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Coronavirus Confusion Reigns Supreme

Updated: Oct 3, 2020

Far fewer people have died in Britain from coronavirus than we thought. We’ll soon have far fewer Covid-19 contact tracers, even though they’re apparently vital to curbing its spread. And A-level students are far cleverer than the computer gave them credit for. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, Boris Johnson has every reason to be grateful MP’s are on holiday – not in parliament ripping him to shreds. Hard to work out what constitutes good news in these crazy times. The heartbreak of losing a loved one to the dreaded disease isn’t eased by the fact that it’s less widespread than the number crunchers previously estimated. But it’s comforting for everyone else. And the official coronavirus daily death count is expected to fall by up to three quarters, after ministers switched to a method designed to spot a second wave more quickly and avoid scaring people. From now on the tally will only include people who died within four weeks of testing positive. The old system lumped in anyone who’d ever been in that category, regardless of what caused their death. Point of fact, there are no fewer than five different ways of doing the sums. Lies, damned lies, and statistics? And the rest. Always good to keep the world guessing, though. In the very week the British government zapped up fines for refusing to wear masks to over three grand, the boffin running Sweden’s coronavirus response has dismissed evidence for wearing them as ‘astonishingly weak’. Admittedly his country’s suffered more corona deaths than the other Scandinavian nations put together, but it is now down to one or two a day. So he must be doing something right. Bojo, by contrast is doing a few things spectacularly wrong. Lots of people facing quarantine on their return from France are very cross with him at the moment, obvs, but there’s a great deal more than that. Remember how the British system for tracing contacts of infected people was, ahem, world-beating? It’s so beaten to a pulp that six thousand of the folk hired to do the job are being fired. Those still on the payroll will be assigned to local groups. So instead of people who’ve tested positive just getting a bell from a call centre somewhere, they’ll get a knock on the door if they don’t pick up. That way the system might actually work. Er, durrr? Then there’s the way the computer’s said no. You kids think you can go the uni you set your heart on? Hah! Dream on. Because the students couldn’t sit their A-levels this year, teachers had to assess their progress. Which seemed to make sense. Until the algorithm designed by the regulator downgraded something approaching half of them. Intelligence, artificial intelligence, and plain bloody stupidity? Discuss. Even the Daily Star, normally more into vital statistics than any other sort, weighed in. Calling Johnson and his Education Secretary Gavin Williamson ‘A-Grade Clowns’. The paper pictures them in front of a blackboard with the line ‘I must do better’ written on it several times. At least they’re not topless. That’s something. But they’d have been topped big time had parliament been sitting, as backbench Tory MP’s have joined the chorus of disapproval, with one describing the whole thing as ‘shambolic’. A former minister said that the phone had been ‘red hot’ with parents raging about their children missing out on chosen universities because of the downgrading. The body behind it all has now set up a dedicated phone number for MPs, to advise on specific cases raised by their punters. Also, it’s been decided, kids in England will be able to claim their mock A-level and GCSE grades as their final result if they want. And schools will be able to appeal against results for free. Shame, you might say, Whitehall didn’t just follow the example of the Scottish government, and throw in the towel. Up in Holyrood they’ve simply dumped the downgrading system, plumping for what the teachers said all along. Also, Scotland’s First Minister has said – sit up straight, pay attention at the back – sorry. ‘Despite our best intentions,’ Nicola Sturgeon proclaimed, ‘I do acknowledge we did not get this right and I’m sorry for that.’ There y’go. Bonk. Finished. On its bike. Sorted. At least the British government can take credit for putting the nation’s money where its mouth is, shelling out for the magic bullet that’s key to killing Covid-19. It’s just signed deals for a load more vaccines. Bring up the total stockpile to three hundred and forty million doses. Enough for everyone in UK to get five shots. More than double the number they’ll need. Though ministers won’t say how much they’re fronting up, they’re being upfront that they’re hedging their bets. The Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, said: ‘The government’s strategy to build a portfolio of promising vaccine candidates will ensure we have the best chance possible of finding one that works.’ Meantime, the Russians reckon they’re already there. They’ve approved one their boffins have developed, and Vladimir Putin’s announced one of his daughters has had the jab, with no ill-effects. Wow! Said the world. Global stock markets rose, in tandem with hopes that the elixir is at last on its way. Absolutely, says Moscow. Large-scale production’s expected to start in a couple of weeks, with mass vaccination under way in October. According to Kirill Dmitriev, who heads Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, it’s a ‘Sputnik moment’. A reference to the world’s first satellite, launched into space in 1957 by the Soviet Union. But that’s the problem. To experts just about everywhere, even some in Russia itself, it looks to be more about propaganda than medicine. Because it hasn’t yet been fully tested. The country’s population might, therefore, be the biggest bunch of guinea-pigs since Noah’s Ark. And if the experiment goes wrong it’ll set back the international effort to make everyone safe, given how widespread misgivings are already about giving a shot a shot. Still, analysts at the US investment bank Goldman Sachs are convinced someone somewhere is going to come up with the goods in the next few months. ‘With six candidates already in phase three, the final hurdle needed to demonstrate efficacy and safety in large-scale randomised trials, we expect the US Food and Drug Administration to approve at least one vaccine before year-end,’ Jan Hatzius, the company’s chief economist, said. That’s nice. And there’s more interesting intelligence emerging stateside with the presidential elections only three months away. The Democrats’ candidate Joe Biden, Joe Boring to his detractors, has broken his own mould. In choosing Kamala Harris as his running mate he’s given his campaign its own Sputnik moment. She ticks so many boxes. Black. Female. Oh, and fifty-five years old. Definitely one up on Biden himself, and Trump, who’re both well into their seventies. Not wishing to be ageist or anything but, well, it’s a tough job being leader of the free world. At least it is if you’re trying to do it properly. Not that The Donald’s fazed by the new kid on the block. After all, he’s announced she is: ‘A sort of mad woman’. Quote unquote. It’s possible he thinks ‘mad woman’ is a tautology, of course, and he does know best. Witness his authoritative statement this week that Spanish flu, that claimed more victims than the First World War, probably ended the second one. Academics quibble that the pandemic petered out in the 1920’s. But, hell, historians? What do they know? Besides, Mr Trump has had his own small step for man moment this week, fixing it that American showerheads give off more water than they used to. ‘So showerheads,’ he gushed, ‘You take a shower, the water doesn’t come out. You want to wash your hands, the water doesn’t come out. So what do you do? Because my hair, I don’t know about you, but it has to be perfect. Perfect’. As if anyone doubted it. They don’t call him President Combover for nothing. Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.


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