Time for a Fact-Driven Approach to Viruses

By Jamie Jenkins (Jamie is standing in the Senedd election for the South Wales Central region, and Pontypridd constituency, May 6).

The default position of many countries over the past year – when there has been a rise in Covid-19 cases – has been to lockdown the entire nation. I believe there is a need for a different, less robotic, approach.

Back in March 2020, we had the first UK lockdown. Choosing this path had some logic as the virus was spreading and we had little information about who was susceptible. Countries went into lockdown one by one, and it was an easy option to follow the crowd rather than stand out on our own against it.

A year on, and with such rich data on the population and the effect of Covid-19, I believe that following the same path in the future would be madness.

The pandemic has led to heartbreak for many families who have lost loved ones and we should remember that while each death is a statistic, to each family it is far more than that.

But the statistics help us understand who is most susceptible to Covid-19. In fact, some 83% of all the deaths have been for those aged 70 and over. Data from NHS England suggest less than 1% of deaths were among people aged under 60 with no underlying health condition.

We need to remember that these statistics do not tell us if Covid-19 caused the death. Some people will have died for other reasons but had the virus and a positive test. We can understand the scale of the pandemic by ignoring the cause of death and looking at how many deaths occurred from all causes and compare that to how many typically occur. If we do this, it is clear over 100,000 people have had lives cut short.

However, much of the discussion in the past year has been exclusively on the health impact of the virus. Daily we learn the number of fresh cases, number of recent deaths, but little on the number of fresh job losses and business closures or other human impacts of lockdown.

Between March 2020 and March 2021 over 800,000 people lost their jobs in the UK. The true impact will be higher as this excludes the effect on the self-employed. For each person this is a significant life event that causes huge turmoil for the individuals and their families. Almost 8 in every 10 who have lost jobs have been under the age of 35, and unemployment for recent graduates continues to soar. The cost to the taxpayer of the pandemic is huge: we have spent over £60 billion in furlough payments alone. Our children will face the burden of that debt – is that fair?

When future generations look back at this pandemic, I wonder how they will score the handling of it? Maybe commentators will have sympathy on the first course of action, but given what we know now, it would surely be an overwhelming failure if we follow the same path time and time again. Ministers talk of data, not dates, which is clearly nonsense as the data should have allowed the UK to open up again weeks ago. I fear the current crop of Ministers across the four nations are not competent to challenge the so-called experts advising them.

We have data on who is at risk from the virus, we have a population where most have antibodies, and we know the economic damage of lockdowns.

I would take an evidence and risk-based approach if there were any future waves of this or other viruses. Remember, we have mutant strains of the flu that sadly kill people, and each year the vaccine changes to combat it. We never talk of robotic lockdowns for the flu. We will need to learn to live with Covid-19 and not eradicate it. As well as the economic harms, we have not yet started the hangover from the past year, with missed health diagnoses just the tip of the iceberg.

Where I live in Wales, we have had the second highest rate of Covid-19 deaths across the country. I know people who have sadly died, and people who have lost their livelihoods. We need to have policies that consider everyone and that is why I have entered politics to give people in Wales someone who will put evidence back onto the table to protect not only lives but also livelihoods.

Jamie Jenkins

Jamie Jenkins is the former Head of Health Analysis and Labour Market Analysis at the Office for National Statistics. Jamie has been providing daily data updates for the public on Covid-19 pandemic the past year and has won awards from the Royal Statistical Society and United Nations for presentation of data. He also worked at the BBC advising journalists on data over a General Election period, helping them challenge politicians.

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