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Financial Times Elides Excess Deaths In UK with Deaths From Coronavirus, Triggers Call For Coup From Ex-SAGE Member

Professor Anthony Costello, the former WHO Director and now a member of the “alternative” SAGE, got very over-excited on Twitter earlier today in response to an FT article showing the UK had the highest rate of deaths from the coronavirus pandemic among a group of 19 countries that produce comparable data. According to the article, the UK has registered 59,537 more deaths than usual this year since the week ending March 20th. In Costello’s brain, this became: “The FT report the UK has the highest rate of excess COVID19 deaths in the world. 59,537 more deaths than usual with a rate of 891 deaths per million.”

Costello’s tweet set off a chain of responses, each more hysterical than the last, with Robert West, a Professor of Health Psychology at UCL and a former member of the SP1-B subgroup of SAGE, seemingly calling for a coup on the back of it. “We cannot wait until this is ‘all over’ to find out what is going wrong,” he said, referring to Costello’s tweet. “But to learn from its mistakes the Government has to admit it is making them. This is something they appear completely unwilling to do. Time for NHS and public health to take over?”

Let’s gloss over the fact that in Costello’s fevered imagination the highest excess death toll in 19 countries became the highest in the world and focus on the other bit of hyperbole in his tweet. How did 59,537 excess deaths, which the FT says may have been “directly or indirectly” caused by the virus, become “COVID19 deaths”? After all, according to the latest ONS data, 47,343 deaths in the UK have mentioned “novel coronavirus” on the death certificate, more than 10,000 fewer than the excess death total. The six million dollar question is whether all excess deaths since the week ending March 20th have been from COVID-19 or whether some have been due to the lockdown itself? As I pointed out yesterday, the number of deaths from COVID-19 in care homes in England and Wales in Week 20, according to the ONS, is less than half the total number of excess deaths in care homes in Week 20. In the graph below, the green shaded area represents the excess deaths not linked to COVID-19.

Could it be that it’s not undiagnosed COVID-19 that is responsible for those excess deaths, but the hysterical over-reaction to the pandemic by the authorities, preventing people with other diseases seeking medical help?

To be fair to Costello, the FT makes the same elision as him in the headline: “UK suffers highest death rate from coronavirus.” From that, it sounds like the FT is assuming all the excess deaths are due to COVID-19 as well. It doesn’t try to justify this directly, or point out the discrepancy between the number of excess deaths and the number of deaths in which “novel coronavirus” is mentioned on the death certificate. But it does say: “Excess deaths is internationally recognised as the best way to compare countries’ performance in handling infectious diseases. Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical officer, called excess deaths ‘the key metric’.”

Well, yes, they might be a good way of measuring how countries have handled infectious diseases – maybe even the “key” way. But it doesn’t follow that, as the headline suggests, excess deaths are a reliable way of measuring how many people have died from coronavirus.

Costello is a long-standing member of the Labour Party and Robert West is a leftie who retweets all the usual suspects – George Monbiot, Carole Cadwalladr, Paul Mason, James O’Brien, Owen Jones, etc. They have a vested interest in eliding “excess deaths” with deaths from COVID-19 since it supports their contention that the Government’s delay in locking down led to a higher number of Covid fatalities. But I expected better from the FT.

Are We Counting Covid Deaths Correctly?

Dr John Lee’s latest piece in the Spectator points out that the way Covid deaths are being counted is incredibly unreliable. He writes:

Normally, two doctors are needed to certify a death, one of whom has been treating the patient or who knows them and has seen them recently. That has changed. For COVID-19 only, the certification can be made by a single doctor, and there is no requirement for them to have examined, or even met, the patient. A video-link consultation in the four weeks prior to death is now felt to be sufficient for death to be attributed to COVID-19. For deaths in care homes the situation is even more extraordinary. Care home providers, most of whom are not medically trained, may make a statement to the effect that a patient has died of COVID-19. In the words of the Office for National Statistics, this “may or may not correspond to a medical diagnosis or test result, or be reflected in the death certification”. From March 29th the numbers of ‘Covid deaths’ have included all cases where COVID-19 was simply mentioned on the death certificate – irrespective of positive testing and whether or not it may have been incidental to, or directly responsible for, death. From April 29th the numbers include the care home cases simply considered likely to be COVID-19.

So at a time when accurate death statistics are more important than ever, the rules have been changed in ways that make them less reliable than ever. In what proportion of COVID-19 ‘mentions’ was the disease actually present? And in how many cases, if actually present, was COVID-19 responsible for death? Despite what you may have understood from the daily briefings, the shocking truth is that we just don’t know. How many of the excess deaths during the epidemic are due to COVID-19, and how many are due to our societal responses of healthcare reorganisation, lockdown and social distancing? Again, we don’t know. Despite claims that they’re all due to COVID-19, there’s strong evidence that many, perhaps even a majority, are the result of our responses rather than the disease itself.

Dr Lee’s conclusion is withering:

One of the unappreciated tragedies of this epidemic so far is the huge lost opportunity to understand COVID-19 better. We like to beat ourselves up for having the worst Covid death toll in Europe — but we will never know, because we decided not to count properly. In a country that has always prided itself on the quality of its facts and figures, the missing COVID-19 data is a national scandal.

ONS Seroprevalence Survey

The ONS released some data today about a seroprevalence survey it has carried out involving a sample size of 885. Of this group, who were given an antibody test between April 26th and May 24th, 6.78% tested positive, which works out at 4,542,600 people nationwide if we scale it up to encompass the whole population.

Can we calculate an IFR based on this? It’s not as simple as dividing 4,542,600 by the total number of Covid-related deaths in the UK – 47,343 at last count – since the people the ONS gave the antibody tests to were “in the community”. None of them were in hospitals or care homes. So how many of those 47,343 deaths were of people “in the community”? If we assume that people “in the community” would simply transfer to hospital when they fell ill with COVID-19, but people in care homes are a separate, self-contained population, the way to calculate the IFR is to strip out all those Covid-related deaths that have occurred in care homes, which we can estimate at about 21% of the total (the ONS estimated that 21% of all Covid-related deaths in England in the week ending May 8th were in care homes). So scaling that up to the entire population gives us ~9,942 Covid-related care home deaths, leaving ~37,401 deaths in the community.

If we divide that 4,542,600 by 37,410 that gives us an IFR of 0.82%. That’s roughly three times higher than the CDC’s IFR of 0.26% – pretty robust, in my view – which suggests that either the numerator or the denominator is wrong. It’s likely to be both, obviously, but which one is more wrong? If we assume the seroprevalence data is broadly accurate – and a sample size of 885 is quite high by antibody survey standards – that suggests the number of deaths in which doctors are ascribing the cause of death to COVID-19 is being exaggerated three-fold.

“Didn’t you see the arrows?”

Good lockdown joke sent to me by a reader:

I was in Tesco today, and midway through my shop I realised I’d forgotten something. I walked back to get it, much to the horror of the shoppers behind me.

“There is a one way system!” screamed one terrified lady. “Didn’t you see the arrows?”

“Arrows?” I said. “I didn’t even see the Indians!”

The High Court judge has ordered the Government to respond to businessman Simon Dolan’s legal challenge to lockdown by June 12th. The date, set by Mr Justice Swift, came after Government lawyers again asked for more time to prepare and respond following the formal launch of proceedings.

“Such is the magnitude of our fight, we pushed hard for an earlier date,” says Simon Dolan. “But true to form, the Government wants delay after delay.”

The crowdfunder is now up to £147,135, well on its way to hitting its target of £175,000. Thanks to all those readers who’ve donated.

You can read the evidence in support of the legal challenge here. I was pleased to see Lockdown Sceptics get a mention in the evidence. See pp.43-44.

Michael Moorcock’s Prophecy

Good quote a reader has sent me, this one by the science fiction writer Michael Moorcock:

If we continue to make any sort of social progress, I suspect that the political battle lines of the twenty first century will not be between socialism and capitalism but democracy and paternalism.

People Are Drowning Because of Irrational Fear of Covid

There’s a depressing story in the Mail today about three people drowning over the Bank Holiday weekend, in part because the RNLI suspended coastline patrols when the lockdown was imposed and haven’t fully reinstated them. “More casualties are now feared on unsupervised beaches after two deaths near Padstow in Cornwall on Monday, and a third at Teignmouth in Devon on Tuesday,” the Mail reports.

The RNLI had a total net income of £186.6million in 2018, so it’s not lack of resources that’s preventing the RNLI getting back out there.

RNLI chief Mark Dowie blames the Government for not banning people from going to beaches and for not giving the RNLI more notice of the easing of lockdown restrictions. Apparently, this has meant it hasn’t had adequate time to work out how to operate during the pandemic.

We have to work out how to do in-water rescues and give first aid – normally conducted at close quarters and often with people coughing up water. We have to find PPE that will work on a beach and in the water – visors and aprons are no good on a rescue board. And we have to train our lifeguards in procedures to reduce the risk of infection. All this takes time and we learnt of the lifting of restrictions at the same time as everyone else.

Bad news, Mr Dowie. No PPE is going to protect people pulling drowning people out of the sea and giving them first aid. But the good news is the chances of one of your people dying from COVID-19 are quite small. Let’s work them out.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) estimates that around 2,000 new people are being infected every day. People remain infectious for no more than 10 days and each infected person is currently infecting less than one other person. So that means that no more than 20,000 UK citizens are infectious at any one time – and that number is falling. So the chances of the person you’re pulling from the sea being infectious with COVID-19 are 20,000/67,000,000, or 1/3,350.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the infection fatality rate for Covid is 0.26% so the chances of an RNLI employee dying if they catch the virus from the person they save from drowning is 1/385.

Combine those two figures, and the chances of an RNLI lifeboat person dying from rescuing someone at sea are roughly 1/1,250,000. By contrast, the chances of a drowning person pulled from the sea dying if they’re not given first aid are 1/1.

You do the maths, Mr Dowie.

Stop Press: In a bulletin earlier today, the ONS estimated that ~54,000 new people were being infected each week between May 11th and May 24th, which works out at 7,714/day, or 77,140 infectious people in the UK at any one time. According to my calculations, that would increase the above risk to 1/334,392. Still quite low.

Donald Trump Responds to YouTube Censorship

President Trump is due to sign an executive order later today that will supposedly regulate or “close down” social media companies he perceives as censoring conservative voices. I’d love to say this was in response to YouTube censoring me yesterday, but in fact the final straw was Twitter flagging up two of Trumps tweets on Tuesday as requiring a fact check. The tweets weren’t about coronavirus, but potential voter fraud in California. The Mail has the story.

Test-And-Trace Fiasco

Technology being used to track-and-trace not as modern as first hoped

The ongoing saga that is Matt Hancock’s attempt to roll a test-and-trace programme across the UK hit a new peak of comic hilarity today when the Mail disclosed that the website crashed when it went “live” this morning.

Staff employed to warn Britons they may have been infected have also struggled to log-on to the system, with one calling it a “complete shambles” after revealing they had not even received their password to access the website and start their shift while another questioned why the COVID-19 system wasn’t perfect before it went live…

Shocking pictures today also showed deserted drive-through testing centres in Twickenham, Heathrow, Edinburgh and Chessington in Surrey, while flat-pack furniture giant Ikea reclaimed a key swabbing location in west London because it plans to reopen to the public in the coming weeks.

Needless to say, the much-touted NHS track-and-trace app was nowhere to be seen, having encountered a number of “teething problems” during its trial run in the Isle of Wight. I asked the IT expert who’s been following this saga for Lockdown Sceptics to comment on today’s launch.

Today the Government launched its track-and-trace programme. Personally, I am not celebrating 25,000 new Government employees paid to trawl over my private life on the assumption that I am a bio-hazard. So forgive me if it seems churlish to ask, but what happened to your app, Mr Hancock?

Now relegated to a “supporting” role, readers of this site will recall the May 4th Independent front page headline heralding the app as part of the government’s “roadmap to end lockdown”. What went wrong? As this site pointed out on May 4th, the choice of a home grown, Government-developed, centralised database was a bad idea from the start. The famously IT-savvy Matt Hancock begged to differ and commissioned the National Centre for Cyber Security to agree with him.

The resulting 13-page report used a lot of impressive-sounding crypto jargon, but the issue of a centralised verses distributed database wasn’t addressed until the very last page. “This paper does not make a case for either a centralised or decentralised […] model,” it said, but then followed up with three justifications Mr Hancock could use for not opting for the decentralised Apple/Google approach. That didn’t convince 173 security academics who signed a letter saying so, nor did it persuade Harriett Harmon’s Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, which pointed out that it wasn’t just bad software, it was very likely illegal. The much-lauded NHS app was dead in the water.

But Mr Hancock wouldn’t let go of his conviction that high-tech wizardry was the solution and he found £3.8m to commission Swiss software company Zulke to build another app, this one utilising Apple and Google’s technology. That answered the academics and human rights committee, but had the disadvantage of not providing a single byte of intelligence data for track-and-trace purposes.

The upshot is that today’s big track-and-trace programme launched with no surveillance app and a fledgling testing service. This article in the Conversation gives some idea of the problems ahead, revealing that “the average number of tests required per case was 52 in South Korea, and 64 in Australia”. What that means is that for each person the South Korean team discovered was infectious, they then had to track down 52 additional people as having been exposed to the infectious individual – and in Australia that number was 64. The article adds: “In South Korea the testing was conducted on a base of well-funded and efficient public services and an effective infrastructure, including widespread digital surveillance.”

In other words, the South Korean track-and-tracers had access to extensive surveillance data – far more extensive than that currently available in the UK.

How will Hancock’s army of 25,000 amateur detectives cope, particularly as as they’re being paid minimum wage and have received, at most, a few weeks “training”? And what’s the likelihood of them making mistakes when trying to identify the 50+ people each infected person has made contact with using an ordinance survey map and a telephone directory?

Rather ominously, Hancock announced yesterday that it was every citizen’s “civic duty” to place themselves in quarantine for 14 days if identified as at risk by his 25,000 crack sleuths – and if they neglect to do this voluntarily, swingeing fines will be just round the corner. I think we can pretty much guarantee that every person ordered to self-isolate by some muppet on the end of the phone claiming to work for “the Government” will be one less vote for the Conservative Party at the next General Election.

But will the Government really be able to fine people if they refuse to self-isolate in these circumstances? No, according to the employment lawyers Jackson Bourne. See this blog post.

And just to add to the comedy of errors, the Executive Chair of NHS Test and Trace is one Dido Harding, whose record when it comes to data protection is less than golden. This was a good spot by Simon Dutton in the comments beneath yesterday’s update. He quoted the following passage from Harding’s Wikipedia entry:

In October 2015, TalkTalk experienced a “significant and sustained cyber-attack”, during which personal and banking details of up to four million customers is thought to have been accessed. City AM described her responses as “naive”, noting that early on when asked if the affected customer data was encrypted or not, she replied: “The awful truth is that I don’t know”. Her “inflexible line” on termination fees was also criticised. Marketing ran a headline, “TalkTalk boss Dido Harding’s utter ignorance is a lesson to us all”. The Evening Standard noted that “It has been a tough week for TalkTalk boss Dido Harding, facing complaints from customers and calls for her head.” The company admitted the hack had cost it £60 million and lost it 95,000 customers.


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:

Theme Tune Suggestions From Readers;

Some more suggestions for theme songs from readers: “Panic” by the Smiths, “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher (from Groundhog Day, obviously) and “Self-Inflicted Wounds” by Joe Bonamassa.

Small Businesses That Have Reopened

A couple of weeks ago, Lockdown Sceptics launched 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 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 opened near you. Please visit the page and let us know about those brave folk who are doing their bit to get our country back on its feet.

Shameless Begging Bit

Thanks as always to those of you who made a donation in the last 24 hours to pay for the upkeep of this site. It still takes me about nine hours a day, what with doing these updates, moderating your comments and commissioning original material. If you feel like donating, however paltry the amount, please click here. And if you want to flag up any stories or links I should include in tomorrow’s update, email me here.

And Finally…

Stinky Malinky, the latest addition to the Young household

In my Spectator column today I write about the puppy-mania that has accompanied lockdown, the risk of newly-acquired pets being abandoned when the crisis is over and the fact that, in the case of my household’s latest addition, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. We have a five month-old cavapoochon called Malinky, or Mali for short, and her cute appearance can be deceptive. Very deceptive. Here’s an extract:

Mali has a disgusting habit of actually eating other dogs’ faeces. Whenever I take her for a walk on Wormwood Scrubs, she will sniff it out like a forager looking for edible mushrooms and, as soon as she finds any, happily start munching away. Sealed in a little plastic bag? No matter. She’ll gobble that up too. And when she’s finished this little treat, she’ll flip over on to her back and roll around in the residue so as not to leave the tiniest bit behind. What a delight it is to stick her back in the car after that! And to cap it all, the little horror suffers from travel sickness, so all the poo she’s consumed on her walk will often come back up on the way home. Suffice to say, my one-year-old VW Touran no longer has that nice new car smell. When I fling open the door on arrival back home, gasping for breath, sparrows fall out of the sky and roses wilt on their stems.

You can read the entire piece here.

Update: An earlier version of today’s update included a letter purporting to be written by F Scott Fitzgerald about quarantining in the South of France in 2020. It was in fact a parody so I’ve removed it.