Thursday, October 29, 2020

Coronavirus 43 React

Today sees the publication of the latest Real-time Assessment of Community Transmission (REACT) Study from Imperial College.
And here is their Summary.
It doesn't make pleasant reading but neither should it come as a surprise to those who have read the previous 42 episodes of this Coronavirus Blog.
For some while now the government has given up the pretence of following the science. The advice for a 'circuit break' by SAGE in September was ignored. The Six-Week Plan from Independent SAGE was ignored. The Covid-Secure UK Plan from March fo Change was ignored. Links in my previous blog Coronavirus 40 A Plan.
Government, many politicians and signifacant sections of the popular news media have not learnt the lessons of the spring, still do not understand the true nature of exponential growth and continue to downplay the dangers of the pandemic.
Chris Giles, Economics Editor at the Financial Times yesterday produced his latest estimate of the excess deaths that have resulted for the disease: 67,500.
Scientists from University College London and elsewhere have launched a dashboard, updated in real time, that brings together covid related data, something that should have been created months ago by government. Data are the basis for information and an informed public is vital.
We will watch the death toll mount, with tens of thousands of further avoidable deaths over the coming weeks.

What to do? To minimise further deaths and suffering from long covid we need to stop the virus spreading. To do that people must stop moving about and stop meeting. We need a national lockdown even more stringent than that in the Spring. The idea of 'balancing' covid restrictions against harming the economy is nonsense. Dead people don't contribute to the economy, ill people are a drain on the economy. Those who fail to follow the scientists' advice bear a heavy responsibility for the death and suffering we will be witnessing.
It's up to each and every one of us.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Coronavirus 42 A Picture

Looking at covid is like seeing light from a distant star. What we're seeing now is the result of events a month ago. Almost all the people who are going to die from covid over the next month have already been infected. New UK reported infections are running at about 20,000 per day, the actual number of new infections may be three or four times as many. The numbers are doubling about every two weeks, implying exponential growth with the R in the region of 1.3. We still don't have an accurate figure for the infection fatality rate; it varies greatly with age, a lot less than 1% for the young but perhaps 10% for the over 80s. Something a little under 1% is a reasonable estimate of the average. You can do the arithmetic as well as I can to make a guess as to how many thousands will die over the next few weeks. And that's just those who are already infected, not counting those who will catch the disease in the coming days and weeks. The debilitations of long covid may affect perhaps ten times as many as die.

All this could have been avoided had the government acted promptly on the advice from the scientists. Further deaths could be avoided if the government acted on the advice now, but it is clear that they have little such intention, at least until other policies have been tried and have been shown, by the body count, to have failed.

Among the leaders of the scientific opinion is Sir David King. His frustration at seeing the government ignore the science early in the pandemic led him to convene Independent SAGE. This is a group of leading experts in their fields who work to parallel the government's own SAGE group, but do so in an open and transparent way, where ideas can be reviewed, challenged and improved upon in the true manner of science. They have published a seriies of reports making public their findings and have held weekly briefings that are publicly open and accessible. 

Disastrously, the work of IndieSAGE seems to have been completely ignored by the government. It has also been largely ignored by BBC News so a goodly proportion of the public are still unaware of its recommendations.

Sir David King, now in his 80s, has led a stellar scientific career and served as the government's Chief Scientific Adviser. But he will be the first to say that the work of Indie SAGE is the collaberation of a first class team of scientists who are working to mitigate the disaster we are facing. At last Friday's Indie SAGE briefing, Sir David, as he has done each week, ended the session with a few words of summary. This week I was particularly struck by a moment of deep sadness engraved on his face. Perhaps it was the realisation that his team had the answers, had developed a plan that would give the nation the best possible outcome, and yet the government would not listen; thousands more avoidable deaths would ensue.

What could I do, beyond staying at home, as I have done pretty much since March, so as to minimise the risk of contributing to the spread of the virus? I got my paints out and made this sketch, based on a screenshot from the YouTube feed,  to honour Sir David and draw attention to the work of his team. Thank you to all of Independent SAGE for attempting to be part of the solution.

Professor Sir David King FRS.
Chair of Independent SAGE
Oil on canvas 40 x 46 cm

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Coronavirus 41 Education

Schools, colleges and universities were closed in March as part of the measures to reduce the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The Reproduction number, R, was successfully reduced to below 1 and, had that situation continued, the disease would have been suppressed and eliminated. But lockdown, always leaky, was lifted too soon, people were allowed to travel into Britain without testing and quarantine, the government encouraged people to go back to work and even bribed them with £10 off the price of meals to go to the pub.
Despite warnings from Sir David King and Independent SAGE that schools should not be reopened until community prevalence was below about one new case per day per million population, it was judged politically expedient to reopen schools and universities in September, irrespective of the virus's spread. New case numbers were running at about two orders of magnitude greater than Sir David had judged dangerous. The R went above 1 again, exponential growth setting in once more and leading to an inevitable but wholy avoidable, disease burden and fatalities. Now there is much talk, and some action, about renewed restrictions, but keeping schools open is regarded by many as a priority.
The Guardian carries an important article by Amelia Hill launching a series about the effects of the pandemic on the younger generation, the Covid Generation. What has become abundantly clear is that schools provide far more than education. They are the central hub of a support network providing care and protection to vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

Schools are what they are, do what they do, as a result of some 150 years of evolution, but there has been little strategic thinking to check whether they are carrying out their tasks efficiently and effectively. Are schools really fit for purpose? What is their purpose?
Take, for instance, free school meals, given to children whose parents and carers fall below some arbitrary threshold of poverty, but not to those the other side of the threshold. If the intention of government (and it would be a fine intention) is to improve the nutrtional health of the nation's children, then free school meals is a crude and inefficient tool. Covid (and a footballer's campaign) has highlighted that children need to eat when schools are closed. Other, better, ways to ensure all well fed are available.
Children need the company of their peers, we are told. If social interaction with other children is the aim then clubs and activities designed to optimise such interaction would deliver the goal better than sitting 30 children, who may not even like many of each other, in a room together.
Schools provide opportunities to identify problems in the home and a refuge for children not being looked after well. A social care system whose primary function was to perform this role would be better placed than schools staffed by teachers who are paid to teach not by social workers for whom all round care is their profession.
Schools teach. By definition. There's been some tinkering around the edges but the basic model of schools has not changed in a century and more. A large number of children are crowded into a room and a teacher engages them in more or less comman tasks. The children emerge taught. Supposedly.
Many other models of education have been tried, tested and found workable and from when the pandemic first emerged it should have been obvious that a model that did not not involve 30 children being sat in a room together for five hours a day was going to be needed. There should have been, in February, a massive effort to put all education programming on broadcast television with online back-up, to enable the school curriculums to be followed. Every child should have been provided with computer and internet connection adequate for the task. Face to face tutorial type meetings and group activities could have been part of the programme, as and when disease prevalence allowed. Existing school buildings could be repurposed in their new role as education hubs, used part time by the children and for other community purposes.
Of course the cost of building a distance learning centred education system would be considerable, but in the context of how much is being spent on other sectors of the economy, it would be manageable. And what if (when) the virus dissappears? Well, we would have created a 'world beating' education system fit for future generations. It will not be wasted.
Ah but, you say, if children did a large part of their education at home instead of going to school how are parents and carers going to go out to work?  Oh, I say, so that's the real purpose of schools; it is a baby-sitting service to enable the workers to go out to work. And that leads us down the path to a restructuring of society, of the place of work and of child care and family and community life. It's a big subjet so I'll leave that for another blog, another time.
Meanwhile, here's a thought. The Open University was established in 1969. In half a century in the future will people look back to the time when the Open School was established?
In May Tim Brighouse and Bob Moon wrote in the Guardian:
Fifty years ago, despite formidable detractors, Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee pushed through the creation of an Open University. Look at the proud success that has been. Now we need to do the same in creating an Open School. Such an institution, even if born of a crisis, could play a major role in raising educational standards for decades to come.
Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC thought it a good idea. He too wrote about it. More recently, Ros Morpeth & Anne Nicholls have also made the case for an Open School.
Let's make it so.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Coronavirus 40 A Plan

The littany of failure from the start of the year has been well rehersed, but we are now where we are and we need a plan that will avoid the upcoming catastrophe.

Fortunately the scientists of Independent SAGE, under the chairmanship of Sir David King, retired government Chief Scientific Officer, have come up with a plan. And it is a plan that would deliver the best outcome available.

Here it is.

Unfortunately, the UK government is determined to ignore it so the upcoming catastrophe is unlikely to be averted.

"Six week plan to get COVID-19 cases down and rebuild the public health and social scaffolding we need to ease restrictions safely"

An effective Find Test Track Isolate Support system is central to the plan.
In the absence of good governance it behoves each and every one of us to adopt the spirit of the Indie SAGE plan and do our best to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
This may be a good moment to revisit the 10-point suggestion I posted in mid August. It is here. 

UPDATE 28th October 2020

Building on the advice of SAGE and Independent SAGE, a more detailed plan has been produced: Covid-Secure UK

P.S. Note to the future: If it turns out that Covid-19 related deaths increase it will because the government and the population at large failed to follow this plan or anything similar in a timely manner. The burden of responsibility will have fallen on those who did not heed this warning.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Coronavirus 39 Circuit Break

A circuit break is the wrong analogy.

Ciruit breakers break the circuit, stopping the current instantaneously and making the system safe. That might be the right anaolgy if we created a situation where the virus could not jump from person to person. As I pointed out in Coronavirus 37 the virus will disappear if nobody meets anybody else. But as I also pointed out, that's not going to happen. Even in the stricktest lockdown some people still go to work.

A better analogy is adding a resitor, impeding the current, impeding the flow of the virus through the population. The greater the impedance the quicker the all important R value will be reduced, exponential growth ended and the road to suppression and elimination regained.

The lockdown proposed by SAGE three weeks ago and supported by Keir Starmer yesterday and opposed just now by the Prime Minister as he listens to the large number of Tory MPs who want fewer restriction, and thus less impedence to the viral spread, will not be sufficient, however it is branded. Two or three weeks, is just not a long enough time to break the circuit.

We need to do more and do it faster if the catastrophe that the scientists warn of is to be avoided. Each of us must judge what we can do to avoid passing the virus on. As the raindrop said "I didn't cause the flood". Each of us has our own role to play in being part of the solution rather than the part of the problem.

While the politicians dilly-dally need to have our own #PeoplesLockdown.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Coronavirus 38 Arts episode

SARS-CoV-2 is taking its toll on the arts and our cultural heritage.
The wise folk are staying at home, the cultural institutions have lost income and the politicians are allowing the pandemic to decimate the arts.
The Royal Academy, facing its financial implosion, is considering selling its Michelangelo, Taddei Tondo, as a way to make up the shortfall and thereby avoid making 150 staff redundant.

Taddei Tondo or The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John by Michelangelo 
Now we learn that the Royal Opera House is to sell its David Hockney portrait of the late Sir David Webster, who ran the opera house from 1945 to 1970.

Portrait of Sir David Webster by David Hockney, 1971.
Now obviously the art market is bonkers, a lot of money sloshing about looking for somewhere to be invested in that which might be a safe store of value, but that's another story. The urgent issue is that great works of art, currently available to the general public (at least those who go to the opera or the RA) risk disappearing into a rich man's den or a bank's vault. That would be a loss to our culture.
It need not be so.The government, on behalf of the nation, could purchase these works and leave them hanging where they are for public benefit. Using its ability to borrow money at today's record low interest rates, and noting that the cash would enter the economy through the spending of institutions such as the Royal Opera House and the Royal Academy on their wage bills, there would be no net cost to the economy.
Other institutions, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, are looking to cut their costs by making reduncancies, with the accompanying inevitable loss of the public service for culture. In a statement the V&A say "With the furlough scheme now coming to an end, we are sadly in a position where our commercial and charitable revenue sources are still heavily reduced and other options to cover our costs are exhausted. We are left now with no choice but to review our operations and reduce the scale of our organisation overall, as part of ongoing efforts to reduce costs by at least £10m annually going forwards."
There is a political choice. Do we allow the transfer of public art into private hands or do we maintain the value of our publicly available cultural capital? Do we close down our museum services, allowing the pandemic to deprive us of our cultural heritage, or do we invest to limit the virus's damage?
As Bendor Grosvenor put it:
"Our museums must now pay the price for Sunak’s focus only on ‘viable business’. Needless cultural destruction."
Further reading:
Jonathan Jones, The $80m Botticelli: could its auction trigger a Covid-rescue fire sale?
Vanessa Thorpe, Royal Opera House to sell off David Hockney painting in bid to stay afloat