Boris Johnson, according to a large Twitter mob this morning, is a reckless libertarian – ignoring the drastic but effective measures being taken against coronavirus in other countries – in the same spirit he once praised the mayor in Jaws who kept the beaches open in spite of swimmers being eaten. A large body of opinion appears to be on the side of Jeremy Hunt, who questioned the government’s strategy on Channel 4 news last night.
But there is a fundamental problem with this narrative – and not just that many of the same people now praising Hunt were lambasting him several years ago as a charlatan, ignoring the advice of experts in the NHS. The government’s policy has quite clearly been informed by the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser on a very broad platform of evidence. They were clearly not under duress when they appeared flanking the Prime Minister at yesterday’s press conference: they both calmly explained the reasoning behind Britain’s policy of keeping schools open, allowing sporting events to continue, and not entering the kind of lockdown visible in Italy and Denmark.
Why the assumption that other countries have got it right, or that they are acting on better evidence? Hunt yesterday said he would like to see the modelling on which the government’s policy is based. Fair enough, but he might also ask to see the modelling on which Leo Varadkar and Emmanuel Macron have based their decisions to close their respective countries’ schools and colleges – and in Ireland’s case childcare facilities too. Are they evidence-based or are they, like Donald Trump’s EU flight ban appears to be, a spur-of-the-moment decision? What happens to the Irish kids who will no longer be able to go to nursery? At least some of them will inevitably end up being looked-after by elderly grandparents who ought to be isolating for their own good. And what happens when, as planned, Ireland’s schools reopen at the end of the month? If Professor Chris Whitty is right about the timings of this epidemic, the peak won’t have nearly been reached by then.
True, China appears to have achieved remarkable success in suppressing the virus using drastic measures, with official figures for new infections now at only a handful a day, down from 4,000 a day at its peak. But the virus in Italy doesn’t appear to be responding to quarantine zones and – from earlier this week – complete lockdown across the country. Yesterday, new infections leapt from 977 to 2,313. If they don’t slow down dramatically over the next week, we may be asking what Italy is achieving through the mass home-incarceration of its population and how long it intends to keep it up.
Sir Patrick Vallance’s argument is that previous epidemics have bounced back after periods of lockdown, as soon as restrictions are lifted – implying that is what could happen in China. Far better, he argues, that the population is gradually allowed to build up herd immunity, so long as it is at a rate with which the NHS can cope with. That is the approach which used to be adopted towards mumps and measles before we had an epidemic – we didn’t try to stop children getting it; it was accepted as an inevitability.
Not all doctors appear to agree with this approach, and we won’t be able to tell for a while which is the best way to tackle Covid-19. But, to those people who don’t agree – medical professionals or otherwise – please don’t make out Boris Johnson to be a bumbling fool who is ignoring science. Quite clearly, he is not. I am not sure how it is working in other countries, but here epidemiologists are in control.