Rachell Smith / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Back in mid-March – you remember March? – the Jeremy Vine show on Britain’s Channel 5 attracted considerable criticism for inviting a celebrity panellist on to discuss the then looming pandemic with the show’s resident doctor, Sarah Jarvis.
Caprice is an American-born model and businesswoman. She expressed her view that a two week lockdown should be introduced in Britain, and she cited the success Taiwan and Singapore had enjoyed by combating the disease by cracking down early.
For this Caprice was treated on the show – to my eye anyway, as an occasional viewer – as though she was a total idiot.
On social media there was a pile-on by sophisticated persons, furious that Caprice would dare disagree with a doctor – an expert GP. Jeremy had seemed uncomfortable with the “expert” being challenged too.
Kirstie Allsop, the property guru, was angry on social media.
“This may be the stupidest clip I’ve seen yet and a high bar has already been set,” she said. “Please don’t give idiots like this airtime. Kudos to Dr Jarvis for not flying across the studio and throttling her.”
Four months later it all looks rather different.
Caprice advocated an early lockdown and highlighted the efforts taken by technologically advanced Asian states that have made the Brits look like complacent fools at worst for trusting the authorities and unlucky incompetents at best.
I’ll come to why it’s complex and there is right on both sides – on Jarvis v Caprice – in a moment.
First, the clip is worth watching, and if not here is the transcript:
Jeremy Vine (JV): “Now we had this idea that if we put the whole country. Caprice, you said, put the whole country in lockdown for two weeks. That will sort it.
Dr Sarah Jarvis (SJ): That is complete and utter…
Caprice (C): It’s worked.
SJ: It has not worked. It has categorically not worked.
C: It has worked
SJ: No, what has happened is that in China, there was one province – one city in particular, one province generally – who were affected. Hubei province, Wuhan city. What they have done is they have put the entire of Hubei province into lockdown for months. As a result of that they have managed dramatically to reduce the number of cases. But what will happen is that this is going to start circulating again as soon as they take that province out of lockdown. Two weeks is simply not going to work. And unless. With the greatest respect, unless you have read every scientific paper and statistical modelling paper that’s come out, you cannot argue with me on that. You can have an opinion, but it’s not a fact. It’s not a fact.
C: But I can, because this is what I read. Let me tell you the facts. In Taiwan and Singapore, what they did, early on, in week one, in February, everyone was wearing surgical masks…
SJ: Which made no difference at all.
C: Sorry, I let you…
JV: But Sarah is the expert, but go on.
C: This is from a newspaper, this is from…
JV: No but that doesn’t… that may not…
C: This is from somebody from WHO
JV: That may not…
C: Sorry, this is a spokesperson, this is a spokesperson, this is coming from a spokesperson from WHO.
JV: Ok, I just don’t want to get into things where we have the newspaper on the one hand and the expert on the other and we give them equal weight.
C: A spokesperson from WHO, I think that that is an authority. And this was in a newspaper but it was referenced from a spokesperson from WHO. I just want to clarify…
JV: Alright. Press ahead and then we’ll go to Sarah.
C: Ok, so they were restricting entry to passengers from all of China. Fourteen day quarantine if anyone did come in from Macau and Hong Kong. Hand sanitiser…
JV: Where’s this?
C: This is in Taiwan and Singapore, where right now, in Singapore they’ve only had 100 cases, and Taiwan has had 45 cases and one death. They’ve completely controlled it. And all the schools, universities, restaurants, shutdown. For two weeks.
JV: Alright, so lock it down for two weeks and kill it.
C: Contain it. Not kill it.
SJ: So, no, this is the containment phase, and this is what we were doing quite effectively in the UK for some time. However, we have now reached the stage where we have a pandemic. Things are completely different when you have a pandemic. Unless you are going to stop 100% of travel to any country at all in the world, you are not going to stop it. In the UK the reason for moving from a containment to a delay phase was because on Thursday, we had reached the stage when there were 27 people in the country in intensive care and 20 of them had contracted it in the United Kingdom. We may well be able to pause things briefly. We are not – let us make no mistake about this – we are not going to solve this. And the idea that by shutting everything down for two weeks we are going to solve this. If we stop everything, if everybody was electronically tagged to their homes for the next two weeks, we would stop more cases for two weeks, and the moment people left we would have an enormous spike. We have got to be concentrating on things that work.”
Well, that is quite something isn’t it? What a study in class dynamics. The expert and the silly little civilian speaking up and making what turns out to be, er, a series of quite good points. For which the silly little civilian – a model! an American for goodness sake! – must then be monstered on Twitter.
Perhaps not helped by Caprice mispronouncing WHO, obscuring her argument slightly, but that hardly merited the ensuing performance.
This is not – repeat not – a declaration that right was or is completely on Caprice’s side. There are months and years to come of arguments about this. Is the diseases something we are just going to have to accept and let blow itself out as we do our best to protect the vulnerable? Perhaps.
Like most people, even after immersing myself in the story of the pandemic for months, I’m uncertain.
Jarvis was very certain of her own rightness though in March. She was right in the narrow sense that two weeks of lockdown weren’t going to eliminate the disease. It was out of control in Britain by then – we had screwed it up earlier, although I don’t think Jarvis said that.
But then Caprice pointed out rightly that she advocated measures to contain the disease, not eliminate it. She did not claim it can or will be eliminated.
Ironically, the measures Caprice proposed were measures that were adopted by the UK government and paraded as being “the science” – the medical consensus – only a week or so later.
Jarvis’s case rested on the claim that the UK had been containing the disease effectively, before it then moved to become a pandemic. An epidemic that becomes a pandemic is not an epidemic that has been contained well. By definition, it has become a pandemic.
The Jarvis position was – as far as it is possible – to tell in tune with the national mood, or much of it, in March. When this show aired the public consensus – the critical SAGE meetings had just taken place – from the medics and scientists was that we were progressing through a brilliant British plan in a stately fashion.
In terms of public debate, March was a loud mess. Total lockdown seemed remote as a possibility until the tail end of February, even for those of us who stock-piled in case. Many of us wanted to believe that authority knew what it was doing.
Look, I fell for it myself, even though I had stock-piled and we were setting up to shield. A few days earlier, before the Jarvis v Caprice clash, for The Times I praised the government for following the science and the medical advice, whatever that means, as though it is a single truth. We all know a lot more now, but still not enough, even some alleged experts.
Either way, this episode provides a window through which to glimpse the hysteria of March and the way many of us were swayed. At the very least, that snapshot from Vine’s show demonstrates the importance of humility and listening calmly to divergent views and perspectives.
Caprice has not been invited back to the Vine show since, I’m told. They should remedy that, promptly.