It’s no longer the time to be saying Let’s Not Worry Too Much

Posted March 20, 2020 in covid19, Diary  |  No Comments so far

A few days ago, Imelda Flattery’s tweet made me curious.

I wanted to find this original report, possibly with the hope that finding it would give me a brief nostalgia rush, taking me back in time to what now, authentically, feels like a different era from the one we now inhabit.

After locating and defeating Twitter’s “Advanced Search” interface – not to mention a lot of vertical scrolling – I found what might be one of the earliest pieces of BBC reporting on the coronavirus.

Here’s the first tweet I could find from Stephen McDonell that explicitly references it. It’s part of a thread and I’ve included the first three here. You can read more on Twitter.

Obviously it feels strange now to read the “let’s not worry too much” sections in this very early reporting, but it’s really unfair to be critical of it. Bear in mind the niche nature of the story as it was back then. If somebody in mid-January had published an accurate prediction of what the virus would do to the world, it would have come across as deranged, its author banished to the internet’s hinterlands.

As the virus unfolded in China and began to spread to other countries, though, we did accumulate enough data and information to make more accurate predictions about its impact. Some of that data can be understood by looking at these excellent charts from the FT’s John Burn-Murdoch:

You can see from the second chart in particular that the UK had more deaths than Italy did at a similar stage in its infection curve. So this gives us an indication of the likely severity.

Despite this, there is still a bit of a “let’s not worry too much” theme here in the UK. Even as recently as a week ago prominent media figures were reacting with shock and disgust whenever an institution acted more cautiously than government guidance required:

What I find interesting about the above tweet is that the Wellcome Trust’s decision was being framed through the kaleidoscope of UK party politics – that it was somehow “anti-Tory” to take the decision that they took.

But it’s far from being the only example of this. Across the board, the UK’s political culture made it difficult to advise caution and take decisive steps without it being seen as an anti-government stance to take. It led to awkward contradictory messages such as the below:


















People in the future who look back on this time might underestimate the degree to which ideology influenced the country’s virus response – they’d be unwise to do so, I think. There’s a lot to learn about how political factionalism can warp perceptions of reality and affect a society’s ability to make decisions in a rational way. Sometimes you do need to look clearly at other countries and learn from their mistakes.

The damage from this initial framing is still being felt. A lot of people read these opinion pieces when they were coming out and took the decision that they wouldn’t change their routines, that they’d keep socialising and working as usual, whether to “own the libs” or – perhaps more bizarrely – to “own the virus”, by denying it a moral victory.

(“I’m hardly changing at all, because if you do that then you give into it…”)

Normally, two months doesn’t seem like a long time. Stephen McDonell’s first BBC report on coronavirus didn’t come out all that long ago. But we’ve learnt so much about the coronavirus in that time, and it’s fair to say the world has changed profoundly. There’s no reason why we should still be hearing people say, “let’s not worry too much”.

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