Tag: Health-Policy

Waitrose or Wuhan?

Note: Longer and updated version of article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Wednesday 25 March 2020

As mainstream and social media reports of selfishly excessive panic buying and empty shelves in anticipation of government restrictions to control the spread of Coronavirus exploded into a major issue in itself last week, the public relations departments of major UK supermarkets were eager to reassure the public about continuity of supply and ease of access for elderly or otherwise vulnerable customers.

However, as stories proliferated of hoarders failing to respect so-called ‘elderly hours’, or clearing the shelves in advance of them unimpeded by supermarket staff, it was hard to avoid the impression that some supermarket chains were making ‘caring’ announcements for publicity purposes, but then doing little either to enforce them or even notify their staff of them.  That certainly appeared to be the case with one alleged ‘elderly and vulnerable only’ queue in Leamington Spa.

'Elderly & vulnerable' queue Leamington Spa

Less obvious was any great detail about the extra precautions they intended to take to prevent the spread of infection on their premises, although Aldi promised to instal clear screens at checkouts to protect employees and customers, and Tesco pledged to introduce distancing methods at checkouts to reduce customers’ infection risk.

Not before time, either: as one writer of a Letter to the Editor of a national newspaper put it, ‘Precisely how can we keep our distance while needing to shop for food?‘  

Costco Thurrock, queues distancing

In addition to that, reports had already been circulating on social media from disgruntled employees about businesses being cavalier, to say the least, about protecting even their own staff.  The example below is graphic, but by no means untypical. Read the entire thread.

So it was not without slight trepidation that, early last Saturday morning, I found myself contemplating a potentially hazardous expedition into dangerous territory, aka the local branch of Waitrose.

Now, as soon as the seriousness of the COVID-19 epidemic first became apparent, a local wine merchants not far from my home had been quick to react.  They emailed their entire customer base to say that, with immediate effect, they would provide mandatory-use hand-sanitiser and hand-washing facilities at the entrance to the store, have all trolley handles disinfected after each use, move temporarily to exclusively non-cash transactions, and hygienically wipe credit card machines after every sale.

Surely, I thought, I could expect similar precautions to be in place at a busy branch of a national, and generally regarded as up-market, supermarket chain?

Nope.  Despite my arriving within 15 minutes of opening time, the Waitrose Head Office-announcedThe first hour of business is now dedicated to elderly and vulnerable shoppers‘ policy was nowhere to be seen.  Neither were any hand-sanitising facilities, nor even requests for customers to use the adjacent washrooms for that purpose, in evidence.  As for trolley handles being sanitiser-cleaned before re-use, forget it.

Notwithstanding all the reassuring corporate PR from Head Office, anti-coronavirus precautions within the store looked almost non-existent – although, in fairness, apart from pasta and rice, the shelves were reasonably well-stocked, and anti-excess-buying measures were visibly being enforced.

But not much else.  At one stage, standing no further than one to one-and-a-half metres away from me and half-blocking the aisle, was a young woman staring vacantly at her phone (and not at a shopping list on it either, because she had a written one) while treating everyone in her immediate vicinity, including her two- or three-year-old daughter perched on her shopping-trolley child-seat, to the sound of her rasping dry cough.

At that point I began to feel seriously relieved at my decision to wear nitrile surgical gloves because of the potential for infection from trolley handles, tins, credit-card machines and the like. Apparently, the virus can linger for up to 72 hours on a hard surface.  OTT, maybe, but why take the risk when it’s there but easily avoided?  Some other customers were wearing surgical gloves too, but we must have been in a minority of 5 per cent at the most.

Which minority, remarkably, evidently did not include the servers at the in-store bakery, delicatessen, butcher and fishmonger.  The server on the cheese counter went to cut me a wedge of whatever cheese it was, unwrapping it with his bare hands, and not wearing gloves at all.  I told him to keep it.

Neither did I see any of the checkout operators using gloves, although the Saturday-job youth on the one which I used looked a touch guiltily at my own, then sheepishly produced a pair of latex surgical gloves from beneath his till and put them on.  Had they, I wondered, been issued to till operators, but no-one was verifying that they were actually being worn?  No problem either, with any cash-and-change transactions there if you wanted, and not a hint of credit-card terminals being hygiene-wiped afterwards.

On reaching home, my outer clothes made it straight into the washing machine.  I made it straight into the shower, despite having already showered before leaving.  The nitrile gloves didn’t even make it as far as home.  On the way from the trolley-deposit bay back towards my car in the car park, they went straight into a (closed) rubbish-bin.  And some answers to questions about how the virus had managed to wreak so much devastation so quickly as it spread outwards from Wuhan, China, were much clearer.

UPDATE: This article was written on the afternoon of Monday 23rd March. On Tuesday (24th), a friend visited a different Waitrose branch in my locality.  In the period from Saturday (21st), they had obviously started to get more organised. There was a one-in, one-out policy in operation to limit the numbers shopping at any one time, free disposable gloves were available, and 2-metre distance-markers had been placed at checkouts, and enforced.  Better late than never, perhaps. 

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Stronger IN …. Specious Misrepresentation

Analysis of just one tweet from the Stronger IN campaign shows both its cavalier disregard for factual accuracy and the dishonesty of its overall message

Even with two months of an acrimonious EU Referendum contest still to go, the scaremongering of Stronger IN, the Remain Campaign’s principal vehicle, has already acquired semi-legendary status. Except not, possibly, in the way it anticipated and intended.

Because, with its campaign blatantly mirroring closely the EU-phile Cameroon Government’s Project Fear, every instance of Stronger IN disingenuousness, selective interpretation and outright misrepresentation is rightly attracting immediate and widespread challenge and derision, followed almost every time by a swift and effective rebuttal.

Today has been no exception: but it’s perhaps worth deconstructing one such instance in detail, to show the extent of the deception which is, increasingly, the Remain campaign’s principal (if not its only) tactic.

At 0920 this morning, Lucy Thomas (@lucycthomas ) Stronger IN’s Deputy Director, tweeted thus:

2016.04.27 Cancer ThomasThe implication that Thomas’ tweet clearly intends to convey – that the UK’s specifically leaving the EU would adversely affect, “potentially catastrophically”, not only individual cancer patients’ survival chances but even the future of cancer research itself, instantly looks suspicious. Because, as most people with more than a passing interest in UK current affairs know, the UK’s cancer survival rates, compared to those of other advanced countries, aren’t actually particularly good, even while we’re in the EU.

As the chart below shows, in a grouping of 24 countries, we rate pretty badly – 20th overall, in fact. On relative 5-year mortality rates for cancer patients, over the five-year period 2007-2012, not only are we much, much worse than our Anglosphere cousins the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand: significantly, we’re also worse than European, but non-EU, Norway and Iceland.

UK Cancer Survival RatesNHS 5-year cancer survival rate OECD

At a more detailed, and solely European level, the same outcomes continue. For, as the chart on the right shows, just compared with Germany and The Netherlands, our 5-year survival rates, over the period 2007-2012 for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer were the worst of all three.

A quick Google search then establishes (in The Guardian, no less) that UK cancer survival rates trail 10 years behind other European countries. It’s worth quoting a two or three sentences in full:

“Five other European countries (Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway) also recorded better survival rates for lung cancer in the 1990s than Britain in the 2000s.”

“For colon cancer six European countries (Finland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden) had better survival rates in the 1990s than Britain achieved 10 years later.”

“In the 2000s 19% of British patients diagnosed with stomach cancer survived. Better survival rates were recorded a decade earlier in Austria, Germany, Italy, Norway and Sweden.”

Norway again. Better cancer survival rates than the UK, and 10 years before. Evidently, not being in the EU isn’t a factor holding back Norway’s progress in tackling the scourge of cancer.

A further quick search yields Cancer Research’s data on worldwide cancer mortality rates, and the chart below:             

Cancer mortality worldwide 2012

It’s immediately obvious that non-EU Switzerland, non-EU Iceland, and non-EU Norway all have lower cancer mortality rates than the UK. In fact, non-EU Switzerland and non-EU Iceland have lower mortality rates than all the rest of the EU, bar Sweden and Finland. Clearly, cancer survival prospects seem, if anything, to be inversely-correlated with EU membership, rather than the opposite.

The empirical data therefore directly contradicts the impression Thomas’ tweet  seems to want to convey.

Next, the content of that link in the actual The Lancet tweet, of which Thomas’ is a Retweet-With-Comment, bears closer examination.

2016.04.27 Cancer Lancet

Perhaps by now unsurprisingly, the article turns out to be inherently speculative, tentative, non-specific, certainly non-medical, and primarily an expression of political viewpoint. Again, it’s worth quoting one or two sentences:

“Part of the inherent difficulty with this debate is that the repercussions of leaving can only be speculated on”

“These unknowns mean that points of argument are often semantic, and emotionally led.”

The article attempts to make two main points. First, it implies that the specific act of withdrawing from membership of the EU political union would be the determinant of worse prognoses and outcomes for UK cancer patients. But, as we’ve seen above, from the better survival rates achieved in non-EU countries, even in Europe, that’s a viewpoint which seems wholly unsupportable.

Second, it argues that ceasing to be in the EU’s political structures presages a diminished level of medical-science co-operation. But, apart from offering no convincing argument why this should be so – why do we need to be in political union with, eg Canada, to co-operate mutually on medical science? – the assumption on which The Lancet’s assertion is based itself appears to be at variance with reality.

The chart below, taken from the UK Medical Research Council’s 2014/15 report, shows the policy influence on UK medical science by originating location:    

UK medical science policy sources

In fact, a mere 7% of policy influence on UK medical science originates from within the EU. The equivalent UK figure is 56%: and it’s evident, moreover, that the residual 37% far outstrips the EU’s contribution of 7% to UK medical science policy origination.

Quite how Brexit would therefore so “potentially catastrophically” affect both UK cancer patient outcomes and UK cancer research is, to say the least, unclear.

This micro-checking exercise on just one tweet from the Stronger In campaign probably took no more than 10-15 minutes, including the time spent tweeting the findings as they became apparent. But what it reveals is a reality totally at variance with the impression its Deputy Director is disingenuously trying to impart.

Lucy Thomas’ narrative is factually inaccurate, specious and dishonest – a perfect metaphor, perhaps, for an entire Remain campaign that’s Stronger In misrepresentation than it is in anything else.   

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