Professor Robert Dingwall, perhaps the most sceptical member of Government advisory group NERVTAG (which feeds into SAGE), appeared on BBC Radio 5 on Friday morning to talk to presenter Rachel Burden about the Indian variant, vaccines, models, masks and social distancing. This is about as sceptical as you will get on the BBC, and Rachel finishes by saying “I know there’ll be scientists who disagree with you, but we try and reflect the broad range of views here”, which will come as a surprise to many. Let’s hope she keeps her job after letting such heresy air on the BBC. You can listen here (2:43-2:50) and Lockdown Sceptics readers Teresa Wood and Stuart Robertson have kindly sent us a transcript.
Rachel Burden (0:04): What’s your assessment of how dangerous this variant is at the moment?
Robert Dingwall (0:09): Well I think it is very important not to confuse two things. The first is to say that something is more transmissible does not mean that it’s going to create more severe infection. In a sense you can see this is a trial run for what it means to live with COVID as an endemic infection as we will do in the future, the Indian variant, by saying it’s more transmissible, it’s perhaps easier to catch it, but all the evidence so far is that the vaccines continue to offer very effective protection, and where the infection is clustering in younger people, this is in age groups who are very unlikely to get seriously ill as a result. So we shouldn’t expect to be seeing the sort of waves of hospitalizations, Intensive Care Unit admissions and deaths that we’ve, we’ve seen previously.
Rachel Burden (1:04): Well that’s really encouraging because I was reading some stats this morning that had been produced by SAGE, I think, which was suggesting that if it was X percentage more transmissible that we can be seeing 6,000 hospitalisations in the summer by August and so on and all of that looks really quite alarming, particularly as we’re just beginning to open up, but as we know there is no perfect modelling when it comes to this virus is there?
Robert Dingwall (1:27): Well indeed. One of the problems with the models all along has been the lags between obtaining new data, and understanding for example the linkage between mild infections and hospitalisations, which has changed quite drastically since the beginning of the vaccination programme. So the models are a helpful thing to think with, but we shouldn’t take them as crystal balls. And in this case it really is very hard to see, as the vaccination programme continues to roll on, where all those extra admissions and deaths would come from.
Rachel (2:08): You’re speciality is not specifically for virology, but, but, sociology, but I just wonder with that in mind how do you manage public expectations at a time like this because we’re trying to always find that balance here, myself and Nikki on the show between, you know, reflecting the confidence and positivity people are beginning to feel, that which I think is really important, but with that sort of background anxiety and I suppose some realism that this virus isn’t just going to disappear overnight, and we need to be aware of that still. How do you advise the government to manage public expectations around that.
Robert (2:48): Well, it’s very much a question for a sociologist, what we have had, really, I think, last spring, there were very good reasons to be fearful of the Covid virus. Nobody had ever seen it before. It might have been an existential threat on the scale of the Black Death in the 14th century or something like that. As we learn more about it, it’s clear that it’s not that kind of threat for most people, the experiences of mild respiratory illness which will, which may give them a really unpleasant week, also may take some weeks or even a few months to get over. But the focus has always been on the hospitalisations, on the deaths, to some extent on the amplification and prolongation of the fear just to try to encourage people to maintain various sorts of behaviours which are thought to interrupt the transmission of the infection. I think the problem that we now have really is dialling down that fear, is really asking the Government’s behavioural scientists to turn around, instead of trying to find ways of making us more afraid and more compliant, there’s not actually much to worry about. As we proceed to vaccinate the adult population, the risks of death, the risks of serious, serious hospitalisation. These are things which are declining day by day.
Rachel (4:27): And you’re absolutely right, I suppose it’s, it’s that on the one hand on the other. A colleague of mine here this morning saying they’ve been to a café one morning over the weekend. Nobody wearing masks, not in the cafe. The staff like nobody and, and I’m sure you could go to pockets all around the country and find that to be the case. But are there some sort of particular issues with behaviour and compliance with basic social distancing measures that, that are going to be really problematic in the months to come?
Robert (5:03): Well probably the only social distancing measure that’s had a real impact has been working from home, for the rest the evidence is very equivocal.
Rachel (5:12): Including masks in your view?
Robert (5:15): Including, including masks. I mean the science around that is very uncertain, there is weak evidence that there might be a small benefit but then there’s other evidence which points to problems short term and long term. It’s always been one of those things that’s, to some extent been if you like a demonstration that something is being done. It’s what the psychologists call an action bias. The pressure on governments to do something in this crisis. A lot of the stuff around mass and social distancing has been very much in that order. We should see, we should see a decline. There are times and places where it’s useful but in these, in many of these general situations, many outdoor situations, even a considerable number of indoor situations, they’ve, they’ve never been of great value. But the messaging has been important in continuing to promote awareness of the general level of risk in the population.
Rachel (6:09): Very interesting. Thank you. I mean, I know there’ll be scientists who disagree with you, but we try and reflect the broad range of views here, but thank you very much, Robert Dingwall, Professor of Sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He is part of the NERVTAG advisory group.