Eva Hilberg By: Eva Hilberg
Post-Doctoral Fellow
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16 Oct 2020 : Three tiers to rule them all

This was meant to be another ‘diary type’ entry, about a few more things that are going on here – where things are slowing moving out of control but are still fairly manageable right now. I wonder how soon Germany will be in lockdown once again. Right now we are seemingly in the same phase in which a lot of other countries have been for a while, where we are not doing enough for a bit too long until this hellish procrastination will come to haunt us with rapidly rising numbers. It already does, as new records are set every day. But it still feels like early days, and life might continue like this for a while longer in relative normalcy, but I am holding my breath for what will come next. Apparently toilet paper sales are on the rise already – maybe that is the crucial pandemic indicator to be looking out for after all the talk about R values.

So I was going to talk about all my very minor problems (as in the other posts), such as accidentally wearing an ill-fitting mask when I went to the theatre – yes, the theatre is open here, and going there only feels ever so slightly like flying to the moon – and how I could not really see the stage properly as my glasses were steaming up but I also did not want to take off my mask for fear of exposure. What a pickle! Anyway…

…but then the UK government decided to come up with three new tiers to grade the pandemic. This, of course, has been way overdue – as deciding apparently at random which region is now being restricted had absolutely not been working in any way. Even after reading everything I could find on these restrictions, and trying to summarise the basic rules in tables for my work, I was not able to actually say what anyone would be able to do in a particular locality in the ‘North-East’. Honestly, I really tried. Our relatives live in a restricted area – or not, as I really could not figure this out – so we also had a lot of very illuminating discussions on the phone. This ‘system’ (for want of a better word) was not working.

So, on to the new. Three tiers to sort this mess. From the get-go, though, you wonder – why is tier 1 entitled ‘medium’? Surely, medium should be in the middle of some sort of chart, not the baseline? That is not just a logical issue, this categorisation seems to accept that there will never be a time again when things will be under control – the best we can hope for is a medium sort of risk for everyone. It is a very ‘it is what it is’ kind of approach. I mean, New Zealand has 4 tiers, and South Africa has 5 – and they range from ‘relative normalcy’ to drastic ‘lockdown’ measures including school and widespread business closures. The lowest South African tier still requires everyone to stay home from midnight to 4am and to wear a mask in public spaces. The highest level of alert there confines everyone to their places of residence unless they are contributing to essential services – followed by a very detailed list of what is considered essential (toilet paper production is essential, phew!). I am not trying to advocate this particular level of restriction, but a centralised alert system should probably try to include a range of things going from minor to major, to avoid another situation involving endless tinkering and amendments. I can feel tier 2-and-a-half being talked about already. 

In comparison to these different tiers in other systems, the English system is also a bit short on detail – what about masks, for example? I cannot find them anywhere on the announcement, even though masks have been found to be one of the few measures that can make a real difference in preventing transmission. School closures are also not being considered, as are closures of non-essential businesses – these things are slightly more borne out by the small amount of available evidence, but not entirely straightforward. Other countries, for instance, are insisting on remote teaching for everyone grade 9 and up (Czech Republic, Austria). 

Then there are the contradictory bits – the ‘Rule of Six’ continues to co-exist uneasily with this new scheme. The rationale for picking the number 6 out of a hat is still not clear to me, and neither is the quantitative foundation for any area to be moving from one tier to another, for that matter. It cannot all be a convenient excuse for avoiding the in-laws at Christmas… But according to tier 3 of the new system, you cannot meet ‘with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor or outdoor setting, whether at home or in a public space’, unless it is in ‘open public spaces’ such as parks or beaches. So, technically, you could not meet anyone on the street (presumably, seems pretty open to me though) – but you could meet them in the park next to the street. But only six of you can meet there. This is not a major issue by itself, but it introduces a level of confusion that is not helpful. 

There is also the issue that the official announcement from 12.10.2020 states that the medium alert ‘will cover most of the country’ – when by now (15.10.202) already ‘more than half of England's population will now be living under high or very high-alert restrictions.’ All this is not even taking into account the leaked SAGE recommendation for a circuit breaker lockdown, and the press conference accompanying the announcement of these tiers, in which chief medical officer Chris Whitty declared that these measures were ‘not enough to get on top’ of the situation. Systematic this is not.

So, where to go from here? At this point, the scattergun approach to the pandemic seems to be coming increasingly undone. Maybe next time I will write the same kind of critique of whatever system Germany devises – if the individual states ever stop squabbling about their differences for long enough to actually sign up to something. So far we only know what no one wants to do. Soon enough it probably will be wise to fundamentally reset this situation (turn-it-off-and-turn-it-on-again), if only for a new chance to get it right.

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