Robert Peston: Can Ministers Admit Coronavirus Mistakes?


The stories I hear of what health professionals call “the front line” – code for those who work directly with Covid-19 patients – are traumatic.

“I see dozens of dead,” said a senior doctor.

“It’s hideous … [giving temporary relief to] people aged 70 to 90 in services who were never remotely adapted to intensive care and who die horribly quickly, and also badly if they do not receive the appropriate care.

“The ward staff are inexperienced and the poor patients do not have a loved one by their side who acts as their advocate.”

This doctor gave me this idea because I could not determine where exactly people were dying, because it was clear from the statistics on the use of the ITU or intensive care services that the majority did not were not dying.

As this doctor pointed out, a significant number of people with Covid-19 “are too fragile or have too many comorbidities [life threatening conditions] to resist ITU, so their care cap is based

Hearing this is not a big surprise, but it is overwhelming.

The fact is that what we hear in the media tends to be the shocking death of young people in intensive care.

Much less attention is paid to the elderly and the frail, who die in great numbers, in NHS services and in nursing homes.

I am fully aware of this differential treatment because an elderly relative was placed in a ward after being diagnosed with Covid-19 and has since died, while two younger friends are at ITU.

So when the Prime Minister says his life was saved by being admitted to intensive care and being watched 24 hours a day by two nurses, Jenny from New Zealand and Luis from Portugal, it is convincing, but half of the story.

He should thank his lucky stars for catching this terrible virus when he was relatively strong and young.

I work on these points because an increasing number of us are living with anxiety and sorrow at the proximity of this potentially fatal disease.

And this grief makes many of us more and more impatient to understand why so many Britons are dying: mortalities in the UK when the epidemic has run its course are likely to exceed those of other European countries, depending current trends; this is what the distinguished director of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Jeremy Farrar, says, who advises the government on how to contain the epidemic.

When it was emphasized why the incidence of death can be disproportionate, as Secretary of Health Matt Hancock was today at the daily press conference, the answer was that our fate Covid-19 is in our hands, namely that there will be fewer deaths if we religiously adhere to the rules that prevent us from mingling with those outside our respective households.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the day was “dark” as the number of people who died in hospital in the UK after being tested positive for coronavirus exceeded 10,000.

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I was probably not the only one who felt uncomfortable with the apparent idea that the government had done nothing wrong or could do better.

But as the non-responses disappear, it was at least a practical non-response.

But of course, it contains within it the seeds of a real answer.

This implies that if only the government had imposed social distances on us days and weeks earlier, as happened in Ireland and Denmark, for example, the infection and death rates here would also have been suppressed more early.

That said, a delay in applying social distance is not the only explanation for why proportionately more people die here than in – say – Germany.

As chief medical officer Chris Whitty told me, another cause may be that the UK had less capacity than Germany to test those with symptoms.

Fewer tests would lead to a higher mortality rate as inadequate data on precisely who has the virus would also affect less “contact tracing” of anyone who had been close in the past few days with infected people.

My doctor friends are also jealous of the quality and resources of German hospitals.

The purpose of this type of analysis, however, is not to distribute the blame in a conventional political manner.

It is to restore hope that the right approach is being taken by the government now – since we are going to have to sacrifice very basic freedoms to keep the virus at bay for many months, if not years.

It is fine to say that the priority should be to look forward and not backward.

But if our leaders can be a little bit more backbone by admitting what they have misunderstood so far, we could all have a little more confidence in our collective future.

In the current dire circumstances, the general reaction of politicians and public servants to pretend that everything is going to be planned is not only inappropriate but can also be dangerous.


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