What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered? Bill Murray asks this pertinent question in the 1993 classic Groundhog Day. For me, it’s that last part of the question that has particular resonance with our situation right now.
As Boris announces further relaxations, questions are being asked about our government’s, and indeed many Western government’s, approach to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Should they have acted earlier? Did measures not go far enough, or were they too stringent? Are they prioritising the economy over people’s lives? Will a deadly second wave catapult us back into lockdown?
In reality, these are all futile questions, and different people will find different truths. However, more concrete consequences are trickling in via pockets of scientific research. Previously, many people saw science as a binary process of distinguishing right and wrong answers. Now we can see that an answer is only as good as the data that informs it – and how poor the process of acquiring and analysing data really is.
To say the government is “following the science” is a bit of a stretch. This isn’t because they prioritised the economy, political gain or anything else. It’s because the “science” isn’t informed by much data at all. A Formula 1 car generates more accessible and real-time data driving around one corner than all the COVID-19 Critical Care units in the United Kingdom combined collect in a week.
I’ve spoken to many ICU doctors who are having to ring up other hospitals to share notes on what is and is not working in treating critically ill COVID-19 patients because there is no centralised, connected system to collect data on the effects of the disease and analyse on a scale that delivers actionable insights. If ICU units can’t even share data between each other on the front line in life and death situations, what are those in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies basing their overarching guidance on?
The most frustrating thing is that the data is sitting there, across the NHS network, waiting to be analysed and turned into useful intelligence and critical research which could be saving lives. But combatting this disease won’t just rely on the data collected from sick patients – we need to involve society as a whole. This is what the numerous governments are trying to do with contact tracing apps, but this in itself is a catch-22.
Initially, the UK’s unique, centralised approach was along the right lines and would have allowed the government to capture data to be analysed in real-time and post-event, but privacy measures across devices resulted in a deadlock. The switch to the more popular Google/Apple system allows the app to work at the point of contact but is ultimately useless in the wider fight against coronavirus because the data can’t be collected and then analysed in any meaningful way.
This all comes down to an issue of trust. People don’t trust governments with their personal information. It’s funny how everyone likes the concept of the contract tracing app but when you ask directly if they will download and use it themselves they either say no or look at the floor. Governments, like the big tech companies, have a bad track record of misusing personal data and people are understandably wary and instinctively skeptical, regardless of how often they are reassured their data will be safe whilst being urged to download.
This issue is one of the biggest obstacles we face in dealing with the crisis. However, the workaround is using trusted networks. The data suggests you have to spend five minutes in someone’s company to risk being exposed to the virus; passing a stranger on the pavement is pretty safe, especially if everyone is wearing facemasks. When we think of ‘bubbles’, consider that most people in our society only have a certain number of people that they come into close contact with on a daily basis.
For the average child, this is their immediate family and a few close friends at school. This means that a school can be a trusted network. Most people allow their children’s school to have their phone number in case of an emergency and they trust the school with this information. Schools also know their students and parents better than the government ever will. A school itself is perfectly set up as a bubble within which to implement a test and trace programme. It’s also much less impactful and more convenient than the drive-through testing hubs we see in various countries. Democratising testing to those we already trust such as schools and employers, who have an active vested interest in keeping us safe and well on a daily basis, makes sense. Reduce strain on the NHS and care and share with those in your personal bubbles – your family, friends or colleagues.
If anonymised UK data from the NHS and every trusted network, such as schools or workplaces, is given to trusted institutions that analyse data, like Imperial College London, then we now have the largest country-wide dataset in the world that can inform best practice and trace the disease. Only when this happens can our leaders say they are following the science. It also shows just how frivolous the government’s contract tracing app is as a standalone project.
As the virus mutates and new strains emerge, we can expect ‘Groundhog Day’ every three months as we are cast back to square one. It took decades to move HIV from being a potentially fatal disease to being a chronic manageable illness. After billions spent, there is still no over the counter cure. And yet we expect a cure for COVID-19 – a virus in the same family as the so far incurable common cold – by this August? Clearly we need to progress our thinking from the binary choices of saving the economy OR saving lives and find a way of balancing both. The only way we get there is to manage risk effectively and harnessing data to do this efficiently to truly make informed decisions based upon empirical, comprehensive science
In Groundhog Day, it’s only when Bill Murray’s character stops using the loops to indulge his own desires and instead uses them to help others that he is freed. Once the government decides to move past it’s contact tracing app obsession and focuses on what’s in front of them, we’ll escape the COVID-19 déjà-vu loop and start truly tackling this problem in a manageable, and informed manner that will advance society.