These days, I have a rule: allow everyone to express their anxiety about the pandemic in their own way. I think the evidence is clear that you are not made appreciably safer by washing your groceries in bleach and waiting three days to open arriving packages, but if that’s what makes you feel safe, I am determined not to judge you.
On the other hand, like Sirin Kale, whose recent Guardian article, “Hygiene theatre: how excessive cleaning gives us a false sense of security,” brought the term to a wider audience, I will mutter privately about “hygiene theatre.” Kale points out correctly that the phrase derives from the security consultant Bruce Schneier, who coined “security theatre” to describe the pointlessness of much of the airport stuff we all have to do post-9/11. In Schneier’s argument, locking cockpit doors so pilots can’t be disrupted has definitely made us safer, but going through scanners and taking off our shoes…not so much. But, if it means people feel safer and will therefore fly, the industry will take it.
Kale expressed a lot of the frustration I feel when I watch staff, especially in government institutions, use sanitising wipes to swab down the surface my backpack has just rested on for the 55 seconds it took them to insert a search wand into it. It’s not just that fomites – virus-bearing respiratory droplets that fall onto surfaces – were shown more than a year ago not to be a significant source of infection. It’s that most of the time this diligent disinfection is taking place in a space with no windows and uncertain ventilation and air exchange. If it were an English pantomime, the audience would be shouting, “It’s all around you!” Air. Never more crucial. It’s not dangerous to disinfect surfaces (just wasteful); it is dangerous to disinfect surfaces and think doing so makes you safe when it means you don’t look to remediate the real danger elsewhere.
The UK government’s failure to update its Hands-Face-Space public messaging to add “AIR” at the front, in line with year-old improved scientific understanding, is just one piece of its short-attention-span approach to getting the virus under control. Public health in a pandemic requires using every tool you can find. This government appears unable to think about more than one thing at a time, and keeps looking for magic bullets: first washing hands, then rapid tests were going to be a game-changer, then the contact tracing app, then test and trace, then vaccination.
Vaccination is a huge game-changer – and yet, even there, after six months of praise, the government appears to have lost interest. As the University College London scientist and Independent Sage member Christina Pagel keeps asking, mystified, “Why don’t they finish it?” As of July 13, 52.4 percent of the whole population (that is, including children) is fully vaccinated, and 68.8 percent has had at least one dose. We are, as Pagel says, so close – maybe a month away – to the point where population immunity is strong enough to ease up. But even then: we still need improved ventilation, masks, safer schools, and limits to crowds while new variants keep arriving by plane.
The worse news is that the number of shots being delivered is declining daily. Well, sure: if you have a government saying, OK, it’s over, we’re opening everything back up, why would you view getting vaccinated with any kind of urgency? In France, faced with declining numbers, the government began requiring proof of vaccination for entry to cafes. The graph of the abrupt rise in delivered vaccinations the next day is hilariously sharp. US president Joe Biden is advocating sending community health crews door-to-door, a proposal Madison Cawthron, a Republican Congresswoman from North Carolina, greeted with suspicion that the visits could be used to take people’s guns and Bibles. Faced with the UK’s slowing rollout, why not return to what worked in the earlier stages, when GPs’ surgeries called their patient lists and got them covered? My shots each took two minutes; now, we see huge queues at vaccination sites. The difference between those two rollout modes, between local and centralised delivery, is also a huge difference in the motivation necessary to get the shots – especially when the cohort who need shots have less free time and have been told that younger people are less at risk.
In the absence of evidence to explain what’s going on in the UK government’s supposedly collective mind, even sceptics resort to paranoid speculation. Maybe they’re trying to cull the younger generation, which appears to be more left-wing and more insistent on things like social justice, economic equality, and remediating climate change? Maybe it’s a deliberate plan to trash the health service so they can insist that the only way to restore it is through private equity? (The Health and Care bill gets its second reading this afternoon, and pro-NHS campaigners are calling it disastrous.) Maybe the chaos, because it enables blame-shifting, is the point? Unlike most government decisions, the pandemic applies failure standards in the form of daily infection, hospitalisation, and death counts. Here’s the Yes, Minister bit: 50 Tory MPs, led by former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, want the government to stop publishing those numbers. They think it makes people “irrational.”
A year ago, some of the science fiction writers on Twitter compared the world’s pandemic response to the plague novels of their acquaintance. None, they said, imagined that governments would be so incompetent or so thoroughly reject science. And yet, here we are. Stay reasonably safe!