Monday Musings: A Minor Miracle in the Numbers

Most numbers associated with the last two months of life in the UK, first under the imminent threat, and then quickly the awful reality, of the Coronavirus pandemic have been shocking, writes Tony Stafford. More than 28,000 deaths with at least 75% of them in the 75-and-above age group justifying the Government’s initial and apparently over-the-top strictures that it could be several months before those over 70 could be allowed freely to leave home except under highly-limited conditions.

But one statistic which has been little discussed is the most miraculous. The latest detailed data is up to April 22, showing that 119 NHS staff died from the virus. With more than 1.5 million people working throughout the NHS and a further 350,000, taking in temporary staff and also medical workers in the private sector, that means fewer than 1 in 15,000 have died. That said, many more will have been infected in differing degrees of severity and have recovered.

Considering the exposure to patients in hospitals suffering from the virus – Boris Johnson talked of having up to eight nurses and others attending to him during the most severe stages of his stay in ICU – those 119 deaths are truly miraculous. Approaching 200,000 people have been admitted to hospitals suffering from Covid-19. The overall death rate in the total population is closer to 1 in 2,500. In the NHS 60% of those that have died have been age 50 and above.

Numbers have been the key to the Government’s release of details over the last two months with sensitivities in the media and how it would react to the numbers being paramount. You can only draw that conclusion when upon the figure of 20,000 deaths being reached, even though it was inevitable for some time beforehand, it brought the usual BBC and Piers Morgan blame-game hysteria.

Much has been said about the rights and wrongs of allowing Cheltenham to go ahead. For it to have been cancelled, it would have meant a decision at least a week before the March 10 starting date. At that time, the daily briefings were still two weeks off, and the first figure I have found for daily deaths is the 15 on March 15, two days after Cheltenham finished.

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Since the end of March I’ve kept a table of the daily fatalities and until early last week, the highest single number was an admittedly-shocking 980 hospital deaths on April 10. Then last Tuesday, with figures clearly on a downward curve among people dying in hospital, for the first time the increasing proportion of fatalities in care homes and elsewhere was included. Now April 10 is revealed to have had an even higher overall number, 1,152, one of eight days when the total death toll exceeded 1,000.

It’s still horrendous, but when the Government’s reaction to the situation initially instructed people to stay home, no single day had yet brought more than the 43 deaths, on Wednesday March 19, by which time I, and many in my advanced age group, was already locked away. The first three-figure “score” was the 149 on Monday March 24 but by eight days later it was 670 and soon after it reached those eight thousand-plus spikes.

As racing fans we’ve been denied so much normal action where, in my case, reading a book every two days, catching up on television and our once-a-week walk were only partial consolation; although somehow I’m almost a stone lighter! But then an hour on Racing TV yesterday brought home the frustration of our missing the scheduled Guineas meeting over last weekend.

It was great to see the last 30 years of what is probably the most significant race in the selection of stallions. Not all of them won the race, notably Dubawi, only fifth in his year to Footstepsinthesand, and both Kingman and Australia just a few years ago, stumped late on by Night of Thunder despite the winner’s across-the-course wanderings in the last 150 yards.

We saw Sea The Stars denying my 33-1 win only ante-post bet on Delegator and Camelot’s narrow defeat of formerly Ray Tooth-owned French Fifteen in two thrillers, but still pride of place goes to the extraordinary Frankel, off like a scalded cat under Tom Queally and thereafter never closer to his pursuers than his six-length winning margin over Galileo Gold. In 14 unbeaten runs, this highest-rated horse of all time gets my vote over another Guineas hero, Brigadier Gerard from the 1970’s, and Sea Bird II, a brilliant Derby winner from my youth a decade earlier. Can Frankel’s romp really have been nine years ago?

The timely reminder of the pre-eminence of that race comes with racing deriving positive vibes from recent meetings with Government. May 15 is now being suggested as a likely starting point with Lingfield close to London and Newcastle in the north providing the initial hubs for behind-closed-doors sport. Both have hotels, in the case of Lingfield, part of the grandstand, while Newcastle’s well-appointed Gosforth Park Hotel is a walk along the avenue of rhododendrons which always brightens the spring and especially the summer meetings there.

My first visit to Newcastle was in my Press Association days to cover a jumps meeting one May Bank Holiday in the early 1970’s. Arthur Stephenson dominated the card that early evening and I still remember the leisurely stroll down after lunch in the hotel and the surprising discovery that the horses had gone out of sight behind the trees down the far side. I found it difficult to find them again when they came back into view.

Racing has advantages over other sports in that you need not be there to get the impression that you are; in fact sometimes you get only a limited view of the race compared with viewers at home. A commentator’s crescendo as the horses near the line is much more vital than any crowd noise. The big races that have continued in Hong Kong and Australia without the public have given the UK authorities a blueprint of why and how it should be possible, while as I’ve said before, it must help that the Health Secretary’s East Anglian constituency includes Newmarket.

I haven’t been able to check this fact, but one friend yesterday told me that the Minister is also godfather to one of John Gosden and Rachel Hood’s children. If it is true that can’t hurt either.

The ambitious plan for two weekends of Group races in the lead up to the revised proposed Guineas meeting on the first Saturday of June means that if racing does get the go-ahead, it will start with a flourish. The bookmakers will do wonderful business and I can imagine action-starved horse racing enthusiasts jamming the phone lines and internet connections to get on.

Bookmakers do not always get the best of press coverage, but I was gladdened to hear last week that the 2019-20 Levy yield at £97 million is £2 million higher than the top estimated figure. It seems to make the BHA’s “promise” of races at reduced prize money more than niggardly. Apart from the better races, foreign owners laugh at what’s on offer here day to day. As trainers and owners will tell you, the one thing that never reduces are BHA and Weatherbys’ administration costs.

But in these times, I prefer to take a glass half-full attitude rather than the faux-combative criticism of Government. The Nightingale hospitals haven’t really been needed and within the awful figures, at least one miracle – those 119 deaths where thousands were being predicted – exists whatever the point-scoring after-timers think.

- TS

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