from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: the case of the nebuliser – illegal or not?

Johannes Leak – from the Weekend Australian 13 February, 2021

February 13, 2021.

I need to write this blog because in years to come I will read it and be amazed at the twists and turns of the politics of Covid-19. (After all it brought down the President of the United States).

So, here in Australia, 7 million Victorians are starting a ‘gold-standard’ 5-day total lockdown – till Wednesday, Feb 17. All borders are closed to Victoria except the NSW border.

Here are the facts as we know it. A returning Australian family (husband, wife and 3 mth year old baby) arrived into Melbourne on Feb 2 and went into quarantine in the airport Holiday Inn. The father is an asthmatic and became breathless with his condition. As required, he was tested before departure for Australia and when he arrived (negative). He says (insists) that he asked, and was told he could use his nebuliser to inhale the necessary Ventolin (Feb 3-4). Unbeknown to him nebulisers are NOT allowed because they create aerosols. The father was now positive, as was his wife, and through use of the nebuliser he passed the infection on to a worker in the hotel and another quarantined traveller who then left the hotel.

The spread was on.

Over 1,000 close contacts are now in isolation. But the authorities were in catch up (some sort of unexplained bureaucratic mix up). Before the contact tracers could get their act together (some confusion resulted in a delay), a ‘close contact’ had done a long shift at a café in Melbourne Airport and tested positive. Now they say over 1,000 ‘close’ contacts are in isolation and the Holiday Inn ‘cluster’ has grown to 14.

Today 20,000 tests were done in Victoria. 3,500 passengers passed through Melbourne Airport during the time the café worker was there and, unknown to her, infected. Now all states are ramping up testing. All other states face the possibility of having infected arrivals from Melbourne.

This sudden crack down in the huge city of Melbourne is particularly devastating. They had enduring a 112-day lockdown last year. They were just getting going. This weekend is:

  • Chinese New Year
  • Valentine’s Day
  • Aussie Open in Melbourne (will continue – all matches are now without spectators). All ticket holders will be refunded.

Victorian cafes and restaurants said they had stocked up were fully booked. One restaurant owner said he would lose $40,000 as a result.

Daniel Andrews, ‘the seasoned Labor leader, unparalleled in his mastery of political spin, is again using the classic tactic of deflection to steer attention away from what appears to be yet another failure of quarantine protocol and inadequate processes by Victorian officials.’ (the Weekend Australian, 13 Feb. Simon Benson).

Andrews says he has to bring in this severe lockdown as the virus that has arrived is the new UK strain which he called ‘virulent’ and is 70% more infectious. But those facts are in doubt. Epidemiologist Catherine Bennett says that the UK strain is indeed more infectious (the original Wuhan strain – an infected person would pass on the infection to 11 percent of their close contacts – a person infected with the new UK strain would pass on the infections to 14.7 percent of their close contacts.) It is (only) 34% more infectious than the original strain.

Catherine Bennett says, when there are a very few cases, as in Melbourne, spread can be contained by contact tracing, testing and limited suppression strategies. This TOTAL lockdown that Andrews has brought in for infections in four households seems unnecessary. Catherine was quoted as saying, ’We could have put suppression in place to help prevent super-spreader events without closing down every business and putting the state into a full lockdown.’

Unless, of course, your political career depends on your NOT having another break-out on your watch.

Oh, BTW, we are booked to travel to the (miserable) state of Victoria for a 10-day holiday in 10 days time. This time I am not packing till the car is about to start. It’s not looking likely that we will go – none of us wants to be in quarantine on return. We had better start looking for somewhere to go in our own backyard, which after all is rather pleasant.

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.