from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: being local

Caroline Testout – a climbing rose

May 21.  In my corner of our village are three households containing five adults.  Fields containing three horses, thirteen sheep (newly shorn) and six bullocks (newly arrived) separate us from the rest of the community.  Our neighbours are in the middle course of their lives, have no resident children, and are taking great care of themselves.  They pose no threat whatever to my health or that of my wife. 

The question of the moment is how far that small bubble of security can be pushed out.  What distance can I move before the risk of infection becomes tangible?  That assessment is founded on information.  I know from informal contacts and the parish website that there is no coronavirus not only amongst my immediate neighbours, but throughout the village.  Beyond that, what is the data?

At present, the daily record is maintained at city and county level.  The ‘rate of infection’ (total infections divided by population multiplied by 100,000) for Shropshire is 233.2 as of yesterday.  Given that there are probably more sheep than people in my county, it might be expected that the rate is relatively low.  But the nearby cities of Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent at 267.0 and 275.6 are not significantly higher.  There are curious anomalies in the national picture – Oxford is 390.1 whereas Cambridge is 175.7 – but these can be left for geographers to explain at some later date.

The absence of sufficiently granular data on infection, and yet more critically, on transmission, is crippling the strategy of emerging from the lockdown, both as a public policy and as a guide to individual action.  The Scottish public health expert Devi Sridhar said in The Times on Saturday that ‘We have to listen to people who want to make an informed choice.  The thing we are really missing and which I think could be transformative is local-level data.  If people knew in their neighbourhood, whether in Glasgow or in Edinburgh, or if they are in a rural area, what the rates of transmission were, that would help.’

At this point, the local is only possible if the right actions are taken at the national level.  In particular the programme of test and trace has to be established before confidence can be invested in neighbourhood changes in behaviour.  The Financial Times summarises the problem: ‘These errors of management, judgment and public communication have eroded trust.  They now threaten to haunt every step towards normality, including wider re-opening of schools.’

The situation has been compounded by a wrong sense of national self-sufficiency.  I have no competence at all in software development, but from extensive experience of senior management in complex higher education institutions, I do know one truth in this area.  If the choice is between an off-the-shelf programme, which may lack full functionality but is already up and running, and a software product which may deliver every desired outcome but is yet to be written, then there is only one answer.  This the more so when the new product would have to be produced at great speed, and failure would cost lives.  The NHS has decided to write its own track and trace programme, rather than install the simpler and operational Apple / Google app.  To no-one’s surprise, it is already in trouble and missing deadlines.  At this level, the bespoke solution is a mistake.

So we are left with a patchwork of responses to the national (English) policy of opening schools on June 1, and with companies in trouble because sections of their workforce have declined the invitation to go back to work (today Dyson reports such difficulties).

And for ourselves in our corner of rural Shropshire, the local remains micro for the foreseeable future.

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