I thought it worthwhile to summarise some of the points made on this blog so far with regard to the new Coronavirus.
I re-emphasise that I have no expertise in biology and medicine, but I do have some in public policy (and I happen to speak German, thus enabling the comparison between the English-speaking world and the German-speaking world upon which I intend to build in the coming days and weeks). These are analysis pieces for information and interest; they do not constitute formal research, far less government policy.
If, like me, you are in Northern Ireland, remember the core government advice currently remains stay home, save lives.
In summary, the most important thing right now is that there must always be room for doubt. We still do not understand this virus, so we cannot say anything about public policy responses with absolute confidence (so those who do are making it up).
We must be aware that in our own response to this, it is as much about managing and perceiving risk as anything else. Also, the objectives are not quite as obvious as we might at first think. Even when we establish what they are and judge performance thus far, we must also be aware that our own intuition may be deceiving us fundamentally and always apply the plausibility and relevance test.
Therefore, never has the truth been more important. Almost anything said with absolute certainty does not merit attention – it is invariably said to appeal to prejudice rather than truth. We even need to consider that the reverse of what we view to be instinctive may end up being true. There is also considerable risk in simple, apparently clear claims which are in fact profoundly misleading, even to the extent of missing key points in their favour. If we must make comparisons… well, we probably shouldn’t too often.
“Lockdown” always was a profoundly good idea, provided it was properly prepared for. However, it is a long way from the “safe” option it is sometimes presented as, and it cannot last forever. Even right now, you can legitimately argue for or against “raising lockdown”, but make sure you are asking the right question. When it is raised, however, other countries can be taken into account and it must not be done piecemeal, but rather via a phased or staged approach, and based on the Regulations which set out what we are trying to achieve.
For all the discussion about “lockdown, however (understandable because it is what most obviously affects most of us), the difference between good and bad outcomes is predominantly to do not with “lockdown” but with early diagnostics. This truth may be boring but that does not make it less true – indeed, we should always be seeking solutions, not headlines. It is also legitimate to attack the UK Governent for its early inaction, but such attacks must be specific to where it actually erred otherwise they serve no purpose.
It is also important to report what actually matters to us. Targets and personalities are meaningless; actions and delivery are what count. We should probably also define our terms. “Social distancing” does not mean “lockdown”, for example – saying the former must remain for months or years does not mean the latter must.
One of the difficulties in dramatic here-and-now news is it misses the broader analysis, such as the awkward truth that the difference in outcomes between the UK and Germany is not narrowly in the two countries’ response to the new coronavirus (regardless of the UK Government’s very evident failings in that regard), but in the fundamental basis of their health services. The UK is always fire-fighting whereas German-speaking Europe puts in the early preparation in a targeted way – this reveals itself further in the two countries’ testing strategies. Yet, for all that, things in Germany are (and were, when the linked piece was written) nothing like as smooth or simple as they are reported in the English-speaking world (and they are still not even post-lockdown); its lockdown was fundamentally less strict.
There are also differences within the UK just as there are within Germany – Northern Ireland is going its own route in some significant areas and has its own recovery plan, maintaining rightly or wrongly a later lockdown, which is not perfect but is an improvement on the UK Government’s. We have also not paid enough attention to the immense challenges of re-opening the Health Service. To some degree, this is what devolution is all about.
There are some quirks, too, such as why planes are still in the air and why we need the return of sport. There is also always the chance that we are closer to the end of this than we think – but that really is not very likely. We are probably over-thinking apps, and there are also always just random questions.
Where does all of this end? There will surely be some good to come out of it; we just do not know when.
I have also included some Facebook posts, for example on how we ourselves can balance probabilities in terms of virus transmission; the meaning of “Step 1” in Northern Ireland; on the practicalities of shopping with the virus about; and on that ever present danger of comparisons.
In the meantime, here is some outline practical guidance primarily for people in Northern Ireland.