Two days ago we were shocked by the first daily influx of new cases exceeding 100 (in the UK). The government did nothing. Elsewhere in Europe and further, the administrations were closing schools and limiting mass gatherings. Today, Friday 13th, the UK tally of new cases is 208. That’s what happens when you do nothing. I am rapidly growing tired of listening to government talking heads telling us that the measures have to be proportionate and delivered at the right time. Nobody has specified what the right time is. Is there a predetermined number of new cases that will trigger an emergence from this governmental torpor? Is there a time component?
A week ago we laughed at President Trump’s incoherent ramblings in the face of the CDC. At least we didn’t have anyone like that in power. Then we had the briefing from Boris Johnson to the effect that we would all lose loved ones before their time before passing it over to the scientists to do the hard yards, explaining an inexplicable “wait-and-see” approach to the condition. Well we have waited and we have seen. In the space of a week, we have gone from just over a hundred cases to just under 800. Projecting forwards, we will have around 5000 this time next week. Assuming no decisions are taken and implemented by government.
One of the pivotal decisions to be made is whether or not to close the schools. And here, Britain stands very much out of step with the rest of Europe. In Europe governments are beginning to close the schools in the countries. The philosophy is simple – hundreds of kids interacting with each other in the playgrounds and classrooms is a huge potential reservoir of infection. Admittedly it appears that the very young are not particularly vulnerable to this virus but the point is the same. Remove them as a reservoir of infection.
Britain has so far resolutely held firm against this line of action, stating that it is currently unnecessary but with the caveat that they may call upon this measure “when the time is right”. Sir Patrick Vallance, countries chief scientific officer reasons it thus:
- You cannot keep large numbers of children at home anyway. They will always find friends to play with.
- By being at home, children will require childcare. This will often be in the form of grandparents, pretty much the most vulnerable group of all.
- In the absence of grandparents, parents themselves will need to take time off work to supervise their children. Many of these parents are health service workers who really cannot be taken out of the front line without dire consequences.
I have to say the logic is quite strong. It is unclear whether this is a premeditated response rationale however or a post hoc justification for the inertia shown by the government.
Counter reasons are (point by point):
- Yes children sent home from school will probably find ways of interacting with their friends. But even the most popular kids will tend to have friends round one at a time. An average school these days is maybe 1000 pupils. Having visitors in ones and twos is nowhere near as harmful as allowing 1000 children to interact in close proximity. Try telling 1000 kids to stay 2 m away from each other. In any case, most teenage boys will simply lock their bedroom door and play on the computer. Social distancing is practically part of adolescence these days. We complain about normally but now misanthropy and social withdrawal are survival characteristics.
- Childcare certainly would be an issue, no doubting that. But we live in unimaginable times at the moment that I am sure solutions can be found. Again, most kids with access to a computer will entertain themselves these days. I don’t suppose any of us foresaw that it might be the route to their family’s survival!
- Exposing the grandparents shouldn’t be an issue if families are aware of it. In any case that depends on whether the children are already infected. And they are more likely to be infected if they have been at school.
I thought initially that it was a clear-cut issue. Close the schools. Simple. But in actual fact it isn’t. There are counterarguments. And some of these are quite persuasive. At the end of the day it’s a numbers game. Which strategy will result in the fewest deaths? We simply don’t know and in some ways we are part of a gigantic experiment which will answer those questions.
It’s hard to believe, and I can’t quite believe I’m writing this, but the current pandemic is going to provide a wealth of information on how best to handle epidemics. If we pull through this one in reasonable shape, we will know much better on how to do the next one. It’s not an experiment that we would have chosen to make but the sheer variety of different approaches in different countries is gradually putting together what will be the ultimate manual of best practice in outbreak management. Sadly, it looks as though some of these strategies will be losers.
We’ve never played this game before. It’s going to take time to learn the rules. And sadly time, as the Italian premier said, is something we don’t have.