The United Kingdom’s Coronavirus Gamble

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Does the UK hold a wild card or is it a joker?

“Is the government doing enough?” the media asks, but I think it is the wrong question. The real issue is not one of degree of action, but rather what the action plan is, and the reasons behind it.

The government’s strategy to this virus is very different to that of other countries. Most countries have followed conventional instinct which is to try and stop people getting it and to stop those who have it from spreading it to others. And ultimately to stop the outbreak from being too bad. Most people readily understand that approach. While the world closes schools, bans large gatherings, and shuts everything down, the UK is choosing a different route.

The UK government have shunned instinct in favour of scientific thinking. Or so they say. I feel rather uncomfortable with the government advisors talking about science when dealing with a novel virus on a scale we haven’t seen before in modern times. Much is guesswork rather than science. And instinct has served our species well in our evolution. Abandoning it for uncertain scientific ideas carries risk. And when you choose to do something different from everyone else it isn’t normally because you are smarter than everyone else, it is that you think you are but you are wrong.

The World Health Organization and other countries think the science supports social distancing and that it is important to act quickly as delaying makes the outbreak worse. But the UK government is not delaying, it is not taking a measured approach, it is doing something entirely different.

The UK government don’t want to avoid people getting this virus. Positively the opposite is true. Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Advisor, says they want to achieve herd immunity which for this virus they think requires 60% or so of the population to get it. The argument is that the virus will keep coming back otherwise. He says around four months after restictions are lifted, the virus would come back and we’d find ourselves in the midst of winter again with a new outbreak. This is why the government won’t be closing schools and banning large gatherings. Not unless things get totally out of control – it might do so then as a means of controlling the rate of transmission, but its strategy is not to stop transmission from happening, so things are likely going to stay open.

The question is, Is the UK government strategy right, or wrong? Will this gamble turn out to be misguided arrogance, or sober reasoning? And what are the repercussions?

The benefits, if the government is right, are that the country takes its hit all at once when the whole world is in a panic about it anyway, then gains some herd immunity. The economic damage now is less than it would be otherwise, and future outbreaks would be much smaller in the UK, easier to control, less deadly. Overall, less people might die. The UK would potentially gain a significant economic advantage over other countries across the planet if the virus continues on, or returns, the UK being able to stay open and produce while other countries close down again. (or adopt our own strategy the second time around if it is proven successful).

Kids would grow up with some immunity having encountered the virus in youth. Adults grow into old age with some immunity too. Though it seems to me this could be achieved via vaccination in the future. And future mutation means immunity may not be reliable going forward.

The downside is that the elderly and vulnerable are sacrificed in the short-term, they are more likely to get the virus, they are more likely to die from it. Especially if we don’t have enough beds, enough respirators, enough staff. Surely it’s better to have a series of smaller outbreaks and in the meantime improve the resources in the national health service to enable them to save more lives? It seems to me more people are going to die in the short-term because of this strategy. That means the strategy totally sucks if you are elderly or if you have underlying health conditions.

The government predicts that at least 60% of the population will get sick – needs to get sick, is how they put it…The UK population is a little over 66 million people. 60% is a little under 40 million. The government predicts 1% will die. That is 400,000 people. And the government predict a peak in 10-14 weeks. We’re about four weeks in already. So that suggests a bell curve over ~36 weeks. Can the NHS really handle that? If hospital admissions get out of control then that mortality rate will be higher and I suspect the government actually wants more like 70+% to get it for better herd immunity. So 400,000 is likely to be a low estimate. More than half a million people could well die from this outbreak because of the government strategy. That’s the same number as die from everything else in the UK every year. To put this in perspective, flu kills on average 17,000 a year in the UK (range 1,692 – 28,330).

Respecting the importance of the economy I do worry that everything the government says seems to be made in reference to the economy, as if it is more important than lives. The financial markets have already crashed and probably have not yet reached their bottom. A recession seems very likely. None of that is good of course, but individual lives matter. While society as a whole matters, what matters to each individual self is there self. Thats not selfish, it’s just a reality of perspective. Each life really is important and it’s worth sacrifising other stuff to save a life.

I worry about an undercurrent of sentiment in society that although the numbers are large it is “only” old (and sick) people who will die. As if their lives are worth less somehow. I suppose everyone things bad things happen to other people and as long as that looks to be the case the majority will accept it. But there will be other consequences in society. With older people dying, younger people will inherit. And by far the biggest proportion of home owners – over a third – are aged 65 and over. And they tend to live in family-sized homes which the market has a shortage of. This outbreak will see tens- if not hundreds-of-thousands of houses flood the market a year from now, it will help stimulate the housing market and the economy. The government will take their cut through both inheritance tax and stamp duty charges. I hope none of this comes into the thinking of government and their advisors, I hope they are focused entirely on saving the most lives, regardless of whether they get their difficult decisions right or not.

And for the government’s strategy to be right the virus would need to come back once social distancing stops. We don’t have a lot of information to go on specific to this virus. The govt says the science from other outbreaks shows it will come back. In China, so far, with people returning to work the data is not yet showing that. But it may be too early. I personally think it is likely the outbreak will come back sooner or later.

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to think of this approach. I guess it’s too early. If more people die here than anywhere else and the virus is largely halted as it has been so far in China then lives will have been lost needlessly. On the other hand if the UK is right then lives will probably be saved overall. I certainly think the UK’s approach is a bit gamble though, one the populous has not really been properly informed about and consented to, and I don’t think the government is being as direct and transparent about it as they should be.

I have loved ones with health problems. I have elderly relatives. I have health issues myself, including breathing difficulties. So do I believe the UK government have got it right? I want to believe but I’m not sure that’s the same thing. I suppose we’re going to find out.

One thought on “The United Kingdom’s Coronavirus Gamble

  1. Pingback: Coronavirus: is the UK’s 1% mortality projection credible? | The Self-Taught Author

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