Pulling Together


Masks and Distancing: How Bad Science made a policy

...or maybe not. I don’t pretend to be an expert at reading scientific papers!

A recent pre-print publication of a draft paper to be published in the Royal Society for Public Health journal, Public Health, casts doubt on the ban of choral singing implemented as a precaution against Covid spread along, to a lesser extent, with mask-wearing and the closure of churches.

The paper reviews a study undertaken in 2020 into an outbreak of Covid following a choir rehearsal in Vermont where the majority of those present subsequently fell ill and those who were tested were found to have the infection. During the rehearsal the members had not stood that close to each other and so the high number falling ill was taken to indicate the potency of singing in spreading the virus and the importance of aerosols in transmission.

However, the original paper was much misunderstood by politicians and scientific advisers alike, who took it to be (as Boris Johnson was fond of saying) “The Science” and as such unquestionable and to be obeyed as a strict dictation. Unfortunately, science is a journey of exploration and discovery which doesn’t work that way. A single study, and others based on it, does not form incontrovertible truth; nor, for that matter, does this latest review criticising it. They are both just pieces in a jigsaw still under construction.

What the latest paper does suggest, however, is that the main assumption about the incident was unlikely to be correct and that most of those who fell ill were probably already infected before they arrived at the church. It is possible up to four members might have caught it from other attenders, but the vast majority must have caught it elsewhere because their symptoms appeared too soon for most of them to have incubated the virus following the rehearsal. The rehearsal was also not all spent singing. There were two social breaks in which people ate and drank together. Therefore, it is difficult to attribute any spread to a particular activity.

Of course, the assumptions in this review are not beyond criticism. Although the authors suggest tests show exhaled air from singing is unlikely to travel horizontally more than 20cm from the singer, anyone who has sat in the front row of an intimate theatre will know droplets can travel much further than that. Theatre is never that intimate! Droplets are heavier than air. That is the point of science, though. Discoveries build on each other, are subject to criticism, and lead to new discoveries.

So, unlike some journalists, I’m not going to follow my title and suggest we now know for sure many of the anti-Covid measures were ineffective and unnecessary. There might be some suggestion of that. What we do know is that there was more of an opening to alternative views than our political classes and their advisers would admit, and it remains to be seen how much was actually effective.

Whether shutting down society was right in other senses is another matter again. The whole world jumped on the lockdown bandwagon, and China still suffers because of it.

About the Author

K J Petrie has a Full Technological Certificate in Radio, TV and Electronics, an HNC in Digital Electronics and a BA(Hons) in Theological Studies.

His interests include Christian and societal unity, Diverse Diversity, and freedoms from want, from fear, of speech, and of association. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party.

The views expressed here are entirely personal and unconnected with any body to which he belongs.

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