Shop ’til you drop?

On 15th June 2020, the UK government re-opened “non-essential” retail business (then, in England only) to trading.

TV reports showed queues forming outside retail parks, and interviews with representatives of other parts of the economy still closed, like ‘hospitality’. There were opinions from medical science about the safety of reducing ‘social distance’ from the present 2 metres, but not any behavioural science underpinning the relaxation.

I struggle to understand why any, never mind many, people are in such desperate need for “non-essential” items to the point they would queue overnight – as happened in some places. Crowds, bordering on disorderly, were seen outside so-called flagship ‘brand’ shops. What the social distancing was like inside the stores we do not yet know.

The point of this post is not to focus on the unquestionable health risk associated with this behaviour, but on what I perceive to be the fragile, and fundamentally unsound, basis of our economy which caused the government to allow shopping to resume in spite of the risks.

The UK is a service-led economy. We don’t manufacture much to sell to anyone but ourselves, and most of what we do sell to others is services, not goods – apart from very specialist and high priced items like luxury cars and aeroplanes. We sell ideas, designs, science, ‘systems’, lifestyles. We buy goods from (mainly) developing nations because they can make ‘stuff’ and ship it to us cheaper than we can make it ourselves. In consequence our economy, the flow of money round the nation, and critically into the coffers of the tax man, depends on us spending – especially discretionary spending. Much of our retail, and of course our leisure travel, sector is dependent on this sort of activity but the Covid-19 pandemic has also starkly exposed how dependent we are on routine international air travel for underpinning supply chains with freight carried on passenger airliners.

The latter part of the 20th century saw the confluence of two developments in the economic activity of so-called first world countries: on-line commerce and “just-in-time” manufacturing. Very few major sectors of our UK economy, whether it be retail (including food retailing), car making, construction, or even heavy industry like ship building or wind turbine manufacture, hold ‘stock’. This means, as an island nation, we are extremely vulnerable to disruption of supply chains. In the past we, as individuals, went to ‘agents’ for purchases and they co-ordinated all our purchases and placed orders with suppliers. Now we are all our own agents, making individual direct purchases and “cuttting out the middle man”. This sort of activity is almost impossible to plan for, whether in materials, manufacture or logistics, and so there have been shortages. Shortages create unease, unease creates panic, panic influences our buying behaviour to such an extent that we will buy things we wouldn’t normally buy – in order to get ‘something’: a sort of displacement purchasing.

And so, back to the point of this post. Judging by the queues, and excitement, as shopping became just a little bit easier it seems that we have become so dependent on buying, and spending (even getting into debt to do so), for our emotional and psychological health that we are individually prepared to take Covid-19 risks with our physical health. It also seems our economy is so dependent on our spending, even on “non-essential items, that our government is prepared to encourage us to take risks too.

Sadly, for some, “Shop ’til you drop” may become the reality.

UK Covid Travel Quarantine

On 8 June 2020 the UK government initiated quarantine restrictions on incoming travellers. With a few minor, and clearly (?) defined, exceptions everyone arriving in the UK by air, sea or rail, has to self-isolate for 14 days.

In the weeks since ‘lockdown’, during a period of unusually fine weather, 1000 illegal migrants arrived on the shores of the UK by various means – mostly small boats crossing the English Channel. In one day alone, in the week before the new restrictions, 160 arrived. How many arrived undetected is obviously not known.

In the context of quarantine restrictions intended to prevent ‘importation’ of new Covid-19 infections, one has to wonder where, and how, the illegal migrants are being quarantined – for their safety and ours – and how many of them have been tested and proved ‘positive’ for Covid-19?

‘Tombstoning’: Metaphor for Relaxing Lockdown?

In recent years there has been a growth in numbers of people (mostly young people) undertaking physical challenges that involve high risk. One of these is ‘Tombstoning’ – the practice of jumping from height, sometimes considerable height, into a body of water.

Over the sunny weekend of 30/31 May, in Dorset (UK), there was an incident involving ‘tombstoning’ which provides a clear metaphor for the UK government’s decision to relax the strictures of ‘lockdown’.

People were frustrated by being confined, at that time for 10 weeks, and the government had signalled that we could have a degree of freedom to go outside. It began by saying, three weeks previously, that we could travel any distance to enjoy exercise, as long as we maintained the prescribed social distancing of 2m. Predictably, people took that as a green light to go to the ‘seaside’ – in their thousands. Cars streamed to the coast, clogging roads and carparks, disgorging their occupants in confined locations where it was inevitable that ‘social distancing’ would be challenging if not impossible.

Durdle Door, in Dorset, is an iconic and beautiful location where an enclosed shallow bay features a natural arch over the water. It is, or should be, self-evident that an enclosed bay surround by cliffs will have limited access, and the limited space on the beach will be influenced by the fall and rise of the tide. Apparently not. Many hundreds of people arrived and spread themselves on the beach. Amongst them were three who decided it was a good idea to test their bravery by climbing up the cliff, over the arch of the ‘door’, and ‘tombstone’ 70 feet into the shallow water, encouraged by the onlooking crowd shouting “Jump, Jump”. They were all seriously injured and had to be airlifted to hospital, although it is questionable whether land ambulances would have been able to get anywhere near on the clogged roads. To make room for 2 helicopters to land safely, hundreds of people were compressed into a small space, destroying what remained of any potential social distancing, and were eventually evacuated from the beach up the single access path in a massive ‘crocodile’ file. In this case, amongst the unknowable infected people, any one or all three of the jumpers might have Covid-19, presenting risk to their rescuers and medics, not to mention that flying helicopters into that location is not entirely risk-free either.

This event is where my case for ‘metaphor’ comes in. Over a fairly short time frame UK governments (there are 4 devolved administrations) have decided to shout “Jump, Jump” while we contemplate tombstoning off a lockdown cliff. In the face of conflicting (and in some cases absent) evidence and scientific advice, we are being told we can come out of lockdown but, explicitly, to do our own assessment of risk. The problem with this is that the assessment of risk, in relation to Covid-19, remains, as it has been all along, selfishly focussed on not catching the disease rather than not spreading it. One thing the scientists are agreed on is that we need a robust, fully functional, ‘track and trace’ system to pick up, and isolate, outbreaks of disease. We have seen the value of this in other countries where they had systems for, and experience of, population scale testing and tracking in pandemics. To be robust and fully functional it needs to have adequate capacity, both for carrying out tests and analysing the results, and critically that means speed because outbreaks must be stopped quickly or they rapidly get out of control. At present the UK does not have this and, by all accounts, the statistics on tests carried out are suspect. The evidence, or should I say experience, from other countries where they have had a better grip of Covid-19 is that it keeps coming back. Other countries experimenting with coming out of lockdown have low rates of new infection, in the low hundreds at most. Our daily rate of new infections is stubbornly high, apparently around 8000, of which perhaps 25% are actually confirmed by a test. After 10 weeks of lockdown, which has limited movement and contact, one has to ask why? What is driving community transmission? I have my own theory, which is asymptomatic spread. Asymptomatic infectees will not be picked up by track and trace, or other existing testing, because they fundamentally require self-reporting of symptoms. Those contacted by ‘track and trace’, as having been in contact with someone who is confirmed (by another test) as infected, will be asked to isolate. However, though they may also be infected they may not have, or go on to develop, symptoms. In fact they may be the person who unknowingly gave the infection to the reporting person in the first place!

The science around modality of spread, of viability of deposited virus, of viable infectivity in a person after infection, of any acquired immunity and persistence of immunity, is weak. This brings me back to my metaphor. In a country where some seem only too ready to accept the government’s encouragement to “jump”, while applying their own assessment of risk to them, I fear we are all tombstoning to potential disaster with them.

The Emperor’s New Clothes 2020

I am not a scientist, so what I write here has to be viewed as the product of an interested, but inexpert, mind.

I have been repeatedly struck by the similarity between the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and the UK Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

For any reader not familiar with the story, a pair of con-men tailors persuade an Emperor that they could make him a magic suit of clothes. The suit would be so special that only superior citizens could see and appreciate it. Nobody would admit to being inferior, including the Emperor himself, so nobody would say that the suit was imaginary: it didn’t exist. Eventually it takes a small child to puncture the community conspiracy and call out that the Emperor is naked. I am calling out. I am saying our political leaders, and the scientists they defer to, are naked: they don’t know what to do (or are unable to do what they need to do) even though they profess to know.

It seems to me that the UK, and UK media in particular, is bewitched by the 2020 Covid-19 ‘smoke and mirrors’ version in which they, and we, are told to believe in something patently untrue because they, and we, are afraid of looking stupid in the face of “the Science”. We, the mere mortal citizens, cannot understand the complexity of this pandemic and are afraid to ask difficult questions in case we seem ill-educated.

This is plainly nonsense. First of all our media are replete with clever, well educated, people. Moreover we, the populace, are not only not generally ill-educated but we are also blessed with something which seems singularly lacking in the narowly focussed Government science community and the Government itself: common sense.

Every day, and I mean every day, a UK Government minister hosts a so-called press conference from Downing Street in which ‘slides’ of graphs, updated from the day before, are presented by a ‘scientist’ to illustrate progress in the fight against the virus. This presentation is followed by questions from the media. Recently, presumably in an effort to engage the public in an illusion of transparent democracy, two questions are first taken from members of the public. The Government claims these questions are ‘unseen’ but it is evidently untrue because you can see the ministers, in particular, consulting notes when speaking in response to the questions. I will try to ‘pick over’ some of the anomalies that arise from these questions and answers.

Being Led by the Science

One of the advantages of saying you are following the science is that you can blame the scientists if it all goes wrong. It’s the job of Government, both as leaders of the country and as employers of the scientists, to test the scientists, or at least ask them hard questions, however ‘daft’ they may seem. It has been marked, really marked, how often the scientists speaking at the daily press conference say something like “it’s too early to say, it’s difficult to draw conclusions from the data, we’ll know what happened when it’s all over”. In short, they often say “we don’t know”, so how can anyone follow that lead?

The charts shown to the public display, and invite, international comparisons and yet the scientists say “it’s very difficult to make comparisons because the data across countries is not recorded consistently.” If it’s difficult (or even meaningless) to draw comparisons why do they show these charts?

Testing

The Government’s approach has, like the science, been ‘behind the curve’. At the outset of the epidemic, before it became an official pandemic, the World Health Organisation advised “Test, Test, Test”. The UK did not. Those countries that did, seem to have had a different level of transmission. Some countries imposed travel restrictions, quarantine and scanning for elevated temperature in arrivees. The UK did not. Some countries were very quick to impose lockdown, the UK was not. Worldwide, but especially in S.E. Asia where they had both a culture of routinely wearing facemasks when ill, but also experience of epidemics of respiratory diseases like SARS and MERS, the community response was immediate and effective. The UK’s was not. In the UK our limited capacity for testing outside of hospital was initially focussed on getting medics and carers back to work because the medical workforce was under pressure. Once the decision was taken to increase testing (and I think this decision was forced by public pressure) the figures of tests undertaken became a politically, not medically, important key performance indicator and therefore had to be presented in a ‘managed’ way. The results from those tests, especially in hospitals, became a key indicator in the progress of the disease through the population and of the prevalence of the disease in the country as a whole. It emerged very early on that there was a range of severity: the majority of infected people would experience only mild symptoms and some would have no symptoms at all. A smaller number would need hospitalisation, about half of those would need intesive care, and of those requiring the highest level of hospital intervention (sedation and ventilation) a significant number of those would die. These numbers became key indicatiors of the progress of the disease, and of healthcare performance through mortality rates.

What nobody seems to have grasped (or been prepared to call out) is that testing, any kind of testing in the sick population, that is to say those persons presenting in care settings and exhibiting symptoms, is only confirming what is already suspected. Two cohorts of the population were missed by this approach to testing, and therefore any measurement of population prevalence is distorted. First, those people with ‘mild to moderate’ symptoms were (and still are) required to self-isolate at home. Until the proposal to use an ‘App’, see below, they were not counted as cases. They were not tested (unless as part of the belated testing of key workers), they were not confirmed cases of Covid-19 and their contacts were not traced. Secondly, those people with no symptoms at all, or misidentified as ‘just having a cold or hayfever’ were, and still are, free to circulate in the population to potentially shed and spreading the virus: the Typhoid Mary effect.

Laterly, in May 2020, the Government has started a limited trial of an ‘App’, a technological solution to tracking and tracing outbreaks of disease. If deemed successful it will be rolled out across the UK. People who use this ‘App’ will be asked to monitor their state of health and, if exhibiting symptoms, report illness. The ‘App’ will then inform their ‘contacts’ who will be advised (advised!) to self-isolate and so break the chain of transmission. It seems to me there is an obvious, and fatal, flaw in the logic of this approach, and that is the Typhoid Mary effect. Track and Trace only works on those people who have symptoms: officially at least 30% of the infected population are asymptomatic.

Chasing the ‘R’ Number

The distortion of the real, natural, level of community transmission of Covid-19, and therefore pursuit of the magic ‘R’ number, has been profound.

The ‘R’ number is the reproduction rate, the rate by which one infected person passes an infection on to others: its ‘natural’ infectivity in a population with no immunity. An ‘R’ of 1 means one person will infect one other and the infection rate is stable, while anything above 1 means an exponential growth of infection. The ‘R’ of normal ‘flu is about 15 – it’s highly infectious. The natural ‘R’ of Covid-19 is said to be 3. There is no way to change the natural infectivity, the ‘R’, of Covid-19. Until we can develop a vaccine, all we can do is reduce it’s opportunity to make people sick by hygiene measures and, crucially, keeping people away from each other. What we have managed to achieve, with extreme restrictions and the wrecking of our economy, is an un-natural ‘R’ number hovering between 0.5 and 0.9. Clearly, though, something is going on which is sustaining new infections. The UK government is saying the locus is now Care Homes. I really struggle with the logic of this; Care Homes are, more-or-less, ‘closed’ communties. Once the problem was identified, even with mass mortality as we have had, how does that drive infection in the wider population? I suggest that it is the reservoir of undiagnosed, untested, and asymptomatic infection. That being the case, the relaxation of the measures to keep people apart will inevitably result in a resurgence of the disease.

What the UK government seems to have decided is that the economy must be restarted, and has embarked on an experiment in which we are the guinea pigs, to see what happens if we let the reins slacken. The government says that ‘lockdown’ can be reinstated if this happens, but I suggest this is unrealistic: once the freedom genie is out of the bottle there is no way the public can be persuaded to put it back and comply with the measures in the way they have, broadly, until now. I don’t doubt that behavioural science is informing some of the epidemiology, but we have already seen the extent of wilful disregard for lockdown measures, as well as plain misunderstanding. The UK Prime Minister has pleaded for “good British common sense” to apply: in effect this sounds like “it’s too complicated to explain or advise about, even for me, so just do whatever you think is right”.

Epidemiology

We know that the first widescale outbreak of what became labelled Covid -19 was identified in a Chinese city of 11 million people called Wuhan, in the province of Hubei. As far as we know it was noticed in December but officially denied. Travel in and around China continued, and critically beyond China’s borders. Blaming China has become a politically convenient distraction. What has only recently become general knowledge is that cases appeared in Europe in December, before it was reported in Wuhan. That means it was circulating more widely there (and elsewhere) for longer than was suspected, and therefore maybe even calls into question the location of the original outbreak. Moreover, DNA-based research has shown that the origin of disease in other parts of Europe was significantly driven from the UK. We know the virus is highly infectious, and we now know it has been mutating: the strain that subsequently arrived in the West coast of the USA, from Asia, was different from that which over-ran New York that came via Europe (and therefore the UK).

Virology

When we bagan to hear about a virus outbreak, we were told “Catch it, Kill it, Bin It” – and wash your hands thoroughly and often. We were told this was because the virus was spread by “droplets” getting from an infected person to someone else, directly by coughing or sneezing, or indirectly by the droplets landing on a surface and then being picked up by them and transferred to the mucus membranes of a face / mouth / eyes. Initially we were told that you had to be in close contact, face-to-face, for 10 to 15 minutes, and to stay more than 1.5 metres away. The obvious question then was how long the deposited virus ‘droplet’ remained viable on a surface, and it wasn’t (and still isn’t) clearly answered. Then we got the 2m ‘social distancing’ rule, but evidence emerged that droplets were spread over varied distances in an aerosol according to the environment, inside or out, by someone with virus on their hands touching something, and what people were doing like exerting exercise, which called into question the adequacy of 2m as a safe distance. Now we are advised to stand side by side, not facing each other, and as near as 1m if using “mitigation” measures. We have also now found that the virus can remain viable on clothing for several hours and that we should wash our clothes frequently, which makes a bit of a nonsense of the original advice to sneeze or cough into our elbow and shaking hands by ‘touching’ elbows.

The fact (and I use that word with caution) is that the virology, based in laboratories, cannot keep pace with the developing ‘field’ epidemiology with sufficient speed. That is to say that what’s happening in the epidemiological ‘reality’ is outstripping laboratory science’s ability to answer the new questions raised by changes in the experience on the ground. And so those of us without specialist expertise are watching the news from other parts of the world to see what they are doing, and how effective it has seemed to be, and applying our own common-sense response. Some people (me included) ordered facemasks, gloves and hand sanitizer, and began to adapt our behviours in and outside the home, even before a pandemic was declared. I mentioned the question of facemasks earlier in this piece, and of all the visible measures that various countries could have taken, the wearing (or not) of facemasks has been an obvious point of difference. Facemasks are routinely worn in a medical setting for two reasons, the principal one of which is not contaminating the patient by breathing on them. The secondary reason, except in specific cases, is protecting the clinician from any bacteria the patient may pass on to them. The specific exception is where the risk from the patient is bacteria (or viruses) transmitted by them in an aerosol spray – in which case a high performance, moisture resistant, mask is required (to standard N95 or higher).

The UK government, and its scientific advisors, consistently said that masks had no benefit in protecting the wearer, in fact suggesting they risked the health of the wearer because they would contaminate themselves putting them on or taking them off. This inexplicably ignored that the principal benefit they admitted was in reducing the risk of an infected person passing the virus on, and reducing transmission was the key objective of the lockdown! For weeks the government steadfastly refused to recommend general wearing of masks, even in the face of a growing public clamour, and this week (11 May) has only grudgingly “advised” (not mandated) the use of masks, as long as they are home made, saying that medical grade, or style, masks were inappropriate and should be kept for clinical settings because clinicians, nurses, carers, paramedics etc., need them for their protection. One has to ask if a mask protects a paramedic, why doesn’t it protect a member of the public? Of course, all of this has to be seen in the context of a massive failure to hold stocks of, or procure, adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), of which masks are but one example. Almost uniquely in the “western” world, the UK has a universal and centralised healthcare service: the NHS. However, successive politically Conservative governments have sought to privatise the service and so the delivery of healthcare has been incrementally fragmented under the cloak of “efficiency improvements”, and responsibility devolved to area Care ‘Trusts’. The UK government was warned a year before the outbreak that we were unprepared for a pandemic and that central stocks of essential equipment were low. The government initially sought to blame the Trusts for mismanaging their ordering and stockpiling of PPE, ignoring the fact that the NHS had been systematically ‘bled’ of funding in the wake of the 2008 world financial crash. Then they sought to blame the public, who had bought their own PPE, for using up finite resources. Once they realised this blame game was not going to work with the public, their failure to deliver PPE to the front line medics, and care homes, resulted in the government giving daily scores of “items of PPE delivered” as fatuous as counting an individual glove as an item. The government clearly could not recommend the public to wear masks when there weren’t enough for doctors, nurses and carers. Now we know there is mounting evidence that facemasks do, indeed, protect the wearer (and in early June both the WHO and our UK government recommended widespread us of “face coverings” and specifically medical grade masks for the over 60s). By early July the WHO raised the possibility of airborne transmission, which suggests more widespread use of facemasks will be required.

What Next

We have no vaccine. We may never get a vaccine. If we do it may need to be redeveloped every year like the ‘normal’ seasonal ‘flu vaccine because the Coronavirus naturally mutates. There is some evidence that some infected persons have developed antibodies and therefore some immunity. Our NHS is experimenting with infusing sick people with plasma drawn from previously infected people. We do not know if this immune response is consistent across all sections of all populations, and even if it is we do not know how durable the immunity is. Without an effective vaccine we are going to have to live with, i.e. adapt our ways of life, the presence of Covid-19 (or Covid-20/21/22 etc.) for the long term and depend on improving therapeutic treatments to help us survive infection – if not knowing very much at all doesn’t kill us first.

Our Covid-19 ‘Plan’

The writing has been on the wall for weeks, so Judy and I have been gently preparing for what we saw as inevitable: movement restictions. We’ve been washing our hands in the prescribed manner for weeks too.

We had already bought a few masks, vinyl gloves, hand sanitizer and some anti-bacterial surface wipes. When we went shopping we added an item or two (like tinned soup) and put some milk in the freezer. We bought extra lens covers for our in-ear thermometer. We did not bulk buy anything, including toilet paper!

Then the restrictions, albeit changing daily, began. The government has been at pains to entreat rather than tell, so many have taken matters into their own hands – hence unimaginable scenes of rampant panic buying leading to empty shelves and physical conflict in stores. People (especially, it seems the under 40s) have been ignoring the ‘advice’ to socially distance, and behaving about fresh air and fun as if it were a supermarket commodity: getting some while stocks last. This has forced us into more restriction, suspicion and, frankly, a fearful state of mind.

Although both over 70, and in my case with an underlying medical condition, we decided from the outset to adopt a moderate approach to self isolation. We are both well (in Covid-19 terms), able to exercise and walk to the shops. The latter is a risk, and actually of dubious benefit since they are empty of even basic goods, because the aisles and checkouts bring us into close physical contact with others for as long as we are there.

We are lucky. We have a car so we can drive somewhere to get a change of scenery, and even find somewhere isolated to walk safely. There are not that many residents out of season, The seasonal influx of holidaymakers and second home owners looks likely to reduce or stop, although there is a risk that things might get apocalyptically ugly in urban areas. Then ‘evacuees’ might start looking for gardens and land on which to pitch a tent. We can get fresh air in our tiny garden, and the larger communal garden if we need to quarantine more rigorously, perhaps with a rota between our neighbours.

We live on our own in a cul-de-sac with 6 other houses. There are 14, maximum, residents but the majority are in ‘at risk’ groups by virtue of age or other reasons. Our two storey 3 bedroom house is in a small seaside town. It has a bathroom and a small cloakroom/toilet so that, if necessary, we could socially distance or isolate from each other and we largely use the toilet facilities exclusively anyway. We have already reduced physical contact between ourselves and, as it happens, we already slept in separate beds/rooms because of a sleep disorder. Therefore our home is a place where we have control, and can control the cleanliness: it is our ‘place of safety’. We allow no visitors inside, and anyone who calls must ring the bell and stand back from the door. We wash before we leave the house, and carry hand sanitizer, gloves and masks in case of unplanned contact. We step aside or cross the road if we meet someone, which is good for them too. We wash immediately on our return to the house, and at times through the day, in the prescribed manner. In this way we feel we can remain safe at home but, in addition to normal household cleaning, every day we clean down regularly touched surfaces, including doorknobs and handles, light switches, computers and phones, the TV remote, and specific items of furniture. We have made a 5% solution of bleach, which we use to disinfect surfaces to eke out the ‘wipes’. We have even bought 2 small pedal bins, to be lined with tie-off bags, specifically to dispose of used tissues etc. as “clinical waste” if we fall ill and have to isolate from each other within the house. I think, at least I hope, we are as ready as we can be.

So, the remaing main challenges are four-fold.

First, how do we safely replenish our supplies while we are social distancing? Online shopping with the biggest supermarkets is, for the time being, impossible: there are not enough delivery slots. A week ago we did a stock take of our cupboards. This was to be our ‘template’ for orders to Tesco/Sainsbury, but was a good ‘tool’ to establish our normal shopping list. Apart from discovering, with some embarrassment, how much we already had, it meant we could plan ahead for restocking and, crucially, reduce to an absolute minimum the time we would spend in the shop doing it. For many the discipline of shopping to a pre-planned shopping list, and weekly menu, has been an essential part of living on a budget. However, as pensioners with a secure income, we have tended to use a shopping list as a ‘guide’, modified by opportunity or impulse buys. That has to stop. As children affected by, indirectly or otherwise, the privations of WW2 we know about rationing, and saving leftovers. In the past we have been slack in preparing (and eating!) oversized amounts, as I call it “cooking for the unexpected guest”. That has to stop too, but in fact already had because just before the Covid-19 we joined Weightwatchers! We both have regular medication and the GP practice is considering issuing prescriptions for larger amounts, so that we don’t have to go to the pharmacy (which is in Tesco) more than absolutely necessary.

Secondly, how do we stem the rising tide of anxiety and fear? We have limited contol over events that affect us, so we’ll try to only ‘worry’ about those that we can. We’ve found the tsunami of informaton, and disinformation, coming from the internet, the TV and radio very unsettling and, truthfully, have found ourselves being sucked into adding to it. That has to stop. I am going to try to stop sharing my opinions and commenting on events unless asked. We have decided to limit our exposure by only watching TV news once a day, and not looking at news outlets on-line. I am not going to watch films, dramas or read books that are about ‘disaster’ and apocalypse – which unfortunately happens to be a favourite genre for me: I’m a ‘futurist’ by nature. We are not going to look at, or contribute to, social media about Covid-19 except to keep contact with our families and friends. We are taking the opportunity to do things we have been putting off, for example throwing stuff out that we’ve been keeping because it will come in handy one day. We are going through boxes of old photographs (remember those?), clearing bookshelves of books we won’t ever read, culling wardobe of clothes we won’t ever wear again (but pretend we will). Normally this would result in multiple trips to the charity shops, but they are closed now.

We are keeping more regular ‘virtual’ contact with family, and contacting more distant friends who we’ve meant to call but somehow never get round to it.

Thirdly, and this flows a bit from ‘tidying’ up, we’ve begun to contemplate what will happen if we succumb to Covid-19. This disease can come on, and progress, very rapidly; how do we prevent leaving each other, or our children, an administrative “nightmare” to sort out? We need to “get our ducks in a row”. We’ve revisited our Wills and Powers of Attorney, and contacted our Executors (who happen to be our children). We are going to make lists of important documents such as insurance policies, pensions, loans, mortgage, bank accounts, rolling subscriptions and contracts. I am Literary Executor of my late father’s estate, and I’m making arrangements to pass that role on. Our personal files will be identified, and those held on computers saved to other media where possible or deleted. Passwords for online accounts will be printed and securely stored.

Fourthly, but almost most important, how do we look after ourselves and each other? Whether we survive or not, it is possible that we will lose others that matter to us. We may have to deal with grief as well as everything else, so we must love, support, value and care for each other, every day. We will try to stay, and encourage each other to stay, cheerful, positive, and physically fit. We will try to eat well and take exercise. We will try to stay emotionally and mentally fit. Try to laugh every day. We will probably watch Hey Duggee.

Finally, if you are lucky enough to be able to go out for exercise, please remember your fellow men and women. Greet them, even from 2 metres, give them a friendly wave or ‘hi’: social distancing doesn’t mean we have to be anti-social. We need each other to express our humanity and solidarity, we are all in it together, and we’re all a bit afraid.

Covid-19 – Outside the box

It seems to me that the organs of government are hamstrung in their ability to respond to the Coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis. We, in a social democracy, based on ‘free market’ capitalism, are incapable of thinking like leaders and citizens of a directed economy. Unlike China, where Covid-19 began, we are used to doing whatever we want (or at least believing that) and being persuaded to act differently. China, on the other hand, has a highly organised state apparatus, and largely compliant population used to doing what it is told for the common good. As a consequence, at time of writing, the outbreak in China seems under control, with numbers of new cases plateauing or reducing, whereas elsewhere the numbers are going the other way – rapidly.

Our leaders, on the other hand, are used to having to persuade us to act selflessly, for the common good. As part of this process they feel they need to drip-feed us information, to give us time to come to join a consensus, to prepare. I contend that in the face of a rapidly developing pandemic this is inadequate, in fact doomed to fail. Our population, as demonstrated by waves of selfish panic buying in shops, is still in the mindset of protecting its way of life rather than protecting its life. With a situation where, for many, we are literally facing an existential threat, we need the government to adopt a war-time approach to directing the economy, in short to take control: to stop advising, and start telling, us what to do.

We also need our government to harness the talents of ‘blue sky’ thinkers, from outside the establishment, to refresh and support its ossified advising and planning. Unfortunately people with ideas are excluded from doing this by not already being ‘on the radar’. In this regard, it would be possible to open a “what if” web-based portal to government so that people can offer suggestions. There would, intially at least, be a deluge of ideas but eventually this would tail off. Meantime there may very well be good ideas for government to take forward.