Keeping the handbrake on is a polite way of describing Boris’s raft of announcements yesterday about how and when the lockdown is going to be eased. On Twitter, I described it as placing the country on “double secret probation”, so elaborate are the rules about when we’re allowed out of our domestic prisons. Others have been more forthright. One reader described the Prime Minister’s speech as a “nothingburger squared”, while Kathy Gyngell at Conservative Woman has a new name for our glorious leader: Bottler Boris.
The weird thing is, lots of people think he went too far. That was particularly true of left-wing politicians. Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, tweeted: “There should be no return to work until it is safe to do so. If work cannot be done safely, it should not proceed. People must come before private profit.” The idea, obviously, is to get it on record that they think Boris is making a dreadful mistake so if the death toll starts to rise they can pin that on him. Sturgeon is playing the same game. Happily, that didn’t stop people getting on the tube to return to work this morning. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has responded by saying wearing masks on public transport should be compulsory.
One thing that stood out in Boris’s speech was how often he mentioned “the R” – the rate of infection. Clearly, how free we’re allowed to be is inextricably bound up with what the R number is, although the details were hard to follow. That led Ben Pile, a Spiked contributor, to post this amusing summary of the speech on Twitter: “If I understand the Prime Minister, the level of alert will be updated by scientists checking their Rs. If their Rs is low, then we can be free. But if their Rs is high, then we must be locked up again. Scientists will be speaking to the Prime Minister through their Rs.” He then added: “The PM will be checking the scientists’ Rs every day. Scientists will also be checking each others Rs – a method pioneered by Prof Neil Ferguson and his lover.”
If there’s one straw to clutch at, it’s that Boris has abandoned the crackpot notion that any reimposition of restrictions after some modest easing would be “an economic disaster”. That’s what he said when he addressed the nation on April 27th, announcing we couldn’t possibly relax any of the extreme social distancing measures if there was the slightest risk it would lead to an uptick in infections. I despaired at the time because it seemed like a “test” that could never be met. But he’s done a reverse ferret on that, thank God. Now the line is that if infections start to rise, restrictions will be tightened up again until they start to fall. Indeed, he unveiled a ‘Covid Alert’ metre that will dictate when restrictions are turned on and off. As several readers have pointed out, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the ‘Peri-ometer’ at Nando’s, the high-street peri-peri chicken chain:
Another reason we should welcome switching measures on and off in response to the rise and fall of the R number – first suggested in the Imperial College March 16th paper – is that it seems unlikely infections will start to climb again as a result of any easing. In Germany, for instance, it’s clear that new infections have been trending downwards since the lockdown was dialled back a couple of weeks ago. And, of course, infections have also been declining in those countries that never imposed lockdowns in the first place, such as Sweden.
And Belarus. We mustn’t forget Belarus. A reader reminded me yesterday that no lockdown has been imposed in the East European republic and it has experienced one of the mildest Covid outbreaks anywhere in the world. Only 135 deaths so far, which works out at 14 per million. Who would have suspected that Alexander Lukashenko, the autocratic President of Belarus, would have managed this crisis better than our own democratically-elected leaders? As Mark put it in the comments beneath yesterday’s daily update: “What a state we have come to when a thuggish ageing Belarussian autocrat makes our entire political, media and social elite look like a bunch of scared, hysterical old women (with due apologies to all the sterling ladies of a certain age posting here).”
So why are infections unlikely to start trending upwards post-lockdown and why have they been falling in those countries – and US states – that never made the disastrous mistake in the first place? One theory is that the herd immunity threshold is far lower than originally anticipated – more like 7-24% than 50-60%. Nicholas Lewis, a climate change researcher, has written a piece that parses the evidence and sets out the argument. He shows that variation in COVID-19 susceptibility and infectivity between individuals, arising mainly from differences in their social connectivity, lowers the herd immunity threshold to a much more manageable level. His analysis draws on a recent preprint by Gomes et al entitled ‘Individual variation in susceptibility or exposure to SARS-CoV-2 lowers the herd immunity threshold‘. Lewis’s paper is well worth a read.
By the way, what happened to the much-heralded Porton Down antibody testing survey? That involved randomly testing tens of thousands of people with a view to building up a picture of just how many Britons had been infected. It was announced over a month ago and I haven’t heard a peep about it since. Can any reader throw any light on this?
One more reason why the R number is unlikely to go up post-lockdown is that it may have sunk to below 1 before the lockdown was imposed and remained at that level throughout. That’s what happened in Germany. This chart from the Robert Koch Institute shows that by March 23rd, when the German Government imposed its most severe lockdown measures, the reproduction figure was already below 1, meaning the number of new infections was declining. In addition, it shows that in the following weeks, after the lockdown was in place, the R figure didn’t decline any further. So the lockdown didn’t result in any additional reduction of new cases.
“Sue Denim” has been in touch to point out that several other people with similar levels of coding expertise have posted analyses of Neil Ferguson’s code that are as scathing as his. Take this one, for instance, by Chris von Csefalvay. He is an epidemiologist specialising in the virology of bat-borne illnesses, including bat-related coronaviruses. “It is very difficult to look at the Ferguson code with any understanding of software engineering and conclude that this is good, or even tolerable,” he writes. He notes that Ferguson apologised for the poor quality of the code on Twitter, explaining that he wrote it more than 13 years ago to model flu pandemics. Csefalvay responds as follows: “That, sir, is not a feature. It’s not even a bug. It’s somewhere between negligence and unintentional but grave scientific misconduct.”
Then there’s this review by Craig Pirrong, Professor of Finance and Energy Markets Director of the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business, University of Houston. “Models only become science when tested against data/experiment,” he writes. “By that standard, the Imperial College model failed spectacularly.”
Meanwhile, the quality of the responses to these critiques by Ferguson’s defenders is pitiful. Like this one by Phil Bull, a Lecturer in Cosmology at Queen Mary University headlined ‘Why you can ignore reviews of scientific code by commercial software developers‘. Includes a caveat that tells you everything you need to know: “I will caveat this section with the fact that I am an astrophysicist and not an epidemiologist, so can’t critique the model assumptions or even really the extent to which it has been implemented well in the Imperial code.”
Problems continue to mount for the NHSx contact-tracing app. On May 7th, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights chaired by Harriet Harman published its report on the first version of the app and it doesn’t look like anyone on that Committee is going to be installing it on their phones anytime soon. The same person who wrote a detailed analysis of the app’s shortcomings for Lockdown Sceptics has summarised the Committee’s findings:
- The Committee does not believe the app, in its nascent form, is even legal: “Unless the efficacy and benefits of the app are clear, the level of data being collected will be not be justifiable and it will therefore fall foul of data protection law and human rights protections.”
- From the summary: “there are significant concerns about a tracking app being rolled out at speed with the potential longer-term effects on personal freedoms and concerns around surveillance encroaching on people’s everyday lives…” “The implications of such an app are so widespread, significant, and, as yet, subject to limited public examination, that they should be subject to the in-depth scrutiny of Parliament at the earliest opportunity. The Committee is concerned that this has not happened to date.” “The implementation and oversight of this app must, in our view, be urgently placed on a legislative footing…”
- The Committee is calling for primary legislation to govern the app and the use of its data, plus an independent body to oversee it. Matt Hancock has apparently appointed an independent Ethics Advisory Board but the Committee sees this as insufficient.
Meanwhile, in Germany an anti-lockdown political party has been formed called Widerstand2020 Deutschland. Founded on April 21st, it has already attracted more than 100,000 members (although that number is contested). I can’t find anything about the party in any English-language publications, but it has a German website and a Facebook page and its two leaders are Ralf Ludwig, a Leipzig-based lawyer, and Dr Bodo Schiffmann, an ear, nose and throat specialist. Together, they’re known as Ralf and Bodo. (There was a third leader, Victoria Hamm, but she seems to have dropped out.) There is some discussion in Germany about whether Widerstand2020 Deutschland is, technically, a political party because single-issue parties are legally prohibited from participating in elections by Germany’s Basic Law. The fact that it accepts anonymous donations also rules it out. Widerstand2020 Deutschland has a page on Wikipedia, but lockdown zealots are straining every sinew to get it removed. (The party’s website has also been under attack since May 3rd.) The entry notes that a “right wing extremism researcher” called Matthias Quent believes the party – and the German lockdown sceptics movement in general – is a “collective of dissatisfied, frustrated and esoteric types, conspiracy theorists, people who are against vaccinations, anti-Semites and right-wing radicals”. A German-speaking reader of this website, to whom I’m indebted for doing some research on this for me, notes that nearly all the reporting about Widerstand2020 Deutschland in the German media has been dismissive. “The tendency to lump the entire membership of the organisation together as dangerous extremists dominates all the news reports I found,” he says. Dr Schiffmann also has a YouTube channel in which he makes arguments that will be familiar to readers of this site, such as questioning the level of danger presented by the virus and pointing out how disproportionate the response has been. One interesting fact uncovered by my researcher: the German term for lockdown is “der lockdown”. Incidentally, widerstand is the German word for resistance. If Widerstand2020 Deutschland does figure out how to get around Germany’s election rules I’ve no doubt it will do well. Das Bild, Europe’s biggest-selling newspaper, announced yesterday that the lockdown in Germany had been a “huge mistake”. Breitbart has more.
The UK still seems a long way from the emergence of Widerstand2020 Großbritannien, but an embryonic anti-lockdown movement is emerging. For instance, a group of sceptics in Manchester were out yesterday plastering the town with stickers. The group, which calls itself “For Freedom’s Sake” and can be found on Twitter here, is hoping to encourage others by engaging in small acts of resistance, a bit like Otto and Elise Hampel, the Berlin couple who wrote postcards denouncing Hitler and left them in public places around the city. Here’s one of the stickers:
And now for our own small act of resistance. Today, Lockdown Sceptics is launching a searchable directory of open businesses across the UK. The idea is to celebrate those retail and hospitality businesses that have reopened, as well as to help people find out what has opened in their area. But we need your help to build it, so we’ve created a form you can fill out to tell us about those businesses that have reopened near you. Should all be fairly self-explanatory – and the owners of small businesses are welcome to enter their own details. Please visit the page and let us know about those courageous entrepreneurs who are doing their bit to get the country moving again.
And check this out. An enterprising family has created a drive-thru McDonald’s in their back garden. But don’t add underground businesses like that to our directory. We don’t want the police to use it as a tool to track down Covid dissidents.
A reader in Japan has sent me this imaginative diagram that a designer friend of his has created to help people understand the social distancing rules. Could this be an example of what will come to be known as Covid art? Obviously, I don’t include this monstrous piece of propaganda by Banksy in that category.
Good letter in the Yorkshire Post yesterday from Peter Snowdon contrasting his fathers’ generation, which won the Second World War, with the current lot of bed-wetters:
They would be appalled by the way in which we have responded to this pandemic. They would think that we are unable to balance and manage risk. The effects of the breakdown of the economy will put those vital parts of society – the health service, education and social care – back by many years. We will live with the economic effects of these few weeks for years to come. Unemployment will soar and many more people will die worldwide than ever succumb to the virus as a result of the economic strictures that will be in place.
Let’s honour the memory of those who died, or gave up their younger years, by accepting that, in times of natural disaster, we cannot solve everything. Our parents did so and ‘just got on with it’. We cannot reduce the numbers dying to nothing and we shouldn’t rob the future of millions of people in a futile effort to do so.
I received a heart-rending email from an isolated sceptic in Bexhill-on-Sea, a small town on England’s south coast. “Never has there been a bunch of more hysterical, scared-shitless snowflakes, not only wanting the lockdown to carry on for months, but to tighten it down to unprecedented levels,” he writes. “There is a very popular community-based facebook group here and there are literally hundreds of posts screaming about the slight ease-up in restrictions that Bojo spoke about last night.” He continues:
Toby, I wanted to post something on the group with the alternate point of view, but my wife and daughter wouldn’t let me! I realised myself that I would generate so much abuse and hate and wouldn’t be surprised if I was hounded out of the group. I have friends in the same group and I actually think I would lose some of them if I put in my penny-worth. It has actually become like the Brexit/Remainer thing now, dividing communities and even families. There is a lot of shaming of, not only those breaking the lockdown, but those who dare to walk on the seafront who are still socially distancing.
I’m sure there are a lot of readers of this site who feel his pain.
I was at Comedy Unleashed, the samizdat comedy night in Bethnal Green, on March 10th when Dominic Frisby unveiled a new verse to his ‘Maybe’ song, this one about coronavirus. Talk about prophetic! You can see Dominic singing that verse here. If you fancy anther dose of Comedy Unleashed-style humour, there’s this brilliant YouTube piss-take of Nicola Sturgeon reacting to Boris’s announcement by Jane Godley. Warning: Contains profanity. And this YouTube video by Paul Weston is laugh-out-loud funny. Slow start, but wait till you get to the bit when he points out that people aged 19 and under are about as likely to die from COVID-19 as they are from putting on their trousers. Apparently, eight people died while trying to do that last year.
Conor Friedersdorf, a journalist at the Atlantic I have a lot of time for, wrote a good piece yesterday entitled ‘Take the Shutdown Skeptics Seriously‘. After summarising the sceptics’ case, he writes: “These facts may not be evident from the least thoughtful proponents of reopening, many of whom advance arguments that are uninformed, dismissive of experts, or callous. But the warnings of thoughtful shutdown skeptics warrant careful study, not stigma rooted in the false pretense that they don’t have any plausible concerns or value human life.”
And on to the round-up of all the stories I’ve noticed, or which have been been brought to my attention, in the last 24 hours:
- ‘Covid-19’s Third Shock Wave: The Global Food Crisis‘ – Michael T Klare in the Nation argues that the lockdown will cause the collapse of global food-supply systems, leading to mass starvation in the developing world
- ‘How to make a crisis far, far, worse‘ – Latest jeremiad from Dr Malcolm Kendrick
- ‘Global virus lockdown was “madness”‘ – Uwe Parart summarises the evidence, as laid out by Stefan Homburg, Professor of Public Finance at Leibniz University
- ‘Is there any point in social distancing?’ – Will Jones’s latest in the Conservative Woman
- ‘What are the ‘reopen’ protesters really saying?‘ – Great piece in the Conversation doing some social anthropology about the different groups attracted to the sceptics’ cause
Some more suggestions for theme songs from readers: ‘Wake Up‘ by Rage Against the Machine, ‘Isolation‘ by Joy Division, ‘Sitting Round at Home‘ by the Buzzcocks and, of course, ‘Infected‘ by the The. Can’t believe we haven’t had that one before.
Thanks as always to those who made a donation in the last 24 hours to pay for the upkeep of the site. If you feel like donating, you can do so by clicking here. (Every little helps!) And if you want to flag up any stories or links I should include in tomorrow’s update, you can email me here.
And finally, Guy de la Bédoyère, a long-standing contributor to this site, has written a great essay for Lockdown Sceptics about Britain’s slide into totalitarianism. Guy is a historian who mainly writes books about the Roman world, but he taught a course on Totalitarian Ideology in Theory and Practice for a number of years. Please do read the whole thing, but here’s an extract:
One of the most remarkable aspects of the creation of Britain’s Covid Reich was that even in the middle of the Government’s witless, confused and ambivalent approach to the crisis it was able to rustle up overnight many of the key ingredients of totalitarianism. The ideology and the slogans, and the continual repetition of the message with the supine assistance of broadcast media, all fell into place with frightening speed. The speed with which the Great British Public acquiesced was even more alarming.
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