Mass testing would allow us to fully reopen the economy

A scientific truth needs to be known: if we don’t change course, the money will run out

HSE staff and volunteers from NUI Galway simulating Covid-19 testing. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

HSE staff and volunteers from NUI Galway simulating Covid-19 testing. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

Scientists rightly say say there is a lot we don’t know about Covid-19. That doesn’t mean we know nothing or that we have learned nothing. For instance, something has changed between the first wave and the recent viral resurgence: fewer people are getting very sick, being admitted to hospital or dying.

We don’t know whether these better outcomes are permanent or why they have occurred. Leading causal candidate is the age profile of people getting the disease: young people, typically, don’t get very sick.

Another factor seems to be “learning by doing” by the medics. Even if you get admitted to intensive care, recent research shows the chances of dying, in some countries, are reduced compared with last March and April – across all age groups. Better treatment, including drugs, appears to help.

More speculatively, one or two scientists wonder whether the virus is mutating into something more benign. That’s a minority view, based on the observation that some viruses do become less lethal for good Darwinian reasons: pathogens don’t survive if they kill their hosts.

We know that some medics don’t like speculation. In response to the slightly better news, one prominent UK doctor was quoted as saying he didn’t want the ideas about young people, better healthcare or a possibly mutating virus to lull the public into a false sense of security.

Do governments not want us to know that scientists disagree?

Fair enough. We all need to be on our guard against reckless behaviour. Ireland’s 80-strong new members of the Dominic Cummings Other People’s Rules Club have provoked an understandable reaction. But there is a difference between sensible rules and moral high horses.

There is also a difference between information sharing and secrecy. Could it be that we won’t understand the science and therefore make bad decisions? Proper communication by experts to non-experts has an obvious role to play here. Do governments not want us to know that scientists disagree?

New Zealand

I have a suspicion that behind some of the scientific prognostications about how we should behave lies insufficient acknowledgment of the uncertainties and the alternatives. Lockdowns, whether local or national, will suppress the virus but no economy, not even New Zealand, has been able to fully reopen in a completely sustained way. At least not without seeing the virus return.

One myth that I hope has been seen off is the idea that if we eliminate the virus completely via a four to six week total lockdown we can then go back to normal, at least economically.

One of the problems for behaviour, good or bad, occurs when we are denied access to the full scientific discussion. What is allowed into the public domain is a little data and a lot of instruction. The language from on high is often similar to that of a parent to a child. When the messages become confused – or even contradictory – and we know little about their scientific basis, it’s no wonder that many people decide to find out for themselves, possibly accessing fake news, and then make their own decisions. Good or bad.

Our tendency to moralise, judge and curtain-twitch leads straight to lockdown

Plenty of data suggests beaches, demonstrations and outdoor sport are not risky activities. They are not risk free but are much less risky than indoor activities. The enclosed bar or house party afterwards represents a much higher risk. It makes more sense to share the science: tell us it’s okay to watch the game – appropriately distanced – but not to go to the party afterwards.

Our tendency to moralise, judge and curtain-twitch leads straight to lockdown. All kinds of behavioural restrictions are the only policies available to us. If they come at an economic cost then so be it. An important point, an important scientific truth, needs to be made here: one day, the money will run out.

‘Free’ money

There is more “free” money available to the Government than we previously thought. We don’t know how much but it is not limitless. It would be a bad idea to try really hard to reach that limit. Shut down the economy again and we may well find it.

I cannot understand why there is not more scientific push for mass testing. Get the whole population tested every two weeks. Avail of the new saliva kits. Invest, massively, in the science that allows for self-testing without the need for laboratory access. Mass testing, with proper tracing and isolation, means more or less full economic reopening. At a fraction of the cost of lockdowns.

A culture of secrecy contributes to systemic groupthink: too many careers have been built via agreeing with the boss

Mistakes have been made in many countries. In the UK, a hapless cabinet can be described as a collection of sandbags strategically placed to absorb the criticism heading towards Boris Johnson and Cummings. Years of austerity have led to diminished state capacity to do anything.

A culture of secrecy contributes to systemic groupthink: too many careers have been built via agreeing with the boss. Socially well-connected amateurs run education quangos and public health agencies. Many countries have similar, overlapping pathologies.

Economics is about decision-making under uncertainty. Good economic outcomes usually result when as much light as possible is shone on the uncertainty and when people have enough information to make their own minds up – and to agree that public policy rules and recommendations make sense. Let’s see the full details of the scientific debate. Let’s do mass testing.

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