At times it’s all too easy to be disappointed at the statements made by some leaders of membership/representative bodies in Scotland. Too often they are characterised by one, more or all of the following: assertion without evidence; given without context; constructed without wider perspective. So today we are exposed to a prime example from the chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, Mr Stuart Patrick.
He is quoted in Insider magazine saying:
“… we feel that the Government hasn’t fully delivered on its side of the bargain, which was to deliver a very successful Test and Protect system. That clearly hasn’t worked otherwise we wouldn’t be going into another round of lockdowns.”
So in terms, the Chamber’s CEO is asserting causation: (i) the latest re-imposition of restrictions is evidence of a flawed test and trace system; and (ii) the need for the re-imposition is indicative of a breach of faith by the Scottish Government on a ‘bargain’ with the business community. We’ll unpick this later.
From the coverage of his views elsewhere in the same article, the Chamber’s CEO also seems to dislike the Scottish Government’s tiered system of Covid restrictions. That’s the system based on the principle of maintaining, as far as possible, targeted, proportionate, flexible interventions that respond to changing circumstances by geography during this pandemic. Would the Glasgow Chamber prefer the alternative guiding principle of nationwide blanket restrictions where the severity of restrictions and the term over which they are applied are determined by the area/s worst affected by Covid-19? I don’t think we are told of this business leader’s preferred, systemic solution to the dilemmas during this pandemic that abound for government here and across the world.
Taking the quote above from the Chamber’s CEO at face value, it’s possible to construct an hypothesis. It goes something like this: those countries where the government has established the ‘best’ test and trace system are reaping the benefits now of no concerning rise in Covid-19 infections and therefore no need to (re-)impose restrictions on businesses.
To test this we can look at countries where by all accounts government has delivered a ‘very successful track and trace system’. For illustration, we’ll examine two such places: Germany and Singapore. These are presumably places where, using the Chamber’s CEO’s words, government has ‘delivered on its side of the bargain’.
In a Forbes magazine article on 28 October we learn:
“Germany garnered international acclaim for avoiding severe outbreaks during the first phase of the coronavirus’ march through Europe earlier this year, with a strict lockdown and extensive testing helping to limit the spread of the virus. … However, the country’s disease and control agency reported a record high of 14,964 new daily infections on Wednesday (28 October), and Germany is averaging more than 10,000 new cases per day over the past week. “We can say that our health system can cope with the challenge today,” (Chancellor) Merkel said. “But if the pace of infections continues like this, then we’ll reach the limits of what the health system can manage within weeks”.’ (My emphasis)
So here we have a country with a proven successful test and trace system delivered by its government which is faced NOW with needing to re-impose severe restrictions. Is this another government ‘bargain’ broken?
According to an article in Bloomberg news, in making the case for re-imposition the German Chancellor noted that 75% of new infections couldn’t be tracked to their origin. This for an internationally acknowledged, exemplar test and trace system? Sound like another sign of a ‘bargain’ broken to you?
The same article also argues that for Germany: “The alternative to fresh curbs (doing nothing) would arguably be more economically costly. As infections increase, consumers voluntarily curtail their activity. That’s the lesson from Sweden. The cost of an untamed outbreak would therefore be substantial.”
Chancellor Merkel won support for new restrictions but so far only for a four week period so the country may face still more a stop/start changes depending on their effectiveness. The restrictions now include, but not limited to:
- restaurants, bars, nightclubs and similar establishments closed
- all leisure facilities, such as gyms, theatres, opera houses, concert venues, fairs, cinemas and amusement parks closed
- hotel accommodation restricted to non-tourist purposes.
However, schools and daycare centres will stay open.
Singapore has also been praised for its handling of the pandemic earlier in 2020 and praised for the test and trace system established by its government. The government is following a phased strategy to Covid-19 management – its early ‘Circuit Breaker’ phase was followed by Phase 1 and then Phase 2, the rules becoming less restrictive towards a still in the future Phase 3. The current Phase 2 was initiated on 18 June 2020.
During Phase 2, restrictions in Singapore – even with its exemplar track and trace system in place – has included prolonged closure of entertainment venues such as bars, nightclubs, karaoke outlets, cinemas, theatres, as well as indoor and outdoor attractions.
Even when Phase 3 is eventually initiated, the Singapore government warns: “Until the virus is under control with widely available vaccines, we must be prepared to stay in Phase Three for a prolonged period, potentially over a year.”
However, the government goes on: “Higher-risk settings like bars, pubs, karaoke lounges and nightclubs are closed as their activities pose a higher risk of transmission. Though these activities are unlikely to resume at the start of Phase Three,…”
So when looking forward to a more relaxed Phase 3, Singapore is still envisaging having bars etc. closed because of their higher risk of enabling transmission. This is regardless of the success of its track and trace system – and regardless of a government that presumably delivered on its side of the ‘bargain’?
The Singapore government is focusing much attention on the enhanced uptake by the public of its digital contact tracing apps as important enablers of a shift to the less restrictive Phase 3. In recent communication with the Singapore public over the prospect of a move to Phase 3, a government statement notes: “.. the exact timing of these changes will depend on our collective ability to cooperate with the requirements” So there is uncertainty even here despite the test and trace system in place.
Is the need to re-impose restrictions a failure of Test and Protect?
We see from Germany that having a successful test and trace system is no ‘silver bullet‘, no protection from a concerning rise in Covid-19 cases and the need to re-impose harsh restrictions. We see from Singapore that even with a successful track and trace system a prolonged period of severe restrictions – for example on hospitality businesses ongoing since June – has been deemed necessary and with no immediate end in sight.
Forbes magazine on 24 October described spikes in Covid-19 across Europe: it reported data from the WHO that in a week in early October 50% of the 2.8 million new coronavirus cases reported globally were in Europe, prompting many European nations to re-impose harsh restrictions. There must be a lot of governments not delivering on their bargains made with Mr Patrick’s international business peers!
As early as 28 July, The Guardian did a lengthy piece on public health experts questioning the concept of a ‘second wave’.
It included this from Margaret Harris, a WHO spokesperson: discussions of a second wave: “are not a helpful way to understand the spread of the disease. …. It’s going to be one big wave. It’s going to go up and down a bit. The best thing is to flatten it and turn it into just something lapping at your feet.”
And this from Professor Linda Bauld, University of Edinburgh: “‘Second wave’ isn’t a term that we would use [in epidemiology] at the current time, as the virus hasn’t gone away, it’s in our population, …”. “What can appear like a second wave is sometimes different areas of the same country simply being out of phase with each other in experiencing the epidemic, as in the US where a strong but uneven first wave moved initially in fits and starts and then more quickly.”
Professor Melissa Hawkins, American University, Washington DC: “The US as a whole is not in a second wave because the first wave never really stopped. The virus is simply spreading into new populations or resurging in places that let down their guard too soon” – a comment the article suggests is applicable to other countries that have seen resurgences.
Let’s just say (to remain ‘measured’) that the merits of the Glasgow Chamber’s CEO’s comments – attributing the need for a re-imposition of restrictions to a failure of the Scottish Government to deliver on its side of a ‘bargain’ with businesses – can be judged very differently when placed alongside readily accessible, relevant comparative evidence which provides context and perspective.