Another lockdown – Why?

There are no easy solutions or answers.  So said Doctor Michael McBride, Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, when announcing the return to lockdown.  There were hard and difficult choices, all with bad outcomes, but what was good for health was also good for the economy, poverty does kill people.

Just before this the Health Minister, Robin Swann, announced that the new restrictions were required in order to protect the NHS.  We could not turn away Covid patients he said – ‘who would suggest such a thing’ – suggesting instead that other patients be turned away, without being so dramatic is saying so of course.  McBride said that we needed to ‘help protect the non-Covid health service’, not long after one hundred planned operations in the Belfast Trust had been cancelled.

The announcement involved a presentation that included graphs of new cases, number of tests and numbers of hospital in-patients, but no graph on the number of deaths.  The Northern Ireland Statistics Research Agency latest weekly report recorded that in the week ending 9 October the total number of deaths in Northern Ireland was 348, of which 89 were due to respiratory causes.  The number of deaths where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, whether or not COVID-19 was the primary underlying cause of death, was reported as 11, which was just over 3 % of all deaths during the period.

To those who thought Covid was exaggerated Doctor McBride said that they needed to ‘wake up’ to the number of cases, number of in-patients and number of deaths.

Two questions were then asked repeatedly by the journalists invited to speak at the presentation.  What was the evidence that the new measures were required and what happens if it doesn’t work?

The question on evidence wasn’t answered; one journalist was referred to the minutes of the UK experts group SAGE and to unspecified peer reviewed articles.  No one asked whether the members of the Executive were limited to this, or were offered this as an answer if they had asked the question. ‘It worked before’ was one further response to the question.

To the second question – what happens if it doesn’t work? – the answer was that the public must follow the guidelines, so implicitly it’s your fault if it doesn’t.  Only near the end of the press conference did the Chief Scientific Advisor Ian Young state that people’s behaviour would have to change after the end of lockdown.  Elsewhere it was reported in one newspaper that the document informing the decision on a new lockdown had stated that further interventions will be required “early in 2021 at the latest.”

It would also seem that relaxation of restrictions at Christmas with the “likelihood of increased population mixing” in the run up to it is a significant consideration. (No, I don’t understand the rationale behind this either.)

The document apparently reports concern that Covid hospital admissions will rise to 450 to 600 at the peak; while the average number of NHS Acute services beds available in Northern Ireland was reported as 3,891 for 2019/20 and 3,882 in the previous year.  The average number of occupied beds was identical in both years at 3,239.  The forecast peak of Covid-19 patients of 600 would therefore occupy a forecasted maximum of 18.5% of the average number of occupied beds at the peak or 15.4% of available beds, before any plans for temporary expansion.

This includes all Acute beds and it would appear that the document has the aim of having a total of no more than 20% of general medical beds, around 320, being occupied by Covid patients.  Of course, it is more complicated than this and lots of uncertainty surrounds the ability to create additional capacity, and especially how much will actually be needed.  There is no explanation reported on the inconsistency between a target of 320 beds and expectation of up to 600 being required.

Given the lack of transparency, avoidance of answering questions, finger-pointing and general arrogant condescension of the Health Minister and experts it is no surprise they didn’t provide the level of information provided in a short newspaper article.  Non-sequiturs, plain contradiction and pontification are regarded as the currency that is required to get the population to do as it’s told.  And the population in the main accepts the argument, such as it is, and gets on with generally keeping to the rules except when it doesn’t suit them.

The latest Department of Health figures for 16 October show 3,711 beds available, 180 less than the average last year, with 211 taken up by Covid patients and 615 unoccupied.  The figures also show that of 104 ICU beds available 26 are taken up by Covid patients with 21 unoccupied.  No doubt the number of beds occupied will increase as it always does in the winter with the onset of influenza infections.

The effect of winter pressures is already being felt in Care Homes with 301 respiratory outbreaks being reported and 72 being classified as Covid related, with a further 10 suspected to be Covid.  Around three quarters of ICU and Care home outbreaks are therefore not Covid related.  The increased pressure on beds will also most likely reflect the same pattern.  If the NHS is overwhelmed by Covid it will not be because Covid in itself is overwhelming.

The figures for the growth of Covid outbreaks in Care Homes is a cause for concern while ‘protect the NHS’ may again be interpreted as a need to get elderly patients out of hospital  and into Care homes in order to free up beds – regardless of testing beforehand.  It was remarkable that in the press conference the appalling death toll in Care Homes was not referenced or any pledge made to protect their residents.

If the Health Minister and his experts therefore have an argument justifying their approach, it is not that Coivid-19 is an especially lethal threat but that the health service cannot cope with the additional work.  So the focus becomes one of reducing the work on non-Covid patients by creating Nightingale Hospitals that use existing facilities and existing staff and involve relatively little activity, while the capacity of the rest of the Service is massively reduced. The overall efficiency of the NHS therefore plummets just when it needs to increase.  And this is called ‘success’, and we are all asked to applaud it.

Rather than address this issue as the primary problem, which might raise the question how we got into this position, we have instead the enormous task of shutting the rest of society down (in so far as this is possible).  While those most vulnerable are, or can be, identified the message is given that everyone is more or less threatened, when this is not the case.  And because it’s not the case the population more and more ignores the rules when it suits, which allows the politicians and bureaucrats to sermonise and talk nonsense, such as the head of the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland telling us that “success leads to complacency, complacency leads to failure.”  You might think that if a successful strategy leads to failure you’ve got the wrong strategy.

The approach of the politicians and health service bureaucracy has the comfortable effect (for them) of making the population the problem, requiring that it accept the shutting down of much of its normal everyday activity.  Much of the services provided by the NHS is also cut because the NHS is already, how shall we put it, not up to the job.  The politicians and bureaucracy responsible for this situation then demand of the population that it support and approve of this, garnering its sympathy because many of the staff who work in the NHS are now exhausted.

Which, brings us once again to the question of what is the right strategy.  While the North once gain goes into a level of lockdown the Southern Government is discussing going to Level 5, the most severe level of restrictions in its five-level menu.  The prospect now looms of repeated expensive lockdowns that lead only to a higher number of cases when they end.

In ‘The Irish Times’ someone took out a full-page advertisement opposing the current approach and supporting the Barrington Declaration.  This has led to objections and claims by some that they will no longer buy the paper.  The facts quoted in the advert are nevertheless true: that current life expectancy in Ireland is 81.5, the median age of death from Covid-19 is 83, a total of 20 people under 44 have died from Covid-19, and the record of Covid-19 deaths is one that includes those who died with Covid and not from it.

Controversy around the declaration has involved arguments that have little to do with what the Declaration says or what its argument is, but concentrate on the dubious political character of some of its supporters, its supposed nefarious objective of mass murder and criticism of what it does not say, as opposed to what it does.  A number of letters to ‘The Irish Times’ illustrate this.

It is claimed that the facts quoted are intended to mean that the deaths of older people are of less significance, although the point of the declaration is to make protection of the vulnerable the priority, while it has been the current strategy adopted that has demonstratively failed in this regard.

This fact is also construed to imply that these older people lived longer than they should have expected.  In any case it is life-expectancy at 83 that matters, not at birth, which is six years for men and eight for women.  But the first claim is without support from what the advertisement says and the second fact, while absolutely true, would require more information to demonstrate that at age 83 Covid-19 reduces the remaining life span of six or eight years from everyone who dies from it.

Another line of criticism is that sheltering will not work when there is widespread community transmission.  But we have widespread community transmission now after lockdown and there is no reason why measures that are supposed to socially isolate everyone cannot be strengthened for those most at risk.  From some on the left especially, the argument is simultaneously put that lockdowns should be more restrictive and would not work for a targeted minority.

The new lockdown in the North is an admission that the previous one failed.  That there is the expectation of another one of some sort later is further evidence.  That the population is treated as too ignorant to discuss these issues is a repeat on a massive scale of ‘trust me I’m a doctor.’  The modern notion of an ‘expert patient’ is gone.

If the failure of the current policy is unrecognised it is hard to have any confidence that the costs of the lockdown in future deaths will be acknowledged and accounted for.  The only thing that will save the current policy from ignominy is if its central claim is untrue – that we face a massive death toll if some sort of society-wide lockdown is not the major plank of State policy.

‘Protecting’ the NHS

I watched the BBC Panorama programme on the NHS and the Government failure to prepare properly for the Covid-19 pandemic, despite warnings.  It focused on its failure to stock and resupply adequate amounts of appropriate Personal Protection Equipment, and to spin the amount of PPE newly received by, for example, counting a pair of gloves as two items and including cleaning disposables as equipment.

The Tories cannot legitimately complain if they have made the NHS the centre of controversy because it is they who put it to the fore – ‘Protect the NHS’ is the slogan, with ‘success’ of its whole effort defined as the NHS not being overwhelmed by casualties of the virus.  It is important we don’t buy into this.

We are implored to ‘Protect the NHS’ when it is the function of the NHS to be the last line of defence for us.  Instead it has become the last place anyone wants to go.  Having scared everyone by the lockdown, vast numbers of existing and prospective patients have either been told not to attend, had their treatment cancelled or postponed, or have been unable to get diagnoses and tests they badly need.  The NHS isn’t dealing with them – it has been estimated that 18,000 extra deaths from cancer might result, currently around half of those recorded as dying from Coronavirus.

Not only has the NHS moved from defending us to us being exhorted to defend it, but the NHS is actually a threat, including to its own staff, over a hundred of whom have been estimated to have died from the virus.  While appointments and operations are cancelled, and Emergency Department attendances have collapsed, we are invited to acclaim the empty Nightingdale hospitals and empty beds as a success!  We are expected to recognise as successful an NHS that has become the site of infection and the one certain place to avoid unless you have absolutely no choice.

We are to applaud a service that has stopped being a National Health Service and become a National Covid Service following a transparently political agenda.  As I have written before, we are invited to ‘Protect the NHS’ when truthfully what we are invited to protect is the Government that has so denuded the NHS of resources for so long, and made such a mess of the current outbreak, that it simply cannot cope with doing its day job and deal with the virus at the same time.

By making sure that the NHS is able cope we ensure that the cuts and their effects are hidden despite the crisis; but rather than seeing this as a grotesque choice we have been forced to accept we have been invited to greet it as ‘success’, as Johnson so glibly and cynically put it.

And we do this because the NHS is one indivisible saintly entity without a bureaucracy that heads it, or an amoral Government that directs it, that unproblematically reflects the innate compassion of humanity – despite the evidence that doctors, nurses and purchasing managers have all complained that this organisation is failing its own staff never mind those it is there to serve.

The NHS, created to put an end to dependence on charitable provision, has become the biggest charity case in the country.  No doubt many people want to help, but the greatest help is not the individual resources many have had to fall back on but development of critical political consciousness.

We are supposed not to pay attention to the censorship of NHS staff who complain about their lack of protection but invited to applaud every week the protection these people are supposed to give us.  We are simply to accept that cancer patients will not get their treatment because on balance they would then have their immune system too compromised if they became infected, which is only the proper choice if we already accept that they cannot be protected.

We are to ignore that the NHS has taken PPE from elderly care homes while moving infected patients from hospitals into them: ‘Protect the NHS’ does not apparently mean Protecting Social Care.  Their clients’ deaths weren’t even counted in the headline daily total until very recently.

It becomes ‘pragmatic’ to downgrade the level of PPE required by NHS and care staff because the real scientific advice, unencumbered by Tory political pressure, would demand a level of PPE that the NHS cannot provide.   So the ‘objective’ scientific advisors objectively become conspirators in covering up Tory austerity, neglect and incompetence.

This is a surreal world of spin and lies and suppression of facts, fairness and free expression that has worked because of fear and ignorance and lack of accountability, and because we really do rely on the NHS.

The Government has not been held to account by the Labour ‘opposition’, has only begun to face some media criticism recently, and has benefited from the social isolation of social distancing.  This distancing includes distancing from reality, substituted by what Marxists call reification and alienation that amplifies the worst media influences and instincts to defer to authority.  This authority would have us rally round flags standing either side of Government spokesmen who substitute for the primacy of the people clichéd totems of Britishness and itself.  Real solidarity is replaced by calls to the police by snitches reporting neighbours who don’t get out to clap the NHS and its workers.

So, in Belfast we were told that 15,000 people would die but now only 1,500.  We have appointments and procedures cancelled and postponed and over 70 Covid-19 beds created, that last week saw only around half occupied, while a further 200 plus have been set up.  A hotel has been taken over but only one floor is so far used.  Never mind, this may be ready for the next surge in September – October, which will perhaps translate as another Johnsonian ‘success’.  Ring for a service and you can be told that resources are being devoted to the treatment of Covid-19.  Appear in the City Hospital and find yourself inside a ‘clean’ area that unfortunately has just had red signing put up to indicate Covid-19 areas as the green signs disappear.  In some locations work is hectic while in others activity has hardly been lower and there are only the rituals of infection control.  Similar stories could be told across the NHS but it is all socially and politically invisible.

The NHS is a bureaucracy as well as a service, but it has become a saintly institution which it is blasphemous to criticise, and one that the Government has wrapped round itself to shield itself.  In the Orwellian world of 2020 those who have spent ten years weakening it are holding up the banner of its defence against those whom it should serve and have suffered from the years of austerity inflicted on it.  Just as NHS staff have been blamed for PPE shortages so patients are held responsible for its inadequacy.

It is therefore not ‘Our’ NHS.  It doesn’t even belong to those who work in it.  Working people should be asking themselves how all this is the case and what it is we really should be defending.  Socialists should ask themselves just what a genuinely socialist service would look like.  The NHS hasn’t been hijacked, it’s simply following orders