I haven’t written a COVID blog for several months. Some of what government is attempting now half-heartedly and badly echoes some of the advice of my blogs back in March and April, so my disapproval of some of their policies is not on the what but the when and how. Wiser government offering good leadership, backed up by a moderately competent public sector, would have got through with a tiny fraction of the deaths and economic destruction. It may well be the case now that public trust and cooperation have been squandered, leaving fear and coercion as the only still-working tools. The vaccines will help of course, but slow delivery and ongoing public sector incompetence will mean more unnecessary deaths for at least another year. Tens of thousands are dead from COVID who shouldn’t be, as well as perhaps well over 100,000 more who will die from other illnesses due to lack of timely diagnosis and treatment. We, our children and our grandchildren will pay heavily in lingering economic, social, political and cultural damage. It shouldn’t have been like this, it really shouldn’t. That a few other countries have performed almost as badly is little consolation.
Tempting though it is, I won’t present a forensic analysis of past errors. They can’t be undone so there is little point. However, government can still improve on vaccine roll-out.
Firstly, while it was essential to make sure that vaccines were developed quickly, I do not believe it a good idea to guarantee the developers freedom from litigation in the case of bad reactions, not to try to block any debate on the potential downsides of vaccination. Vaccination is one of the most valuable scientific contributions of all time, but trust in its safety and efficacy and hence support for rolling it out depend strongly on the freedom to discuss both sides and weigh them against each other.
Secondly, many retired health care workers who have offered to assist in a speedy vaccination programme are currently being blocked by irrelevant administrative requirements. While there may be debatable value in having some health workers undertaking diversity training or training in guarding against radicalization, it is hard to see why not having undertaken such training should prevent someone from safely vaccinating someone. Barriers such as these need to be removed immediately, since every day lost means lives lost needlessly. Worse, the existence of such barriers is strong evidence of the unsuitability of key administrators to the vaccination programme They should be replaced, quickly. With an estimated quarter of infections happening in hospitals, (as well as the many infected in care homes due to administrators forcing out elderly patients into homes without proper checking) there should be more focus on training staff how not to spread infections. It is surely more important that your nurse doesn’t give you COVID than whether they use an incorrect pronoun or may not be fully aware of some discrimination you may once have been exposed to.
Thirdly, government shows an ongoing fondness for authoritarianism that will leave socio-political damage that will last many years. Social relationships have suffered as people overly fond of rules have become informers. Many important freedoms we used to take for granted will in future depend on the whim of ministers in charge, greatly undermining the consent foundations of democracy. Good leadership would rely instead on strong use of education and skillful soliciting of cooperation. If people were made well aware of the very basics of relevant science – how viruses spread, and how that is likely to be affected by different types of behaviours, or different types of masks – and persuaded to follow well-designed protocols, that would have, and could still, reduce infection rates enormously. Instead, government scientists have fully reversed their position on masks and tried to enforce quite arbitrary and often illogical restrictions, making some areas watertight while opening or ignoring gaping holes. That guarantees maximum inconvenience, social distress and economic damage, while reaping minimal benefit, as evidenced by the remarkable lack of correlation between lockdowns and infection rates.
Fourthly, the NHS has been subjected to worship where admonishment was due. It was clearly not fit for purpose, hopelessly unprepared to deal with a pandemic that everyone knew would one day arrive. Almost a year on, it has almost become a single disease service. Having commissioned the Nightingale Hospitals, and given that most existing hospitals have numerous separate buildings, would it be so difficult to arrange for COVID patients to be treated and still treat other ailments in separate buildings, with separate staff? With so many highly paid administration staff, you might reasonably expect they’d have solved that by now. Many people will die from heart disease, cancer, diabetes or some other disease because they were not seen or treated until too late. Many of us have already lost loved ones due to this problem. It must be fixed.
Fifthly, and I’ll make this the last one for now because I’m reaching my boredom threshold, government needs to stop the enormous economic damage it is causing. Forcing lots of businesses to close forever while allowing infections to spread rapidly by other means is not good management. Killing so many small businesses by refusing them financial support while supporting others will not incentivise those business risk-takers to take future risks. Many business people have had to live on their life savings, while watching others being totally or partially insulated from adverse financial effects. Gratuitously harming entrepreneurial activity over such large swathes of the economy will slow both economic and cultural recovery.
I wrote recently about ongoing harmful effects of poor environmental policy, following green dogma instead of proper system-wide, full life-cycle thinking, so it is not only in COVID that government falls short. Defence of freedom of speech instead of political correctness, pursuit of true equality instead of surrendering to tribal demands and perhaps most of all firming up the foundations of freedom and democracy instead of dismantling them are other dimensions where government needs to perform better. In short, it is too late to undo the damage of the many errors of the past, but not yet too late to stop serious ongoing damage.