Last night at 8 pm was the national “Clap for Carers” moment here in Britain. Tens of millions of people came onto their balconies or stood outside their houses to applaud the efforts of all involved in fighting the disease. It won’t have done much directly, but as an example of a common purpose, it is hard to beat. It was certainly a morale booster at a very gloomy time in the history of the world.
Last week, the National Health Service (NHS) made a call for 250,000 volunteers to help support badly stretched social services. To everyone’s surprise, no fewer than half a million people registered within 24 hours. The target has now been raised to 750,000 and no one would be surprised to find the figure soon nudging towards one million. That’s a lot of extra hands to help free up those more skilled in the direct treatment of patients.
Select a task
These volunteers will be selecting tasks, just like an Uber driver, that they think they can manage. They can be on-call or off-call in their phone apps. Some will be ferrying older people to pharmacies or hospital appointments, others will be taking (perhaps prematurely) discharged general patients home from the hospital and ensuring that they are settled in.
A major part of the operation is looking after the estimated 1.5 million vulnerable people who are living alone, self-isolating and unable to go out even for groceries. The government is preparing food parcels containing a week’s supply for all those who are isolated and without family or friends to help. Another task for the new model volunteer army.
Call for a chat
A further vital component and one which shouldn’t be underestimated is the psychological support that is becoming increasingly necessary in a country in lockdown. Volunteers will be contacting isolated people, particularly the elderly living alone, to chat and provide encouragement. Most of this activity will be over the telephone or via video link, so people who are also in vulnerable groups, such as those over 70 but otherwise healthy, are taking up this challenge and simply calling and chatting to others.
Another interesting communal initiative which has taken off in the past few days is a simple monitoring application which has already gathered information from over a million people. Simply download the application, register basic details, including whether or not you have been tested, and then report your status daily — either all well and good or, if not well, you can list your symptoms.
In this way, the researchers, including teams from Kings College London and Guy’s and St.Thomas’ Biomedical Research Centre, are now gaining a much clearer insight into the progress of COVID-19 in the UK. I have no doubt that similar initiatives are underway in other countries.
Statistics, statistics and more damned statistics
Within a few days, the responses indicate that ten per cent of people who register are showing symptoms. While this is a self-assessment system and thus subject to bias, it does appear to demonstrate that the number of cases is far more than official figures show (in this country the statistics are based largely on testing of individuals who find themselves in hospital, thus by nature high-risk). By simple extrapolation, these new figures could indicate that nearly seven million people could have been exposed.
UPDATE: By mid-day on Thursday, March 26, a total of 1.3 million people had registered, representing nearly 2% of the population of the United Kingdom.
The good thing, however, is that this undoubted wider circulation of the virus will help put the death rate into a more accurate perspective. The more the scientists know about this disease — and the research project is a vital component — the better we will be able to respond.
If you live in the UK and haven’t yet registered for the project, I encourage you to do so now. There are application versions for Android and iPhone and registration process is very simple. I now have a routine of opening the app every morning and reporting my status — so far well and good.
The more people who take part, the more information the responders will have and the closer we come to understand how this virus spreads and what proportion of the population has been infected. Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson has just been tested positive and, as we know from earlier in the week, the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, is now recovering from, presumably, relatively mild symptoms.
In addition to this, however, there is the factor of asymptomatic infection which is harder to track. With mass antibody testing expected within weeks, this aspect should become clearer and can only add to the information bank, putting the national rates for infection and deaths more into perspective.