even more terrifying than david hencke

Hidden Covid-19 Data is Vote Leave Government’s Political Weapon
Molly Scott Cato, Byline Times, Jul 5 2020

Who would be surprised at the suspicion that this Vote Leave Government is manipulating the data around the Coronavirus crisis? The use of data as a power tool has prevented us from controlling the spread of COVID-19 through our communities and is even more of a threat now that lockdown restrictions are being eased. Gloucestershire, where I live, is one of a number of areas where rises in COVID-19 cases are giving cause for concern. The county council later published a statement saying that it was simply chance that five cases had been reported on the same day and that this was no indication of cause for concern. But how many people will have confidence in this when we have no idea how those five cases were reported, who did the tests, when the data was collected, by whom, and when it reached the public health department in Gloucester? In April, I authored a report about the need for community-based testing and tracing. It was then that I realised that the usual system of reporting a notifiable disease, COVID-19 was made a notifiable disease on Mar 5, had been turned on its head. Usually, if a person was found to have smallpox or Legionnaire’s disease, they would be diagnosed by their GP who has a ‘statutory duty’ to notify the ‘proper officer’ at their local council. However, for COVID-19, GPs have been sidelined and the reporting chain has run to the top, to Public Health England (PHE), which has arguably been under the thumb of Government from the beginning of the crisis. In this way, the Government has taken control of the data on the pandemic and deprived local public health and primary care teams the crucial tool required to protect communities from a dangerous and highly contagious disease.

It can only be speculated why the PM, his chief advisor Dominic Cummings and the Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock decided to deprive local communities of the data they needed to keep their populations safe. Was this driven by an ideological loathing for local government; a Big Data driven obsession with knowledge as power; or a desire to hand lucrative data management contracts to private companies? Whatever the motivation, it has left the country, as it emerges from protective isolation, groping in the dark for any sense of how safe we are. It means that the choice about whether to go shopping or to the pub has become more about an individual’s personality type and their innate level of caution than any kind of rational decision-making. The data failure trail appears to go like this. Private testing centres run by a range of private corporations and the Army, and a minimum of one person with a first-aid certificate on site, have a high level of failed tests. The companies with these contracts are under no legal obligation to report the results to PHE. If the results do reach PHE, they are not passed on to local authority public health departments in a timely fashion. Originally, we were flying blind because of the Government’s inexplicable decision to stop mass testing. Now, public health teams are flying according to the wrong maps, operating with only partial data and often without sight of the true case numbers.

As if this wasn’t confusing enough, the idea of testing according to different ‘pillars’ has added to the murky picture. In the early days, Coronavirus tests were only available in hospitals and for medical staff. These were the ‘pillar 1’ tests. ‘Pillar 2’ tests were the ones undertaken at drive-through centres or by post as testing was ‘ramped up.’ As the curve of the pandemic has descended from the peak of infections, the majority of tests are now undertaken in the community. But the official data only includes ‘pillar 1’ tests. This explains why public health officials in Leicester were only aware of a small proportion of active cases in their community until days before the area was forced to go back into lockdown. A local director of public health cannot see a spike coming when they are only given data about a fraction of the cases in the community they are responsible for. Ironically, the PM’s spokesman hid behind data security concerns as an explanation for not sharing data, before swiftly moving on to claim that local authorities already have it. At a local level, concerns remain about whether the data that is shared is accurate.

I take the Government’s suggestion that it wants to protect my data with a pinch of salt, and share the general public’s lack of trust in its Test and Trace system. Questions should also be raised about whether the real motivation for keeping this vital information secret is because it might allow journalists to work backwards to fill in the blanks in the data table about how many people have actually been tested. As a hypochondriac who has taught statistics, I have been following the data as closely as a I could from the start, but I could not tell you how many people in my county of Gloucestershire, much less my home town, are currently suffering from COVID-19. And, without this data, none of us can make ‘common sense’ decisions about where we should go, what we should do, and with whom. We have no accurate data on which to base our decisions and calculate our risks. In the through-the-looking-glass world of Cummings, one begins with what they want to do and makes up the data later. Just as he could not conceive of a person sacrificing himself to protect others and so broke the quarantine rules to put others at risk, he cannot imagine responsible citizens wanting accurate data to assess how their behaviour might put others at risk. For this Government, data is a political weapon, not a tool to guide policy.

Privatised Failure: The Conservatives Sidelined Public Health for the Market
Molly Scott Cato, Byline Times, Jun 5 2020

Testing, personal protective equipment, contact tracing: one after another the vital pieces of the machine we need to suppress the Coronavirus are being contracted out to private companies which are then failing. The cost has been the deaths of thousands of people. The suspicion has long been that the decision to run the COVID-19 response through private companies was part of the market-driven mantra of ‘never waste a crisis’, with corporations so unscrupulous that even now they are more focused on profit than lives. Now a leaked email from the CEO of Serco appears to confirms these suspicions, revealing how he doubted that the ‘test and trace’ scheme the company was contracted to provide would evolve smoothly but he wanted it to “cement the position of the private sector” in the NHS supply chain.

Having been contacted with disturbing stories about the failures of the testing regime, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Dept of Health and Social Care, seeking more information about the role of private companies in the Coronavirus testing programme. I learned that testing contracts have gone to a string of corporations with little or no medical expertise: Deloitte, Boots, Serco, G4S, Mitie, Levy and Sodexco. Together, they have appointed more than 5k staff overseeing testing at 50 regional test centres. These sites are being managed by one person qualified only as a first-aider. No wonder so many tests are not returning reliable results. Many of these contracts have been awarded ‘without competing or advertising the requirement.’ In other words, the situation of emergency has allowed Government departments to hand these contracts to these companies with no questions asked. There have been at least 115 contracts handed out in this way,with a total value of more than £1b: to run the tests, deliver food parcels and deliver PPE, as well as more centralised administrative tasks.

As three Government scientific advisors have noted, it is not possible for the country to safely exit lockdown without a fully functioning testing and tracing regime. The ‘test and trace’ system launched this week is being led by Dido Harding, a communications executive with no medical training and who was the boss at TalkTalk when it suffered a massive data breach. She is sadly unlikely to inspire confidence in a public who will be asked to provide intimate information to a stranger which may then be shared via an equally anonymous app. Contact-tracing is inevitably a highly personal matter. When somebody you don’t know from an organisation you’ve never heard of based hundreds of miles away asks you about who you have had recent contact with, how likely are you to admit that you have sneaked out during quarantine to have sex with the next-door neighbour? Contact-tracing is always inevitably a local matter. If somebody tells you they have been to a certain social space it really matters whether it is a sweaty, enclosed nightclub packed to the gunnels or an outdoor café. This sort of local knowledge will enable a contact-tracer to decide whether a certain contact was significant or not.

The question is: why does the Government believe that private-sector actors without experience can solve the problems thrown up by this pandemic better than those who have relevant expertise in public health and local authorities? It is difficult to understand why the Boris Johnson administration firstly ignored and sidelined public health and university testing laboratories and is now doing the same with public health teams and local authorities across the country. The establishment of parallel systems at a national level run through private corporations has encountered difficulties at every stage, with delays, incompetence and growing mistrust that will not be resolved by slapping the NHS logo on private consortia. The Conservative Cabinet believes that the market always works better and that the public sector is bloated and inefficient. Bringing in companies such as Deloitte and Serco to help tackle COVID-19 is evidence of it continuing to expand the role of private corporations in the NHS.

Despite a decade of cuts and the disastrous 2012 Health and Social Care Act, which resulted in a fundamental reorganisation of the NHS, we had a world-class public health system that helped to train some of those in countries that are managing the pandemic much more successfully than we are. It is hard not to think that the UK Government’s refusal to acknowledge its responsibility for the starvation of our public health infrastructure and to replace the funding lost from public health departments across the country also influenced its disastrous decision to centralise and privatise the country’s response to the pandemic. If so, this decision was based on ideology, not science. While we will never be able to count the cost of human lives, it is clear that cronyism and a mania for privatisation has left incompetent individuals in charge of our response to the Coronavirus, while our skilled public health professionals have been left on the sidelines.

The Coronavirus Crisis: Take Back Control
Molly Scott Cato, Byline Times, Apr 16 2020

It’s time to take back control of this pandemic. Since the horrified response when Sir Patrick Vallance let the cat out of the bag on “herd immunity,” government ministers have been careful to say publicly that this idea in no way influences their policy. The back-of-the-envelope calculation of around half a million deaths that immediately appeared on Twitter led to public pressure that made them rethink even before Neil Ferguson’s team produced their modelling suggesting the UK was on course for 250k deaths. It took only primary-school maths to understand that ‘letting the virus rip’ would mean at least ten times as many deaths as a containment strategy. But the ideology of herd immunity is still suffusing much of what we’re hearing about the government’s response. For example, the message from the daily press conference is not that we should stop transmission and contain the virus, but rather that we should ‘protect the NHS,’ the implication being that the ultimate number of deaths may be the same but that the sick can be offered an ICU bed and a ventilator if they are part of the unlucky 5% whose life will be threated by the Coronavirus, along with the 50% survival chance that comes with it.

The log graphs that are shared daily are popular with statisticians but, to the lay observer, turn an exponential curve into a gently rising one, that turns the corner while cases may still be rising rapidly. And they have lured us into thinking that there is something inevitable about deaths in the UK ‘following the same trend’ as deaths in Italy, when we should have been doing everything humanly possible to stop these deaths, as countries like New Zealand and South Korea have. Likewise, we are told that London saw the exponential growth first, subtly implying that cases will rise similarly in Birmingham and Glasgow a couple of weeks later, when a government focused on saving life would use the lockdown to ensure that it radically limits further spread outside the capital and that those who live elsewhere are spared the worst of the capital’s horror-show.

The failure to introduce a serious, rapid and community-based testing regime in itself implies that the government has no intention of following a containment policy. The testing regime we have is about getting health workers back to work (‘protecting the NHS’) rather than tracing the virus as it rushes through our society. As Jenny Harries helpfully made explicit, testing, and the contact-tracing and containment it makes possible, just isn’t the British way. Her “no tests please we’re British” represented the worst sort of British exceptionalism that, as Fintan O’Toole described so eloquently, is costing thousands of lives. This is how we got here. Now is the time to look forward. It is clear that, for the British government, the lingering stench of herd immunity is continuing to infect their approach to relaxing the restrictive measures that have stopped catastrophic loss of life in recent weeks.

As governments across the world consider the range of unappealing options, the underlying choice is either to continue to preserve life, or to subject citizens to the Russian roulette of a circulating virus that could mean death for 1 in 20 of them. The idea that there is some kind of trade-off between saving life and saving the economy is entirely bogus. A good strategy of containment would achieve both of these objectives simultaneously, and we will be looking on as Germany, Europe’s largest economy, achieves them both in coming weeks. Because they understand where the virus is, they can be selective about how they open up and can then chase and damp down the inevitable secondary outbreaks of COVID-19 that will follow. Because of the failure to test, UK politicians are flying blind and have only blunt instruments at their disposal.

A key question that should be put to government scientists and ministers is: do you think that everybody will have caught the disease before a vaccine becomes available? It seems clear that the working assumption of government scientific advisors in the UK is that this is so. Therefore all you are trying to do is to spread out that incidence of disease, and the 1% mortality rate it entails, across the next 12 or 18 months. Given that assumption, it makes sense to allow schoolchildren and young people to be the first out of quarantine. They will spread the virus without putting undue pressure on the health service. But for a policy based on containment and control, the young, as asymptomatic carriers, are some of the most dangerous citizens, since they make it hard to trace the spread of the virus.

So reopening schools and allowing children to share the virus with granny only makes sense if your ideal is to work towards 60% of the population having encountered the virus, and accept the death toll that goes along with such a policy. A strategy based on containment would keep schools closed, and would instead identify industries and economic sectors that are most essential and can most easily introduce reliable social distancing and shut down other workplaces to protect employees. I would hope that the HSE has already requested all employers to draw up plans for social distancing that can be signed off by local environmental health departments. Every policy that is not herd-immunity by stealth relies on testing, so that must be the call of all those of us who are committed to the moral equality of citizens and to protecting those most likely to die from COVID-19.

Although the failure to provide adequate protective equipment is more emotive, the failure of testing is the single most destructive failure of the sorry government response to this pandemic. We must all, to the best of our ability, keep relentless pressure on the Health Secretary, who may well be fighting a rearguard action against other cabinet ministers and health advisors of doom like Jenny Harries. If the government fails to test, they will lose public confidence and any exit from lockdown will fail. Workers will be forced to choose between unsafe workplaces and the loss of their jobs, choosing between the health and the livelihood of their families. People will return to work with fear, not in confidence. Some parents will send their children to school, but many others will not, understanding the risks that the infection they might pick up could kill other members of the family.

With or without an adequate national testing regime, we may be forced organize to protect our own communities through setting up local monitoring and contact-tracing systems. There is nothing to stop local authorities setting up these volunteer-based ‘test-and-trace’ teams and substituting symptom-monitoring for the absence of test results. As Anthony Costello has suggested, we should be building this community shield now. It could be based around returning doctors, or doctors offering volunteer time, but with the legwork being carried out by volunteers. If the government is not going to trace the virus, then citizens may have no option but to take on that role. Managing this pandemic has always offered a choice between two approaches: the public-school approach of fighting the virus like a wartime enemy and proving you are hard enough to take the deaths that come your way; or stressing the need for solidarity and humanity. I stand with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeyer, who said during his Easter address:

This pandemic is not a war. Nations do not stand against other nations, or soldiers against other soldiers. It is a test of our humanity.

That is the test that we must hold our government to as we move towards the mortality peak and consider what the next steps should be.

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