I cannot be alone in noticing the huge gulf between the sympathetic coverage given to the Black Lives Matter protests in the mainstream media and the almost universally hostile coverage of the anti-lockdown protests. Celebrities who were encouraging everyone to remain in their homes until last week are now rushing out to join the protests, including Emily Ratajkowski, Jaz Sinclair, Paris Jackson and Billie Eilish. Not only is this virtue-signalling hypocritical – why is Covid likely to be spread at anti-lockdown protests, but not at Black Lives Matter protests? – it’s also irresponsible, given how many of those protests have spiralled out of control into fully-fledged riots in at least 25 cities across America, including Minneapolis, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Louisville, Columbia, Denver, Portland, Milwaukee and Columbus.
Those protests have now crossed the Atlantic, with a march through the streets of Peckham yesterday in which demonstrators held up placards reading “Abolish the Police” and “Riot is the language of the unheard”. That demo did not become violent or lead to rioting, but more protests are planned in London and other British cities over the coming days.
Today, Metro ran an article entitled: “Black Lives Matter: Are protests taking place in the UK and how can you donate?” It included a handy guide to people who want to join those protests, something I don’t recall Metro doing a couple of weeks ago when it wrote about the anti-lockdown protests across the country.
I’m all in favour of the right to protest. I think the suspension of that right is unlawful and it should be reinstated immediately. But the police need to make up their minds. Either it’s now permissible for groups of more than 100 people to stage a protest, or it isn’t.
It can’t be one rule for Black Lives Matter protestors and another for anti-lockdown protestors.
A few weeks ago I linked to an excellent Newsnight report by Hannah Cohen which asked whether the Government really was following “the science”? Now that the Government has released the minutes of the SAGE meetings in the period leading up to the lockdown announcement on March 23rd – this was on Friday as a direct result of Simon Dolan’s lawsuit – we can get closer to answering this question.
The former barrister Paul Chaplin has gone through the minutes in a lengthy blog post and concluded that placing the entire country under virtual house arrest was a political decision and not “based on the science”. His analysis is compelling.
Chaplin finds plenty of evidence in the minutes that various different containment measures were discussed by SAGE, but at no point before March 23rd did the group recommend the quarantining of the whole population. The measures SAGE considered were home isolation of symptomatic individuals, the isolation of everyone in a symptomatic individual’s household for 14 days and the cocooning of those over 70 and those with underlying health conditions – the three measures introduced by the Government on March 16th. But at no point did SAGE discuss anything resembling a full lockdown. Indeed, SAGE noted at a meeting on March 10th that banning public gatherings would have little effect since most viral transmission occurred in confined spaces, such as within households.
The last SAGE meeting before the lockdown was on March 18th where it was noted that the impact of the social distancing measures introduced thus far would not be known for two or three weeks. The attendees did not at that stage know whether those measures would be sufficient to prevent the NHS’s critical care capacity being overwhelmed and in the absence of more data could not offer any advice on whether additional measures – such as closing bars, restaurants and entertainment centres, and limiting use of indoor workplaces – would be necessary. The only further measure SAGE recommended at that meeting was closing schools.
SAGE advises that the measures already announced should have a significant effect, provided compliance rates are good and in line with the assumptions. Additional measures will be needed if compliance rates are low.Minutes of the 17th SAGE meeting on COVID-19, March 18th 2020
The attendees discussed locking down London but no conclusion was reached. However, they did say that if additional measures were going to be necessary, it would be better to bring them in sooner rather than later. According to the minutes: “If the interventions are required, it would be better to act early.”
In other words, Boris Johnson and his advisors were not following “the science” when they took the decision to lock down the country on March 23rd – they weren’t acting on any specific recommendations by SAGE. Nor can the Government claim this is one of the options that was discussed at SAGE meetings and it was basing its decision, in part, on SAGE’s analysis of the impact of a full lockdown. That option was not discussed at any of the meetings before March 23rd. In this respect, it was a political decision.
This dovetails with Christopher Snowdon’s analysis of the decision-making in the period leading up to March 23rd published in the Critic last week, although Snowdon only had access to the broad summaries of the SAGE meetings that the Government has released, not the more detailed minutes released on Friday. Snowdon concluded that the Government’s scientific advisors never explicitly recommended a lockdown; on the contrary, at various stages they recommended against it.
Snowdon says that even Neil Ferguson’s March 16th paper, predicting 510,000 Covid deaths if the Government took no measures to stop the spread of the virus and 250,000 if it stuck with its “mitigation” strategy, stopped short of recommending a full lockdown:
Contrary to popular belief, the infamous study did not call for a full lockdown, nor did it model the effects of a full lockdown. It looked at school closures, social distancing and household quarantine for suspected cases and those living with them. It concluded that the greatest benefit would come from a combination of social distancing and household quarantine, with further benefits likely to come from closing schools, although it conceded that school closures would prevent many people from working.
There is no doubt that Ferguson’s model was impactful. It suggested that hundreds of thousands of people would die from COVID-19 if the Government continued to pursue a policy of mitigation. This put containment back on the table and gave legitimacy to more coercive action from Government, but the measures it recommended did not amount to a full lockdown. Its social distancing recommendations were far from trivial and yet they seem modest after nine weeks of genuine lockdown (the authors anticipated most people still going to work, for example). The only time Ferguson and colleagues use the word “lockdown” in the text is when they are making a distinction between their proposals and an actual lockdown. They implicitly dismiss a lockdown as being too extreme for the UK, saying that their favoured policies are “predicted to have the largest impact, short of a complete lockdown which additionally prevents people going to work”.
Snowdon’s conclusion is remarkably similar to Chaplin’s:
The founding myth of the lockdown is almost the opposite of the truth. Science did not triumph over politics on March 23rd. It would be more accurate to say that the strategy which preceded the lockdown, unpopular though it now is, was based on science whereas the decision to go into lockdown was political.
Snowdon’s article – and Chaplin’s analysis – is in some ways helpful to the Prime Minister since it debunks the myth that he was told to lock down the country by SAGE long before March 23rd and failed to act on that advice due to “dither and delay”. That was the story told by the Sunday Times in its May 23rd article entitled: “22 days of dither and delay on coronavirus that cost thousands of British lives.”
But if you’re a sceptic, this analysis isn’t helpful to the Prime Minister since it lays the blame for the lockdown squarely at the door of 10 Downing Street.
Stop Press: I emailed Christopher Snowdon to see if he’d had a chance to look at the SAGE minutes and he got back to me to say he had and they did indeed corroborate his analysis:
The minutes fully support what I wrote in the Critic. The social distancing measures discussed by SAGE – and modelled separately by Neil Ferguson et al. and John Edmunds et al. – are not well described in the documents, but it is clear that they are more moderate than the lockdown that was introduced on March 23rd. Even at the late stage of mid-March, SAGE was never seriously entertaining a full lockdown, nor did the attendees expect their more modest measures to be in place for more than 12 weeks. To claim otherwise is to rewrite history.
Last Wednesday night, Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg went on television to make a confession: she had panicked at the start of the pandemic. Most of the tough measures imposed in Norway’s lockdown were steps too far, she admitted. “Was it necessary to close schools?” she asked. “Perhaps not.”
She isn’t the first Norwegian official to acknowledge that the lockdown wasn’t necessary. On May 5th, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) published a briefing note reporting that when the lockdown was imposed on March 12th Norway’s R number had already fallen to 1.1. It slipped under 1 on March 19th.
“Our assessment now… is that we could possibly have achieved the same effects and avoided some of the unfortunate impacts by not locking down, but by instead keeping open but with infection control measures,” Camilla Stoltenberg, NIPH’s Director General said in a TV interview earlier this month.
An expert committee charged with carrying out a cost-benefit analysis into the lockdown measures in April estimated they had cost Norway 27 billion kroner (£2.3 billion) every month. The committee concluded last Friday that the country should avoid lockdown if there is a second wave of infections.
“We recommend a much lighter approach,” the committee’s head, Steinar Holden, an Oslo University Economics Professor, told the Sunday Telegraph. “We should start with measures at an individual level – which is what we have now – and if there’s a second wave, we should have measures in the local area where this occurs, and avoid measures at a national level if that is possible.”
“If it’s necessary to have very strict restrictions for a long time, then the costs are higher than letting the infection go through the population,” Holden told the Telegraph. “Because that would be immensely costly.”
In particular, Holden’s committee said schools should not be closed again if there is a second wave. It estimated in April that the measure had cost 6.7 billion kroner (£520 million) a month, while having “little impact” on the spread of infection. The NIPH has gone further and said that school closures may have even increased the spread.
Margrethe Greve-Isdahl, the doctor who is NIPH’s expert on infections in schools, tells the Telegraph that if schools hadn’t been closed they could have played a role in informing people in immigrant communities – which were hit disproportionately hard by the epidemic – of hygiene and social distancing rules.
“They can learn these measures in school and teach their parents and grandparents, so at least for some of these hard-to-reach minorities, there might be a positive effect from keeping kids in school,” she said. “There’s now a lot of information available on how it has impacted negatively on the economy and on vulnerable children.”
What refreshing candour from Norway’s Prime Minister and senior public health officials. I look forward to the press conference in which Boris Johnson, Sir Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty admit the lockdown was a mistake and apologise for it.
Guy de la Bédoyère has sent in a short piece based on the interview that Peter Openshaw, Professor of Experimental Medicine at Imperial College, gave on the Andrew Marr Show this morning. Guy’s conclusion is that many of the things the Government got wrong, such as closing schools, were dictated by the “UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy” published in 2011.
It’s easy to carp with the benefit of hindsight, but one theme came across painfully clearly from Professor Openshaw’s comments. Some of the scientists who exerted so much influence over the Government were operating like car mechanics who had no workshop manual for the model they’re trying to fix and instead just used the nearest one to hand, regardless of its relevance: in this case, the Influenza Workshop Manual, which looks as if it may have been the chocolate teapot of ways to deal with COVID-19.
One overlooked success story in the coronavirus crisis is Vietnam. The country of 97 million people has not reported a single coronavirus-related death and on Saturday had just 328 confirmed cases, despite its long border with China and the millions of Chinese visitors it receives each year. That’s particularly remarkable when you factor in it’s a low-middle income country with only eight doctors for every 10,000 people. So what did Vietnam get right?
According to CNN, the key to Vietnam’s success was ignoring the WHO’s advice that there was “no clear evidence of human to human transmission” and introducing temperature screening for passengers arriving from Wuhan at Hanoi international airport in early January. Travelers found with a fever were isolated and closely monitored. By mid-January, the country had introduced medical quarantining at border gates, airports and seaports and on January 24th it cancelled all flights to and from Wuhan. On February 1st, all flights between Vietnam and China were halted, followed by the suspension of visas to Chinese citizens on February 2nd.
Readers of this site will recall my post on May 9th pointing out that the Newly Emerging Respiratory Virus Advisory Group (NERVTAG) considered screening passengers arriving from Wuhan at a meeting on January 13th chaired by Peter Horby, an Oxford professor with links to the World Health Organisation. This is the same Peter Horby who criticised the Government yesterday for easing the lockdown too soon. At this point, seven other countries had introduced temperature screening at airports for visitors from Wuhan. However, the NERVTAG recommendation was that there would be no point in doing this if exit screening at Wuhan airports was already taking place, although they had no evidence it was.
At the next NERVTAG meeting on January 21st, this one attended by Chris Witty and his deputy Jonathan Van-Tam, as well as Professor Neil Ferguson, the boffins were asked to reconsider the question. But again they passed the buck to the Chinese authorities. By now, human-to-human transmission had been confirmed. Nonetheless, NERVTAG’s response was the same.
Neil Ferguson noted that from the modelling perspective, with exit screening in place in China, effectiveness of port-of-entry screening in the UK would be low and potentially only detect those who were not sick before boarding but became sick during the flight. NERVTAG felt there was a lack of clarity on the exit screening process in Wuhan, although it was thought that this process would be robust, and statements had been released by Chinese authorities about stopping febrile passengers from travelling. However, as noted, there were no data on the implementation of this programme.Minutes of the NERVTAG Wuhan Novel Coronavirus Second Meeting: January 21st 2020
So rather than recommend port-of-entry screening, the assembled brains at NERVTAG decided to trust to the Chinese authorities to screen people leaving the country. That may count as one of the biggest blunders the British Government and its scientific advisers made. Those countries that started screening airline passengers arriving from Wuhan in early January have some of the lowest Covid death tolls of anywhere in the world – Hong Kong (four deaths), Taiwan (7), Singapore (23), Malaysia (115), Thailand (57) and Vietnam (0).
Annie, one of the wittiest commentators on this site, has composed a ditty based on “I’ve Got A Little List” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado which she posted in the comment thread beneath yesterday’s update. Great stuff, Annie.
When the world regains its senses and the reckoning begins,
I’ve got a little list, I’ve got a little list
Of thugs and wimps and bullies who must answer for their sins,
And they’ll none of ’em be missed, they’ll none of ‘em be missed.
There’s the fornicating expert who despises his own rules,
The SAGES who despise us all and take us all for fools;
The servile politicians, solid wood from ear to ear,
The BBC, dispensing the pornography of fear,
And the morons and bed-wetters who on cowardice insist:
They never would be missed, they never would be missed.
There’s the shutter-off of playgrounds, paths and parks and even trees,
The joyless pessimist, I’ve got him on my list;
The neighbour who reports each normal person that she sees,
She never would be missed, she never would be missed.
There’s the vicious teaching unions who, in cowardice and spite,
Inflict appalling tortures on each hapless little mite;
There’s the spineless crawling bishops whom we’d do well to ignore,
The twit who puts a mask on when he creeps out through his door,
And the silly clapping seals who just don’t know when to desist:
They never would be missed, they never would be missed.
Nick Robinson interviewed Lord Sumption a few days ago for Political Thinking, his weekly politics podcast. Among other things, Sumption says it’s a sad reflection on our democracy that he should be the only major public figure opposing the lockdown.
I think that it would be very much more satisfactory if the sorts of points that I have been making had been made by professional politicians. But the amount of group think and collective hysteria, partly, I have to say, officially generated, has meant that nobody outside the press is actually making these points. Somebody has got to stand up for a sense of proportion, somebody has got to stand up for a measure of balance and somebody has got to stand up for the millions of people who are being propelled into misery and in many cases financial ruin by the lockdown. I’m really sorry that it should be me and I think that it’s a sad reflection on the quality of our democracy that it should be me. But if no one else is going to do it, then I am.
Preach brother. As one reader says,
It is a tragedy that there are so few people like Lord Sumption.
I also think that there is something seriously amiss with a culture that would choose to idolize a sulky child like Greta Thunberg rather than listen to a more traditional “wise old man” like Jonathan Sumption.
A reader has sent me a link to an interesting article in the Oxford Journal of Medicine entitled: “The effect of Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s illness on his decision-making during the Suez crisis.” The article argues that Eden’s illness affected his judgment during the Suez crisis, leading to Britain’s biggest foreign policy blunder since the Second World War.
“I’m wondering whether Boris’s errors of judgement are due partly to his recent illness,” says the reader. “If that’s the case then he more closely resembles Eden than Churchill, and Lockdown will prove his Suez!”
Boris issued a press release earlier today saying the odds of becoming infected have declined. “As the Government moves to the next phase of its response to the coronavirus crisis, the latest clinical advice shows a much lower incidence rate in the general population,” he said. “This means the average chance of catching the virus is now down from 1/40 to 1/1000…”
But how is he calculating those odds? After all, the latest ONS data suggests that about 8,000 new people are becoming infected every week. 67 million divided by 8,000 is not 1/1000 but 1/8375. And as number-cruncher Alistair Haimes pointed out on Twitter, if only ~0.25 of those who catch it will die, that means your odds of dying from coronavirus on any given day are about 1 in 3.4 million.
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:
- ‘Sunday shows round-up: Sturgeon challenged over care home deaths‘ – Summary of what was said in this morning’s politics talk shows. Includes Sturgeon telling Sophy Ridge that she thinks Covid deaths in English care homes are being under-counted
- ‘Revealed: Test and trace was abandoned because system “could only cope with five coronavirus cases a week”‘ – The comedy gets richer
- ‘Dominic Cummings Must be Sacked‘ – This Change.org petition calling for Cummings to be sacked now has over a million signatures. I’m jealous. The Change.org petition calling for me to be sacked as a Government advisor in 2018 only attracted 220,000 signatures
- ‘Sack Dominic Cummings for his wild midnight ride to Durham? Only if you want a LONGER lockdown‘ – Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday says he won’t be signing the sack-Dominic-Cummings petition (and nor will I)
- ‘James Ferguson: the virus, the lockdown, and what comes next‘ – Merryn Somerset Web interviews the financial guru for the MoneyWeek podcast
- ‘Covid Blinkered Syndrome‘ – Sam Case, an ex-policeman, criticises the response of various emergency services to the crisis in Hector Drummond Magazine
- ‘COVID-19: the ethics of clinical research in quarantine‘ – Interesting article in the BMJ that borders on saying the lockdowns have been unethical. Includes the line: “To be ethically justified, quarantine must be at minimum necessary and effective, a proportionate response to the risk of disease, and the least infringing measure available.”
- ‘UK announces 215 more COVID-19 deaths, the lowest Saturday total since lockdown began‘ – Good point made in Mail headline
- ‘ROBERT DINGWALL: Why are we the only country obsessed with the disastrous two-metre rule?‘ – NERVTAG professor criticises two-metre rule
- ‘Testing of NHS staff at Somerset hospital reportedly reveals “40 per cent as COVID-19 positive” as new admissions urgently halted‘ – More evidence that Covid is primarily a nosocomial disease
- ‘Leaked mails reveal battle over Denmark’s lockdown‘ – Emails reveal that Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen steamrollered her own health experts, who counselled against lockdown
- ‘We are sleepwalking from one denial of our liberties into an even more insidious phase‘ – Good Telegraph column by Janet Daley
- ‘Meet the people breaking lockdown rules to have sex‘ – It’s not just Rosie Duffield and Neil Ferguson who broke lockdown rules to have sex
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.
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 takes me about nine hours a day which doesn’t leave much time for other work. 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.
If you thought our own Government’s Covid propaganda was effective, just wait till you see these Japanese posters produced during the Spanish flu epidemic. You can see some of the others here.