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Turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper, and it seems that almost everyone is talking about the dreaded “second wave”. Two days ago Keir Starmer could be found pontificating on the subject in an article for The Guardian. He warned that the “government must up its game” to prepare for one.

At the same time The Lancet published a study which modelled a worst case scenario of what might happen following the re-opening of schools given the capabilities of the UK’s current track and trace regime. “School children returning to class in September risks triggering a devastating second wave of Covid-19 unless test and trace improves”, read The Sun. Hardly reassuring stuff.

Much of the other newspaper coverage also focussed on doom and gloom, never mind the fact that many schools in Europe have reopened successfully (the media only ever compares us when it undermines the Government, of course), and that even the ever-cautious World Health Organization says that “[t]o date, few outbreaks involving children or schools have been reported”.

No one can be certain about anything in this crisis, and clearly the Government has to prepare for the worst. But the expectation of a second wave around the corner has become almost gospel, so much so that more promising data about the UK’s Covid-19 situation now seems to be ignored. Question the imminent arrival of the second wave and people stare as if you’ve blasphemed or forgotten your own name.

Forecasts around a second wave arriving have been first, spurred by spikes in Leicester and elsewhere (even though spikes are much smaller than waves), as well as based on new figures from the Office for National Statistics. These showed that daily cases had gone up. “Coronavirus infections rising in England”, ran one BBC headline. Time to raise the alarm, one might think, but the data was based on just 24 positive cases among nearly 30,000 people over two weeks.

Today there is already coverage about the fact that France has reached a “two-month high in virus cases”. And yet, it is rarely explained that some of statistics are a result of increased testing, not a worsening situation. If a country boosts the amount of tests it has for something by hundreds of thousands, don’t be surprised when it finds more of that something.

The media likes to focus on cases as a metric of the Covid-19 outlook, as this is the main statistic going up (perfect for dramatic headlines), whereas other data presents a more hopeful outlook.

In the UK, hospitalisations continue to decline dramatically even after lockdown easing. The daily number of admissions reported yesterday was 183 – a big fall from 3,483 on March 31. Deaths also appear to continue on a downward trend, something which seems to be the case even with the very old, according to the latest review of ONS data by Professor Heneghan of Oxford University.

That the UK can detect more cases is a testament to enormous improvements in its testing regime, which is now one of the best in the world, with a total of 12,571,991 tests processed. We should be feeling reassured about this, especially as the more sophisticated the system becomes, the more nuanced any lockdowns will be – meaning that less people have to stay at home. Sure, there have been hiccups in putting it all in place (a massively complex project to roll out, incidentally) but our Covid response tools are undoubtedly getting much better.

One would never get this impression, though, from reading all the news. Some papers seem to constantly examine what’s happening through a pessimistic lens, as if stuck a “worst case scenario” algorithm from the Lancet study.

Yes this crisis has been extremely bleak; people have died in terrible, painful ways, and there are elements that the Government could have done better. Yes, we have to be as ready as possible in case there is a second wave. A winter one would be dreadful, and so forth. Even so, there is reason to be positive about our situation.

Boris Johnson hit the nail on the head when he said the Government was “hoping for the best, but planning for the worst”. “Assume the worst is inevitable and panic”, is what many commentators would rather have us do, and that will never get us anywhere.

119 comments for: Waves of media foreboding

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