Breaking The COVID Consensus

Matthew Paul

Bouncing back from his bout with the Covid, Donald Trump is back on Twitter and punching hard. Under Democrat Presidential contender Joe Biden, America –Trump threatened– would be like Wales.

This is unlikely. The differences between Wales and America are probably more significant than the similarities, even if both countries have high levels of obesity, and some of the burned-out and abandoned bits of mid-town Detroit do remind you a bit of Rhondda Cynon Taf.

Otherwise, America is nothing like Wales.

America has something identifiable as an economy, and it doesn’t involve sheep (there are twice as many ovines in Wales as in the whole of America, and Americans don’t get fat on lamb burgers; they only eat 500g of sheep meat per head annually). There are fewer Welsh speakers in America than you find even in South Pembrokeshire or Monmouthshire. Wales’ capital city is the size of America’s 54th largest: Aurora, Colorado. And anyone in Wales is about as likely to have heard of Aurora, Colorado as they are to have heard of, well, Mark Drakeford.

The First Minister of Wales (for it is he) actually hasn’t had a bad Covid. Although still not up there with Ant and Dec in the popular recognition stakes, the pandemic has raised Drakeford’s personal profile. The Abolish the Welsh Assembly [sic] Party’s lurid Facebook adverts are helping in this: seeing Drakeford’s face all over everyone’s timeline is prompting people to find out who our First Minister is, and to discover that they quite like him.

Locking down the economy and people’s social and cultural lives was a serious error. Repeating it now will be even worse.

Matthew Paul

Boris Johnson is helping too. While Boris faffs and blusters, all Drakeford has to do is talk slowly and quietly (he doesn’t seem to have any other register) and he immediately appears the more competent. The First Minister doesn’t altogether deserve this; state education in Wales was a national disgrace through the first lockdown, and Welsh Labour usually makes a fantastic Horlicks of managing the NHS in Wales. Still, public health measures here haven’t been any more irrational through the pandemic than those coming from Westminster or Holyrood, and in some respects have been better.

There was no need for masks when infection levels were low over the summer, and Drakeford didn’t make us wear them unnecessarily. Wales adopted a more pragmatic approach to organised outdoor sports than England. As autumn infections rise, Drakeford –unlike Nicola Sturgeon– hasn’t yet panicked and shut the pubs.

Now, in Wales as elsewhere, storm clouds are gathering again and things might be about to take a turn for the worse. On Monday, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Frank Atherton, warned that people in Wales should stand by for rolling lockdowns –of the sort that already affect over half the population of Wales– over the winter. “We may be going in and out of those restrictions over the next few months”.

Consensus over the Welsh Government’s strategy of locking down whole local authority areas which have seen spikes in the rate of infection is already under strain. The Welsh Conservatives are voting against borough-wide lockdowns unless and until they are shown evidence proving that more localised measures (as have been imposed in Llanelli, as opposed to the whole of Carmarthenshire) won’t work. But it is time that the consensus over lockdowns was challenged more widely and more fundamentally. Locking down the economy and people’s social and cultural lives was a serious error. Repeating it now will be even worse.

Lots of people have caught the Covid. The WHO estimated this week that 10% of the world’s population had already caught the virus. We know Covid-19 is a deadly serious matter for the people most susceptible, but so is influenza; in the 2017 to 2018 winter period, there were an estimated 50,100 excess winter deaths in England and Wales and no-one outside the health service batted an eyelid.

Covid-19 isn’t that serious a matter for everyone else. 90% of those recently tested positive for the virus presented no symptoms at the time of their test. Around half of all infections are completely asymptomatic. Treatments have improved vastly since March. The harm caused to public health by the coronavirus does not even begin to justify the self-harm lockdowns are causing to people’s jobs, relationships and mental health.

The UK and devolved governments’ suppression strategies worked, within their own parameters. Those parameters were misconceived: suppressing the virus among those it affects least, and through the spring and summer when it was least transmissible, stored up big trouble for the winter. If this was done in anticipation of a vaccine being ready in time, it was a crazy gamble. Not even the test and trace system is properly ready.

Locking down the economy again is as unaffordable as it is destructive. The magic money tree’s branches have been shaken bare. The feather-bed furlough scheme is over, and business faces the cold reality of an autumn in which unsustainable zombie jobs that have been dead on the branch all summer will fall away in their millions. Britain’s world-leading arts and cultural sector is on the brink of ruin, and Rishi Sunak’s best suggestion is that ballerinas, violinists and opera singers should ‘retrain’.

The Covid consensus must be challenged. On Monday, more than 10,000 doctors and public health scientists signed a declaration, calling for a rapid return to normal life for most of the population: “Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume.”

Suppressing the virus with lockdowns over the spring and summer was a foolish mistake that set back progress towards acquired immunity, and it must not be repeated. Trump is right to warn Americans not to follow Wales’ example.

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