Eating yourself to death

Pape Guardian

Pic: Pape family/The Guardian

If there were any justice then Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson and the rest of the British government would face terrible condemnation for its disastrous Eat Out to Help Out policy from last summer. There’s absolutely no doubt that it was a major contributory factor in the acceleration of Covid-19 cases in the autumn, and led to thousands of deaths. One of these was a larger-than-life character called Bob Pape, who is recalled in a lovely 4,600 word article by Sirin Kale in Tuesday’s Guardian.

At first glance Pape was one of those life-and-soul-of-the-party types in a Hawaiian shirt you might try and avoid if you came across him in a public space but, as Kale makes clear, he was in fact much more. He was a lawyer with his own practice working on child support issues, dedicated to his clients and respected by opponents. He had started work in a firm of solicitors moving boxes and doing paperwork, but then he discovered he loved the law, and went on to study for a qualification.

He had met his wife Amanda online in 2008. Both had separated from long-term partners and had children from previous relationships. Kale writes:
Their first date was at a bar in Manchester. Bob wore a Hawaiian shirt, of course. Amanda asked him if he had lost a bet and he said no, he just liked Hawaiian shirts. He told Amanda he was a communist and she laughed and said: “How can you be a bloody communist when you’re a lawyer?” He said that he liked the idea of people sharing everything. “Bob and I just got each other,” says Amanda. “We were finishing each other’s sentences from the moment we met.”

What Kale then makes obvious is that his death was completely avoidable. Last August, Bob, Amanda, her daughter Jazzy and two other children had gone on a weekend break to Birmingham from their house in Altrincham, Cheshire. Amanda didn’t want to go on the mini holiday but Bob insisted. “Bob was convinced that the government would not allow people to travel if it wasn’t safe,” she told Kale. 

So set off they did, and had a great time. They ate out several times, at a Jamaican restaurant, a brewery, and local branches of Five Guys and Wetherspoons. And somewhere, in one of these public spaces, both Bob and Amanda contracted the virus. Within a fortnight he was in Wythenshawe Hospital, within seven weeks he was dead.

Kale says that the UK government was warned about the danger of aerosol infection before Sunak’s announcement of the Eat Out (EOTHO) scheme:

Prof Lidia Morawska of Queensland University of Technology published an open letter, warning the World Health Organization (WHO) and national healthcare authorities of the dangers of airborne transmission of Covid. Her letter was signed by 239 scientists from around the world. “We are 100% sure about this,” Morawska said at the time, warning governments that 1- or 2-metre social distancing rules in indoor settings did not protect people from infection via airborne Covid particles. “These rules are completely arbitrary,” Morawska says. “They just prevent people from inhaling very large particles. But very small particles, which come out of a person’s mouth or nose when they are speaking, can stay in the air for a very long time and go much further than 1 metre.”

These Covid-19 particles range in size from less than a micrometre up to 100 micrometres, roughly the width of a strand of human hair. Even an asymptomatic person can shed them simply by breathing and talking; people with Covid are the most infectious in the first week of infection, often before the onset of symptoms. In an indoor restaurant setting, particularly one with poor ventilation or reliant on air-conditioning, these particles may circulate freely in the air, infecting people at tables metres away from the infected person. “Imagine you’re in a restaurant with a smoking area,” says Morawska. “There’s no one smoking in the area you’re in. But you can still smell the smoke from the other area. In the same way, the virus can travel with this air flow.”

The government is of course convinced that it did nothing wrong, and has refused to publish any epidemiological research to support its view that the scheme was designed in “a safe and responsible manner”, which is how it was described in January by junior minister Jesse Norman. It has dismissed research by credible academics such as University of Warwick economist Thiemo Fetzer (who found that areas with higher take-up of the scheme saw an increase in Covid infection rates, with between 8% and 17% of new Covid infection clusters attributable to EOTHO) and Professor Jonathan Portes of King’s College London. Even a writer, Ryan Bourne of the Cato Institute, described EOTHO as “a costly economic and public health mistake … it is bizarre that Sunak has avoided more critical scrutiny of the policy”.

In hospital, just before he was put on a ventilator, Bob spoke to Amanda on the phone.
“He was crying,” she says. “He said: ‘I’m so sorry, I never should have taken us away.’ He never cried. He told me that he loved the children and our life together so much. I’d never heard him so frightened.”

Sirin Kale has written a heartbreaking article, which has convinced me that I shouldn’t go to a pub or restaurant until I’m fully vaccinated. Read it and pass it on.