Mistakes are normal, but failing to learn from them will cost lives
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.
— Dr Eilir Hughes (@hughes_eilir) June 11, 2021
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.