buildup to the coronavirus crisis, saying this was normal for a PM:

For the record: The composition of a ministerial-level meeting in COBR depends on the nature of the incident but it is usually chaired by the Prime Minister or another senior minister, with other key ministers as appropriate, city mayors and representatives of relevant external organisations such as the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Local Government Association.

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1 From an article entitled “Coronavirus: ten days that shook Britain – and changed the nation forever” written by Tim Shipman and Caroline Wheeler, published in The Sunday Times on March 22, 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coronavirus-ten-days-that-shook-britain-and-changed-the-nation-for-ever-spz6sc9vb

2 From an article entitled “Even The US Is Doing More Coronavirus Tests Than The UK. Here Are The Reasons Why”, written by Alex Wickham, Alberto Nardelli, Katie J. M. Baker & Richard Holmes, published in Buzzfeed News on March 31, 2020. https://www.buzzfeed.com/alexwickham/uk-coronavirus-testing-explainer

Extract from Wikipedia entry as of April 19th. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabinet_Office_Briefing_Rooms

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lions led by donkeys: heroes and villains in our war against Covid-19

Heroes

Heroic is a word that tends to be thrown around rather casually these days, with the unfortunate and inevitable consequence that it has become somewhat cheapened and degraded. There are times, however, when ‘heroic’, overworked as it is, becomes appropriate again. When searching for ways to describe acts of wholehearted self-sacrifice, it remains perhaps the only word that conveys this meaning with sufficient gravity.

The staff on the frontline in our hospitals, especially those working in intensive care, daily tending to the essential needs of critically ill patients, under extreme pressure because the wards they serve are already understaffed, are worthy of such a title even during ordinary times but it is during exceptional times of crisis when they truly earn the respect (if not the wage) that they fully deserve. Today’s sympathetic applause in countries and regions all throughout Europe is a spontaneous outpouring of gratitude and deep public support; even here in Britain, where a weekly ritual has been somewhat stage-managed, the applause is no less heartfelt.

Because even the everyday heroic commitment of our hospital workers, seldom remembered by most of us in ordinary times, is now exceeded each and every day, as those same doctors and nurses who continue to tend to the sick patients, do so at serious risk to their own lives.

The consequence of a long-term lack of investment and mismanagement of the NHS has become very apparent resulting in inadequate supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that leaves staff highly vulnerable to infection. In response nurses and doctors are posting photographs of the sorts of makeshift alternatives they have been forced to rely on. In response to this, some have even received official gagging notices for reporting such vital information:

For example, A&E staff at Southend hospital in Essex have been warned that they could face disciplinary action if they raise the issue of PPE publicly.

In a memo on 26th March they were told: “The posting of inappropriate social media commentary or the posting of photographs of staff in uniform who are not complying with IPC [infection prevention and control] standards and social distancing requirements is unacceptable. Such behaviour will be considered under the disciplinary policy.

“Now, perhaps more than ever, NHS staff are in the public eye and we have a responsibility to convey a professional image and to role model positive messages about social distancing. It would be very sad for moments of inappropriate or unprofessional behaviour to undermine the respect that we and our colleagues have from the public.”

Others who speak out are being bullied with threatening emails or more formally threatened with disciplinary action:

  • An intensive care doctor who voiced unease about facemasks was told by their hospital that “if we hear of these concerns going outside these four walls your career and your position here will be untenable”.
  • Another intensive care specialist was called into a meeting with their bosses and disciplined after raising concerns.
  • A GP working at Chase Farm hospital in London was sent home for voicing unease.
  • A consultant paediatrician in Yorkshire was told in an email from their hospital that their social media output was being monitored and they should be careful.
  • A GP who appealed to her community on social media for more supplies of PPE was then barred by her local NHS clinical commissioning group from speaking out. “I was being warned I wasn’t toeing the party line,” she said. 1

Consecutive governments abandoned them, failing to supply essential equipment, or to even run systematic screening today, but in spite of this they have not abandoned us, carrying out their duties irrespective of the additional risks, and this again is why we pay tribute to their heroism.

On April 8th, RT’s ‘Going Underground’ featured an extended interview with journalist and film-maker John Pilger, who began by reminding us of the suppressed finding of Exercise Cygnus, a pandemic simulation run by the British government as recently as October 2016, which revealed the country’s health system to collapse from a lack of resources including “inadequate ventilation”. Pilger also speaks to the damage done to the NHS caused by underfunding and stealth privatisation of services and the shifting of blame for current government failures on to the Chinese:

Healthcare workers in America have also been left exposed to the risk of infection due to lack of essential equipment. Last Thursday [April 2nd], nurses and doctors at Montefiore medical center in the Bronx protested over the lack of PPE. “Every day when I go to work, I feel like a sheep going to slaughter,” said Dr Laura Ucik, a third-year resident at the centre:

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In homage, I could now embed a whole sequence of video clips featuring medical professionals working on the frontline in Italy, Spain, America, and Britain’s NHS. They would all tell you how desperate the situation has already become; how unprepared their own health service is; and how fearful they are for the wellbeing of the patients and themselves. But there is little point in doing this, since the stories they tell are widely available across most media platforms. So I shall include just a single example: Dr David Hepburn, a Critical Care Consultant, who had been infected with Covid-19, but soon after recovering from the illness at home, returned to work – as countless other healthcare professionals have selflessly done.

Last week, Hepburn had told C4 News about how the intensive care wards at the Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport where he works had run out of space, so patients were moved into operating theatres. And, on April 3rd, Channel 4 News interviewed him again at length:

Asked to paint a picture of the current situation inside the critical care unit, Hepburn told us:

“It’s controlled chaos at the moment… the difference at the moment is that everybody is desperately unwell, everybody is on a ventilator, so the acuity or the severity of illness is very high”

Whilst regarding the demographics of the patient population, he says:

“There are a lot of people who are in work, there are a lot of people who are younger, the pattern of illness that we’ve seen in Gwent, and I can’t speak for anywhere else, is much younger patients that we were expecting; you know when the reports were coming out of Wuhan we were led to believe that this was something that was particularly dangerous for the more elderly patients, but I would say that all of the patients we have got on intensive care are in their 50s or younger at the moment.”

Hepburn’s account is now the repeated one. Please keep his testimony in mind as we come to the villains of the story in the next part, and not because it is extraordinary or exceptional, but because it is so very ordinary and fact-based. He has no reason to distort the truth and nor do any of the other healthcare professionals courageously struggling behind the scenes to save people like us.

On April 7th, John Campbell provided a summary of 4th April audit by Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre 9 (ICNARC) based on data collected from 210 ITUs in the U. The report shows that the median age for admission for critically ill patients is just 61 years old, and that the first quartile is 52 years old (coincidentally my own age), which means a quarter of those admitted are younger than I am. Three-quarters were men and 62.9 percent of all patients required mechanical ventilation in the first 24 hours:

Meanwhile, if the heroes of this pandemic are easy to see, they are also easy to support.

Founded by Cardiology Registrar, Dr Dominic Pimenta, you can offer support at HelpThemHelpUs, which is a independent forum for volunteering.

Novara Media welcomed Dominic Pimenta on to their March 31st broadcast to talk about the government’s plan and to outline the ideas behind his own HelpThemHelpUs initiative:

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Villains

Whereas the heroes are few, the villains abound. Let’s begin with the idiots because these are the lesser villains, even though the media often likes to portray them as a more tremendous threat to our lives.

We have the daft ones who are hoarding all the toilet rolls (fighting off competitors in a raw Darwinian struggle for survival as they grab their stash), presumably in order to pile them high as a monument to their own craven stupidity. The still more selfish are those who bought so much perishable food that they have already discarded most of it in rubbish bins. If we want a law against stupidity then I would begin by charging these people first of all.

A special dishonourable mention must also go to those hiding behind online aliases and spreading a different kind of rubbish whether on social media platforms or within comment sections. Incendiary drivel to the effect that ‘China’s day of reckoning must come’; as if they committed a crime or an act of war, when we still don’t know for certain the origins of this virus – despite the repeated though wholly unsubstantiated claims that its origins must have been that Wuhan wet market. The underlying message is an old one: beware the yellow peril!

And I wonder how much of this dog-whistle warmongering might actually be the product of our own military or intelligence units; the output of Brigade 77 for instance, or other more clandestine psychological operations such as GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) with its remit that includes “posting negative information on internet forums” all paid for with British taxpayer money. (Obviously, if these were foreign agents we would call them ‘troll farms’ but those are all spewing out bad Russian disinformation, not the good dishonest British stuff!)

From this array of lesser fools, however, we must turn upwards to consider those above. And according to the original government strategy, based solidly on ‘the science’ (lots more on that as we continue), the nation required around 60% infection of the population, in accordance with Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty’s assessment, to ensure ‘herd immunity’. Herd immunity, which meant letting the spread of the virus continue unchecked, was now the answer to tackling Covid-19. Taking his hands off the wheel entirely being Johnson’s first big plan!

If this approach still sounds like it might have been scientifically informed (as it was obviously meant to), then unfortunately you are mistaken. Herd immunity certainly helps to protect a population from the spread of infectious disease, however, ordinarily, this is acquired through programmes of vaccination, which are presumed to be safe. By encouraging ‘herd immunity’ to tackle the spread of a novel pathogen on the other hand, requires the infection of millions with a disease of unknown severity – what are the lasting health effects; what is the lethality? Such a policy is clearly reckless in the extreme. In fact, we still do not even know for sure that immunity to Covid-19 will be lasting, so there is a chance that herd immunity cannot be achieved at all.

But we are slowly learning how the lights had been blinking red for months and Boris Johnson’s inability to lead a coordinated response was unravelling before it had even started:

In the medical and scientific world, there was growing concern about the threat of the virus to the UK. A report from Exeter University, published on February 12th, warned a UK outbreak could peak within four months and, without mitigation, infect 45 million people.

That worried Rahuldeb Sarkar, a consultant physician in respiratory medicine and critical care in the county of Kent, who foresaw that intensive care beds could be swamped. Even if disease transmission was reduced by half, he wrote in a report aimed at clinicians and actuaries in mid-February, a coronavirus outbreak in the UK would “have a chance of overwhelming the system.”

With Whitty stating in a BBC interview on February 13th that a UK outbreak was still an “if, not a when,” Richard Horton, a medical doctor and editor of the Lancet, said the government and public health service wasted an opportunity that month to prepare quarantine restriction measures and a programme of mass tests, and procure resources like ventilators and personal protective equipment for expanded intensive care.

Calling the lost chance a “national scandal” in a later editorial, he would testify to parliament about a mismatch between “the urgent warning that was coming from the frontline in China” and the “somewhat pedestrian evaluation” of the threat from the scientific advice to the government.

This same ‘special report’ from Reuters published on April 7th, also discloses why there was so little preparedness:

According to emails and more than a dozen scientists interviewed by Reuters, the government issued no requests to labs for assistance with staff or testing equipment until the middle of March, when many abruptly received requests to hand over nucleic acid extraction instruments, used in testing. An executive at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford said he could have carried out up to 1,000 tests per day from February. But the call never came.

“You would have thought that they would be bashing down the door,” said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. By April 5th, Britain had carried out 195,524 tests, in contrast to at least 918,000 completed a week earlier in Germany.

Nor was there an effective effort to expand the supply of ventilators. The Department of Health told Reuters in a statement that the government started talking to manufacturers of ventilators about procuring extra supplies in February. But it was not until March 16th, after it was clear supplies could run out, that Johnson launched an appeal to industry to help ramp up production.

Charles Bellm, managing director of Intersurgical, a global supplier of medical ventilation products based outside London, said he has been contacted by more than a dozen governments around the world, including France, New Zealand and Indonesia. But there had been no contact from the British government. “I find it somewhat surprising, I have spoken to a lot of other governments,” he said. 2

Click here to read the full article published by Reuters, which is apologetically entitled “Johnson listened to his scientists about coronavirus – but they were slow to sound the alarm”. (Pushing the blame from the government onto its scientific advisors won’t wash, however the report contains some valuable insights nonetheless.)

Notable by its absence from this Reuters’ account of events is the advice and guidance of the World Health Organisation (WHO). This is important because for a while Britain had stood entirely alone, having taken its decision to act in brazen defiance to the directives of WHO, whose chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued his starkest warning on March 13th: “do not just let this fire burn”.

One day earlier Prime Minister Johnson was still solemnly reminding us “many more families are going to lose loved ones” – my own father saying to me afterwards, I suddenly realised “that means me”. But then, at the eleventh hour, Johnson and his government embarked on an astonishing U-turn. And hallelujah for that!

The reason was the maths: 60% of 66 million is very nearly 40 million, and, assuming a case-fatality rate of 0.7% (the best estimate we had – based on S Korean figures), that makes 280,000 deaths. No need for sophisticated epidemiological modelling or a supercomputer, the back of any old envelope will do.

As the sheer scale of the predicted death toll began to dawn on Johnson and his advisors, out of the blue came a highly convenient “leak”. Seemingly it fell upon Dominic Cummings to assume the role of scapegoat as fresh justifications were sought for a swift and sudden change of policy, purportedly based on the findings of ‘new modelling’ – reading between the lines, someone had to take the bullet and quite frankly Cummings was already the most detested of the principle actors.

Here’s how that “leak” was reported by The Sunday Times:

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s senior aide, became convinced that Britain would be better able to resist a lethal second wave of the disease next winter if Whitty’s prediction that 60% to 80% of the population became infected was right and the UK developed “herd immunity”.

At a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings outlined the government’s strategy. Those present say it was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if it means some pensioners die, too bad”.

At the Sage meeting on March 12th, a moment now dubbed the “Domoscene conversion”, Cummings changed his mind. In this “penny-drop moment”, he realised he had helped to set a course for catastrophe. Until this point, the rise in British infections had been below the European average. Now they were above it and on course to emulate Italy, where the picture was bleak. A minister said: “Seeing what was happening in Italy was the galvanising force across government.” 3

Click here to read the full article published by The Sunday Times on March 22nd.

(Or perhaps he really did have that “Domoscene conversion”! In which case, we must conclude that government policy was actually concocted more on the basis of Cummings’ whims, which is not exactly “following the science” either, is it?)

Incidentally, anyone who continues to deny the government’s rapid and complete U-turn (including Julia Hartley-Brewer, who I’ll come back to later), I direct to an article featured on Buzzfeed News from March 31st, which reads:

BuzzFeed News has spoken to health experts in the UK and across Europe to find out why [Britain has done comparatively little testing for coronavirus]. The answer, they said, stemmed from Britain’s controversial initial strategy of mitigation of the virus (rather than suppression), rendering testing a secondary concern — an approach which has also contributed to a lack of preparedness and the capacity to carry out tests at scale.

The UK’s mitigation approach was devised by England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance. According to a person who has spoken to Whitty and [Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick] Vallance, they took the view that the UK should not attempt to suppress the outbreak entirely but rather prioritise protecting the elderly and vulnerable, and ensuring the NHS did not become overwhelmed, while allowing the rest of population to build up “herd immunity”.

This strategy meant that widespread testing of every coronavirus case was not a priority for the UK, the person said, since the government’s scientists were assuming that between 60% and 80% of the population would become infected.

Accordingly, no preparations were made to increase manufacturing or imports of testing kits, nor to expand the UK’s laboratory capacity. Imports of testing kits are now extremely difficult as other nations seek more than ever to keep them for their own use. 4

[Bold emphasis added]

Click here to read the full article entitled “Even The US Is Doing More Coronavirus Tests Than The UK. Here Are The Reasons Why.”

However, the government and its advisors, although nominally in charge of matters, and accordingly as reprehensible as they are, should not be too isolated once it comes to attributing responsibility. The media must take a considerable share of any blame too.

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From the outset, the whole story surrounding coronavirus was completely politicised. For months it was all about Chinese mismanagement and repression, following which, after China slowly regained control of the situation in Wuhan, press attention and opprobrium switched to Iran.

Oh, how we all chortled when the Iranian Deputy Health Minister, Iraj Harirchi, was seen sweating out a fever as he tried to deliver a speech – in what sort of a tinpot regime does a Health Minister end up contracting the infection he is supposed to be fighting, hey? But shoe, other foot, media reframing… you get the picture:

Indeed, when Johnson himself was admitted to hospital and shortly afterwards moved to intensive care, a newspaper-led campaign encouraged people to gather outside again for a standing ovation to keep his spirits up. Of course, along with thousands of unfortunate victims still struggling for breath beside him, we wish him a full and speedy recovery, but this isn’t North Korea, and so, besides a handful of the party faithful, most of the country respectfully declined this nationwide call to lavish praise on the glorious leader.

On Good Friday, when another 980 deaths in hospitals alone were recorded – surpassing Spain and Italy’s worst recorded daily totals (figures for care homes are harder to establish), this was the headline in The Sun:

Only when Covid-19 gained a foothold in Europe was the tone adjusted, so that rather than peddling rumours about incompetence, due sensitivity was given instead to the suffering of the people – in this case, the Italian people.

Prior to the first European cases, there was also a lack of key information, and so it wasn’t until March that we first began to learn the full facts about the disease itself: how extremely virulent it is and not like flu at all, but SARS; how it doesn’t only attack the old and the vulnerable; how it is easily transmitted by asymptomatic spreaders and has a comparatively long incubation period; how between 5–10 percent of the victims require oxygen or mechanical ventilation, and many are left with irreparable lung damage. Suddenly China’s urgent need to construct new hospital facilities overnight became totally understandable.

Why were we left in the dark so long? Up until March Covid-19 still remained a blunt tool to beat the old enemies with, so presumably delving into cause of the crisis distracted too much from this propagandistic exercise. Yet this failure to fact-find – a routine matter for proper journalism – soon came back to haunt us.

Finally, a lack of widely available information accounts, at least in part, for why, three months on, Britain is desperately converting conference centres into thousand-bed hospitals: an impressive feat but one that also speaks to prior failures and a total lack of preparedness. China was our warning but the media was too sidetracked to stress this.

On April 5th, Sky News Australia released a “SPECIAL REPORT: China’s deadly coronavirus cover-up”, except that it isn’t and scarcely presents any evidence at all from China. Instead, it offers a montage of coverage from around the world, political talking heads, that are interspersed with images from a wet market (somewhere, presumably in South East Asia), overlaid with a breathless commentary and an ominous soundtrack. Today this passes for journalism apparently:

If the press instead had focussed more on the virulence of the disease, rather than always seeking a political angle, the public and governments of the West might have had greater cause to introduce tighter measures from the beginning, recognising the urgency of taking appropriate action to avoid suffering the same fate as the inhabitants of Wuhan. We could have closed our borders in time (yet they remain open even today) and made preparations for testing and contact tracing as they did in South Korea. But why take such drastic precautions if the problem is mostly one with the Chinese politburo and Iranian mullahs?

Indeed, as Rachel Shabi astutely reminds us in a more recent Guardian article, Britain is already blessed with teams of environmental health officers employed by local government who “have wide experience in contact tracing, a process used to prevent infections spreading and routinely carried out in outbreaks such as of norovirus, salmonella or legionnaires’ disease.”

As one of the environmental health workers she spoke to said, he was “struggling to figure out” why they hadn’t been given the go-ahead from the start. Another told her: “We are pretty good at infection control and contact tracing, it’s part of the job. We thought we’d be asked and were shelving other work.” In response, a spokesperson for Public Health England (PHE), said “the organisation did not call upon environmental health workers to carry out contact tracing for coronavirus, instead using its own local health protection teams.” 5

Hats off to Rachel Shabi for doing the legwork to expose this vital ‘missed opportunity’ by PHE and the government – examining the reasons behind this decision is now on the table for a public inquiry.

Unfortunately, much that passes for journalism today relies on scant research and little to no investigation at all. Instead it is informed by a diet of press conferences, press releases and press packs – all more or less pre-digested, all PR, and all oven-ready (as Johnson would say). Many reporters are the embedded and approved members of a press corps who grant their sources ‘quote approval’. Compounding this there is the groupthink and the self-censorship that has always existed.

In a well-known BBC interview with Noam Chomsky in 1996, Andrew Marr – who afterwards went on to become the BBC’s Political Editor – famously rebutted Chomsky’s accusation of a ubiquitous lack of media impartiality and journalistic integrity, demanding:

“How can you know that I’m self-censoring? How can you know that journalists are…”

Chomsky’s reply clearly rocks him: “I don’t say you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.” 6

It is understandable therefore (although not excusable) that those in the press and media have fallen into the easier habit of propagating and sanctioning accepted narratives, advocating official policy and being apologists for government mistakes and state crimes – after all, if you hold your nose, much of the job is done for you – readymade copy to cut and paste. And a climate of crisis furthers these temptations, cultivating this already indifferent attitude towards truth, and fostering journalistic practice that is non-confrontational on grounds of “national interest”.

By contrast, true journalism shares a lot in common with real science, which is similarly fact-based and objective. But to be fact-based and objective requires research and investigation, and this is tiresome and time consuming, so it’s easier not to bother.

Today, we see another consequence of this as the government shields itself behind ‘the science’, and the media once again provides it with cover. For instance, here is Sky News‘ Thomas Moore informing his audience as recently as March 27th that: “one of the government’s key advisors hazarded a guess this week that between half and two-thirds of those dying would probably have done so soon anyway.” [from 0:45 mins]:

How very Malthusian of him, you may think. How very: “herd immunity, protect the economy and if it means some pensioners die, too bad.”

It would be nice to stop right there. This kind of pseudoscientific validation for ideologically-informed policy is hardly worthy of closer examination. In this instance it is simply insulting, not only to the vulnerable and elderly whose existence Moore is quite literally attempting to delete but to anyone with an ear for propaganda. (And so for this secondary reason, let us parse his words just a little.)

Key advisor…? CMO for England, Chris Whitty; or former President of R&D of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) recently appointed government CSA, Sir Patrick Vallance; or Chief Executive of NHS England and former senior executive of UnitedHealth Group, Sir Simon Stevens, or some otherwise anonymous, faceless, quite possibly, non-existent advisor: who knows? Perhaps it was Matt Hancock…? Or was this again, Dominic Cummings?

Hazarded a guess… Really, can you get any vaguer than this? On what distant planet could Moore’s statement be considered remotely journalistic?

Not to be outdone on April 2nd, the BBC issued a Twitter stream along very similar lines:

 

 

Such Malthusian talking points are also echoed throughout a wide range of publications but found most especially on the shelves reserved for opinions of the libertarian right. As an outstanding example of this, I refer readers to a column written by Dr John Lee that was published in The Spectator as recently as March 28th: the day after the Sky News broadcast above, and just a fortnight ago.

Dr Lee is one of those pundits who love to cherry pick statistics; a talent so honed that upon first reading anyone could be forgiven for thinking that not only have we all been dreadfully deceived by our lying eyes but also by all the hysterical staff working in our NHS hospitals who incessantly talk nonsense about a crisis.

“The moral debate is not lives vs money,” Lee decides on the basis of the numbers, adding emphatically, “It is lives vs lives.” In fact, boiling Dr Lee’s argument down more literally, he is balancing risk to the economy against number of deaths, although doubtless it sounds more reasonable and more dramatic too, when you say “lives vs lives”. Not that the economy doesn’t matter, but that evidently from Lee’s viewpoint it sits high above mere lives and behind a huge ‘greater than or equal to’ sign. That said, his main proposal is a fittingly modest one:

Unless we tighten criteria for recording death due only to the virus (as opposed to it being present in those who died from other conditions), the official figures may show a lot more deaths apparently caused by the virus than is actually the case. What then? How do we measure the health consequences of taking people’s lives, jobs, leisure and purpose away from them to protect them from an anticipated threat? Which causes least harm?

Incidentally, the ultimate question here – “Which causes the least harm?” – sheds interesting light on Dr Lee’s own personal morality, or at least the ideas that underpin and inform it. Those who have studied philosophy will indeed recognise his stance, and place it under the technical heading ‘Consequentialism’: that the ultimate basis for a moral judgment should be founded on whether any action (or inaction) will produce a good or bad outcome, or consequence. Another way of saying this is “the ends justify the means”.

Consequentialism is essentially a rerun and a quite fashionable version of Utilitarianism, where Utilitarianism, in turn, values human behaviour according to some measure of usefulness. Once you understand this, it becomes a lot easier to comprehend why someone with Dr Lee’s outlook might share Cummings’ preference to “protect the economy and if it means some pensioners die, too bad”. The sacrifice of a few “useless eaters” (a phrase rightly or wrongly attributed to Kissinger) for the sake of the greater good. If I am being unkind to Dr Lee, then forgive me, but his words turn my own thoughts to Thomas Malthus again, who so eloquently justified the economic need for poor people to starve.

But I have digressed. The vital point to understand and remember here, as the establishment gatekeepers and government stenographers all insist, is that Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan-Smith and the rest of the Conservative crew have always acted in strict accordance with the best scientific advice available. And that never at any stage were decisions taken with callous indifference even when it came to their original decision to pursue a quasi-scientific policy of ‘herd immunity’ by letting a few of our loved ones die:

Governments everywhere say they are responding to the science. The policies in the UK are not the government’s fault. They are trying to act responsibly based on the scientific advice given. But governments must remember that rushed science is almost always bad science.

That’s also Dr John Lee’s opinion by the way, as he reaches for a conclusion to his piece. The case he makes fails throughout to acknowledge any government accountability whatsoever; not even when it comes to deciding which advice to listen to. A case that he set out as follows:

In announcing the most far-reaching restrictions on personal freedom in the history of our nation, Boris Johnson resolutely followed the scientific advice that he had been given. The advisers to the government seem calm and collected, with a solid consensus among them. In the face of a new viral threat, with numbers of cases surging daily, I’m not sure that any prime minister would have acted very differently. 7

It’s the science, stupid – just so you know.

By the way, I call Dr John Lee, Dr Lee because this is how his article is attributed. And I think he wants you to recognise his expertise because he describes himself as “a recently retired professor of pathology and a former NHS consultant pathologist”. There is nothing wrong, of course, in highlighting your own professional credentials. That said, the entire emphasis of his piece is that the government places trust in expertise as should you too. Thus, signing off in this fashion is a very effective way to pull rank on his readership. (Trust me on this, I’m a doctor too – I just don’t make a point of flaunting my PhD at every opportunity.)

If Dr John Lee wants you to get the message because he knows better, then for those who prefer to be browbeaten rather than condescended to, and as a quite different alternative, I offer the latest outpourings of small-‘c’ conservative rent-a-mouth Julia Hartley-Brewer.

Brewer is in fact the daughter of a GP, although happily she is otherwise as unqualified to proffer expert analysis on any subjects at all basically – unhappily, this doesn’t stop her and thanks to a public platform called Talkradio those unqualified and largely unsought opinions are broadcast across the nation on a weekly basis.

Recently she’s been doing a lot of Tweeting too, fulfilling her other obligation as a leading light amongst the commentariat. Here is one of her more recent efforts:

Yes, that’s right: the only thing that matters is whether Boris Johnson is following scientific advice. And he is – can’t you understand that? Now just shut up. I paraphrase, just a little; hardly at all really.

This brings me to reflect, finally and once again, on the dismal state of so much of today’s journalism and media more broadly, characterised, as it is, by wilful ignorance and woeful submissiveness to authority. Rigidly confined within an ever-tightening Overton Window, it speaks up for almost no-one, whether on the pressing question of how to fight coronavirus, or on most other vital issues of the day.

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1 From a report entitled “NHS staff ‘gagged’ over coronavirus shortages” written by Denis Campbell, published in the Guardian on March 31, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/31/nhs-staff-gagged-over-coronavirus-protective-equipment-shortages

2 From a ‘Special Report’ entitled “Johnson listened to his scientists about coronavirus – but they were slow to sound the alarm” written by Stephen Grey and Andrew MacAskill, published in Reurters on April 7, 2020. https://uk.mobile.reuters.com/article/amp/idUKKBN21P1X8

3 From an article entitled “Coronavirus: ten days that shook Britain – and changed the nation forever” written by Tim Shipman and Caroline Wheeler, published in The Sunday Times on March 22, 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/coronavirus-ten-days-that-shook-britain-and-changed-the-nation-for-ever-spz6sc9vb

4 From an article entitled “Even The US Is Doing More Coronavirus Tests Than The UK. Here Are The Reasons Why”, written by Alex Wickham, Alberto Nardelli, Katie J. M. Baker & Richard Holmes, published in Buzzfeed News on March 31, 2020. https://www.buzzfeed.com/alexwickham/uk-coronavirus-testing-explainer

5 From an article entitled “UK missed coronavirus contact tracing opportunity, experts say” written by Rachel Shabi, published in the Guardian on April 6, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/apr/06/uk-missed-coronavirus-contact-tracing-opportunity-experts-say

6 Interviewed for The Big Idea, BBC2, February 14, 1996. A complete transcript is available here: http://scratchindog.blogspot.com/2015/07/transcript-of-interview-between-noam.html

The broadcast has also been uploaded on Youtube in full and is embedded below:

7 From an article entitled “How deadly is the coronavirus? It’s still far from clear?” written by Dr John Lee, published in The Spectator on March 28, 2020. https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/The-evidence-on-Covid-19-is-not-as-clear-as-we-think

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Filed under analysis & opinion, Britain, China, Iran, John Pilger, Noam Chomsky

corona marginalia: “Operation Last Gasp”

It is ten days since the UK government took its first steps to tackle the shortage of NHS ventilators, when Boris Johnson, along with Michael Gove, “joined a conference call with more than 60 manufacturing businesses to rally them in a national effort to produce more equipment.”

Politico reported at that time that the government’s aim was to have the necessary ventilators “on stream” within two weeks. We also learned that Johnson had joked about how this request to build more life-saving ventilators might be remembered as “Operation Last Gasp.” 1

Yesterday another reason behind the government’s delay in the procurement of essential medical equipment was revealed by the Guardian, when it reported (initially at least):

Downing Street has declined to take part in an EU scheme to source life-saving ventilators to treat coronavirus because the UK is “no longer a member” and is “making our own efforts”.

Critics accused Boris Johnson of putting “Brexit over breathing” after No 10 said it did not need to participate in the EU effort to procure equipment to fight coronavirus.

The EU has said it is open to the UK taking part in the programme, which seeks to use its bulk-buying power to get new ventilators at the best price.

The UK has instead chosen to source ventilators from British manufacturers who have never made the products before, ordering 10,000 machines from the household appliance firm Dyson.

Asked why the UK was not taking part, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We are no longer members of the EU.” He also stressed that the UK was “making our own efforts” in this area. 2

However, this Guardian article was quickly reedited, and replaced with a different version that retains the same URL whilst providing (as of writing) no notification of any update.

According to the revised account, the government’s failure to cooperate with the EU scheme had never been a policy decision, but was simply “a mix-up” over an email and that the government “would consider participating in future”:

Downing Street has claimed it failed to take part in an EU scheme to source life-saving ventilators to treat coronavirus because it accidentally missed the deadline.

No 10 initially said it did not take part because the UK was “no longer a member” and was “making our own efforts”.

But after critics accused Boris Johnson of putting “Brexit over breathing”, a No 10 spokesman clarified that it had missed out because of an error and would consider participating in future. It is understood the UK claims not to have received an email from the EU asking it to participate.

The mix-up means the UK has missed out on benefiting from the collective buying power of the EU. The bloc is seeking to use its clout to source large numbers of ventilators and protective equipment.

A UK government spokesperson said: “Owing to an initial communication problem, the UK did not receive an invitation in time to join in four joint procurements in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“As the commission has confirmed, we are eligible to participate in joint procurements during the transition period, following our departure from the EU earlier this year.

“As those four initial procurement schemes had already gone out to tender, we were unable to take part in these, but we will consider participating in future procurement schemes on the basis of public health requirements at the time.” 3

Click here to read the revised Guardian article freshly titled “No 10 claims it missed deadline for EU ventilator scheme”.

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Update: Proof that the government lied

Shortly after posting this it came to my attention that Health Secretary Matt Hancock had already confessed to knowing about the EU ventilator scheme because he drew attention to it on last week’s BBC1 Question Time (March 19th). So it wasn’t “a mix-up” after all – that was just fake news:

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Further evidence has since come to light “that heap doubt on government claims of missing an email” in a subsequent Guardian article published on March 30th:

EU minutes seen by the Guardian show that a British official joined eight out of 12 EU health security committee meetings dedicated to the Covid-19 outbreak since the group was set up earlier this year, shortly before China’s Hubei province was put into lockdown.

At least four of those meetings discussed EU procurement schemes on: 31 January, 4 February, 2 March and 13 March.

While the government marked Brexit day on 31 January, a British representative joined EU member states and commission officials to discuss what was then called “the cluster of pneumonia cases associated with novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China”.

At this meeting, four EU member states said the virus could require increased stocks in Europe of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, masks and goggles, and the commission said it was ready to help if asked.

The EU executive stated it was ready to help countries bulk-buy medical equipment on 4 February. By 2 March, officials at the commission’s health department reported that 20 EU countries wanted to join a procurement scheme for personal protective equipment, such as overalls, gloves and face-shields. Later that month, on 13 March, EU officials discussed the combined purchase of ventilators.

Peter Liese, a German MEP and medical doctor who sits on the European parliament’s public health committee, said there had also been telephone calls between British and EU officials about the EU procurement scheme. “I know that they [British officials] were at a working level interested in joint procurement,” he told the Guardian.

The veteran German MEP dismissed UK government claims they missed an email. “It was not that they were not aware, but it was a decision not to participate,” he said. “If you are interested you don’t wait for an email.”

Click here to read the full Guardian article entitled “UK discussed joint EU plan to buy Covid-19 medical supplies, say officials” written by Jennifer Rankin, published on March 30th.

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1 From an article entitled “POLITICO London Playbook: The age of corona – Rishi leads the fightback – Commons rule change” written by Jack Blanchard, published in Politico on March 17, 2020. https://www.politico.eu/newsletter/london-playbook/politico-london-playbook-the-age-of-corona-rishi-leads-the-fightback-commons-rule-change/

2 From an article entitled “No 10 accused of putting ‘Brexit over breathing’ in Covid-19 ventilator row” written by Rowena Mason and Lisa O’Carroll, published in the Guardian on March 26, 2020 (10:31 EDT) https://web.archive.org/web/20200326170654/https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/no-10-boris-johnson-accused-of-putting-brexit-over-breathing-in-covid-19-ventilator-row

3 From an article entitled “No 10 claims it missed deadline for EU ventilator scheme” written by Rowena Mason and Lisa O’Carroll, published in the Guardian on March 26, 2020 (18.25 GMT) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/no-10-boris-johnson-accused-of-putting-brexit-over-breathing-in-covid-19-ventilator-row

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in search of the truth about this new coronavirus, Covid-19

Like most people, when it comes to coronavirus Covid-19, I’m no expert on the relevant scientific fields of microbiology, infectious diseases or epidemiology. Complete absence of knowledge in such a highly technical issue can seem like a good reason not to enter into the debate at all and why, until now, I have chosen to avoid writing on this subject. The change of heart happens because, like you too, I have a serious, since vested interest, not only in trying to determine the truth, but also in sharing the fruits of my own investigations.

Before I come to the science or discuss the UK government’s response, I wish to make clear that although I believe the government has acted recklessly by playing down the seriousness of SARS-CoV-2 (the technical name for the virus itself), parts of the media have been reckless in a different way: rushing around like a clucking flock of Chicken-lickens (dare I add) with their heads cut off, all clamouring in that ostentatious 24/7 rolling news coverage way of theirs to reinforce the opinion that “the sky is falling in”. Some of this febrile media panic has become so bad that other more reserved news reports have actually confirmed that a mass hysteria is being irresponsibly (if fortunately to great extent ineffectively) whipped up:

University of California, Irvine associate professor E. Alison Holman, who has published research on media exposure to mass-trauma events, said the toilet paper scare appeared to have originated with articles about stocking up before the virus’ spread.

“A week ago, there were a handful of articles in major newspapers saying, here’s what you should do to prepare for the coronavirus. And one of the top things that was listed on at least two or three websites — major media outlets — was: Buy toilet paper,” Ms. Holman said. “I think some of the freak-out about getting toilet paper has to do with that.”

She described the media-fueled worry as “a little overblown,” while others have gone so far as to accuse the press of sensationalizing the virus to juice ratings. 1

Liberally mixed into this whole confusion is the swirling uncertainty of an aggregate of internet information, misinformation and disinformation (or ‘fake news’ if you must – as if propaganda is only the product of our internet age). It ought to go without saying really that you shouldn’t automatically trust anything you read, with the original source of the story key to understanding any subsequent interpretation of it – a caveat that in no way excludes the articles on my own blog, but also applies to mainstream broadcasters and newspapers.

I try to take great care with the inclusion of references wherever relevant, always doing my best to navigate a course to avoid any deliberate lies and well-intentioned misunderstandings and errors. Sometimes this puts me at odds with the stance taken by other researchers, journalists and bloggers whose views I ordinarily subscribe to. Right now, there are many who justifiably are alerting their own audiences to the danger that measures rolled out to contain this disease ranging from increased surveillance and the introduction of cashless exchange 2 to lockdowns, curfews, and arrest and detainment, which may be difficult or impossible to rollback. In the notorious words of Rahm Emanuel: “Never let a crisis go to waste”. Not wishing to downplay this very real alternative danger, I therefore encourage readers to follow the work of investigative reporter Whitney Webb who explains in her latest article:

The decision to classify government coronavirus preparations in mid-January, followed by the decision to coordinate the domestic response with the military and with intelligence deserves considerable scrutiny, particularly given that at least one federal agency, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), will be given broad, sweeping powers and will work closely with unspecified intelligence “partners” as part of its response to a pandemics like COVID-19.

The CBP’s pandemic response document, obtained by The Nation, reveals that the CBP’s pandemic directive “allows the agency to actively surveil and detain individuals suspected of carrying the illness indefinitely.” The Nation further notes that the plan was drafted during the George W. Bush administration, but is the agency’s most recent pandemic response plan and remains in effect.

Though only CBP’s pandemic response plan has now been made public, those of other agencies are likely to be similar, particularly on their emphasis on surveillance, given past precedent following the September 11 attacks and other times of national panic. Notably, several recent media reports have likened coronavirus to 9/11 and broached the possibility of a “9/11-like” response to coronavirus, suggestions that should concern critics of the post-9/11 “Patriot Act” and other controversial laws, executive orders and policies that followed. 3

Click here to read the full article entitled “US Intel Agencies Played Unsettling Role in Classified and ‘9/11-like’ Coronavirus Response Plan” published by Mint Press News.

I would also point you to the research of John Whitehead who writes of the current crisis:

Don’t go underestimating the government’s ability to lock the nation down if the coronavirus turns into a pandemic, however. After all, the government has been planning and preparing for such a crisis for years now.

The building blocks are already in place for such an eventuality: the surveillance networks, fusion centers and government contractors that already share information in real time; the government’s massive biometric databases that can identify individuals based on genetic and biological markers; the militarized police, working in conjunction with federal agencies, ready and able to coordinate with the federal government when it’s time to round up the targeted individuals; the courts that will sanction the government’s methods, no matter how unlawful, as long as it’s done in the name of national security; and the detention facilities, whether private prisons or FEMA internment camps, that have been built and are waiting to be filled.

Now all of this may sound far-fetched to you now, but we’ve already arrived at the dystopian futures prophesised by George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report. 4

Click here to read the full article entitled “Coronavirus vs. Mass Surveillance State: Which Poses the Greater Threat?” published in Counterpunch.

It is wise to be cautious. The remedy can often be worse than the disease; however, this is no excuse whatsoever to downplay the threat once we understand that the threat is real.

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Science, what science?

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director general, said Europe – where the virus is present in all 27 EU states and has infected 25,000 people – had become the centre of the epidemic, with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined apart from China. […]

Tedros stressed that countries should take a comprehensive approach. “Not testing alone,” he said. “Not contact tracing alone. Not quarantine alone. Not social distancing alone. Do it all. Find, isolate, test and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission… do not just let this fire burn.5

[bold highlight added]

Click here to read the full Guardian report published on Friday entitled “‘Do not let this fire burn’: WHO warns Europe over Covid-19”.

Having completed what Boris Johnson and the UK government have comically, bordering on the self-satirical, described as the “containment” phase – a period in which countless people who arrived in Britain from infected areas were permitted entry without quarantine and never tested or traced – we have now reached the “delay” phase, which will, they say, “flatten the curve” to slow up the rate of hospital admissions, whilst permitting the development of herd immunity.

On paper, such a lassez-faire approach might have merits. In the long run, it will certainly mean the population becomes resistant to this particular strain of virus, lessening concerns of another outbreak once the current one has passed. Meanwhile, any slowing down of transmission of the virus will save lives. In fact, this approach would be commendable for an outbreak of flu, but unfortunately what we are dealing with isn’t flu. It isn’t even the same virus; this is a SARS-like virus and comparisons to flu are misleading for many reasons (pictures sometimes tell a better story than words):

Now for some figures: as of March 9th, South Korea had tested 190,000 people, with 7,478 confirmed cases and 51 deaths. 6 That equates to a 0.7% mortality rate, which matches what has also been reported outside of Wuhan in China. This is the best estimate of the mortality rate we currently have – for comparison, the rate is around 0.1% for seasonal flu. That represents a hugely significant difference. Of course, the death rates and hospitalisation rates can only be based on confirmed cases, which means that the recorded figures can be high because there is insufficient testing of non-serious cases. The positive here is quite obvious, but there is also a negative to consider: that the spread of this disease is already far more widespread than any current data indicates.

On top of this, Covid-19 is highly transmissible. Best estimates indicate that is may be 3-4 times more infectious. As the spread is exponential and this is the base multiplier, the rise in the number of cases can be expected to far exceed a typical rise in cases of flu, putting an enormous extra strain on any health service. It accounts for why China has locked down a city, constructed new hospitals and flown in some 50,000 extra medics. It also explains how the situation in Italy has become so desperate.

Indeed, if transmission in the UK or elsewhere is not sufficiently slowed, then we can expect to see scenes like those in Italy where the health system has been overwhelmed with so many serious cases requiring intensive care. So what measures have we taken that Italy did not? Or Spain (which is also beginning to see a dramatic spike in cases)?

Richard Horton is the Editor of ‘The Lancet’. This is just one of many tweets he has recently put out highly critical of government inaction:

 

There are two further points about the threat posed by this new coronavirus that really need clearing up. Firstly, it continues to be intimated that just the elderly and those with underlying conditions should be concerned about contracting the disease, which is true up to a point. Thankfully, children and very young adults seem to be hardly affected at all. Although again this presents another risk since these asymptomatic groups can also be carriers, spreading the disease within communities. It should also be stressed however that the median age of fatality is 65 years old (this seems to be confirmed across all regions). Median means that half of the cases are below 65, with many of the victims sadly in their 50’s and younger. For some as yet unknown reason, they are also disproportionately male.

Secondly, although the mortality rate is below 1% (high nonetheless), what we are slowly learning is that about 10% of cases suffer a very severe form of pneumonia which can leave serious and long-term damage. To reiterate: this is not flu. I have included interviews with medics working on the frontline in Italy in an addendum below.

The government’s official stance is very obviously contrary to the stringent measures that were enforced by China and more humanely in Singapore and South Korea, where coronavirus epidemics have been quite rapidly contained; it is also in outright defiance to current World Health Organisation guidelines, as summarised above. The fact that there is no testing of anyone who doesn’t present symptoms and no contact tracing whatsoever means we cannot accurately keep track of the disease, and in the words of Tedros, “you can’t fight the virus if you don’t know where it is”.

In the same briefing statement given on March 12th, Tedros also said this: “To save lives we must reduce transmission. That means finding and isolating as many cases as possible, and quarantining their closest contacts. Even if you cannot stop transmission, you can slow it down and protect health facilities, old age homes and other vital areas – but only if you test all suspected cases.” 7

And here again, the UK government is completely remiss. As of now, the government is making no efforts to find and isolate anyone at all. From one perspective, this also looks like it is being deliberately allowed to spread, or rather more generously and less conspiratorially, that it is a clear dereliction of duty to protect its citizens.

The bewildering aspect of this clear failure to comply with WHO guidelines is that Johnson insists he is just following ‘the science’. Well, if Johnson’s advisors disagree with WHO then surely it is incumbent on them to acknowledge and justify their variance, rather than simply ignoring it.

On BBC’s Question Time broadcast on March 12th, Professor John Ashton, former Director of Public Health, was also highly critical of the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak which he described as “paternalistic, old-fashioned and top-down”:

Moreover, and despite how Boris Johnson and the UK government have chosen to present and justify their current strategy, as always flanked by medical and scientific experts, there is far more to address here than simply ‘the science’ (as if the definite article somehow makes it more scientific). Thankfully, we do not as yet live in a technocracy, and potential crises like the one we may now face provide another good reason to avoid ever becoming one. Why? Because the approach we adopt to tackle any public health issue, and especially one that is urgent and potentially serious, is inherently political – it is immediately informed by what government and to a lesser degree our society values most, which are seldom the same given that our governments are beholden more to special interests than the electorate. There is no single scientific answer; no technocratic short-cut. Do we care more about people or profits? It is a question the government ought to be asked more often.

Here is Health Secretary, Matt Hancock speaking yesterday on BBC’s ‘The Andrew Marr Show’ appearing to be completely out of his depth and making no real sense:

Remarkably the upload has been removed already (within 24 hours!) – but you can still watch the whole interview on BBC iplayer here.

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Final thoughts

There is no question the banksters and the rest of the vulture capitalist class are rubbing their hands at the prospect of fire sales and super-charged deregulation – that is the nature of disaster capitalism. And more immediately, public hand out for emergency contracts that always pay above the odds. I also see every reason to be suspicious that two of the countries most affected right now are China and Iran – the origins of this disease remain a mystery. It is also the case that the media is hyping this. Why the hell do people panic buy in the first place, except when they start seeing images of empty shelves? On top of all that, there is every reason to be suspicious of a UN body like the WHO.

Embedded below is a powerful investigative documentary entitled ‘trustWHO’ (available on Vimeo for a small rental fee) made by filmmaker Lilian Franck, who went on a quest to discover what lies behind the altruistic façade of the world’s largest public health body. What she uncovers is an alarming picture of corruption and opacity. She also covers the recent change to the classification of what  a pandemic is and when the WHO should announce a pandemic, an announcement that triggers a world wide pandemic response by nation states, the kind of which we have been seeing in recent days since the WHO finally announced it:

Assuredly Covid-19 is not as virulent as the Spanish Flu which I believe had an estimated death rate of about 20% (there is an interesting article on how Wikipedia recently altered their entry to reduce this figure). It is now evident, however, that it is far more deadly than regular flu. It should also be noted that many more people are made seriously ill than this death rate. Lastly, the infectiousness of Covd-19 is also much higher than flu – possibly as much as 3-4 times higher. For all these reasons it is entirely misleading to compare Covid-19 to flu.

The NHS here in Britain barely copes with the annual winter flu rise. To be honest, although originally I dismissed this as merely media hype, I am now anticipating that Britain will be hit by a crisis the NHS is unprepared to deal with: a situation at least as dire or possibly worse than the one happening in Italy. My hunch is that this will likely happen within the next fortnight (we shall see – fingers crossed that I’m wrong). I would also be concerned about the same situation subsequently happening in America – not because Covid-19 is as deadly as Spanish Flu but because it is bad enough, spreads astonishing rapidly and none of our terribly under-funded public health systems are ready for it. Of course, I really hope this turns out to be wrong and yes, the vultures are already circling whatever happens.

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Addendum

Giacomo Grasselli, a senior Italian government health official who is coordinating the network of intensive care units in Lombardy, spoke about the “critical” situation in Italy on C4 News broadcast March 10th:

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Giovanni Guaraldi discusses lessons being learned by Italian doctors about the new virus on CTV News broadcast on March 4th:

On March 14th Sky News interviewed anaesthetist Marco Vergano who works in Turin, Italy:

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Additional: What are the origins of Covid-19?

The world has been given to believe that this novel form of coronavirus Covid-19 is an entirely accidental mutation. To begin with, at least in the West, we were also expected to swallow the unsubstantiated but widely publicised assertions that its occurrence was due to the bizarre eating habits of the Chinese and cross-contamination from a wet market. Unsettling images of ghastly bowls of bat soup were featured across the newsstands – pictures almost certainly not taken in China but never mind.

Beneath the frankly xenophobic headlines, there is another side to the story that has received considerably less attention: just how strikingly novel the new virus really is. This is from an article entitled “Why COVID-19 is more insidious than other coronaviruses” published by Salon magazine in late February:

While there are many known viruses in the same class of coronavirus as COVID-19, some of its peculiarities — including its infectivity — are perplexing researchers. Now, a recent research paper viewable on the Chinese research site Chinaxiv.org and previously reported on by the South China Morning Post notes that the new coronavirus has an “HIV-like mutation” that gives it novel properties.

“Because of this mutation, the packing mechanism of the 2019-nCoV may be changed to being more similar to those of MHV, HIV, Ebola virus (EBoV) and some avian influenza viruses,” the English abstract of the paper states.

The same article continues:

Though the paper is yet to be peer-reviewed, the scientists involved hail from Nankai Unviersity in Tianjin, one of the top universities in the world’s most populous nation.

The paper adds to the crucial body of research around COVID-19, which still includes more unknowns than knowns. Currently, scientists still do not know COVID-19’s origin, though suspect it is zoonotic, meaning it likely started in an animal before spreading to humans. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note on their website, COVID-19 is an “emerging disease,” and much of what we do know is “based on what is known about similar coronaviruses.” 8

Keeping this in mind, I recommend listening to a short interview with esteemed human rights lawyer and Professor of International Law at the University of Illinois, Francis Boyle. It is important to understand that Boyle has significant expertise in this field having drafted legislation for the Biological Weapons Convention, known as the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989.

Boyle is adamant that Covid-19 is a leaked bioweapons agent and given his standing, one might imagine that informed opinion of this kind with the submission of supporting evidence, deserves a more public platform. Instead, as he says, no mainstream journalists have come forward to speak with him. I do not, of course, leap to the conclusion that his account is the correct one; only find it curious that most journalists, who for their part invariably have little to no expertise in this field, are so eager to either ignore him altogether or undermine his authority in hit-pieces that consistently dismiss Boyle merely as “a lawyer”.

Furthermore, there is an additional piece of evidence that appears to be in favour of Boyle’s claims. It appeared in an article published by the highly respected scientific journal Nature back in November 2015. Entitled “Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research”, the piece begins:

An experiment that created a hybrid version of a bat coronavirus — one related to the virus that causes SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) — has triggered renewed debate over whether engineering lab variants of viruses with possible pandemic potential is worth the risks. 9

For the record, the bats in question were Chinese horseshoe bats.

I shall not reproduce a larger extract because there is an ominous ‘rights & permissions’ caution, and so for the purposes of fair use I will also reprint in full the editors’ cautionary note prefacing the article:

Editors’ note, March 2020: We are aware that this story is being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered. There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus.

Having no expertise in this field, I merely present evidence for others to judge.

Click here to read the full Nature article.

And here and here to read articles published in 2013 about attempts by scientists based in The Netherlands to weaponise bird flu.

Correction:

In the original version of this article I incorrectly stated that SARS-CoV-2 was “the technical name for the disease itself”. It is instead the name of the virus whereas Covid-19 is the name of the disease; just as HIV is the name for the virus that causes the disease AIDS.

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1 From an article entitled “’Inducing panic’: Media under fire for driving coronavirus hype to epidemic levels” written by Valerie Richardson, published in The Washington Times on March 11, 2020. https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/mar/11/media-fueling-coronavirus-panic-under-fire/

2 Arguably this is purely for hygienic reasons right now and not intended as a long term plan – a measure to protect workers on the frontline such as those needed on supermarket checkout. Obviously they do not need coronavirus to enact such regulation.

3 From an article entitled “US Intel Agencies Played Unsettling Role in Classified “9/11-like” Coronavirus Response Plan” written by Whitney Webb, published in Mint Press News on March 13, 2020. https://www.mintpressnews.com/us-intelligence-unsettling-role-classified-9-11-like-coronavirus-response/265687/

4 From an article entitled “Coronavirusvs, the Mass Surveillance State: Which Poses the Greater Threat” written by John W. Whitehead, published in Counterpunch on March 12, 2020. https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/03/12/coronavirus-vs-the-mass-surveillance-state-which-poses-the-greater-threat/

5 From an article entitled “’Do not let this fire burn’: WHO warns Europe over Covid-19” written by Jon Henley and Sam Jones, published in the Guardian on March 13, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/13/european-countries-take-radical-steps-to-combat-coronavirus

6 Based on figures reported in an article by New Scientist entitled “Why is it so hard to calculate how many people will die from Covid-19?” written by Michael Le Page, published in New Scientist on March 11, 2020. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24532733-700-why-is-it-so-hard-to-calculate-how-many-people-will-die-from-covid-19/  Here is a fuller extract of the piece:

Last month, a study estimated that the fatality rate when infected people without symptoms are included in the case count is around 1 per cent, and this is still thought to be in the right ball park.

It is clear that some countries, including the US and Iran, are missing cases as so few people are being tested. South Korea, by contrast, had tested 190,000 people as of 9 March, with 7478 confirmed cases and 51 deaths.

This means 0.7 per cent of reported cases in South Korea have died so far, which matches what we have seen in China outside of Wuhan. If these places are detecting most cases, the fatality rate will not be much lower than this, though it could be higher if many recently infected people die.

The fatality rate for covid-19 isn’t fixed, and will vary based on many factors. Age is one, with the rate rising from around age 50 and reaching 15 per cent in over-80s, according to data from China. Countries like Niger, with many younger people, may fare better than Japan, where more than a quarter are aged over 65.

7 https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-mission-briefing-on-covid-19—12-march-2020

8 From an article entitled “Why COVID-19 is more insidious than other coronaviruses” written by Nicole Karlis, published by Salon magazine on February 28, 2020. https://www.salon.com/2020/02/27/why-covid-19-is-more-insidious-than-other-coronaviruses/

9 From an article entitled “Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research” written by Declan Butler, published in Nature on November 12, 2015. https://www.nature.com/news/engineered-bat-virus-stirs-debate-over-risky-research-1.18787

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