A valediction for the hundred thousand

Robert Jenrick was the cabinet member given the unenviable task of doing the media rounds today on the morning after the UK passed the grim milestone of 100,000 Covid-related deaths.

His exculpatory approach was to blame a lot on ‘the Kent variant’ as if the UK had simply been very unlucky. It’s worth considering the extent to which the UK made its own luck.

Let’s contrast our bad luck – being the crucible of a highly transmissible and possibly more deadly strain – with the good luck of, say, winning the lottery.

If no one buys a ticket (ie. no one has the virus), no one will win (no new strain will develop).

If a lot of tickets are bought, it’s more likely someone will win, ie. a widespread virus makes it more likely there’ll be a genetic mutation and so new strains will develop.

If one individual buys a large percentage of the lottery tickets, it’s more likely that, if there is a winner, it will be them, ie. if the UK has widespread virus cases, it is more likely that a new strain will emerge here than, say, in New Zealand.

It’s no surprise that significant news strains emerged in the UK, Brazil and South Africa – countries all with relatively high numbers of cases. There was no guarantee this would happen, but failure to control and contain made the bad luck more likely.

The failure to understand these basic statistical and genetic facts is why the arrant, arrogant pigheadedness of prominent lockdown sceptics (who I won’t do the service of naming) is so dangerous.

A key failing of the UK Govt was to approach the pandemic as if it were okay to have a manageable number of ‘lottery tickets’ so long as we “flatten the curve!”, “protect the NHS!”, wait for herd immunity or for the heroes to ride over the hill with a time-reversing vaccine.

The Government knew the risks of not minimising the numbers: even if SAGE advisors were not warning about the possibility of new strains (which I doubt), you couldn’t miss other epidemiologists shouting about the probability.

The UK was unlucky to be hit by the Kent strain, but our approach made those conditions more likely and more damaging. Jenrick did not acknowledge this nor that the situation was dire long before the Kent strain nor that the response to that strain was more of the same.

It is barely credible that we still do not have comprehensive testing, tracing and isolation procedures and proper amenities and incentives to enable compliance.

Instead, we see the result of Boris Johnson’s chancer mentality – bluster through till it’s all okay in the end – and his belief in heroes who save the day rather than collective action for the common good.

That is my sad valediction for the hundred thousand in this country, the millions around the world and for the many more who will follow until we do what Johnson for so long exhorted us to do – to take back control. This time though, it means something. 

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