Quo Vadimus?

26 January 2021. Updated 27 January 2021.

By Guy de la Bédoyère

(‘Where are we going?’)

It’s worth starting by reminding ourselves that the situation we are now would have been unimaginable even as late as last September. All the privations and sacrifices of the previous six months were weathered by the majority of the population on the basis of various promises and undertakings made by the Government and its scientific advisers. Far from getting better, as we all now know to our costs the crisis has become far worse and there seems to be no end in sight.

Of course, at this stage blaming the Government or indeed anyone else for how we got here is pointless. It achieves nothing. Castigating Boris Johnson or Neil Ferguson now for the decisions made in 2020 is as futile as the efforts of Neil O’Brien and his friends to pin our present malaise on the shoulders of anyone who has dared to question how we reached this point.

It’s a waste of energy and, more to the point, achieves nothing except to try and find a scapegoat for a natural disaster nobody and no government was ever going to be able to tackle without a hideous level of collateral damage.

The truth is that the crisis was out of control long before anyone knew there was a crisis to deal with. When the mist clears and with the benefit of hindsight, I am confident there will be a strong case for arguing that the fate of individual nations was at least partially contingent on the nature of their populations. A country with an ageing population, a huge number of people with underlying health conditions, and an obesity problem started the race with its legs tied together.

That’s no reason for not trying to ameliorate the crisis in any way possible elsewhere. But the intractable nature of a virus means that we have ended up being ruled by Chaos and Consent. It’s worked up to a point. By using a combination of fear, hope, and a procession of broken promises the UK government has managed to carry most of the population with it to date.

But we are now experiencing a crushing level of demoralisation which is descending on Britain like chlorine gas. The riots in the Netherlands are an ominous sign of the potential for social breakdown as consent begins to disintegrate.

Don’t be in any doubt about that. History is littered with turning points which erupted in revolutions, almost invariably because the governments of the day and their advisers had misjudged their capacity to maintain control and responded first by increasing its clampdowns. Pushed far enough, every country has within it the capacity to tip over the edge.

We have NO need to go down that road. But we need a route to follow.

The UK Government has few options left open to it now to maintain or even increase control. They include restricting movement even further, raising the fines, and even considering the internment of resistant dissenters. But as has been pointed out on these pages we are already well into the realm of diminishing returns. Ramping up social restrictions, the closure of businesses, banning of movement and closure of borders will ever have an ever less easily measured effect. We are starting to enter the world of superstition where proposed new precautions are blurring into rain dances, or should I say Covid dances?

When or where is the point that takes us too far? The mistake many governments have made in the past is not to realise that point was closer than they thought. Today we have similarly misguided scientific advisers also driving the agenda. Intoxicated by their success to date, their focus is ever more on what else they can get away with.

One of the most disorienting and frustrating aspects about the whole Covid crisis in Britain is that whereas in the summer of 2020 we thought we knew where this was going, now we don’t. The future is disappearing into a steadily thickening fog ahead of us. Part of the fallout is the wholly unhelpful polarisation of the debate into lockdown zealots versus lockdown sceptics.

It’s been mercilessly fuelled by the endless doom-laden television reports from hospital frontlines. Provoking desperation and despair among some viewers, and roundly ignored by the people the journalists and hospital staff think they are lecturing, the effects are potentially disastrous, as Janet Daley explains in the Telegraph:

They must ask themselves, what is the likely effect of this on those who are not switching off? It can only be a sense of utter helplessness and vicarious grief. Eventually this must result either in resignation – a state of clinical depression – or in anger. (Because people eventually resent being frightened.) Neither of these things are helpful in the present situation. Both, in fact, are destructive of public morale which might, in the end, produce less compliance, and can, in themselves, result in further collateral damage to mental health and to family relationships.

What we need now is to see the way out, any way out, and everyone in authority could do a lot more constructively with their time to help find that rather than focusing their attention on having a fight in the playground. Promoting fear, as the Government is increasingly focused on, and trying to blame other people, is divisive and self-destructive. There will be a terrible reckoning, but that’s a story for a long way more down the line, by which most of the politicians and scientists involved will have long since disappeared without trace.

And there is a way out as Jeffrey A. Tucker of the American Institute for Economic Research has explained in an upbeat article about signs of recovery in the US. The “astonishing destructiveness of lockdowns might be coming to an end”, he says. But I can see little evidence to reassure me that anyone in authority in Britain has reached that point yet.

The briefing video by a senior medical professional in a private health care group flagged up on Lockdown Sceptics on 25 January made it easier than anything else to see what is likely to happen. How I wish this was how the Government could spell it out. After watching it in detail, this is my understanding.

The Over-85s

Once the vaccines became available the Government decided that its biggest priority was to prevent as many people aged over 85 dying from Covid or going down as a Covid death. This is because the vast majority of deaths, as absolute numbers, occur in that cohort and are still doing so. This is despite the fact that thanks to isolating themselves this group now suffers relatively far fewer infections than it once did. It’s one of the few truths that have emerged in the last year: the lethal effects of this virus are significantly more likely to hit the old and sick.

There can’t be any question that political motives played a part in deciding to prioritise vaccine use to that end. Britain’s extremely high death toll has been a political disaster for Boris Johnson’s government, though we all now know its impact has been distorted by the way the figures are publicised (typically by just stating death figures without any context, and attributing deaths to Covid even if in some cases there was another and possibly far more significant underlying cause).

It remains the case even now that despite all the measures taken the vast majority of deaths from or with Covid are among the over-85s and those with serious underlying conditions (though let’s balance that by remembering that around 90 percent of that cohort will still survive the disease). The Government has gambled that vaccinating that cohort first will within a month or two bring those death figures down to a huge extent. It is, however, a roll of the dice – people of that age or with serious conditions were not part of the trials by and large so we shall have to wait and see if it works. Let’s be optimistic for the moment though and assume it has the desired effect.

Meanwhile, the social isolation and other precautions followed by the elderly have moved the current preponderance of the disease to younger groups who are more likely to be in circulation.

However, the triaging of patients presenting at hospital now means that elderly patients suffering severely from Covid are far less likely to be admitted to an ICU. Instead, they are being given palliative care and essentially allowed to die in as much comfort as is possible. This is a function of a shortage of ICU facilities and also because it is now known these elderly people if they have the disease badly are very likely to die anyway from Covid, regardless of the treatment offered.

In other words, the only way to deal with this, both politically and compassionately, is to stop them getting the disease in the first place. If they catch it and end up in hospital, it’s already too late, and that seems to have been recognised but not officially admitted.

Having said that, we can’t overlook the fact that the age and normal risks faced by that cohort mean that they will continue to die at the very least at normal rates, with some elevation in that figure thanks to the untreated conditions many will be suffering from. Therefore, there will be plenty of instances of people in that age group dying within days, weeks, or months from another cause just as there would have been in any other year. The only difference now will be hysterical newspaper headlines about nonagenarians and centenarians dying with Covid not long after being vaccinated.

ICUs

Of course, every decision comes at a price, though governments rarely admit that. The judgement made by the Government about prioritising the vaccination of the elderly has had the simultaneous effect of leaving those aged 45-64 to continue to be exposed to catching the disease for the moment. Far less likely to die, those who catch the disease badly still need ICUs. They have a reasonable chance of survival and that’s why they now dominate admissions to ICUs (they exceed the total of those aged 65-84).

Since they are not being vaccinated yet (apart from some key workers and lucky chancers on hand when there are spare stocks) it is self-evident that the pressure on the NHS will remain unabated for months yet, and probably till well into the late summer or autumn. That also means many more months of other conditions not being treated.

It’s self-evident that this cohort is largely made up of people of working age and includes a lot of parents, though by definition (at 45-64) they are more likely to be parents of secondary school age children and university students or are grandparents. Children and students do play a part in circulating the disease even if they rarely become ill. They therefore contribute to infecting their parents but whether that is at any more of a rate than would happen anyway is a moot point.

Schools

What this suggests to me, though the Government is loth to admit it, is that obviously in a lockdown culture schools are not going to be opened before the summer term. Since the exams have been dumped there is little or no point in sending them back apart from to alleviate the load on parents. But it is clear that alleviating the load on parents is not considered to be a priority. The truth is that closing schools is the easiest way of shutting down a large chunk of normal daily movement, even if some schools still have as many as half their pupils going in.

Therefore, the most likely prospect is that the rest of this academic year for both the majority of school students and universities will be a write-off. Until working-age parents and anyone else in employment are vaccinated, especially those over 45, there is no other way of reducing the exposure of that group to the disease and therefore of subjecting the NHS to more of them needing ICUs.

It would be helpful if the government simply admitted that but of course they always prefer the option of putting off uncomfortable announcements.

It’s therefore also quite apparent that the Government is prepared now to accept the virtual suspension of the economy in large areas until the autumn. There are going to be devastating effects on lots of businesses, especially hospitality and entertainment, but this apparently is the price we are going to be made to pay.

This goes hand in hand with the devastating impact on mental health and untreated physical illnesses, especially for younger people whether still in education or early in their careers. The briefing video pulled no punches about that. It’s clear though that the Government is fully prepared to kick that can down the road. Like Scarlett O’Hara, they are going to think about that on a metaphorical tomorrow.

Borders

The borders are a curious issue. It’s a moot point how much difference the current influx of arrivals has on the disease, but the new paranoia is mutations, and vaccine-resistant mutations at that. The purpose of discouraging travel even further is well along the scale of diminishing returns, but it is easy enough to impose (even though it’s a classic case of shutting the gate after the horse has bolted), and is headline-grabbing.

The prospect of confining some new arrivals to hotels is typically vague. High-risk countries of origin are on the list but with the nebulous and disorienting prospect of others being added.

In a sense closing down borders further is academic too. Britain is now the international Plague Island so it’s going to be a very long time before more than a tiny number of countries will admit Britons again on any terms. Whichever way you spin it, you can kiss going abroad goodbye for most of 2021 and probably beyond. The holidays you have rewarded yourself with for the drudgery of the year’s work are in abeyance. Border reopening will be piecemeal and subject to endless, and probably expensive, conditions.

Frightened By Angry Dragons

‘Following the science’ has been the endless political mantra. But the truth is that the science has been playing catch-up as much as the Government from the start. Progress has been made but some factions within the ‘science’, trying to save face, are over-compensating by trying to second guess the future in ever more baroque ways.

Now we have the extraordinary development that some scientists, frightened by angry dragons of their own imaginations, are starting to invent the prospect of ever more lethal mutations as a pretext to maintain lockdowns and controls. Mutations will happen of course but the argument being used is a mandate for permanently incarcerating the population.

It’s a curious mutation of science itself. The inspirational and inventive scientists are those who break the laws of science and discover that what others thought impossible can after all be done. There is another type of scientist who is constrained by those same laws including those of their own invention and seek to constrain everyone else accordingly.

Does this all seem too pessimistic? I was going to try and be a little more positive – until that is I listened to Radio 4’s “World At One”. I was left in little doubt that there is no point in expecting to be anywhere near out of the woods for a good many months yet:

The Latest Scientific View

BBC Radio 4’s “World at One” on 26 January interviewed Professor Sir Mark Walport, former chief scientific adviser, and Professor Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Everything they said assured me that what I have laid out here is broadly in lines with the way the Government is both being guided, and viewing, the next six months to a year. That includes the continuing high levels of hospitalisation, despite reductions in deaths and therefore the belief that measures must stay in place.

(13:19 in) Kucharski: “I think the hope is that obviously vaccines can massively reduce the risk of death, but then you’ve got the issue of a large number of people at risk of hospitalisation and ICU, so even if deaths in, say, the oldest group start to come down from vaccination there’s still potentially a really substantial disease burden that could happen in the near future if cases were to climb again.

Walport, when asked why the UK has had so much death, didn’t pull his punches: “The answer is that we’re in a club that no country wants to belong to of a group of countries, typically liberal democracies, European countries, Spain, Italy, Belgium, France, Germany’s having troubles at the moment. And the reality is that with a highly transmissible virus unless you restrict people’s liberty very, very strongly indeed, it’s countries such as the UK are fertile ground for the virus to spread.”’

Sarah Montagu: “That doesn’t quite explain it, does it? The numbers here compared with Germany are so much higher”.

Walport: “That’s true. I mean I think one’s got to look back to the beginnings of this and of course what happened in the UK, and the UK is globally highly connected country, and if you look at the sort of cities in the world that have done worst, they are the globally connected cities, Brussels, New York, London. So, we were sort of sitting ducks in a way and of course what happened in February half-term was that the infection was brought in, distributed very widely across the UK by people returning from their half-term holidays in Italy, France and Spain where it was picked up so we were unlucky in the sense that it was seeded geographically very widely across the UK. But the truth is that historians are going to be looking at this for years to come and in a way I think there’s, sort of, looking back there’s going to be plenty of public enquiries. The real challenge at the moment is to actually make sure that we don’t continue losing enormous numbers of people to this dreadful infection.

There you have it: we’d have been alright if Britain wasn’t an internationally connected nation (now more important than ever), didn’t allow its citizens to go on holiday, and wasn’t a liberal democracy. Why didn’t anyone think of those before? Another member of the scientists’ club in favour of totalitarian government?

When asked to predict the future, Kucharski was upbeat that deaths would come down “quite soon” but warned that we can’t relax measures too soon in case of overloading hospitals. Ominously he warned that later in the year countries are going to have to decide what to do in terms of the “level of additional measures” they want to keep on in addition to the vaccines.

The Future

So, there we have it. The Government could be a lot more honest about all this. We are going to stay pretty much locked down as we are at least until Easter. Due to the Government’s present state of mind many or even most of the precautions will remain in force thereafter, probably for the remainder of the year and may well be wheeled out in future winters indefinitely. The NHS is going to be lumbered by ICU admissions of the 45-64 age group until at least the summer. To mitigate that, schools and universities will remain at least partially shut for a while yet. No wonder some are beginning to warn that we are walking into an everlasting lockdown. The Schools Minister Nick Gibb insists reopening schools is a top priority but that remains contingent on lifting lockdown restrictions and the best he can offer is “two weeks’ notice” of when schools can restart. The uncertainty remains – for the moment.

The damage to education is evidently deemed acceptable. What the long-term impact on the young people concerned is going to be when it comes to their prospects remains to be seen. It’s already the case that 25-34s are most likely to be made redundant. A can knocked down the road and not one that anyone in the present government is ever likely to have to pick up. Young people will be paying the price in every sense of the word for long after the vast majority of those much older who were ever at serious risk from the disease have died from whatever cause in the natural course of events. That is, however, apparently the plan.

Mental health issues and untreated conditions are going to remain a serious issue for several years and have clearly been deemed problems that can be shelved while Covid is made the absolute priority. Part of the fallout is going to be the very real psychological inability of many people to resume normal life.

Many hospitality businesses will come to an end permanently, deemed an acceptable price. Public entertainment of almost any sort will be similarly susceptible. Presumably the Government imagines natural economic forces will revive the sector in 2022 and thereafter, but the emotional and financial price paid by individual owners of closed businesses and their employees has been determined by the Government will have to be paid.

Foreign travel and indeed holidays of any sort are unlikely in 2021 before the autumn at the earliest and for the most part will remain difficult, with many countries closed to Britain for years rather than months. The businesses that offered these services are already disappearing.

Paying for all this is another can being kicked down the road. Politicians are outstandingly good at saddling their successors with the bills for their actions. Shutting down the economy and printing money are classic inflationary mechanisms. The outcome is inevitable when it comes to destroying the value of savings.

Along the way I don’t doubt the Government will look at introducing some reward concessions, probably mainly token, as part of creating the illusion that we are on the way out. But it would be more sensible not to expect these and instead continue to operate on the assumption that for the moment the prospect will only be pushed back.

What we do about these prospects is another matter altogether. But this is what we’re faced with if only the Government would admit this is what it is deciding to do, even if only by default. And the real worry is whether the hidden agenda is the fantasy world of zero-Covid, which at least the briefing video completely refutes.

“Are we nearly there yet?” asks Michael Deacon in the Telegraph. The trouble is, no we’re not and the Government seems to have no idea where we are. But it must produce a road map – any road map is better than none – out of this mess. There are tentative signs that Boris Johnson knows he must stand his corner and provide one, rather than being constantly boxed into corners by those for whom lockdowns and controls are all they understand.

At some point the Government is going to have to stop pretending there aren’t some unpalatable choices ahead about the level of risk we must be prepared to accept.

If it does not and we carry on like this then we are threatened sooner or later by the prospect of social and economic breakdown on an unprecedented scale in the modern world with the effects lasting for decades. This is not the only country facing such a dark future. Consent is not unconditional or infinite, especially if we are being led into lives not worth living.

There is no need to end though on a pessimistic note. We are perfectly capable of extricating ourselves, growing up a bit, and reminding ourselves how lucky we are to be alive at all. Human beings have an infinite capacity for adaptation and problem-solving, but political expediency was never the best way of doing either and nor is only listening to a small group of people with, in the broader perspective, a narrow range of expertise.

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