Publishing an article by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Yaneer Bar-Yam (The UK’s coronavirus policy may sound scientific. It isn’t, 25 March) on the Covid-19 pandemic rather implies that it is a “black swan” event. It may be for most of us, but not for epidemiologists, for whom this pandemic is not outside the range of expectation. Neither should it be a black swan for anyone whose knowledge of history goes back to 1918. Would you rather the pandemic was managed by those for whom it is a black swan event, or those for whom it is not? I’ve published peer-reviewed papers on modelling disease epidemics with data, and am aware of the limitations of my knowledge in the current situation. But my expertise does allow me to back those epidemiologists calling for testing of random samples of the population, to measure the size of the epidemic so it can be properly managed. Failure to do so amounts to abandoning evidence-based medicine.
Professor of statistical science, University of Bristol
• I was a member of the Cobra committee as a representative of the Health and Safety Executive in the mid-2000s. During that time a risk assessment identified a pandemic as the greatest threat to life in the UK. HSE had the greatest expertise in personal protective equipment which was identified as being essential. The government tested a response to dealing with a pandemic that was successfully implemented with the flu pandemic. The World Health Organization identified this virus in early January. I cannot understand why it has taken so long to get suitable PPE to those caring for the rest of us.
• Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Yaneer Bar-Yam rightly criticise the pseudoscience of the behaviourism the government promotes in tandem with the expertise of epidemiologists and virologists. But there is one psychological principle that helps explain the misery that the crisis has engendered. Attachment theory and research shows that, when faced with a threat, we are biologically programmed to seek proximity to our loved ones – the very thing this crisis stops us doing. The result: anxiety, depression, grief and, initially, denial.
A first step is to acknowledge the loss not just of lives but of ways of life, which for the young includes travel, education, fun, friendship. Only then will hope follow – creative solutions and a much-needed sociopolitical reset. Sadness and mourning should not be short-circuited.
Dr Jeremy Holmes
• The claim that the government was unaware of the EU procurement initiative for ventilators and protective equipment (No 10 claims it missed deadline for EU ventilator scheme, 26 March) is implausible. We referred to this scheme in a paper in the British Medical Journal on 31 January. The European commission announced it at a press conference on 17 March. It has received wide publicity in the European press. This is not the only example of placing Brexit above breathing, as the UK has declined to participate in other important EU initiatives, set out in our paper.
Martin McKee London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Anniek de Ruijter Amsterdam Law School, Mark Flear Queen’s University Belfast
• A local nail bar has had to close. The owner, one of whose customers works at our GP practice, offered her his masks and gloves. Covid-19 is affecting a nearby care home and the staff have run out of protective equipment, so I took the boxes there. There are rays of light in these dark times.
Dr Helen Lucas
- Substantial undocumented infection facilitates the rapid dissemination of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) – Science Magazine
- England coronavirus testing has not risen fast enough – science chief – The Guardian
- Coronavirus Tests Science’s Need for Speed Limits – The New York Times
- Trump Falsely Distorts New York Times COVID-19 Science Story – FactCheck.org
- This is the brightest supernova ever seen – Science Magazine
- Coronavirus Today: Science will save us – Los Angeles Times
- Italians stuck at home are measuring light pollution for ‘science on the balcony’ – TechCrunch
- ‘Oumuamua might be a shard of a broken planet – Science News
- College of Arts and Science converts thriving academic programs to departments – Vanderbilt University News