Tuesday 23 February 2021


 Channel 4 News gives a voice to a number of medical and scientific professionals whose expertise I recognize and respect. Their understanding of what is happening in this coronavirus pandemic makes sense to me. These guys do not collude with a government that has been responsible for these killing fields that are now part of the UK landscape. Much of the rest of the world have the measure of the man who has ended up as the prime minister of this country. They know his past history. They know he is a serial liar with little in his career to mark him out as talented. On the contrary, in a fashion similar to Donald Trump, he has the marks of the narcissist and the bragger. They know he has been world-beating since becoming PM in one sense only: our COVID-19 death-figures, relative to our population size, are almost the highest in the world. And it has all been down to the decisions he took and did not take when the virus first threatened - and the decisions he continues to take, and not take. 

You would never know that this was so from the overall presentation in our national media. But an occasional glimpse of the truth is still possible from time to time. 

Professor Stephen Reicher 

Professor Stephen Reicher is based in the psychology department at the University of Edinburgh. He sits on the advisory bodies to the UK and Scottish Governments on COVID-19 and is also a member of Independent Sage. I first heard his impressive voice on Channel 4 News; this blogpost is based on his analysis that appears in today's 'i' newspaper (Tuesday, 23 February 2021). I think Stephen Reicher is

providing one of these precious glimpses of truth. 

  • The UK government, led by Boris Johnson, has been yo-yoing in and out of COVID restrictions, making the same mistakes time and time again - for a year.
  • The warning signs of rising infection voiced by scientists and medical authorities are ignored - until the NHS and its hospitals are in danger of being overwhelmed - and then the brakes are slammed on and society put back into lockdown. 
  • When society is closed down, nothing is done to put right all the defects that are now crystal clear in our responses to this COVID-19 crisis. One example: we still have an inadequate test and trace system unlike much of the rest of the world . 
  • Once restrictions are lifted, infections simply rise again - and once more Johnson refuses to act until the NHS is at risk of collapse.  
This yo-yoing is draining as well as deadly. If we get to the point where we sense that measures are ineffective, then we have entered the territory called 'learned helplessness' - and at that point adherence to spatial distancing, mask-wearing and hygiene could collapse. A recipe for further disaster. 

Test, track and trace is as important as the vaccination programme

What should Johnson be doing different?

  • Once the infections are brought right down they must be kept to a level where they can be dealt with by targeted interventions, such as identifying cases and contacts very quickly - and getting them out of circulation in order to break the chain of transmission. The success of the NHS in creating the UK vaccination programme will be one Johnson will claim for himself - but by itself it will not bring infections low for good. Moreover, if infections continue to circulate, the virus will mutate with unknown consequences. 
  • Test and trace has been a failure for a year. Boasting about the number of tests when the tracing part of the scheme lies in tatters is inexcusable. Tracing contacts should be done locally by people who know their patch, rather than by underpaid anonymous guys in call centres somewhere far away, working for an agency that has been set up by some seriously well-connected people who have managed to secure a contract with a government department worth millions, with no scrutiny and no accountability.  
  •  Let's imagine - in a very wild dream - that Johnson does act and an effective test and trace scheme is established. Job done? No way. The aim of testing and tracing is to find the people who need to self-isolate and, as countries around the world have found, unless you give people the support they need to make isolation a practical prospect that won't happen. Infected people need money for themselves and their families. They will continue to work unless there is a government wage for not doing so and isolating instead. This is hardly rocket science, is it? But for Tories such as Johnson, this is a step too far. 
  • What else could he do? What can help stop us getting the virus in the first place? He needs to head up a programme to reconfigure our environments - our schools, our workplaces, our pubs and restaurants - to minimise the risk of transmission. On March 8, all schools resume as normal - with the same appalling ventilation issues as before? Where are the additional classrooms to cope with the necessarily smaller classes?
  • Finally, he needs to ensure that his ever-so belated measures to control air travel into the UK do actually stop the import of new variants of the virus. But his present half-hearted hotel quarantine scheme is not fit for purpose. 

Professor Stephen Reicher being interviewed on Channel 4 News by Jon Snow  


I am not holding my breath for a good outcome here - are you?   

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