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.
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 [email_obfuscator firstname.lastname@example.org]. Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Hopefully we’ll know by the end of the week.