Although some caution must be exercised because of different ways of handling statistics in different countries, it’s shocking to learn that the UK has overtaken Italy for the highest number of COVID-related fatalities in Europe – more than 32,000 according to the latest ONS figures released today. Although the causes are well known, especially the tardiness in addressing the crisis, several pieces of news this evening will reinforce them, eg the PM continuing to shake hands with colleagues after clinical advice to the contrary and 18m people being allowed into the UK early in the New Year and not quarantined.
The contact tracing app leads the news, with some pointing out that it shouldn’t be called the ‘NHS app’ since it’s being developed not within the NHS but by the company belonging to the brother of a no 10 ‘adviser’ (Ben Warner). And why reinvent the wheel when the Google and Apple enabled ones already exist and other countries are using them? British exceptionalism again? As co-author of the legal opinion suggesting the app could be challenged in the courts on privacy grounds, QC Matthew Ryder told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the Government is yet to “present the evidence or the material it would need to justify the course it is taking”. He said the government is ignoring Information Commissioner’s Office advice, which suggested that a decentralised approach would best protect user privacy rather than the government’s centralised approach to this whole crisis.
Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told BBC World at One that people should download the app but some at least feel that lack of trust will be a disincentive. A listener tweeted: ‘It’s too late. They’ve already lost our trust in the contact tracing app by using their mates who developed the tech for Vote Leave and then centralising the data. They will never get that trust back’. This issue has also raised concerns at the possibility for use being made compulsory or least people being subjected to heavy pressure – could ‘recalcitrants’ be traced via their phone and made to use this app? Needless to say, loss of trust in our leaders (or politicians’ failure to instil it in the first place) will exacerbate pre-existing anxiety.
Regardless of how the Isle of Wight trial goes, it seems that two key challenges have yet to be navigated. One lies in the failure to pass NHS tests so far, according to Health Service Journal. ‘Senior NHS sources told HSJ it had thus far failed all of the tests required for inclusion in the app library, including cyber security, performance and clinical safety’. The second is that at least one data expert, Nyasha Weinberg (Research Fellow in Rule of Law Measurement at the Bingham Centre UK Constitutional Law Association), argues that the app needs primary legislation to provide safeguards and legitimacy. https://bit.ly/3b2VVDC
Can such hurdles just be disregarded with the likely argument that there’s no time to address them? This issue highlights further the conflict between the needs to protect privacy and to urgently accelerate testing.
Another example of opacity is the news that coroners are effectively being silenced and hampered in their roles. The Independent reported that more than 100 health and care staff are thought to have died after contracting the Covid-19 virus. Although coroners will be able to investigate these deaths due to lack of PPE, they won’t be allowed to question national policy. This could risk hospital CEOs and GPs being unfairly blamed, leading to expensive litigation.
Meanwhile, scientific opinion remains divided on the wearing of masks, this inconsistency being confusing and unhelpful for the public. Although a report from a multidisciplinary group convened by the Royal Society called Delve – Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics – has considered the evidence and decided in favour of public wearing of face masks, other scientists disagree. Dr Ben Killingley, consultant in acute medicine and infectious diseases at University College London hospital, said: “The report is overly optimistic about the value of face coverings and it is incorrect to conclude that the evidence shows that face covering can reduce viral transmission in the community…There is in fact no good evidence that face coverings achieve this.”
It won’t help Brexit talks that a European body has criticised UK strategy, despite the PM’s claims of success. Andrea Ammon, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), suggested on Monday that the UK had yet to progress as far as the majority of European countries in tackling the disease. ECDC reckons that only the US exceeds the UK’s total of 186,599 confirmed cases and 28,466 fatalities, a death count second only to Italy. [Later news above confirmed that UK has now overtaken Italy]
Here are two radio series you might enjoy for some light relief, although the second could make you think about what it could be like returning to a pre-NHS health service if privatisation continues unabated. On Radio 4 the engaging music journalist Pete Paphides (married to writer Caitlin Moran) reads his autobiography (Broken Greek), which describes his childhood experience of selective mutism and the upheaval of his family’s enforced move from Cyprus to set up a fish and chip shop in Birmingham.
This adaptation of A J Cronin’s novel The Citadel makes for compelling listening, focusing on medical life in the 1920s. Wikipedia tells us: ‘The Citadel is a novel by A. J. Cronin, first published in 1937, which was groundbreaking in its treatment of the contentious theme of medical ethics. It has been credited with laying the foundation in Great Britain for the introduction of the NHS a decade later’.
Finally, during her recent Evidence programme for the BBC World Service, author and broadcaster Claudia Hammond coined a useful moniker for the state of COVID-related anxiety we are all experiencing at some level: Coronacoaster. It might just catch on.