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Coronavirus: a process not an event

When it comes to the Covid-19 epidemic, if they are content merely to trot out the daily statistics on cases and deaths, accepting them uncritically from official sources, then neither newspapers nor broadcasters can claim to be a “news” service. All they are doing is amplifying government propaganda.

Whether that is intentional or not is neither here nor there, but I have no sympathy with Channel 4 which is complaining that it asked for an interview with a government minister to talk about the effects of coronavirus, but was told for the eighth day in a row that no-one would be made available.

Looking at the picture of news presenter Cathy Newman standing in front of the graphic (pictured), one can only wearily point out that the government’s published figure of 778 deaths, bringing the total to 5,252, does not represent the deaths in the last 24 hours.

And nor, until we have all the figures available (which could take two weeks), will we know whether the death rate for yesterday reached record levels. A mere 122 deaths have so far been reported by NHS England for 13 April.

With even The Times falling into the trap, reporting on its front page a “record weekly death toll”, the point has to be made again and again that, unless or until the media can deal with the statistics on this epidemic in a responsible and grown-up manner, they really aren’t worth listening to. They are just producing noise.

Much can be said of the treatment of the ONS death figures for the week ending 3 April, with the BBC typifying the coverage, as it tells us that “the virus was cited on 3,475 death certificates”, thus headlining “Coronavirus: One in five deaths now linked to virus”.

The point here is that the “linkage” with the SARS-Cov-2 virus is largely meaningless. The figure is based on death certificates for the period (those that are available) but, when it comes to the causes of death, these are set out in two parts listing the underlying causes of death and contributory causes.

Only if Covid-19 is mentioned in Part I (underlying cause) can it be said that the death was caused by the illness. Since the ONS figures don’t distinguish between Part I and Part II references, we have no means of knowing from this source how many deaths were caused by Covid-19.

However, there is something of interest in the report that the total number of deaths in that week come in at over 16,000 – a record high and 6,000 more than normal at this time of year when deaths tend to fall. Of that excess, though, some 2,500 are unaccounted for. They could be Covid-19 (and most likely are) but they could be attributed to something else. At this stage, we have no real way of knowing.

What this does, then, is underline the general chaos attendant of the government’s reporting of Covid-19 statistics. This is further magnified by the media’s sudden “discovery” that community and care home deaths are not included in the daily reports, even though they are clearly labelled as hospital deaths. Only now, for instance, does the Guardian intone that we don’t know the true death toll.

This is despite the fact that, for some time now, it has been apparent that a tragedy was unfolding in the care home sector. Not until the media had the comfort blanket of an official source to play with has it gone hard at the issue.

Thus, with the ONS holding its hand, the big, brave Mail leads on the crisis that is rapidly turning the nation’s care homes into death camps, suggesting that in just one group, there are 2,400 potential cases.

By such means, the way is opened for the paper to enlist Ian Birrell to wax indignant about the “callous betrayal of our most vulnerable”, where the most frail in our society have been “left to rot by our social care failure”.

It is all very well for the Mail to do this at this juncture, but the problem has been known about for some time. If the paper was interested in reporting news, instead of just reacting to official figures, its earlier intervention might just have saved some lives.

As much to the point, the shambles over the reporting of the statistics must surely say something about the government’s general handling of the epidemic. If it can’t even get right the basic function of reporting the figures, how can we have any confidence in its other activities in this sphere?

Yet, it is not only the legacy media which seems to be tolerant of failure. YouGov is running a tracker poll on the government’s performance and its latest poll asks the question: “How well or badly do you think the UK Government are handling the issue of the Coronavirus (COVID-19)?”

This yields the net result that 68 percent of Britons say that the Government are handling the coronavirus outbreak well, up from 64 percent when asked last week. Those who think the government is handling the epidemic badly run to 27 percent.

One wonders, though, why the questions were asked. Unless you know how an epidemic of this nature should be handled, you’re not really in a position to assess the performance of the government. For the most part, therefore, these responses cannot represent informed opinion.

Furthermore, close examination of the figures seems to illustrate precisely that. The Conservative sample gives a 90 percent approval rating, while Labour voters only manage 46 percent. Even on a matter as important as this, therefore, people are acting tribally. There is not even an attempt to think objectively.

Sadly, though, this seems to run across the board, and especially to that strain of discussion over whether the lockdown should be lifted (partly or completely). There can be no argument that the lockdown is causing serious economic damage, which also has health implications.

But here we have Jeremy Warner seemingly argue that the “increasingly devastating economic consequences” of the lockdown should be “weighed in the balance”, this being the criterion which should determine whether restrictions are lifted.

And while I devoted much of yesterday’s piece to the WHO criteria which need to be satisfied before the restrictions should be lifted, nothing of this seems to have registered. Yet, arguably, increasing economic pain should not in itself be a criterion. What this should do is lend urgency to the need to satisfy the WHO criteria.

Here, there is absolutely no point in lifting restrictions only to have cases and the death rate surge, thus forcing a re-application of controls. A measured programme of relaxation, based on reaching specific objectives, would be a far better approach.

In this context, it seems to me that ending the lockdown has that one thing in common with Brexit in that both should be treated as a process rather than an event. And in both cases, a cautious step-by-step approach might be advised.

That said, despite the increasingly strident calls by right-wing commentators for lifting the lockdown, there is barely any public support for immediate relaxation, despite fears that two million people could lose their jobs and warnings that the economy could shrink by 35 percent.

YouGov reports a mere one percent of the public thinking that the government should take no measures to contain Covid-19, with hefty majorities in favour of specific controls, including 72 percent who support quarantining anyone who has been in contact with a Covid-19 sufferer.

As long as it has the general support of the public – which it seems to have – the government can take strong measures to contain the epidemic. But, if the death toll continues to mount, with few signs of it slackening, and the economic damage multiplies, support might wane.

The government needs to engage people in the process of releasing the lockdown, or that point might come sooner rather than later.


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