From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Fixed Point

Matt Hancock: ‘You seem a little confused’

We travel across the country, our first weekend away since Christmas.  The trip was planned as a celebration of the ending of lockdown for the shielded, officially dated from August 1st.  But as we drive, announcements are being made on the radio about the re-imposition of restrictions across a swathe of northern England. 

On Radio Manchester, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock conducts a car-crash interview.  The presenter, who seems not to be point-scoring, just puzzled, asks him: 

‘You said that people could go out of Greater Manchester to another area if they followed social distancing but, the government guidance online says you must not visit someone else at home or garden even if they live outside the infected areas, so can you clarify that for us?’

Hancock: ‘Yes, I’ll make it absolutely clear, which is that there’s a distinction between the guidance and the law, I will absolutely get back to you with exact chapter and verse.’

Presenter (after two more minutes of further incoherence): ‘Forgive me, but you seem a little confused.’

Had we set off on our journey from about thirty miles further north, we would, at this point, have had to turn around and go home.  Hancock does at least seem clear that whilst the new rules / guidance / law means that people can meet outdoors, this does not include gardens, where, on a warm weekend, we did in fact spend most of the time with our friends.  Later a newspaper reports that the Government is considering not only locking down the shielded again, but extending the category to include a larger section of the population.  This is officially denied but that does not mean it will not happen within days.

So what is fixed in the fifth month?  As we once more conduct a risk assessment about whether it is safe to go out, perhaps just this one point.  The factor analysis which various bodies have been undertaking since the pandemic took hold, has produced a picture which is at once complex and very simple in terms of our household.*  There are range of indicators which make it more likely that infection will lead to hospitalisation and death.  These include medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, obesity, recent organ transplant, some forms of cancer, together with deprivation, gender and race (particularly black and Asian).  But standing out above all others is age, particularly from sixty onwards.

The chef Rick Stein was interviewed last week.  He is seventy-four but said he still felt no more than forty, perhaps just a little stiffer.  We all do this, taking decades off our birth years in terms of our physical or mental capacity. 

We can still, within limits, choose the age of our state of mind.  We can still, within limits, choose the age of our fitness.  But when it comes to our body’s resistance to infection, there is no gaming Bergman’s chess player.  It is the lesson we have been forced to learn in this pandemic.

Seventy, alas, is the new seventy.

* See, for instance, OpenSAFELY Collaborative, ‘factors associated with COVID-19-related hospital death in the linked electronic health records of 17 million adult NHS patients’ (May 7, 2020), p. 11.

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