24 weeks

I have been reminiscing about the pandemic today and looking at the calendar. Just over 24 weeks ago (31st January), the first UK case was detected, followed 4 weeks later by the first COVID-19 case in Scotland (1st March) – 20 weeks tomorrow.

My thoughts were drawn to this early days by the article in Financial Times, titled Inside Westminster’s coronavirus blame game, published on 16th June. It is a very interesting piece, not only from the political of view, but also because it discusses in great detail the thinking behind the decisions taken at that time. It talks primarily about the critical week of 16-23rd March, just before the lockdown, but when the UK government was apparently abandoning all testing and appearing to do very little.

But things were already getting out of the government hands. My last day an the uni was 10th March, as I was working at home on the 11th and attended a conference in Edinburgh on the 12th. University closed down on the 16th and the full lockdown started on the 23rd. There were nearly 13 thousand cases reported in the UK by then. Nearly 300 thousand have been reported since.

I noted that my first blog on coronavirus appeared on 12th March and included these lines:

You need to understand that a politician needs to carefully balance the pros and cons of any action they take, as the consequences might be massive. This means that they tend to either do nothing (President Trump before the 11th of March) or go into a full action (President Trump after the 11th of March). They will not want to be accused of needlessly spending money. Still, on the other hand, they do not want to see TV programmes about hundreds of people dying in hospitals. In fact, our own research shows that for people, there are two rational strategies, do nothing, or act with a full force. Economists call it a ‘bang-bang’ approach.  So, expect the governments to swing between different options as they face the biggest crisis since 2008.

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With a bit of a Schadenfreude, I note that the next 20 weeks have illustrated very well the approach to coronavirus, not only of the UK government but also worldwide. Even now, the UK government is encouraging a full return to work, as if the virus has already gone having changed the strategy from a deep lockdown to a full “normality”.

Do I still think the early lockdown was the best thing to do in March? I probably still do think that the government should have acted sooner and stronger, and I regret not having spoken then, not having written to the MP, or to the press. It probably would not have made any difference (I am not part of SAGE, or any similar advisory body), but I would have had a satisfaction of having done something right.

What I certainly did not expect then was how well the UK population would obey the lockdown once it was announced. Google mobility data show that the UK had one of the deepest reductions in mobility, although there is some evidence that the local scale (village, street) mattered more than the country level. Perhaps an early lockdown could have arrested the disease spread better than the late one (as in New Zealand, or South Korea), would have lasted shorter and costed less.

Or, perhaps, the Swedish model, with a partial lockdown and reliance on the voluntary social distancing, but better done, with a much higher protection of the vulnerable population (elderly, care homes, immigrants), would have been a better solution.

Mathematical epidemiologists really need to have a serious discussion with economists, something that has not been done too well over the last months. This will allow not only evaluation of what could have been done, but – more importantly – how to deal with the ‘winter wave’ if or when it comes, or with the next big pandemic, when (not if) it comes.

The article in Financial Times makes it clear that one of the problems faced by the government and SAGE in March was that they were all expecting a different epidemic. The next time, we need to be better prepared.