Month: April 2020

Latest News

The Times leads with the news that remdesivir may be an effective treatment for COVID-19. Yesterday, Dr Anthony Fauci announced the results of a gold-standard trial showing the drug has a “clear-cut, significant, positive effect in diminishing the time to recovery”. In a trial run by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases involving 1,063 patients in hospitals around the world, the duration of symptoms was cut from 15 days to 11. The news sent the share price of remdesivir, an antiviral originally designed to combat ebola, through the roof.

The Telegraph‘s front page has bad news, by contract. The above-the-fold headline reads: ‘Johnson to dash lockdown hopes.’ The paper reveals that the Prime Minister will use his first Downing Street press conference since his return to work later today to explain why the lockdown must remain in place. The Telegraph links this to yesterday’s announcement that the cumulative death toll has reached 26,097, meaning the UK now has the third-worst death-per-head ratio in Europe after Spain and Belgium. The jump in numbers from the day before is partly due to the Department for Health and Social Care including non-hospital deaths from COVID-19 in England in its daily figures for the first time, bringing yesterday’s total to 765. These are all patients whose death certificates name COVID-19 as the cause of death and who tested positive for the virus.

Another reason Boris is intending to keep the lockdown in place for the foreseeable future, according to the Telegraph, is the news that Germany’s transmission rate has gone up since the lockdown was eased last week. At yesterday’s Downing Street briefing, Dominic Raab cited this as evidence that a second peak was “a very real risk” if we scale back the restrictions. “Chancellor Merkel has made it clear that they might need a second lockdown in Germany if the infection rate continues to rise,” he said, although he didn’t explain why that would be more disastrous for the German economy than keeping the lockdown in place, one of the Government’s arguments for why a second peak must be avoided. Raab said no decision about whether to phase out the lockdown, or what form that might take, would be taken until the review of the data on May 7th by the Science Advisory Group for Emergencies.

Any hope that Nicola Sturgeon would exert pressure on the Government to make an announcement before then was dashed last night when Scotland’s First Minister said on Peston: “I’m far from convinced that when we get to the next review point on May 7th we’ll be in a position to lift any of these measures because the margins of manoeuvre that we’re operating in are very, very, very tight.”

Is the infection rate in German actually rising? That’s a possibility sceptics need to take seriously because if it is that would suggest lockdowns are effective at suppressing infection. But it isn’t – at least, not any more. On Tuesday, Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) announced that the reproduction number (R0) for Monday had risen to 1, after having been as low as 0.7 in mid-April, although Lothar Wieler, the RKI’s President, later clarified that in fact it had risen to 0.96 so was still technically below 1. However, the latest data from the RKI is that the R0 has now fallen again to 0.75. In case Dominic Raab missed this announcement, here is a graph included in the RKI’s most recent bulletin showing a steady decline in the number of reported casts in Germany:

The latest official data in Germany shows that new cases of confirmed infections dropped below 1,000 yesterday for the first time in almost seven weeks, suggesting the easing of the lockdown has had no impact.

The blog Facts4EU has published a post on Tuesday’s ONS’s data, pointing out that COVID-19 is only likely to kill a fraction of the people killed by other diseases this year, such as cancer, alzheimers and ischemic heart disease. It also unearths this gem from the ONS’s website in which it explains that its definition of a death “involving” COVID-19 encompasses those cases “where COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19 was mentioned anywhere on the death certificate, including in combination with other health conditions. If a death certificate mentions COVID-19 it will not always be the main cause of death, but may be a contributory factor.” So there you have it: the ONS records a death as being from COVID-19 even if it’s not “the main cause of death”. No doubt we can look forward to another clamour about the discrepancy between the ONS’s figures and those of the Government – even though the daily announcements at the Downing Street press briefings now include non-hospital deaths – when the ONS releases it’s data for Week 17 (April 18th – 24th) next Tuesday.

More on the model I mentioned yesterday created by the three Israeli professors, one an epidemiologist. According to their model, if a country adopts a mitigation strategy – social distancing as much as possible, including at work; 14 days self-quarantine for every person with symptoms; face masks, hand washing, etc. – then in most cases there’s no need for a lockdown. They caveat this by saying it only applies to those countries that have more than 60 ICU beds per million; those with less might have to partially quarantine high-risk populations for a short period. (NHS England is above this threshold and was before it increased its surge capacity.) Supporting their conclusion is the fact that the healthcare systems of countries that haven’t imposed general lockdowns – such as Japan, Sweden, Taiwan and South Korea – did not reach full capacity and in those countries that did – Spain, Italy, UK – infections peaked after mitigation strategies were adopted but before lockdowns were imposed. You can read the preprint here. (For a through demolition of the case for lockdowns, I also recommend this long essay by Ryan Kempber, a software engineer based in Santa Barbara.)

One of the more entertaining aspects of the crisis has been watching the world’s most eminent experts in infectious diseases fighting like cats in a sack. Last month saw the public spat between rival teams of epidemiologists at Oxford and Imperial – and thanks to Hector Drummond for unearthing the fascinating backstory to that dispute – and now we have the bust-up between Professor Ferguson and Professor Johan Giesecke, the Swedish Government’s ex-chief epidemiologist. When this is all over, Quentin Tarantino should make a film about epidemiologists. What should he call it? Once Upon a Time in Wuhan? Science Tsar Dogs? Ingloriuus Beardies? Suggestions please.

Johan Giesecke and Niel Ferguson escalate their disagreement about the infection fatality rate of COVID-19

In the latest skirmish, Giesecke has hit back at Neil Ferguson after his dismissal of Sweden’s approach to managing the crisis in last Saturday’s UnHerd interview. Speaking to the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, Giesecke said: “I know [Ferguson] a little and he is normally quite arrogant, but I have never seen him as tense and nervous as during that interview.” He dismissed Ferguson’s prediction that deaths in Sweden will start to rise again, claimed the infection fatality rate is closer to 0.1% than 0.9% and said New Zealand’s draconian lockdown meant it would have to continue quarantining incoming visitors until a vaccine is found. Good to see Professor Giesecke – surely the hero of this saga – holding his ground in spite of attracting widespread criticism, including from 2,300 academics who wrote a letter last month calling for the Swedish Government to switch tack.

Sweden’s answer to Bruce Willis attracted an unexpected ally yesterday in the form of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which lauded Sweden as a “model” for battling the virus. Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies expert, said there are “lessons to be learned” from the Scandinavian nation. This, from the organisation that originally praised China for imprisoning everyone who tested positive for the virus in purpose-built hospitals, whether they needed hospital care or not, and boarding up in their homes those who tested negative. The New York Post has the story.

The Guardian reports on its front page today that NHS England is considering removing black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff from frontline roles, given that they appear to be dying in disproportionately high numbers compared to non-BAME NHS workers. Last week, I flagged up some preliminary research into whether there’s a connection between how much vitamin D a person’s body produces and their susceptibility to coronavirus – one possible explanation for why BAME people appear to be dying in greater numbers. Since then another paper has appeared, this one by a doctor in the Philippines who studied the relationship between vitamin D and clinical outcomes for 212 COVID-19 patients. His conclusion: “Vitamin D status is significantly associated with clinical outcomes.” You can read his paper here. (And here’s another paper making the same argument.)

Evidence continues to mount that the lockdown is taking a toll on our mental health. A blog called Mental Health Today ran a harrowing piece yesterday by Joy Hibbins, the CEO of Suicide Crisis, a registered charity which runs Suicide Crisis Centre. You can read that here. And photographer Laura Dodsworth has documented the loneliness that a variety of people are experiencing while being trapped in their homes in a piece for Spiked.

The mother of a refugee. Photo: Laura Dodsworth

The Independent reports that police in Norfolk are hunting a man who takes daily walks in a Norwich suburb dressed as a “terrifying” plague doctor, complete with pointed beak-like mask. Nice to know there are still some freeborn Englishman out there who have kept their sense of humour during the crisis. No doubt he’ll be clapped in irons if the Norfolk constabulary ever catch up with him.

A reader flagged up an excellent comment piece in Derry Now by Anne McCloskey, a retired GP and a councillor on Derry City and Strabane District Council. She describes the ongoing lockdown on both sides of the Irish border as “non-evidence-based insanity”. I nominate Cllr McCloskey as my Sceptic of the Week.

John Rhys, a Senior Visiting Research Associate at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford, has referred me to a blog post he’s written that rebuts some of the assumptions underlying the sceptical case which is well worth a read. His best argument is that the economy would have taken a massive hit whether the Government imposed a lockdown or not:

Countries have taken approaches that differ in detail, but most have been essentially similar in their approach. Even where fewer formal restrictions are imposed, as in Sweden, actual behaviours and outcomes are not so very different. Tellingly, many in the UK were already modifying their behaviour, and creating their own forms of social distancing before formal lockdown was imposed. With a full-blown explosion of cases and deaths, and hospitals collapsing under the weight of new cases, it is inconceivable that we would not have seen massive changes in personal behaviour, seeking the same outcomes, albeit in uncoordinated and less effective ways, and very likely a degree of panic, with broadly similar damage to economic activity. The difference is that the damage would have been the result of individual consumer choice, not of government imposed restriction. Most of the economic damage therefore became inevitable as soon as the virus spread into much wider national populations. In reality there never was any way of avoiding the shock and its economic consequences, although there were and remain ways of handling the crisis well, badly or very badly.

I get quite a few emails from readers beginning, “My mum works in a care home…” or “My daughter-in-law works in a hospital…” followed by some hair-raising anecdote. But I thought this latest one worth passing on, given the hue and cry about deaths in care homes:

My mum works in a care home in Nottingham. They’ve had three deaths in the past two weeks, which is a normal number for them (they offer end-of-life care). The local GPs have recorded the cause of death as COVID-19 in all three cases, even though the people in question were showing no symptoms of the virus and had previously been tested and found to be negative. The residents of the care home are being frequently tested by Public Health England. No cases of COVID-19 have been detected so far. The care home manager was quite proud that their strict infection control procedures seemed to be working and is now quite upset that COVID-19 deaths are being recorded at the home. In this area of Nottingham at least, it seems that GPs are assuming the cause of death is COVID-19 without any evidence at all. I’m not sure how widespread this practice is, but if it’s even moderately repeated across this UK, this has obvious implications for the accuracy of the national statistics.

Some readers with a background in medicine or statistics may be shocked by just how poor their daily paper’s coverage of the crisis has been. But do they then turn to other parts of the paper and take everything else they’re reading as Gospel? If so, they’re suffering from what the late science fiction writer Micael Crichton called the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. Here’s Crichton explaining what that is:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them. In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

Tim Bidie, one of our regulator commenters, asked for suggestions of theme tunes for this website. One reader has sent this YouTube video of ‘The Lunatics Have Take Over the Asylum’ by Fun Boy Three. And if you’re looking for some more light relief, I can recommend the latest video from Comedy Unleashed, the politically incorrect comedy club where I made my stand-up debut in February. (So far, YouTube hasn’t censored it, but it may not be long according to Tucker Carlson.) And if you’re really bored, you can watch my debut here.

A huge thanks to those who donated to pay for the upkeep of this site yesterday. If you feel like donating you can do so by clicking here. And if you want to flag up any stories or links I should include in the site, you can email me here. See you tomorrow.

Latest News

The story on the front page of today’s Times is referring to the latest coronavirus data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) for the week ending April 17th which showed a big jump in care home deaths compared to the previous week. The number of overall deaths in care homes for Week 16 (April 11th – 17th) was 7,316. That’s 2,389 higher than Week 15, almost double the number in Week 14 and almost triple the number in Week 13. However, deaths from COVID-19 in care homes in Week 16 was 2,131, less than the number of deaths in hospitals (4,766). So what is the Times basing its story on? Turns out, this is the view of David Spiegelhalter, the Cambridge statistician. Here’s the key sentence: “Professor Spiegelhalter said that it was possible that coronavirus deaths in the homes now exceeded those in hospitals, with both running at about 400 a day but heading in opposite directions.” In fact, the average number of deaths in care homes in Week 16 was 304, although it may be larger now.

The ONS data, which was published yesterday, seems to show we’re on track for a big rise in excess deaths this year. The provisional number of deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending April 17th was 22,351, an increase of 3,835 compared with the previous week (Week 15) and 11,854 more than the five-year average for Week 16. That’s the highest weekly total recorded since comparable figures begin in 1993.

However, let’s contextualise those figures. By my calculations, that’s a total of 207,310 deaths from all causes in England and Wales for Weeks 1 through 16. (I couldn’t find this figure in the ONS data, so I added up the weekly totals.) That compares to a five-year average for the same period of 185,213, so a total excess of 22,097 for the year to date. Does that mean the total deaths for the whole of 2020 will be significantly higher than the five-year average? Not necessarily. Don’t forget that according to Professor Neil Ferguson up to two-thirds of those who’ve died of COVID-19 might have died anyway this year, so it’s possible that the virus is just pushing some of the deaths that would have been spread out over the course of 2020 into the first four months. At the end of Week 16 in 2018, after a bad bout of seasonal flu, the total deaths from all causes in England and Wales was 198,943, just 8,367 lower than it is this year. Yet the total number of deaths in England and Wales in 2018 was 541,589, compared to 533,253 in 2017, a difference of less than 10,000. According to the ONS: “Although 2018 saw the highest number of deaths since 1999, when taking the age and size of the population into account, death rates have remained more or less stable since 2011.”

These sorts of comparisons only tell us so much, of course. If the total number of deaths in 2020 is no higher than the five-year average, the lockdown zealots will attribute that to the extreme social distancing measures imposed on March 23rd. But here’s a curious thing about the latest ONS data: if lockdowns are effective at reducing mortality from COVID-19, why did England and Wales’s numbers go up in Week 16, the lion’s share of which (five days) fell more than three weeks after the UK lockdown was imposed? Given the three week lag between infection and death, you’d expect the numbers to go down between Week 15 and Week 16, but they haven’t. According to the ONS: “Of the deaths registered in Week 16, 8,758 mentioned ‘novel coronavirus (COVID-19)’, which is 39.2% of all deaths; this compares with 6,213 (33.6% of all deaths) in Week 15.”

Admittedly, this isn’t conclusive because the people dying in the first two days of Week 16 – the Easter weekend – might have caught the virus exactly three weeks earlier on the weekend of March 21st and 22nd, just before the lockdown was imposed. And it can take more than three weeks for someone to die after being exposed to the virus. However, if the ONS figures next week show a rise in deaths from COVID-19 in Week 17, that really will suggest the lockdown has been ineffective.

Okay, now for some light relief. Following the publication of yesterday’s ONS data, CNN ran a story headlined: ‘Coronavirus death toll 54% higher in England and Wales than daily stats showed.’ To get this 54% figure, CNN’s Simon Cullen and Zamira Rahim compared the ONS data for the number of deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending April 17th (22,351) with the number of people the Government said had died of COVID-19 in England and Wales up to April 17th (14,451). “The 54% difference is caused by multiple factors,” the reporters solemnly intoned, and went on to list some of them: the Government’s figures only include people who’ve died in hospitals, not care homes, and the official figures “fail to account for a lag in reporting some deaths”. But there’s a simpler explanation. The ONS figure (22,351) relates to all-cause mortality in Week 16 (April 11th – 17th), while the Government figure (14,451) refers to the number of people who’ve died from COVID-19 in the year to date. Talk about comparing apples and oranges! I’ve posted a screen grab below as, hopefully, CNN will eventually get round to correcting this schoolboy error.

I’m not suggesting there isn’t a discrepancy between the ONS’s Covid data and the Government’s, mainly because the latter just refers to deaths in hospitals. According to the Reuters report, which unlike the CNN report is actually accurate: “The Office for National Statistics said it had recorded 21,284 fatalities that mentioned COVID-19 on the death certificate as of April 17, compared with 13,917 in the daily hospital death stats published by the government.” (Those are both cumulative, year-to-date totals.)

But before we conclude that the ONS figure is the more accurate of the two, it’s worth bearing in mind that it includes deaths outside hospitals recorded as being from COVID-19 when the doctors issuing the death certificates merely suspected the virus was the cause of death without having a test result to base that on. I’ve checked the guidance in the Coronavirus Act 2020 and it says any medical practitioner can sign the death certificate, even if they weren’t present during the patient’s final illness; they can record COVID-19 as the cause of death even if it’s the “underlying” and not the “direct” cause; and they don’t need “diagnostic proof” that COVID-19 was the cause of death provided they’re satisfied “to the best of their knowledge and belief”. Not exactly rigorous! The true number, therefore, is probably somewhere in between the Government figure and the ONS figure, although we’ll never know for sure without exhuming the bodies and carrying out autopsies.

Manhattan Contrarian has looked at the way Covid deaths are recorded in the US and concluded that they’ve almost certainly been over-reported, including in hospitals, not least because hospitals have a financial incentive for inflating the figures. Worth reading his post on this. Will we see a big uptick in the number of deceased NHS workers being recorded as having died from COVID-19 now that the Government has said it will compensate their families to the tune of £60,000?

This morning’s Telegraph leads with with the fact that the Government has changed the wording of its fifth test, watering it down considerably. It used to stipulate that the Government would only start easing the lockdown if it was “confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections”. But at yesterday’s Downing Street briefing, the words “that overwhelm the NHS” had been added. That gives Boris considerably more wiggle room, particularly as the NHS’s critical care capacity has more than doubled since the lockdown was imposed. That capacity is now sufficient to accommodate the rise in infections associated with reopening schools and universities as estimated by no less an authority than Professor Ferguson and his team in their March 16th paper, a point I made in a blog post for the Critic yesterday.

If you can’t get beyond the Telegraph‘s paywall, the Mail also has the test tampering story. ‘Is the government preparing to ditch lockdown?’ it asks. We can but hope. (According to Christopher Snowdon, the whole story is fake news.)

Several papers report the fact that the NHS England issued an alert yesterday, warning of a “growing concern” that a coronavirus-related inflammatory syndrome might be affecting children. However, only 20 children, at most, have been hospitalised with the condition, the symptoms are remarkably similar to those of Kawasaki disease, a majority of the children affected have already been diagnosed with Kawasaki disease and some of the children affected have tested negative for COVID-19. Overall, the admission of children to hospital with Kawasaki disease is lower than normal this year, not higher.

At yesterday’s press briefing Matt Hancock announced that one of the six drugs currently undergoing clinical trials for treating COVID-19 is being tested on humans. He didn’t reveal whether this was hydroxychloroquine – or whether hydroxychloroquine is one of the six drugs being trialled – but the research evidence that it’s an effective treatment is growing. The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) has written to the Governor of Arizona claiming the drug helps 91% of patients recover. This contradicts the preprint published by the Veterans Health Administration that I referred to yesterday which found that Covid patients given hydroxychloroquine were more likely to die than those who weren’t. That study only involved 368 patients, whereas the AAPS’s involved 2,333. Incidentally, the woman whose husband died after ingesting chloroquine sulphate – a death that Donald Trump was widely blamed for in the mainstream media, following his praise for hydroxychloroquine – is now under investigation by the Mesa City Police Department’s homicide division. The Washington Free Beacon has the story. (Someone has pointed out in the comments that that AAPS is a conservative advocacy group.)

The ranks of lockdown sceptics received an unexpected addition yesterday: Theresa May. The ex-Prime Minister posted a video urging the Government to lift the lockdown. “The Government must also think about the impact of lockdown on our overall health and wellbeing as a nation,” she said. “That of course includes the economy, but it must also include the impact on domestic abuse and mental health. We cannot have a situation where the cure for the disease does more damage than the disease itself.”

Another unexpected recruit is Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York times columnist. Speaking on Indian television, he said the sub-continent’s best hope is to go for herd immunity, sheltering the elderly but allowing the young and fit to return to work. “The trick is to get your people out to acquire immunity naturally but get only those out who may experience COVID-19 virus mildly or asymptomatically so that you don’t overwhelm the healthcare system,” he said. India Today has the story.

That strategy certainly seems to be working in Sweden, as the New York Times reported yesterday. Sweden’s death rate of 22 per 100,000 is about the same as Ireland’s and far better than in Britain or France. And the graph showing the daily death tolls up to April 27th shows the Swedes have flattened the curve:

In spite of mounting evidence that lockdowns are ineffective – see this new research by a group of Israeli professors, for instance – the British public remains passionately enthusiastic about them according to a new opinion poll. The FT writes:

Most British people would prefer to delay lifting lockdown measures until the virus is “fully contained”, and would feel worried about leaving their homes even once rules have been eased, according to a poll by Ipsos Mori. As many as 70% of UK residents said they were concerned about restarting the economy prematurely, while 71% expected they would be “nervous” about venturing outside once businesses had reopened. The results suggest that Britons are more cautious than other nations that took part in the survey of 28,000 people, conducted between April 16th – 19th. When asked if they would favour opening the economy before the coronavirus pandemic is fully under control, 65% of Mexicans were against, followed by 61% of Australians and 59% of Americans.

How to explain the British people’s supine acquiescence to being placed under house arrest? Could it be that our medical-industrial complex has completely terrified the public with its apocalyptic prognostications of doom? That’s the theory I come up with in an article in the latest issue of the Critic entitled ‘The return of Project Fear‘. Another possibility is that it’s due to the blob-like growth of ’elf-and-safety culture, particularly in the public sector. One reader thinks this is the reason:

The Covid thing has revealed the complete divide between the risk averse and risk takers and unfortunately that divide seems to fall in large part between the public sector and the private sector. Bureaucracies are not exactly the place to find people ready to jump – free fall or bungy or otherwise. I am in the latter category and I fear the long term consequences of the lockdown will be devastating. Look it’s complicated, I get that, but life is a risk and we have spent many decades hopelessly in thrall to reducing all forms of risk, in our parenting, our education, higher and lower, in government, nanny state, etc. People are far more fearful than they need/should be. Roosevelt’s quote is as pertinent today as it was then.

I’m reminded of another quote, this one by CS Lewis: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent busybodies.”

One consideration when assessing the effectiveness of lockdowns is understanding how coronavirus is passed from person to person. If large droplets and contaminated surfaces are the dominant mode of transmission, then washing your hands, wearing masks and social distancing may be sufficient to suppress infection. But if clouds of tiny aerosol droplets are found to be the dominant mode then ‘shelter-in-place’ orders make sense. My colleague Jonathan Kay, who like me works as an editor at the online magazine Quillette, has tried to answer this question by analysing what are referred to in the scientific literature as “superspreader events” (SSEs) – large COVID-19 infection clusters, such as the bartender who infected numerous people in an Austrian ski resort. Jonathan couldn’t find any comprehensive database of COVID-19 SSEs so he built his own, cataloguing 58 SSEs in 28 different countries (plus ships at sea). It’s worth reading the piece in full, but his conclusion is that virtually all SSEs feature forms of human behaviour that permit the direct ballistic delivery of a large payload of droplets from face A to face B. No aerosol transmission, in other words.

I should stress that Jonathan isn’t an out-and-out sceptic – he’s agnostic on whether lockdowns have had any positive effects and, being more scientifically-minded than me, won’t reach a conclusion until there’s more data available. But I like to think he’s on our side. I interviewed him for the latest Quillette podcast.

A reader has been in touch to complain about an article I linked to a couple of days ago:

I’ve been stewing over Andrew Sullivan’s column in which he quotes Damon Linker – “A life without forward momentum is to a considerable extent a life without purpose.” Sullivan, who identifies himself as a faithful Catholic, should know better. The Catholic church has a long, rich tradition of cloistered nuns and monks who surely are not engaged in “forward momentum” but are valued for their constant prayer and contemplative lives. And what about stay-at-home parents who homeschool their children and keep the household running? Are those lives without purpose? Just wanted to get that off my chest.

And finally, another reader has suggested a few more verboten phrases to add to the swear jar list that RDawg came up with yesterday:

  • ‘The “R” number’
  • ‘The “Lag”‘
  • ‘NHS Heroes’
  • ‘The Peak’
  • ‘The five tests’
  • ‘Test, track and trace’

As always, a big thanks to those who donated to pay for the upkeep of this site yesterday. Maintaining it – and doing these daily updates – is proving to be quite a bit of work, so if you feel like donating you can do so by clicking here. And if you want to flag up any stories or links I should include in the site, or have points you think I should make, you can email me here. See you tomorrow.

P.S. Congrats to Boris and Carrie on the birth of a son.

Latest News

The Express leads with the minute’s silence for NHS workers who’ve died of COVID-19 that was observed at 11am this morning and the fact that the families of front line NHS and social care staff in England who’ve died will receive £60,000 in compensation, which was announced by Matt Hancock at the Downing Street press briefing yesterday.

Any death from the virus is tragic, and I can see the argument for compensating the families of workers who succumb to COVID-19 after putting themselves in harm’s way. But why NHS and social care staff and not, say, bus drivers? Or supermarket workers? Or the owners of corner shops that have remained open during the crisis? Or postmen and milkmen? Is it because NHS workers are more likely to die from COVID-19 than other members of the working population? As readers will recall, I crunched the numbers on that last week with the help of Guy de la Bédoyère, a reader with a background in statistics, and concluded that, on the face of it, NHS workers are no more likely to die than other workers. I asked Guy to look at the numbers again to see if that’s still true.

Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on NHS workers is bedevilled by a number of unknowns. The constant blurring in the media of NHS staff with “healthcare workers” (a larger and more nebulous number that includes NHS staff), a lack of clarity about whether the NHS staff who have died are front line workers or not, the general problem with determining whether a person has died from or with COVID-19, and working out where they picked up the infection – was it at work? – are just some of the complicating factors. Following our analysis, BBC Radio 4’s More or Less programme did its own calculation last week. Estimating the UK’s working population (people aged 20-65) to be ~42 million and the number of NHS staff at 1.47 million, More or Less calculated that of the 2,145 people of working age who had died of COVID-19 at that point (16,509), between 70 and 85 of them should have been NHS workers simply by virtue of their being exposed to the same general risk as everyone else. As it turned out, exactly 77 NHS staff had died at that point. You can listen to the item on the programme here. (It starts at 17m and 23s.)

Is it still the case that NHS workers are no more likely to die than other members of the working population? Yesterday, Matt Hancock announced that 82 NHS staff had died from COVID-19. The stated deaths in hospitals for the same day was 21,092, an increase of 28%. Assuming everything else is equal, that means that by yesterday 98 NHS staff should have died, 16 more than are recorded as having done so. In other words, they appear to be less at risk of succumbing to the virus than other workers.

But there are various caveats I should add. For example, we have no idea what the variable risk is that NHS staff are exposed to, depending on their jobs. Have the 82 fatalities been exposed to more risk than the average NHS worker? In addition, NHS staff are likely to be largely fit and well – healthier than the average 20-65 year-old – and if they’re working in hazardous environments they should be wearing protective clothing, although there have been PPE shortages as we know. Consequently, it’s possible that NHS workers would be dying in fewer numbers if their daily work really does render them no more vulnerable to COVID-19 than other workers. Even so, there are still no statistical data showing that NHS staff are exposed to additional risk over and above the risk that all workers are exposed to – not any that I can find anyway. (Off-Guardian has also done an analysis, as has HSJ, and both have concluded that healthcare workers are substantially under-represented among those recorded as having died from the virus.)

In other news, both the Times and the Telegraph have interpreted Boris’s speech yesterday more generously than I did, detecting in it a signal that the lockdown is about to be eased – and it looks as if their political editors have been briefed to that effect by Downing Street. The Times reports that shops selling “non-essential” items will soon be allowed to reopen if they can keep customers two metres apart, people will be permitted to mix with a limited number of people outside their homes, Premier League football games will resume behind closed doors (although the Government can’t mandate that) and people arriving in the UK from abroad are likely to face two weeks in quarantine. The Telegraph claims garden centres will reopen in the next fortnight and – glory be – rubbish dumps and recycling centres may throw open their doors as soon as this weekend. Both say the fleshed-out proposals will be announced in the next few days.

At last Friday’s Downing Street coronavirus summit, according to the Telegraph, Boris quoted Cicero’s motto: “Salus populi suprema lex esto.” This has been widely translated as meaning “the health of the people should be the supreme law”, but a reader of this site begs to differ. He points out that the Latin word salus means a lot more than physical health. Among other things, it also means “a sound or whole condition, welfare, prosperity” (Lewis and Short, Latin Dictonary). In other words, the wellbeing of every aspect of human society, not just physical wellbeing. Cicero’s motto doesn’t mean physical health should take priority over everything else, including the economy.

Rachel Shabbi has taken a pop at lockdown sceptics (and me in particular) in the Guardian, describing us as “the right’s angry culture warriors” and linking us with Brexiteers. (My own experience is there’s some overlap, but the Venn diagram isn’t a perfect circle.) She dismisses the argument that continuing lockdowns across the world will result in a greater loss of life than the pandemic as “nonsense”, which is a bit odd given how often she has repeated the dubious claim that the UK’s austerity programme of the last 10 years has resulted in 130,000 unnecessary deaths. “Strikingly,” she writes, “these sceptics don’t engage with the actual issue with the lockdown: that it came too late, causing thousands of unnecessary deaths, even while many scientists and the World Health Organization were imploring swifter action of the like being taken by other countries.” Shabbi appears to be unaware of one of the central planks of the sceptical case, namely, that lockdowns don’t in fact reduce COVID-19 fatalities. In other words, there’s no evidence the number of UK deaths would be lower if the Government had imposed a lockdown sooner. As Lyman Stone points out in his sceptical essay in Public Discourse: “We don’t need to have a national debate about whether the economic costs of lockdowns outweigh their public health benefits, because lockdowns do not provide public health benefits.”

In addition to the economic cost, there is the continuing toll that the lockdown is taking on the most vulnerable members of our society, something you’d think Guardian journalists would care about. Amanda Spielman, head of the schools watchdog, has warned that the country’s poorest pupils are likely to suffer most from school closures. Addressing the House of Commons Education Select Committee yesterday, she said: “Whether we like it or not, it is going to widen gaps, especially in the short term.” The Mail has the story.

For a robust statement of the sceptical case, I recommend this comment posted under ‘How Reliable is Imperial College’s Modelling?’ by Hugh Osmond, the founder of Punch Taverns, one of the UK’s largest pub chains. It’s a lengthy post that has prompted an interesting discussion thread and is worth reading in full. Hugh’s conclusion is as follows:

Headline-grabbing predictions by advisers such as the Imperial team were derived from inappropriate model inputs with unreliable early data. On the most cursory analysis, it was apparent that the model bore no resemblance to the reality and the Imperial modellers should have been quietly dropped from the advisory group. Similarly, even before the epidemic arrived in the UK, it should have been obvious from the experience in China and Italy that spread of infection by asymptomatic individuals within hospitals (and elsewhere) was an enormous problem. Ward segregations, compulsory use of PPE, testing of all hospital workers and other rigorous measures to prevent institutional outbreaks amongst the vulnerable should have been in place from the start.

Freddie Sayers, the editor of UnHerd, has written a thoughtful piece following his interview with Neil Ferguson on Saturday. He argues that which epidemiologists you believe in this crisis – the hawks or the doves, to invoke the distinction between the rival Cabinet factions – doesn’t come down to a choice between good and evil, as some lockdown zealots would have it. It’s much more complicated than that. “The expert that most resonates is unlikely to be entirely down to your assessment of the science — more likely a complex combination of your politics, your own life experience, your attitude to risk and mortality and your relationship to authority,” he writes.

Arch-sceptic Heather Mac Donald has written a good piece in Spectator USA about the Covid paranoia that has infected the US population. Among the points she makes is that the odds of catching the virus from a passing jogger are vanishingly small. “The chance of getting infected across a wide open, windswept space is virtually nil, even if the imaginary carrier were not moving quickly past his potential victim,” she writes. It’s delusional beliefs like this, she says, constantly reinforced by the mainstream media’s hysterical coverage, that will prevent consumers from going to re-opened restaurants or boarding planes in sufficient numbers to bring the economy back to life.

In the interests of balance, it’s also worth reading this piece in New York magazine by David Wallace-Wells on how many things we still don’t know about SARS-CoV-2. Wallace-Wells is a lockdown zealot, but he does a good job of reporting on the constantly changing medical understanding of how the virus is killing us and how best to treat critically ill patients. (He points out that hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir aren’t faring well in trials.) “The clinical shape of the disease, long presumed to be a relatively predictable respiratory infection, is getting less clear by the week,” he writes. “Lately, it seems, by the day.” Reading about the protean ability of the virus to kill us in a variety of ingenious and horrible ways, it’s tempting to conclude it’s a genetically-engineered bioweapon – but then, conspiracy theories are always tempting when faced with something sinister and mysterious. This account by a New York nurse of what doctors are doing wrong in New York City’s hospitals is hair-raising, although it’s a second-hand report. And when it comes to the effectiveness of ventilators, a Consultant Anaesthetist with a particular interest in critical care has posted an interesting comment underneath ‘How Effective are Ventilators’ that you can read here.

Omar Rodriguez organizes bodies in the Gerard J. Neufeld funeral home in Elmhurst on April 22nd. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

If you think you’ve got it bad wherever you’re locked down, spare a thought for those trapped at the Tribal Gathering Festival in Panama. Midway through the festival, which was supposed to be an opportunity for Westerners to learn from local indigenous people how to “rebalance” their lives, Panama went into lockdown, making it virtually impossible to leave. As one reader writes: “Imagine being locked down indefinitely with this bunch of self-indulgent, woke, middle class, ‘right on’ wasters – hell on earth!” There are still 40 people trapped on the site. Vice has a video report of the calamity.

A number of readers have reported that the YouTube video of the two doctors in California making a number of sceptical points about the way governments have responded to the crisis across the world (which I linked to last week) has been taken down. If you click on the link, that certainly seems to be the case. Is this an example of YouTube applying its censorship policy whereby any content that is “medically unsubstantiated” or challenges the WHO’s recommendations will be removed? Confusingly, the second part of the doctors’ briefing is still on YouTube.

In case you missed it, one of the regular commentators in this site – RDawg – posted this comment yesterday: “Persons caught saying any one of the following phrases, especially when used in a morally superior ‘tutting’ way, are subject to a payment of £10 into the swear jar and a slap round the face with a wet kipper:

  • ‘Self isolate’
  • ‘Social distancing’
  • ‘Flatten the curve’
  • ‘Guided by the science’
  • ‘The new normal’
  • ‘We must wait until we have a vaccine’
  • Any positive referencing of Neil Ferguson and his ‘model’
  • ‘We risk having a second peak’

To which other commentators have added:

  • ‘Oh, so you’re happy for old people to die’?
  • ‘It’s worth it if it saves just one life’
  • ‘Stay safe’

I’m sure you can think of some more.

Finally, if you feel like some light relief while you’re doing your daily exercise – and you can’t find anything better – there’s always the latest episode of London Calling, the weekly podcast I do with my friend James Delingpole. You can listen to it here. Plenty of sceptical chat, but we also talk about the embarrassment of having our wives write in last week’s Spectator about what it’s like being locked up with us. You can read those pieces here. My wife’s contribution is a tissue of lies, obviously.

A huge thank you to all those who donated to pay for the upkeep of this site in the past 24 hours. The battle continues, so if you feel like donating you can do so here. And if you want to flag up any stories or links I should include in the site, or have points you’d like me to make on your behalf, you can email me . Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Hopefully we’ll know by the end of the week.

Latest News

Boris made an unscheduled speech outside Downing Street this morning in which he announced… bugger all. For the time being, he said, there will be no easing of the lockdown. The message was the same as the one being peddled by Dominic Raab and other Cabinet ministers at the daily Downing Street press briefings: the lockdown will remain in place until the Government’s five tests have been met and in the meantime it would be irresponsible to set out an exit timetable. According to Boris, the most important of those tests is eliminating the risk of a “second spike”. If the easing of social distancing measures led to a second wave of infections that would not only be a humanitarian disaster, rendering all our sacrifices for nothing, it would also necessitate reimposing restrictions and that, in turn, would be “an economic disaster”. So in order to protect the NHS, save lives and rebuild the economy, we have to remain under virtual house arrest for the foreseeable future. (You can read the full text here.)

This was deeply unimpressive from the Prime Minister. Where’s the evidence that phasing out the lockdown, but keeping more modest social distancing measures in place, would lead to a second wave? As Lyman Stone points out in an excellent essay in Public Discourse, the burden of proof isn’t on lockdown sceptics to show that they don’t work. Rather, the burden of proof is on the lockdown advocates to prove that they do. “If you’re going to essentially cancel the civil liberties of the entire population for a few weeks, you should probably have evidence that the strategy will work,” he writes. “And there, lockdown advocates fail miserably, because they simply don’t have evidence.” Stone is an economist specialising in population and demography and he looks at the effect of the lockdowns in Spain, Italy and France and compares them with the mitigation strategies pursued in Sweden and Holland. His conclusion? Lockdowns have made no difference when it comes to reducing COVID-19 deaths. To check this, he crunches the data from the US, comparing Covid mortality rates in those states that have locked down with those that haven’t and finds that for every two weeks a “stay-at-home” order is in place the death rate actually increases by one person per 100,000. That is to say, lockdowns actually have a negative effect on Covid mortality. “We don’t need to have a national debate about whether the economic costs of lockdowns outweigh their public health benefits, because lockdowns do not provide public health benefits,” he concludes.

Stone isn’t a Covid denier. He thinks wearing masks should be mandatory and social gatherings of over 50 people should remain prohibited. Nonetheless, when it comes to the more severe restrictions associated with lockdowns, his assessment is absolutely withering.

Stone’s analysis, which is similar to that of Professor Wilfred Reilly’s (‘There is no empirical evidence for these lockdowns‘), complements that of Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford, who argues that infections peaked in the UK before the lockdown was imposed. According to Professor Heneghan, the data shows infection rates halved when the Government launched a public information campaign on March 16th urging people to wash their hands and keep two metres apart. That’s clear from the fact that deaths peaked on April 8th, almost exactly three weeks later. He believes the Government “lost sight” of the evidence and rushed into a nationwide quarantine on March 23rd after being poorly advised by scientific experts who have been “consistently wrong” during the crisis. Professor Heneghan praises Sweden for “holding its nerve” and avoiding a “doomsday scenario”.

In addition to this, there are the analyses showing that the rise and fall of infections and deaths follows the same pattern wherever the virus has struck, regardless of whether the country or region in question has imposed a lockdown or how severe that lockdown is. I’m thinking of this piece of work by Professor Isaac Ben-Israel, the head of the security studies programme at Tel Aviv University and the chairman of Israel’s National Council for Research and Development, showing that the virus largely vanishes 70 days after it strikes, no matter what strategies are put in place to contain it. There’s also this analysis by Phil Nuttridge, an ex-scientist with a masters degree in statistics, showing that infections peak between 31 and 33 days after cases first start appearing. He looked at six different European countries and detected the same pattern in all six irrespective of their varying population densities, testing rates, case levels and mortality rates, and in spite of the severity of the lockdowns they’ve imposed and when they imposed them.

Of course, there are plenty of epidemiologists and virologists who still believe lockdowns have been effective, such as Professor Neil Ferguson, who seems to be emerging as the UK’s answer to Dr Strangelove. In an interview in UnHerd on Saturday, Professor Ferguson refused to row back on his previous claim that absent a lockdown 250,000 Britons would die of COVID-19. If we ease off now, he said, more than 100,000 would die before the end of the year, even if we continue to quarantine the elderly and the vulnerable. He reiterated that the only viable exit strategy is a vaccine.

In the interview, Professor Ferguson says a majority of epidemiologists are on his side in this debate – and that may be true – but how reliable are the predictive computer models they’re using? The more scrutiny the Imperial College model is subjected to, the less well it holds up.

Readers of this site will be familiar with the scepticism of John Ioannidis, Professor of Medicine at Stanford, who says some of the assumptions and estimates built into the ICL model are substantially inflated. But readers may not be familiar with a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Jointly authored by a team of health economists from Harvard University and MIT, it’s highly critical of the predictive models used by epidemiologists in general – and particularly Professor Ferguson’s. You can read their paper here. It’s quite technical, but thankfully Phillip Magness has summarised the main criticism in an article for the American Institute for Economic Research. The gist is that the ICL model predicts how many people are likely to die from COVID-19 in various different scenarios without allowing for the way in which people adapt to the risk of infection over time. For instance, the model claimed 510,000 people in the UK would die if the Government did nothing to mitigate the impact of the virus – and 2.2 million in the US – ignoring the fact that as people learned more about the disease they would take more and more precautions, whether told to by the Government or not. If that is a flaw in the ICL model – that it’s insufficiently dynamic to accurately predict the response to the virus over time – that would jibe with Carl Heneghan’s analysis showing that infections peaked before the lockdown was imposed. That indicates Professor Ferguson’s March 16th paper underestimated the impact of the mitigation measures introduced by the Government that same day. The authors of the NCER paper say of the ICL paper and four others based on epidemiological models: “In sum, the language of these papers suggests a degree of certainty that is simply not justified.”

But let’s suppose Professor Ferguson is right and an easing of the lockdown would see an uptick in infections. Is that a good reason not to do it, as Boris Johnson said this morning? The six million dollar question is whether the NHS would be overwhelmed if we returned to a mitigation strategy and the March 16th ICL model is flawed in that respect because it underestimated the NHS’s emergency surge capacity. (Another example of the model being too static.) Critical care capacity has now been significantly increased – the number of ICU beds in the UK has doubled, not counting the ones in the new Nightingale hospitals. According to the ICL model, that means you could ease back on some of the extreme social distancing measures without overwhelming the NHS.

Take a look at the graph below in Professor Ferguson’s March 16th paper. The red line represents the NHS’s critical care capacity as it was then – eight per 100,000 members of the population. Even if we confine ourselves to the critical care capacity in existing hospitals and ignore the Nightingales, we can still move the red line up to 16 per 100,000 people. That pushes it above the orange line, which represents the estimated demand for critical care in a less extreme lockdown scenario, with schools and universities remaining open. Based on this, Boris Johnson could have announced this morning that schools would reopen immediately without any risk of the NHS being overwhelmed.

Incidentally, schools are reopening in numerous countries that have imposed lockdowns as it becomes clear that children are at virtually no risk of dying of COVID-19. The argument for keeping schools closed is that asymptomatic schoolchildren might infect teachers, who are more vulnerable to the disease, and they might go on to infect others, thereby helping to trigger a second spike. But the latest research suggests otherwise. According to a paper by the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) in Australia tracking the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in schools in New South Wales, the risk of schoolchildren infecting other, more vulnerable groups is negligible. “Our investigation found no evidence of children infecting teachers,” says Professor Kristine Macartney, Director of the NCIRS and the lead author of the paper. You can read more about that study here.

Okay, let’s suppose, contrary to the evidence, that reopening schools and switching off some of the other extreme measures did, in fact, overwhelm the NHS. So we’d switch them back on again. What would be so economically disastrous about that? As far as I can tell, this argument crept in to the Number 10 press briefings last week without any accompanying explanation of how the Government or its economic advisors reached this conclusion. As I’ve pointed out before, Professor Ferguson and his team recommended a strategy of switching measures on and off to manage infection flow after we’ve flattened the first wave in their March 16th paper and the same approach was recommended by Nicola Sturgeon when she unveiled Scotland’s exit plan on Friday. How could that possibly pose a greater risk to the economy than leaving the lockdown in place, given how catastrophic we know that will be? In his speech this morning Boris said: “I want to share all our working and our thinking, my thinking, with you, the British people.” Well, you could start by explaining that, Prime Minister.

In his UnHerd interview, Professor Ferguson claimed that more than 100,000 people would die of COVID-19 by the end of the year if we end the lockdown now and merely isolate the elderly and the vulnerable. But as he told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, two-thirds of the people who’ve already succumbed to the virus would have died by the end of the year anyway, given their age and underlying health conditions. Do we know the same doesn’t apply to those that would die of COVID-19 if the lockdown was lifted? If it does, then Professor Ferguson’s argument is not that more than 100,000 people will die by the end of the year if we ease the lockdown, but about a third of that number. And for that to be a persuasive argument for maintaining the status quo, he’d have to show that keeping the lockdown in place will result in a lower loss of life, which is implausible given the impact on public health of the looming economic catastrophe.

Even if we ignore the toll on human life the economic contraction will cause – not just here, but in the developing world, where a global economic recession will likely see tens of millions of people starve to death – there’s plenty of evidence that the lockdown has already had a negative effect on public health. There’s a good article in today’s FT by Sebastian Payne documenting the costs the lockdown has incurred in terms of mental health, domestic violence and people failing to seek medical help for strokes, heart attacks and cancer symptoms. As he points out, one internal Government estimate put the number of lives likely to be lost by the neglect of non-COVID-19 patients at 150,000. Among the costs he documents are:

  • Refuge, a charity supporting victims of domestic violence, has seen a 49% rise to about 400 calls daily to its helpline since the lockdown began on March 23rd.
  • The Internet Watch Foundation, a charity based in Cambridge that monitors images of child abuse circulating online, has found a threefold increase in people seeking such content in the UK since March 23rd — from 100,000 to 300,000.
  • The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has reported a dramatic spike in demand for its services. In the first week of April alone, the NSPCC took calls from 363 children suffering physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect.
  • According to Mind, a charity that specialises in mental health, a third of the 4,000 people surveyed in a recent poll described their mental health as “poor or very poor”, while two-thirds said their state of mind had worsened over the past two weeks.
  • St Thomas’s, the hospital which treated the Prime Minister for coronavirus, has seen an 80% reduction in its minor injury work.
  • Cancer Research UK says there has been a 75% drop in urgent referrals from GPs for those suspected of having the disease.
  • According to Karol Sikora, dean of medicine at the University of Buckingham and an oncology consultant for 40 years, only 5,000 patients will be diagnosed with cancer in April 2020, down from 30,000 in a normal month.

The only straw to clutch at in Boris’s speech is he said preparations for a phased exit strategy were under way, and had been for weeks. Let’s hope he recovers his nerve and announces that strategy later this week.

As always, thanks to those who made a donation for the upkeep of this site yesterday. I had hoped that I could begin to reduce the amount of time I’m spending on Lockdown Sceptics and refocus on my other work after Boris’s unveiled an exit plan today. But that isn’t to be. Looks like this work is still as urgent as ever, so please donate if you can by clicking here. Page views are now over 200,000 and climbing every day, so the site is being widely read. And if you’ve spotted any links, or have any thoughts of your own you think I should include, you can email me .

Latest News

Good news on the front page of today’s Sunday Times: “Tory grandees” are heaping pressure on the Prime Minister to end the lockdown. “A pincer movement of Conservative Party donors, cabinet ministers and senior Tory backbenchers is putting Boris Johnson under concerted pressure to ease the lockdown,” it reports.

Another encouraging development is an exclusive on the front of today’s Mail on Sunday revealing that the Government has ordered 50 million antibody tests that have been devised by scientists at Oxford working for the Rapid Testing Consortium. The newspaper claims the tests cost £10 each and give results in 20 minutes. Let’s hope they’re more reliable than the 33 FDA-approved PCR tests that infectious diseases expert David Crowe reviewed for Lockdown Sceptics yesterday. You can read David’s article here.

The Sunday Telegraph leads with a scoop of its own: anyone arriving in the UK from abroad — including British nationals — will have to self-isolate for two weeks under the Government’s proposed exit strategy. This is already the case in Singapore, which has only recorded 12 deaths from COVID-19 to date. But won’t that devastate the tourist trade? And what about British people who’ve already booked their summer holidays? Will they still leave the country knowing they’ll have to self-isolate for two weeks on their return? It seems a little over-the-top when a simple screening programme at our airports and ports could achieve the same result.

Will Boris’s exit strategy involve the quarantining of the over-70s until the end of the year (and possibly beyond)? A reader has complained that it would be a bit hypocritical of the Government to propose the long-term isolation of the elderly on the grounds that they’re particularly vulnerable to the virus, but not BME people, who also appear to be at greater risk than others. (Imagine the uproar if Boris proposed that!) To this list we could add anyone with the health conditions associated with an above-average risk of dying from COVID-19, such as diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease, a compromised immune system, etc. And anyone who’s either overweight or obese, which is 64.3% of all British adults. Being overweight is one of the biggest risk factors when it comes to being admitted to hospital with a severe form of COVID-19. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of those admitted to ICU in the UK with coronavirus are overweight. Or perhaps all of these groups could be allowed to return to normal life provided they take up smoking, given that nicotine is emerging as one of the most effective prophylactics against catching the disease. One study in France found that smokers were four times less likely to contract COVID-19 than non-smokers. My colleague Christopher Snowdon, a long-standing critic of the anti-smoking lobby, is cock-a-hoop about this finding.

An illustration of the link between obesity and COVID-19 in the Daily Express

A couple of opinion polls out today show the public’s enthusiasm for the lockdown beginning to wane. According to Opinium, 53% of people want restaurants, offices, shopping centres and schools to reopen as soon as new infections decrease (which they have, obviously) and are prepared to accept periodic closures, i.e. switching restrictions on and off according to whether the infection rate is climbing or falling. Approval of the Government and its handling of the crisis has dropped for the second week in a row, according to Opinium, a result echoed in an ORB poll for the Telegraph. The percentage of respondents who approve of the Government’s handling of the crisis has declined to 52%, down from 59% earlier this month.

And Britain has finally chalked up its first anti-lockdown protest. Piers Corbyn, brother of Jeremy, led a demonstration in Glastonbury yesterday. In his speech, Corbyn made some good points – the NHS’s focus on treating COVID-19 patients has led to other patients being neglected – but he also made some not-so-good ones, claiming the reason the Government wants us to stay two metres apart is so it can identify us using satellites. The Mail has the story. Meanwhile, 200 demonstrators gathered in Berlin on Saturday to protest about extreme social distancing measures.

Yesterday I pointed out that celebrities weren’t having a good crisis. Neither is the European Union. Its latest act of self-harm is to censor its own report about how governments spread disinformation about coronavirus. The report was originally critical of China, but has now been heavily watered down after pressure from Chinese officials. According to the New York Times, the first draft of the report was critical of China’s for orchestrating a “global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic” as well as spreading false allegations against French politicians, accusing them of using racist slurs against the head of the WHO. All these passages have been excised, says the Times. Read the story here.

Conservative intellectual Andrew Sullivan has written a good column in New York magazine about the psychological toll that self-isolating is taking on him – and he admits he’s better off than most. It includes this quote from a piece by Damon Linker in the Week on the same subject: “A life without forward momentum is to a considerable extent a life without purpose — or at least the kind of purpose that lifts our spirits and enlivens our steps as we traverse time. Without the momentum and purpose, we flounder. A present without a future is a life that feels less worth living, because it’s a life haunted by a shadow of futility.”

The Wall St Journal published a great interview yesterday with arch sceptic John Ioannidis, Professor of Medicine at Stanford. Readers will recall that Ioannidis was one of the first senior scientists to criticise the overreaction of governments to the coronavirus crisis, calling it a “once-in-a-century fiasco”. Here are some highlights:

[Professor Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College] used inputs that were completely off in some of their calculations. If data are limited or flawed, their errors are being propagated through the model. . . . So if you have a small error, and you exponentiate that error, the magnitude of the final error in the prediction or whatever can be astronomical.

There’s some sort of mob mentality here operating that they just insist that this has to be the end of the world, and it has to be that the sky is falling. It’s attacking studies with data based on speculation and science fiction. But dismissing real data in favour of mathematical speculation is mind-boggling.

We have some evidence that bad news, negative news [stories], are more attractive than positive news – they lead to more clicks, they lead to people being more engaged. And of course we know that fake news travels faster than true news. So in the current environment, unfortunately, we have generated a very heavily panic-driven, horror-driven, death-reality-show type of situation.

One of our own senior scientists who’s emerging as a bit of a sceptic – Professor Karol Sikora – pointed out on Twitter this morning that the daily death tolls released by NHS England are not in fact a record of those who’ve died in the previous 24 hours. (Off-Guardian drew attention to this on April 23rd in a post entitled ‘Why you can’t trust the UK’s “daily” COVID-19 updates‘.) Sikora wrote: “Of the reported 711 NHS England fatalities yesterday, only 105 were from the previous day. Many were from weeks ago. Using accurate and current data shows a much more encouraging picture.” (In fact, 32% of the 711 deaths reported by NHS England yesterday occurred between March 11th and April 17th, according to the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine.) Sikora refers people to a section of NHS England’s website that records how many people have actually died in the previous 24 hours. Here is the data on this that NHS England released yesterday, clearly showing deaths peaking at between 800 and 900 on April 8th and declining to ~100 on April 24th.

And, of course, there’s also the problem of doctors dutifully recording coronavirus as the cause of death, when the patient in question may or may not have died of COVID-19. For deaths that occur outside hospitals – such as in care homes – that happens if the doctor merely suspects the patient had coronavirus without any testing evidence. In Pennsylvania, officials have had to remove hundreds of coronavirus deaths from the state’s official death count, following pushback by local coroners. You can read that story here.

Finally, Dan Hannan has written a good column in today’s Sunday Telegraph, arguing out that if Sweden’s more modest social distancing measures prove effective then lockdowns will have been for nothing. He points out that lockdown zealots appear to be willing Sweden to fail, scarcely able to conceal their glee whenever the death toll ticks up. Well, I have some bad news for them: yesterday’s daily toll in Sweden was 40, bringing the total number of deaths to 2,192, around 10% of ours.

As always, a big thanks to those readers who donated yesterday. It’s your donations that enable me to spend so much time maintaining this site and doing the daily updates. If you’d like to donate, click here.

Latest News

Lockdown zealots like Piers Morgan and Carole Cadwalladr have exploded with delight at the Guardian‘s story that Dominic Cummings attended the Secret Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) on March 23rd, the day Boris Johnson announced the lockdown. “This may turn out to be the biggest scandal of the crisis,” tweeted Piers, while Carole declared it “unfuckingbelievable”. Ooh, mother!

So are they – and the Guardian – suggesting the decision to impose a lockdown was, in part, a political one and not just based on the wise counsel of the Government’s scientific advisors? That the Machiavellian Brexit mastermind had to infiltrate SAGE to browbeat the boffins into advising Boris to do what he judged to be in Boris’s best interests, not the country’s? Does this mean they’ve all done a reverse ferret and joined the ranks of lockdown sceptics? Not sure how the Guardian‘s scoop will sit with its columnists, who until now have tried to out-bid each other in their enthusiasm for the lockdown – “No I care about the NHS more.” “No I do.” “No I do.” Hitherto, the Guardian‘s main criticism of Boris is that he didn’t place the British people under house arrest even sooner. Now, apparently, the lockdown is just a piece of political theatre staged by Dominic Cummings.

The statement from No 10 rebutting the story, attributed to a “spokesman”, denied Cummings was a member of SAGE, claimed he sometimes listened in to meetings “to understand better the scientific debates concerning this emergency” and “the limits of how science and data can help Government decisions” and said he “occasionally” offers to help “when scientists mention problems in Whitehall”. (Darn those pesky bureaucrats.) The statement concluded: “Public confidence in the media has collapsed during this emergency partly because of ludicrous stories such as this.” Sounds like Cummings wrote that himself, but I can’t help thinking he has a point.

In other news, it looks as though the Government is engaging in a bit of “pitch rolling” ahead of an exit strategy announcement. At yesterday’s Downing Street press conference, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, seemed to admit we were beyond the peak, albeit in a mealy mouthed way. “It isn’t over, we’re riding perhaps, we hope, a downward trend but it is by no means, no means established yet,” he said. Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, told MPs on the Science and Technology Select Committee that the virus’s reproduction number – its R0 – is now less than one. “The R that we have at the moment is somewhere between 0.5 and 1,” he said. “Let’s say for the sake of argument it is in the middle of that range, which I think is likely, that does give a little bit of scope for manoeuvre and ticking some things off while still keeping it below 1.” Scope for manoeuvre. Geddit?

As if in anticipation of Monday’s big reveal – yes, I’m still optimistic – several of today’s papers report that the Government has “discreetly” told various businesses to get back to work, although not all that discreetly since it has evidently briefed this story out. (See this story in the Telegraph and this one in the Mail.) McDonald’s, British Steel and Persimmon are among those companies that have announced they’ll be reopening next month.

While we wait for Boris’s return, I thought it might be helpful to list the countries that have either eased their lockdowns or announced they’ll do so shortly: Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Columbia, Croatia, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany… actually, this is going to take too long, but you get the idea. The UK is now an extreme outlier. Incidentally, Dominic Raab’s five tests have all been met according to Alistair Haimes in the Critic. You can read his persuasive analysis here.

If Boris still hasn’t decided on an exit strategy, I can recommend this one by the climate change researcher Nicholas Lewis. He’s crunched the data and concluded that the infection fatality rate for those under-70 who do not suffer from any of the chronic health conditions associated with COVID-19 morbidity, as well as those under 30 who do have one or more of the relevant health conditions, is 0.03%. That’s 41 million people, according to Lewis. Let them return to normal life while keeping the elderly and the vulnerable fairly isolated. By the end of the year, he calculates, approximately 54% of the population would no longer be susceptible to COVID-19, which would be sufficient to give us herd immunity. (It would also have the advantage of minimising the risk of a second wave of infections next winter, although my own view is that such a risk is negligible.) Lewis’s plan won’t be popular with readers of this site aged 70 and over, but this piece by John Humphries in today’s Mail will be. The headline is: ‘Keeping grandparents away from their loved ones after lockdown ends isn’t “shielding” – it’s cruelty.’

The news this week has been dominated by testing, with lockdown zealots in the media eagerly looking forward to Matt Hancock missing his target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of the month. (In an ominous portent, the Government’s website allowing essential workers to book coronavirus tests shut down yesterday after 16,000 people rushed to make an appointment.) At yesterday’s press briefing Grant Shapps said the Government hoped to have 48 test centres open across the country by next week. But if people think they’ve got the virus, do we really want them using public transport to get to one of these centres? And once they get there, how are they going to stop themselves infecting other people queuing for tests? (Although that might help us achieve herd immunity quicker.) Perhaps most important, how reliable will these tests be? Lockdown Sceptics has published an analysis by David Crowe, an infectious diseases expert, of 33 of the PCR tests approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and concluded they all have serious limitations. You can read his article here. Will the Government’s PCR tests be any more reliable?

One reader has been in touch to take issue with my use of the “hawks v doves” language to describe those in Government in favour of easing the lockdown (the hawks) and those against (the doves). “The trouble is that doves are always seen as the kind caring guys – in geopolitics they favour peace over war, in central banking they call for easy money, in government they prefer deficit spending, etc,” he writes. “Is it really correct to describe someone who wishes to keep a nation locked down on the flimsiest of evidence with fathomless economic, social and now mounting healthcare costs, a ‘dove’? They more closely resemble the pelican that rips at its own breast.”

Lots of people have been in touch to recommend this video of two doctors in Bakersfield who’ve studied COVID-19. Some of what they say will be familiar to readers of this site – the initial modelling underestimated the percentage of the population who’ve been infected and overestimated the IFR (which these doctors put at 0.03 in the state of California), non-COVID-19 patients are being neglected by healthcare systems geared up to treat COVID-19 patients, lockdowns are no more effective at flattening the peak than more modest social distancing measures, etc. But some of it will be unfamiliar, such as their scepticism about the effectiveness of wearing masks and gloves. Worth a watch.

Among those groups who aren’t having a good crisis, celebrities must be near the top. This video produced by an Australian comedy troop is very funny and Ricky Gervais took aim at celebs in typically withering style on Radio 5 Live yesterday. (The Mail has the highlights.) The gist of the criticism is that if you’re living in a tiny flat in a high rise, self-isolating with your wife and three kids, it won’t be much comfort to watch a video clip of a multi-millionaire on Twitter, recorded at their 2,000-acre ranch in Montana, urging us to remain in our homes and assuring us that we’re all in this together.

Sam Smith breaks down in tears because he’s finding self-isolating in his £12 million mansion in North London so difficult.

Yesterday I was asked by one lockdown zealot whether this site is receiving “funny money” from Russia. Not sure he’d thought that one though. Surely, if Putin wants to crush his geopolitical rivals then it’s in his interests for Britain to prolong its lockdown for as long as possible, thereby turning our economy into a basket case? In fact, Lockdown Sceptics is entirely dependent on readers’ donations – and thanks to those who donated yesterday. If you’d like to donate, please click here. As far as I’m aware, Putin is not a reader.

And finally, the Free Speech Union (which I co-founded in February) fired off a letter to Ofcom yesterday complaining about its ridiculous decision to reprimand ITV and London Live for comments made by Eamonn Holmes and David Icke about links between 5G technology and coronavirus. Holmes’s sin, according to the regulator, was to say on ITV’s This Morning that the theory linking 5G and coronavirus deserved to be discussed in the mainstream media, even though he agreed with his co-presenter that it was “not true and incredibly stupid”. Ofcom said that this view – the view that the theory deserved a public hearing – was “ill-judged and risked undermining viewers’ trust in advice from public authorities and scientific evidence” and could lead to “significant harm to the public”. The Free Speech Union regards these decisions as highly inimical to freedom of expression for reasons set out in the letter, which you can read here. As I’ve said several times before, the state has substantially increased its powers and imposed restrictions on long-established liberties during this crisis and it’s absolutely vital that we should scrutinise and challenge those measures. The idea that any dissent from the official line causes “significant harm to the public” is for the birds. No doubt if this site was regulated by Ofcom it would have been sanctioned too.

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The Times leads with Nicola Sturgeon’s exit plan for Scotland. “The First Minister published a 26-page ‘framework’ for easing the lockdown and discussed plans for reopening schools, businesses and allowing small gatherings,” it reports. Sturgeon didn’t say when this might happen, but argued there should be a “better balance” between tackling the disease and protecting the economy. In addition, Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, suggested that lockdown restrictions could be eased at a faster pace there than in the rest of the UK. Guernsey has already put an exit strategy in place, with gardeners, mechanics, estate agents and builders returning to work tomorrow. And in an encouraging sign, various senior Tories praised Sturgeon’s initiative, including Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis and former Chancellor George Osborne who said we need to start talking about “the hard trade-offs”.

According to the Telegraph, Boris will return to work next week (as predicted on this site on Tuesday). Will he make an appearance at the Downing Street press conference on Monday and unveil an exit plan? Sturgeon apparently thinks so. After all, why start talking about her own exit strategy yesterday unless she thinks Boris is about to do likewise? She evidently thinks a big announcement is imminent and wants to make it look as though she bounced the dithering Prime Minster into making a decision. She may be wrong of course, but Boris will have to do something to make it clear he’s back in charge. The holding line – that it’s premature to talk about an exit strategy while deaths are still peaking – won’t survive his return to Downing Street. Once Biggles has recovered from his injuries and is back in the cockpit, people will expect action.

But is the general public ready for a phased exit? One of the things I’ve been puzzling over during this crisis is the willingness of freeborn Englishmen to acquiesce to the greatest suspension of their liberties since the Second World War. And not merely acquiesce – most of them think the Government should go even further. According to an opinion poll published last week, only 6% of people think the current restrictions are “too severe”, while 44% think they’re “not severe enough”. James Kirkup, Director of the Social Market Foundation, has tried to unravel this mystery in UnHerd. One of the points he makes is that the 35% of the English electorate who identity as “very strongly English” are also the most authoritarian, according to research done by Paula Sturridge at Bristol University. “The more English you feel, the more likely you are to say that the state and society should tell people what to do, to make them conform and, when they disobey, to punish them harshly,” he writes. You can read his article here.

Thankfully, not everyone has fallen into lockstep with the new orthodoxy. A letter in today’s Telegraph is a reminder of how unimpressed many older people are by the official response to the crisis. Worth quoting in full:

SIR – Russell Lynch (Business, April 22) is right to warn the Government that to prolong lockdown for the over-70s would be “suicidal politics”.

There is widespread “elderly” contempt for the woke-driven pandemic policy: the craven subservience to discredited scientists; insulting war comparisons; deification of the heroic but ill-managed NHS; totalitarian hand-clapping; arrogant directives; officious policing; closing houses of worship; the brute ignorance of Christianity.

If lockdown is not speedily lifted, we 8.8 million “elderly” voters will take our revenge at the general election.

John McEwen
London SW1

There are some encouraging signs that attitudes are beginning to shift more widely. On Monday I noted that my local park in Acton was more crowded than it had been at any time since March 23rd and readers have been reporting similar experiences all week. For instance, one writes: “My eldest son, who lives in Thamesmead, goes out every early evening with his daughter for a walk. He assures me that in the last seven days or so there has been a dramatic increase in cars on the roads, more and more people about – often in groups that are quite clearly made up of children and adults from more than one household, and some evidently visiting other people. Prior to that it was silent with virtually no traffic.”

The Mail picked up on this new mood yesterday, noting that it was the hottest day of the year so far: “Britons all over the UK have ignored lockdown rules today to flock to parks, beaches and promenades as temperatures hit 75F.” The Mail reports that there were long queues outside B&Q stores across the country, as well as the Five Guys hamburger chain, and the AA says journeys were up 10% this week compared to last. If the public are tiring of lockdown it will be hard for the Government to keep it in place, particularly without an exit strategy. And the hot weather looks set to continue:

One sceptical website I’ve neglected to mention until now – and should have flagged up earlier – is COVID-19 In Proportion. It’s full of great graphs such as the one below showing that the the number of deaths in Week 15 of 2020 were lower than they were in some previous flu seasons:

The Media section is also worth looking at, particularly the bit comparing the hysterical alarmism of the BBC News website this week, when the ONS announced that 3,760 had died of COVID-19 in the week ending 10th April, with the home page of the same site on the 13th January 2018 when 3,075 died of respiratory disease. Needless to say, the latter contained nerry a mention of the unusually high death toll. As COVID-19 In Proportion reminds us, the cumulative death toll by the end of Week 15 in 2018 (187, 720) was higher than it was this year (184,960).

And here’s my favourite graph so far. If you take the assumptions that Professor Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial College used to predict the death tolls in the UK absent a lockdown (510,000 if we carried on as normal, 250,000 if we continued with mitigation) and use them to model what should have happened in Sweden absent a lockdown, you get the following:

In case you can’t read the small print, the blue area is the daily deaths per 100,000 the Imperial model would have predicted in the “do nothing” scenario, the yellow area is what would have happened if Sweden had stuck with mitigation – which is what it did, obviously – and the red area is the actual number of Swedes who’ve died.

One of the reasons Professor Ferguson estimated such a high death toll in the UK absent a lockdown is because he assumed that <5% of the population had been infected and the overall infection fatality rate (IFR) is ~0.9%. As each day passes, those assumptions look more and more shaky. Yesterday, the results of an antibody study done in New York were published in which 3,000 people were randomly tested at grocery stores and shopping locations across 19 counties in 40 localities. The result? 13.9% tested positive, indicating 2.7 million New Yorkers have already been infected. In New York City the number is 21.2%. (In Stockholm it’s 25%.) And, of course, the higher the number of people infected, the lower the IFR, which is the number of infected divided by the number who’ve died. Mario Cuomo, the Governor of New York, puts the IFR at 0.5%, but in all likelihood it will turn out to be lower.

We’ve heard about the five tests our Government has set before lockdown can be lifted. Arch-sceptic Heather Mac Donald has devised five tests US state governors should set themselves before extending lockdowns. They are:

  • How many coronavirus deaths do you expect to avert by the shut-down extension?
  • What will your state’s economy look like after another month of enforced stasis?
  • How many workers will have lost their jobs?
  • How many businesses will have closed for good?
  • How many of your state’s young residents, seeking employment for the first time, will be unable to find it?

When I made my original sceptical argument in the Critic last month, I pointed out that an extended lockdown would likely result in a greater loss of life than lifting it. But I was just talking about the UK. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the people who’ll pay the heaviest price for decision of Western governments to sacrifice their economies to keep the virus at bay will be those in the developing world. In this week’s Spectator, Aidan Hartley spells it out:

Starkest of all will be Africa’s economic collapse, wiping out jobs for many of the continent’s 1.2 billion people. Tourism, vital to the conservation of wildlife, forests and monuments, has fallen apart. Mining, oil and gas are close behind. Exports of tea, coffee and cocoa are also being hit hard. Until recently Africa served as a giant nursery, raising migrants to supply cheap labour for rich countries. Every month these workers send money home to their families, and remittances are now the largest source of foreign exchange in many countries. As diaspora Africans fall out of work, these funds are evaporating. In the high-density slums, each breadwinner might feed ten mouths. Nairobi city governor Mike Sonko promised mass distributions of Hennessy cognac because ‘alcohol plays a major role in killing the coronavirus’ — but such clowning aside, slum-dwellers have no cash reserves, nor a welfare state to rescue them. As global supply chains collapse, it becomes horribly clear that out of 54 African states, only Zambia is a net food exporter. Many Africans routinely rely on food aid. For oil-dependent Nigeria’s nearly 200 million people, life is about to get tough.

Another piece worth reading in this week’s Spectator – the 10,000th issue, no less – is Matt Ridley’s. Forget about finding a vaccine, he says, and focus on the treatments: “Within a month or two, one of the 30 or more therapies currently being tested is likely to prove effective and safe.” And there’s my column of course, although it’s not about the virus this week. (I also appeared the Last Orders podcast yesterday with Christopher Snowdon and Tom Slater.)

A bizarre article appeared in the Huffington Post yesterday arguing that it would be a shame if Oxford University wins the race to develop a vaccine because that could be used by knuckle-dragging nationalists as way to belittle the universities of other countries. Written by Emily Cousins, who teaches women’s studies at Oxford, it argues that any triumph for the ancient university “will be used as it has been in the past, to fulfil its political, patriotic function as proof of British excellence”. But as Andrew Neil pointed out on Twitter, if Oxford does develop a vaccine, won’t that in fact be proof of British excellence? After all, Oxford is consistently ranked in the top five universities in the world, often it he top two. You can read her bonkers argument here.

Thanks to all those readers who made a donation yesterday. If you’d like to make a donation to pay for the maintenance of Lockdown Sceptics, please click here. We’re now up to 165,000 page views, which has to be higher than the nightly viewing figures for Channel 4 News. Help me get this to 250,000 by telling your friends about the site. Let’s keep the pressure on Boris.

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The Telegraph leads on Chris Whitty’s depressing announcement at yesterday the Downing Street press conference that social distancing measures will have to remain in place until a vaccine or “highly effective drugs” are available to avoid a second wave of infections, which could mean well into next year. This bombshell came just moments after Dominic Raab had said there was now a “glimmer of hope”. He didn’t spell out what he was referring to – and he used the same phrase almost two weeks ago, so the glimmer hasn’t got any brighter. But in his speech he referred to “the peak of this virus” three times and implied we’re in the midst of that right now. The Government’s position is that no social distancing restrictions can be lifted until we’re past the peak and there is no risk of a second wave that will necessitate reimposing those restrictions.

I have good news for Mr Raab in that case. There’s growing evidence that the daily death toll peaked on April 8th, as can be seen on the NHS England graph below:

That’s the view of Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford. Two days ago he said: “From an epidemiological perspective we can say that the numbers are consistent with the peak happening on April 8th.” As Prof Heneghan has pointed out, if the peak was indeed on April 8th and deaths have begun to decline since, that suggests the more modest social distancing measures the Government introduced on March 16th flattened the infection peak, without the lockdown being necessary. After all, there’s a three-week lag time between infection and death and April 8th is three weeks after March 18th, two days after the mitigation measures were introduced but five days before the lockdown.

More evidence that extreme social distancing measures aren’t necessary to flatten the peak is the analysis done by numerous researchers – including three I flagged up in yesterday’s update – showing that the rate of infections and deaths rise and fall according to the same pattern in every country the virus has struck, regardless of varying population densities, testing rates, case levels, mortality rates, etc. and in spite of the severity of the lockdowns they’ve imposed and when they imposed them in the lifecycle of the outbreak. This is nicely illustrated in the graph below, created by a sceptic on Twitter, which maps the rise and fall of daily deaths in England and Sweden, having adjusted for the fact that Sweden’s are about 10 times lower than England’s. As you can see, the pattern is almost identical, even though Sweden hasn’t imposed a lockdown:

So what are you waiting for, Mr Raab? The doves in the Cabinet will argue that these analyses are all very well but we still don’t know enough about the virus yet to be sufficiently confident that if we start to relax social distancing measures we won’t be overwhelmed by a second peak. But even though that may be true (depending on how you define “sufficiently confident”) it’s not a good argument for delaying announcing a phased exit, as the leaders of Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Denmark, the United States, etc. have already done. No Government can eliminate the risks posed by the virus completely, but keeping lockdowns in place is hardly the risk-free option, given how much economic damage they’re doing. It’s a question of balancing the risks against each other, and in order to do that in a properly informed way our Government needs to listen to sceptical epidemiologists and virologists, not just the most alarmist, as well as economists and business experts. (And educationalists. Only five per cent of Britain’s most vulnerable children are taking up the offer to attend school, according to the BBC, and only 8% of children in the most disadvantaged schools are turning up for online lessons.)

The editor of the Washington Examiner, Hugo Gordon, makes this point eloquently in an op ed published yesterday. Talking about the reluctance of some state governors to end lockdowns, he writes:

It is time to resume commercial activity, at first gradually, and then as quickly as reasonably possible. If we allow ourselves to be frightened into an innumerate expectation of complete safety before life is allowed to return nearer to normal, we will bring on an economic, social, and national catastrophe involving the destruction of America’s wealth, happiness, and place in the world. We must take sensible precautions so the public knows the balance of risk has switched toward activity away from inertia. But a balance still means risk on each side.

Meanwhile, evidence continues to mount that the lockdown itself may be causing more deaths than it’s preventing – and that’s just in terms of its immediate impact on public health, not the long-term consequences of the economic harm. Consultant oncologist Karol Sikora has a piece in the Mail today warning of the catastrophic impact the lockdown is having on non-COVID-19 patients. “Some stroke and heart attack patients are routinely waiting more than two hours for an ambulance, while 2,300 cancer diagnoses are being missed each week because patients are not going to see their GP or because they are not being referred for urgent tests and scans at hospital,” he writes. “Another 400 cancers a week are, it is estimated, being missed because breast, cervical and bowel cancer screening has been suspended. For any of these patients, delay can be a death sentence.” Since the virus struck, the number of patients who are being referred for cancer treatment has dropped by 75%. By Sikora’s estimation, the combined effect of all these delays will be 50,000 excess cancer deaths. (TalkRadio’s Dan Wootton makes a similar argument in today’s Sun.)

The odd thing about the neglect of non-COVID-19 patients is that the hospitals are hardly full of COVID-19 patients. Health Service Journal reports that a new Nightingale hospital in Harrogate isn’t going to be needed after all, so low is the demand, and the flagship Nightingale hospital in London, which has the capacity to treat 4,000 patients, is still largely empty. As if to underline just how underwhelmed the NHS is by the current crisis, doctors and nurses have been posting videos of themselves on YouTube dancing on their wards.

Some people were outraged by the opening paragraph of Monday’s daily update, in which I tried to assess whether NHS workers are more likely to die from COVID-19 by crunching some numbers with the help of Guy de la Bédoyère, a reader who’s well-versed in statistics. On the face of it, NHS workers don’t seem to be dying from the virus in greater numbers than other people of working age. The NHS employs roughly 1.5 million people across the UK, which is about 1/43 of the UK population and about 1/25 of the working population (people aged 20-65). But the number of NHS workers succumbing to the virus is a bit lower than 1/25 of the number of people of working age who’ve died of COVID-19. Of course, if you adjust for the fact that a majority of NHS workers are less likely to be suffering from underlying health conditions than the general working population, it may well be that they are dying in greater numbers. But when Guy and I looked at the data that calculation hadn’t been done. Was that a callous and unfeeling point to make, given that NHS workers are placing themselves in harm’s way every day? The producers of Radio 4’s More or Less don’t think so because yesterday the programme posed exactly the same question and came to a similar conclusion. It calculated that if NHS workers are dying from COVID-19 at the same rate as the rest of the working population, you’d expect between 70 and 85 of them to have died so far. In fact, according to More or Less, 77 have died (or had when they last looked), which is in line with expectations rather than higher. Like us, however, the presenter Tim Harford and his producer added the caveat that NHS workers are likely to be healthier than the average 20-65 year-old, which means you’d expect fewer to be dying if their risk isn’t elevated. You can listen to the item here. It starts at 17m and 23s.

The South African authorities have banned the sale of alcohol and tobacco in the hope of persuading people to remain in their homes, prompting looting to break out in the Western Cape. That’s a particularly brain-dead bit of state over-reach because according to a study carried out in a French hospital nicotine may be both a prophylactic against coronavirus and an effective treatment. It found that of those admitted to hospital with COVID-19, whose median age was 65, only 4.4% were regular smokers, compared with 11% of 65-75 year-olds in the general population. The Guardian has the story.

Bad news for those lockdown sceptic who upload content to YouTube. Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO, told CNN’s Reliable Sources yesterday that during the pandemic the social media platform will be “removing information that is problematic”, such as advising people to “take Vitamin C” or “anything that would go against World Health Organisation recommendations”. Not sure when YouTube put this policy in place, but if it was at the beginning of the year then presumably any content suggesting COVID-19 was a transmissible disease before the end of January would have been removed because up until that point the WHO was maintaining that there was no “clear evidence of human to human transmission of the novel coronavirus”.

Thanks to all those people who donated to Lockdown Sceptics yesterday – it’s those donations that enable me to devote so much time to this site. If you’d like to donate, you can do so here. I’ll leave you with this table. It was originally produced by the Babylon Bee in a different form, but I’ve adapted it slightly (with help from Ian Rons).

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Why is there a furious row about the Government’s failure to secure more ventilators when the evidence is clear that ventilators are largely ineffective at treating COVID-19? According to this letter published in the Lancet, 86% of patients put on mechanical ventilation in a Wuhan hospital died. An earlier study put the figure at 97%. For patients facing certain death without ventilation, there’s an argument for intubation, although it may just speed their demise when palliative care would be more appropriate. But for those not facing certain death, there’s mounting evidence that mechanical ventilation does more harm than good. This is the kind of gotcha journalism that has seen the public’s estimation of my profession plummet during the crisis. Don’t mean to single out the FT, by the way. Nearly all the papers have the story.

The Telegraph leads with the shortcomings of the PCR test given to almost 100,000 NHS and social care workers and raises the possibility that some could have been given the green light to return to work when they were still infected, thanks to the high incidence of false negatives. Another risk is that those who tested positive – but didn’t, in fact, have the virus – may now be going back to work, convinced they’ve developed immunity. (My 11 year-old son Charlie was tested in February after returning from a school ski trip to Northern Italy with all the classic symptoms of COVID-19 – cough, fever, loss of taste and smell. The result came back negative, but I think he had it.) Dr Kevin Corbett, an independent research consultant, has done some digging into the reliability of the PCR tests being used in America and posted a comment under ‘Testing: Do You Have the Disease’ that you can read here. He’s not impressed.

A reader has forwarded a link to an interesting blog post by someone called Phil Nuttridge. He now works as a masseur and nutritionist but his previous career was in science and he has a masters degree in statistics. His motivation for blogging about coronavirus is, in part, to alleviate the stress caused by the hysterical coverage in the mainstream media. In this post he creates a series of graphs, based on information about six different countries obtained from Our World in Data, that seem to show infections peak between 31 and 33 days after cases first start appearing. This is true of all six countries, regardless of their varying population densities, testing rates, case levels and mortality rates and – crucially – in spite of the severity of the lockdowns they’ve imposed and when they imposed them in the lifecycle of the epidemic. You can read it here or watch it on YouTube here. Phil’s analysis complements that of Professor Isaac Ben-Israel, who maintains that infections rise and fall in each country according to the same timeline, irrespective of local conditions.

Wilfried Reilly, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University, has come to a similar conclusion in Spiked. He’s analysed data from Worldometer’s Coronavirus Project (a great source of data, btw) to compare the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in US states that have adopted lockdowns or ‘shelter in place’ orders with those that have pursued a social-distancing strategy without a formal lockdown. He’s also performed the same exercise for different countries. He ran a regression analysis, controlling for all the factors that could account for discrepancies between different places: population, population density, median income, median age, diversity (measured as the percentage of minorities in a population), etc. The result? Lockdowns are no more effective when it comes to suppressing infections and deaths than well-done social-distancing measures. You can read the article here. (And if you’re interested, you can listen to a podcast in which I interviewed Professor Reilly for Quillette last month here.)

Several think tanks have come up with exit strategies. Guido Fawkes has a summary here. He also flags up a new report by the Centre for Policy Studies showing that Government borrowing this year will rise from £55 billion to approximately £300 billion, representing 15% of GDP. That’s money that will have to be paid back in the form of higher taxes and spending cuts. As Fawkes says, we need to end the lockdown before this climbs even higher.

Two economists presented their proposals for lifting the lockdown to the Treasury Select Committee yesterday: Dr Gerard Lyons and Ian Mulheirn. (You can read their proposals here and here.) One reader has read them and reported back:

  • They both claim that lockdowns have been proved to work to control the virus. How can they be so sure as economists?
  • They are both fully signed up to the doomsday predictions of mass death without a lockdown and that saving the lives of people who would otherwise die of COVID-19 is far more important than getting the economy restarted.
  • There’s talk of a tracing app being essential as we go forward with zero mention of the impact (from what I can see) on civil liberties.
  • Further lockdowns can’t be ruled out, according to them.
  • No diversity of opinion or critical thought.
  • Overall rather depressing stuff.

Not surprisingly, I prefer the exit strategy of Chris Hope, Emeritus Reader in Policy Modelling at Cambridge Judge Business School. His idea is that the young should volunteer to get infected, then isolate until no longer infectious, after which they can go about their normal lives. In that way, herd immunity is gradually built up. You can read Professor Hope’s proposal here. A similar strategy has been suggested by a team of researchers at Princeton University and the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, a public health advocacy group based in New Delhi and Washington. They recommend the best hope for poorer countries like India is herd immunity. You can read a summary here.

After yesterday’s story, sent to me by a reader, about a woman being stopped by the police on Hungerford bypass and given a dressing down for no apparent reason I thought it would be useful to reproduce the Crown Prosecution Service’s guidance about what does and doesn’t constitute a “reasonable excuse” for not being at home, as set out in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020. There are several interesting loopholes. For instance, the rule that you need a “reasonable excuse” to leave the place you live does not apply to homeless people. So if you want to “remain seated for a much longer period” on a park bench than it takes you to walk there – not reasonable, apparently – just make sure you’re carrying 10 copies of the Big Issue. Another rule is you’re allowed to drive to the countryside to go for a walk, but only if you spend more time walking than you do driving. As one reader asked, does this mean he can make the nine-hour round-trip to Scotland provided he goes for a 10-hour walk in the Highlands? The guidance only applies to England, so I asked an Irish barrister – Ciarán McCollum – to expand it for the other nations in the United Kingdom. I’ve published both the guidance and Ciarán’s piece in an Appendix accessible at the bottom of the right-hand menu. (Scroll down.) Feel free to print them out and wave them in the face of any officious martinet who tries to prevent you going about your lawful business.

Incidentally, some of the official guidance may be illegal. Francis Hoar, one of the barristers who represented Darren Grimes in his battle with the Electoral Commission, has written a guest post for UK Human Rights Blog arguing that some of the powers the state has arrogated to itself to enforce the lockdown may be unlawful. He points out that if this was tested in court by a judicial review the judge would have to consider whether the restrictions on our age-old liberties are a proportionate response to the scientific evidence about how best to manage the virus and that, in turn, would mean assessing the quality of the scientific advice the Government has been relying on. If Francis Hoar ever has the opportunity to cross-examine Professor Neil Ferguson, I’d like a seat in the gallery.

Quick global round-up of sceptical news. A study in India found that 69% of people who tested positive for COVID-19 were asymptomatic. In New Zealand a group of lockdown sceptics have set up a website called ‘Covid Plan B‘ that’s worth a look. And the latest news from Sweden is that Stockholm could have herd immunity by the end of the month according to Dr Anders Tegnell. (Give that man the Nobel Prize for Medicine.) And this video by a frustrated New Yorker who’s fed up with being locked down is a thing of beauty. (Warning: Contains profanity. Lots of profanity.)

A few days ago I passed on a reader’s book recommendation: Mandrake, a dystopian novel written in 1964 by Susan Cooper that anticipates the current moment with spooky accuracy. Another reader has found it on sale for £25.00, a bit less than on I should say that I now have a copy, generously donated by Stephen Ryan, and I will read it and report back.

As ever, thanks to all those readers who made a donation yesterday to pay for the upkeep of this site. It’s hugely appreciated. If you’d like to make a donation to Lockdown Sceptics, please click here. And ignore the dollar symbol. It all comes out in the wash.

Latest News

The Express leads with the number of healthcare workers who’ve lost their lives to the virus, a story that’s been getting a fair amount of attention over the last few days because it seems to show the price they’re paying for the PPE shortage. On BBC Breakfast yesterday it was claimed that 43 NHS workers have died, and the presenter took if for granted that these deaths came about because of their exposure to patients infected with COVID-19. But tragic though any death is, it is worth pausing to consider whether NHS workers really are more likely to die from COVID-19 than other members of the working population. One of the commentators on this site, Guy de la Bédoyère, has crunched the numbers. The NHS employs roughly 1.5 million people across the UK, which is about 1/43 of the UK population. That figure is also about 1/25 of the population of working age (20-65). To date 1,272 people aged 20-59 have died of COVID-19 in the UK, 1/25th of which is 50 – or slightly more than the actual number of NHS workers who have died, at least according to BBC Breakfast. In other words, just as a function of the general risk to which the whole UK population is subject we would expect at least 50 NHS workers to have died anyway this year, regardless of any higher risk they might face from their jobs. Having said that, 53% of NHS employee are 44 or younger – under-45s are at a lower risk of dying from coronavirus than over-45s – and it’s a safe bet the majority don’t have underlying health conditions. So in all likelihood NHS workers are more vulnerable. Nonetheless, taken by themselves, the raw figures suggest they are less likely to die of coronavirus than the general population. To mean anything, the headline figures need to be put into context, something few journalists seem willing to do.

In other news, the ONS released some data this morning about the number of deaths in Week 15 (April 4th to April 10th). The total number in England and Wales in the week ending April 10th was 18,516, an increase of 2,129 compared to the previous week and 7,996 higher than the five-year average for Week 15. It’s also the highest weekly total since Week 1 in 2000. But let’s contextualise these figures. The most important comparison is not between the total number of deaths in Week 15 this year with the five-year average for Week 15, but the cumulative total compared with the five-year average. That gives us 184,960 deaths up to the end of Week 15, compared to a five-year average of 174,693. Admittedly, that’s an excess of 10,267, but as Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at Cambridge University, has pointed out: “Many people who die of COVID would have died anyway within a short period.” Incidentally, the total by the end of Week 15 in 2018 was 187, 720, higher than it is this year. The truth is, we won’t know how many more deaths there have been in 2020 compared to the previous five years until the end of Week 52. (There’s a good analysis of the latest ONS data here.)

Another point about these figures. Yesterday’s COVID-19 death toll was 449, which amounts to a 47% decrease in the 12 days since April 8th, according to the Telegraph. If April 8th was the peak, given the three-week lag time between infection and death, that suggests infection peaked before the lockdown was introduced on March 23rd. (If April 8th was the peak, the ONS data should show fewer people dying from COVID-19 in Week 16 than in Week 15.) That’s the conclusion of Carl Heneghan, Oxford Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine, who says infection rates halved as a result of hand-washing and keeping two metres apart, which were urged on the British public on March 16th, a week before the lockdown. Maintaining the severe restrictions isn’t necessary, according to Professor Heneghan. “In fact, the damaging effect now of lockdown is going to outweigh the damaging effect of coronavirus,” he told the Today programme yesterday.

According to this morning’s Guardian, the Government has been warned by its advisors on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) that any relaxation of lockdown measures could trigger an exponential rise in coronavirus cases, and it notes that two of the Cabinet hawks – Gavin Williamson and Alok Sharma – have begun to wobble since the news leaked that Boris is leaning towards the doves. Has BoJo lost his mojo? That’s the question James Delingpole and I discuss on our weekly London Calling podcast that you can listen to here.

But it’s possible his aides are briefing the papers that he won’t ease the lockdown until he’s satisfied there’s no risk of a second wave overwhelming the NHS so that when he returns to Downing Street – rumoured to be next week – he can announce he’s now assured of this and, like Moses, lead us out of Egypt into the Promised Land. The rationale would be there’s no point in ending the lockdown if the British public still think the virus is stalking the land because they won’t then send their children back to school or return to work. But if Boris, the great communicator, is able to tell them he’s looked into it and now thinks it’s safe to leave their homes, they’ll begin to venture outside again. Is that the plan? James Delingpole thinks I’m clutching at straws and another person who isn’t optimistic is Stephen Hazell-Smith (otherwise known as the City Grump). You can read his blog post about why he thinks politicians are being led by the nose by crystal-ball-gazing scientific experts here.

One reason to think there won’t be a second wave when the lockdown is lifted is the work of Isaac Ben-Israel, Chairman of the Israeli Space Agency and the National Council for Research and Development. As I reported a couple of days ago, he’s crunched the numbers and concluded infections decline to almost zero 70 days after the first outbreak in each country, regardless of the measures imposed to try to thwart it. You can read a transcript of his talk on the subject here.

In case you haven’t been lectured enough about just how important it is to stay home and protect the NHS, Apple’s digital assistant has now joined the ranks of the finger waggers. If you say to Siri, “Where are you?” you get the following reply: “I’m wherever you need me to be. And I hope you’re staying in as much as you can.” Are liberal democracies on the cusp of becoming totalitarian states, aided by the tech giants? Yes, according to a piece by Jim Fedako published by the Mises Institute. And one worrying sign is this story in the Independent. It says NHS staff have been ordered by their bureaucratic overlords not to tweet about “political issues”, including lack of PPE. Sounds like a case for the Free Speech Union. (For those readers who don’t know, I helped set up the FSU at the end of February.) If any NHS workers have been sanctioned for exercising their lawful right to free speech on social media – or are being put through a disciplinary process – please email the FSU’s Case Management Director Peter Ainsworth and he’ll look into it.

Not a still from the film version of 1984.

I get daily messages from readers telling me about the heavy-handed behaviour of the police, but this one stood out:

My sister (50 years old, works full time) was pulled over tonight by the police on her way home from shopping for groceries. The police pulled over every car on the A4 between Newbury and Hungerford to ask where they were going/where they had been. She was driving alone so could not be accused of breaching the lockdown rule with regard to congregating with more than one other person. She advised she had been shopping for food (after working all day at home), asked the officer why she had been stopped given she was not committing any crime and inquired whether the police had any real crimes to investigate. (FYI she has been mugged at knifepoint and burgled twice in London and there was no response from the police.) The officer then accused her of “not being very polite”, called over her superior and informed my sister they were taking a note of her number plate. Clearly this was supposed to intimidate her. She has since received a call from the police telling her they have the right to stop motorists and they are enforcing the law. She is now concerned she could lose her job.

Douglas Carswell, the former Conservative and UKIP MP, tells me he never leaves his home in West London without a copy of the Coronavirus Act in his back pocket. If he’s ever button-holed by our boys in blue, his plan is to whip it out and draw their attention to which rules the police are expected to enforce and which they aren’t.

A big thank you to all those readers who made a donation yesterday to pay for the upkeep of this website. If you’d like to make a donation to Lockdown Sceptics, please click here. Incidentally, we passed 100,000 page views yesterday. Help me grow this to 250,000 by the end of the week by spreading the word. Let’s keep the pressure up on the Government.