I've just been watching a news briefing by the UK government's Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser, and it was an extraordinarily disheartening spectacle - it was as if time had stood still and the widely-briefed change of strategy from a few days ago had never even happened. Yet again, Chris Whitty talked dismissively about the key recommendation of the World Health Organization to test every suspected case and trace all contacts as if it was some sort of fringe position taken by those who were "critiquing the science", rather than the international gold standard that it is. He used a straw man argument to justify the abandonment of test-and-trace, suggesting that the practice is only supported by people who want "to make the virus go away" - but of course that's not the stated objective of the WHO, who merely suggest that the pandemic is "controllable" by means of test-and-trace. Although testing in the UK will be ramped up, it doesn't seem to be with the intent of actually trying to control the epidemic - to a large extent it seems the aim is merely to prove Whitty's pet theory that a massive hidden wave of asymptomatic cases brought the outbreak in Wuhan to a natural end, which if true might be a get-out-of-jail-free card in this country. But from what I can gather, that theory is regarded by most experts as optimistic at best and downright eccentric at worst.
And the situation is now worse than one of Whitty merely defying the WHO. He also appears to be ignoring the recommendations of his own modellers, because of course the Imperial College paper reached the definite conclusion that a suppression strategy would have to be followed until a vaccine is available. Incredibly, Whitty once again rubbished any suggestion of holding on for a vaccine. If the modelling is right, that means inevitably at some point that the UK government's lack of sufficient action will lead to the NHS going into meltdown, with the potential for hundreds of thousands of needless deaths unless there's a change of course. My own view is that a change of course would be bound to happen sooner or later in those circumstances, but I had been nursing the hope that the Imperial College paper marked the decisive turning point and that we no longer needed to rely on the UK advisers seeing the light when calamity struck. It seems that may have been too optimistic.
There were a few crumbs of comfort - I didn't hear any mention of 'herd immunity' as a goal, or of the idea that it's actively desirable to let the virus spread as widely as possible in case it pops up again in winter. (I didn't quite watch the entire briefing, though, which means there's a small chance those things may have been mentioned in the part I missed.) So perhaps the impossibility of 'herd immunity' working has been grudgingly accepted. Vallance also reiterated the objective of keeping deaths down to a few thousand. But that leaves us with a mystery, because the Imperial College paper was adamant that such a 'low' death toll would only be possible with a full-on suppression strategy. Do we just have two very stubborn men here who can't quite bring themselves to pull their public narrative into line with the steps that they privately know will have to be taken? We'll have to hope that's what's going on, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. There was some vague chatter about international technological progress providing the solution, so maybe what we're looking at is a modified version of the Imperial College recommendation, with some sort of suppression-lite strategy for a while, followed by the development of effective therapies as an exit strategy, as opposed to the farther-off development of a vaccine.
None of this exactly inspires confidence, though, and there must be a high probability that the weird mix of half-measures we've seen from the government thus far means we're hurtling headlong towards an Italian-style catastrophe, and a total lockdown as an emergency reactive step. If a lockdown is near-enough inevitable anyway, it would be far better if it happened in an effort to stop us getting into a deep hole, rather than in an effort to get us back out of it.