by Jonathon Kitson
Wednesday, 14
July 2021
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When will the hygiene theatre obsession end?

Mistakes are normal, but failing to learn from them will cost lives
by Jonathon Kitson

Ignaz Semmelweis, the man who discovered that handwashing drastically cut mortality rates for women after childbirth, was ignored by many of his fellow doctors for decades. During that time, thousands of women died not through ignorance, but plain incompetence. 

Handwashing — and sanitisation — have been an overbearing feature of the response to Covid. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was recently filmed rigorously wiping down a chair (see below) at a vaccine centre, achieving nothing other than making the extreme germaphobe feel at ease.

This clip is yet another example of the pervasive hygiene theatre that we have seen during this pandemic. These are practices that look like they are keeping us safe but have a negligible impact — while ignoring the most important strategies to prevent infection, hospitalisation, and death. 

We have known for some time that Covid rarely travels via surfaces. Think back to those transparent plastic face shields, separation screens and wiping gym equipment (with cleaning liquid from a shared bottle that everyone touches), which achieved next to nothing. What’s more, the merits of handwashing versus ventilation have been well-covered, but little focus has been given to why the emphasis has been on the former.

It is an arduous process to get people to accept information that implies they were wrong in the past. When Covid hit, almost everyone wanted reassurance that something was being done to make them safe from the disease, but also that it actually worked. It becomes even more difficult to get them to change their behaviour in light of their past errors. This is one of the psychological aspects that makes superforecasters so unique — they change their minds according to the facts and do so swiftly. 

This is one reason why Britain initially fell back on the flu pandemic herd immunity plan, which operated on the pre-existing assumption that the new virus could not be keep out of the country, and it could not be controlled or suppressed once it had entered. Someone else had already done the hard legwork on this plan, winning international and institutional praise in the process, and so it was reassuring to the people who started to put it into practice. 

Why were we so slow at learning from the science and from countries that reacted faster? It cannot just be Public Health England’s fault, although it entirely dropped the ball before the pandemic by focusing too much on trendy non-infectious ‘diseases’ rather than early warning signs about pandemics, like SARS. 

It arguably all started because the health establishment across the world was too focused on assuming infections spread via surfaces, ignoring the evidence that colds and flu, not just Covid, in fact mainly spread through the air. 

There is no excuse for those at the top of the NHS, PHE and HSE — not to mention Downing Street — to continue pushing this nonsense. Mistakes are normal in the midst of a pandemic, but failing to learn from them will continue to cost lives.

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Adam Bacon
Adam Bacon
1 year ago

The elephant in the room of this article is the lack of any convincing evidence for the efficacy of facemasks and lockdowns. All measures above and beyond those taken by Sweden ( similar to the recommendations for this country until 23rd March 2020) have no basis in evidence based medicine.

The only superforecaster involved appears to have been President Xi of China.

ralph bell
ralph bell
1 year ago

Yes the other thing apart from masks and hand washing mis-information is obesity and poor general fitness making people more susceptible to the Covid-19 serious outcomes. Yet the government and health bodies have made no focus of this at all in their campaigns and actually discouraged people from going outside and doing sport/exercise for the majority of the lockdowns. Remember arresting people sitting in parks…

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  ralph bell

To be fair, exercise was encouraged from the start in the UK and the parks sensibly for the most part remained open (unlike France and Italy, among others) Sitting in parks, while I agree of extremely low risk, is hardly, getting exercise.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Fisher
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago

An enjoyable hobby of mine is laughing at solo masked car drivers..

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
1 year ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

I’d agree, except I was almost written off by a daft person driving an Audi at speed on black ice last winter. She was wearing a mask & alone in the car. By some miracle she missed me before ending up backwards in the hedge.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago

This wiping of seats is ludicrous. They are even doing it in South Africa. Pure theatre.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
1 year ago

I know – ruins the flavour…
(sorry vulgar joke and not real of course, but highlights the ridiculous nature of it)

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Beastly fellow. Have an upvote.

Alyona Song
Alyona Song
1 year ago

It is a disgusting theatre indeed, especially because this fallacy is perpetuated at the detriment to people’s health. What with those megatons of chemical substances (often of dubious origin) that are being forced onto us at every corner. Doubtlessly, inadvertent inhaling of the chemicals helps cannot be beneficial to human health, not to mention the horrible effect on skin. What about the cost being incurred by businesses forced ‘by law’ to purchase insane quantities of this stuff. Not a subscriber to conspiracy theories, I can’t help thinking that there are powerful lobby and interests behind this craze. Producers of poisonous ‘hygiene’ products appear to have been having a very ‘good covid’.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago
Reply to  Alyona Song

Google “Hanlon’s Razor”.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
1 year ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Excellent – I did – thank you for that nugget!
Having had first hand experience of both governments and larger organisations – I am inclined to agree with this assessment in most cases.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

You’re most welcome.

L Walker
L Walker
1 year ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Thank you for that reminder. I had heard of that but not under that name.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago
Reply to  L Walker

Je vous en prie.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Alyona Song

As Vietnam became a war of ‘The Military Industrial Complex’ covid became a war of ‘The Medical Industrial Complex’. and very well they did from it..

Zaph Mann
Zaph Mann
1 year ago

VArious comments here want to widen the discussion, but the article is focused on an indisputable issue. As a consequence absurd amounts of pesticides have been sprayed on streets in some countries while schools have blown their budgets on incessant cleaning (often causing caustic air) instead of upgrading their ventilation / filtration systems.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

“Why were we so slow at learning from the science and from countries that reacted faster? “

What had that to teach us? That Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and the Region’s peoples die at 5 per Million wile Westerners die at over 2000 per million? Because that is all to be learned from their response that I have seen.
I do not understand this article. Is he for or against Herd Immunity? What should we have learned from the other, early, responders? Did Lockdown save us? Or not? Are masks (one thing we picked up from China) important? Did shutting schools for a year do anything?

I get he does not think handwashing matters much, but that was the LEAST issue pushed on the Western Lockdown Nations – so what could have mattered?

Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
1 year ago

It’s Noticeable that as hygiene exhaustion is setting in, old friends such as noro virus are popping back up. Frequent hand washing has always been a good idea, for all the ordinary evils that have never gone away.

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
1 year ago

Early on in the debate around Covid there arose a narrative about how long the virus could survive on a stainless steel surface (in a lab) That stuck. In the spring of 2020, I argued (having run an asbestos business for 15yrs) that air movement or the lack of it were far more important than hand sanitation. Unless I’m being forced to, I never use sanitiser ( we know anyway that washing with soap & water is better).

Personal responsibility goes a long way & choosing not to do daft things.

As soon as compulsory mask wearing ends where I live, I’ll no longer wear one, I know from professional experience, the vast majority offer no protection anyhow.

The biggest problem in our society extracting ourselves from all this is that public officials are notoriously risk averse. They just can’t stop themselves making more rules as they feel better for it.