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Readers’ Exchanges with Professor Neil Ferguson

A reader sent Derek Winton’s article in Lockdown Sceptics criticising Imperial College’s modelling to Professor Neil Ferguson. His remarkable response in turn prompted a lot of responses from our readers. One, a regular contributor to the site, produced a line-by-line analysis which we’re publishing below.

I was interested to see Professor Neil Ferguson’s reply to one of your readers. I was surprised he had replied, but no less surprised that anyone had bothered to write to him.

Now, I think it’s a bit unfair to write to someone and then publish that person’s reply, especially if it hadn’t been made clear the reply would be published. However, it has been, and I suppose anyone in public life would have to be naïve to believe that anything they say is immune to being disseminated more widely.

I thought it would be interesting therefore to analyse the reply.

I presume you sent me this because you feel upset, angry, that no-one is listening, want to hurt me or change my mind. Or all of the above.

Here we have an assumption of motive. The writer, who is a woman, is depicted as having become emotional (“angry, upset”), seeing herself as a frustrated victim (“no-one is listening”), aggressive (“want to hurt me”) and manipulative (“want… to change my mind”). Therefore, the original email is dismissed as having come from someone who is behaving irrationally and antagonistically. This is not an especially surprising opening gambit because it is designed immediately to create the impression that the original writer has lost control in some way and therefore by implication that Professor Ferguson is in contrast a rational being who is still in control of himself.

What is odd is that the email he’s responding to just asked him whether he’d seen Derek Winton’s article, but Professor Ferguson, at this point, makes no mention of that. He has responded initially only by seeking to diminish the sender. However, he has only just started.

I and my colleagues and friends (John Edmunds, Jeremy Farrar, Marc Lipsitch, Christian Drosten, Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty,…) get so many of these sort of emails that we barely notice anymore. Most get dumped into junk mail folders automatically nowadays.

This is an interesting paragraph. Firstly, it involves telling the sender that he, Professor Ferguson, is a member of a strong gang consisting of “colleagues and friends”. This means that the sender is attacking the gang, and here he reinforces the idea that the sender is talking rubbish by referring to the way that such emails normally get “dumped into junk folders”. The implication is therefore that even email client algorithms are able to detect such emails as automatically worthless.

Secondly, the listing of gang members is designed to be intimidating, reminding the writer that her assault is against a powerful cabal of highly-qualified people who by being ‘friends’ will therefore act together to protect each other. Such is their status that they don’t even “notice [these emails] any more”. This is an important way of maximizing the distance between the writer and Professor Ferguson.

But for a change, I thought I would reply to you. Not that I really expect it to change the alternative reality you seem to have got sucked into, but occasionally I feel I should try.

Here we have a paradox. Professor Ferguson has decided, despite having shown in two contexts that the “junk” email he has received has been written by someone who is being over-emotional and antagonistic, that he will reply “for a change”. Actually, we know that it isn’t entirely “for a change”. Professor Ferguson does indeed occasionally reply to some of what he receives, and he concedes this himself. Clearly then he does notice these emails.

Note that the writer is now depicted as someone likely to be dogmatic and intractable. Professor Ferguson states that he does not “expect” his reply to have any effect. Here he introduces the idea that the writer exists in an “alternative reality”. This of course is a vaguely science fiction allusion and suggests that the writer is in a parallel universe, and by using the pejorative term “sucked into” he suggests the writer has effectively been “conned”.

To start with may [sic] want to read this: https://www.climatechangecommunication.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/ConspiracyTheoryHandbook.pdf And ask yourself if a loved one started to exhibit those behaviours, would you be worried?

This tactic is immediately reinforced with the next paragraph, which is designed to imply that the writer has fallen under the spell of conspiracy theorists. This subtly therefore positions Professor Ferguson as a reliable voice of legitimacy and reason in contrast. For students of totalitarian regimes, Professor Ferguson’s tactic at this point is reminiscent of scenes from 1984 and also the sort of circumstances enemies of such regimes can find themselves in if they question the official line. It’s a subtle way of suggesting the writer has lost her reason.

Conspiracy theorists of course exist but suggesting that someone is susceptible to conspiracy theories is also a cheap and easy way of making them seem foolish and gullible. This is a useful mechanism for a protagonist who is about to move in with his own attack, and whose definition of rational thought is what he himself and his peer group think.

As to the article you refer to, it recycles the same old, same old misinformation. You may be surprised to learn that the Telegraph and Spectator have published over a dozen corrections in response to complaints from Imperial College about inaccurate articles. For instance, no-one ran the Imperial model for Sweden (other than us).

This is the last stage of the opening attack, with the final salvo being to reinforce the idea that anyone who queries Professor Ferguson and his “friends” is peddling the “same old misinformation”. You’ll note that so far Professor Ferguson has said nothing specifically to address the points raised. Essentially, the position he has adopted is that the emotional and antagonistic writer has forwarded only “misinformation”.

Since some of the points raised in Derek Winton’s article included drawing attention to Professor Ferguson’s apparent lack of relevant qualifications, and previous predictions based on modelling that turned out to be inaccurate (including Sweden), one might have expected at this point a more explicit response. However, by calling the article “misinformation” the suggestion is that everything within the article is by definition incorrect, false, and misleading.

More substantively, the Government never relied on just one model. The models written by LSHTM, Warwick University and Institut Pasteur Paris all agreed with “the” Imperial model. All used different code bases.

This is an interesting tactic. In this paragraph, despite up to this point attacking the writer and then rubbishing the article, Professor Ferguson now introduces the idea of absolving himself and his colleagues from exclusive responsibility for the Government’s actions. The Government, he says, took into account four models which “all agreed” with Imperial. He does not say how they agreed, either in content or recommendation.

And in fact, there was never “one” Imperial model, but several. We now have four different COVID models, again which all agree.

Like the previous paragraph, a claim without any specific explanation or substantiation but composed essentially to say he was right, not once but four times in order to reinforce his position. However, in what ways he was right he keeps to himself.

Government responses were never dependent on one model. They were driven by the reality that any disease which generates epidemics which double every 3-4 days and for which over 2% of those infected require hospitalisation will overwhelm any health system that exists.

In fact, a case could be made that the UK government took too little notice of our (not just Imperial – all the SAGE groups) modelling. In that they basically only acted when they saw hospitalisations and deaths growing exponentially.

I’ll treat these two paragraphs together. Here the purpose is to distance Imperial College, and therefore by implication Professor Ferguson himself, from the outcome of Government action by passing all responsibility to the Government. Now, in the strict sense of how a nation is ruled that is as it should be.

But note how Professor Ferguson says a case could be made that the Government took “too little notice” of the modelling. Had the Government done exactly what Professor Ferguson says it should have, then the situation he claims to have predicted would never have arisen, thereby exempting him for all time from ever having his predictions tested while he basked in praise for having been right. This is similar to Homer Simpson and his anti-tiger rock.

Of course, that didn’t happen. This enables Professor Ferguson to imply that Government incompetence is to blame for the actual numbers of hospitalisations and deaths because they “only acted” when they saw them rising “exponentially”. The tactic is of course a perfect one. “If only they had done as we said”, then we wouldn’t be in this mess.

In summary, Professor Ferguson’s reply to the writer of the email is as follows:

  • You’re being emotional
  • You’ve lost control of yourself
  • You’re being aggressive
  • You’re attacking me and my powerful and well-qualified friends, so watch out
  • Your email is electronic junk and the article you sent me is also junk
  • I and my friends are all correct, because we all added up the figures and got the same answer (whatever that was)
  • I’m right because if the Government had done as we had said things would have been different, and because the Government didn’t do as we said things have turned out as they have
  • Nothing that has happened is my fault or the fault of my friends, and we didn’t get anything wrong

It’s an enviable position to be in. Professor Ferguson has built himself an impregnable bunker in which by predicting a scenario that would never have happened (and did not happen) he can never be proved wrong. His reply essentially amounts to a declamation of how nothing he has said or done in connection with this matter can be queried. Anyone who does so must have something wrong with them or be troubled in some way. That he bothered to reply shows that it is important to him to assert this position.

Clearly, there’ll never be any dialogue or debate with him, and he will probably go to his grave with his certainty undented. In some professions, certainty is useful. In this one I am not so sure. The lack of humility is to be expected, but even if he does in quieter and private moments question himself, his reply proves that he is unlikely to admit it.

However, in science the only route to progress is doubt, not certainty. One cannot help but muse on scientific certainties of the past that were brushed aside when someone with the wit and imagination to see beyond came up with another solution or explanation. It would be very rare in history if anyone was to look back at this time and regard the certainties of, in this instance, our current epidemiological modelling as definitive, unequivocal, and cast-iron.


Neil Ferguson’s Original Correspondent Responds – and He Responds Again!

The Lockdown Sceptics reader’s response to Professor Ferguson was powerful

Dear Professor Ferguson,

I was surprised to get a reply to my email – but frankly amazed to read the content of the link you sent me.  Is that really the best you can do? Do you respond to other scientists’ theories by shutting them down by yelling ‘conspiracy theorist’? Instead of engaging with the central tenet of the argument, that your/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris model might be wrong, you call me a conspiracy theorist. That is very odd and suggests to me it’s you that have developed a very warped sense of reality and that maybe you do not understand what is going on in people’s lives. We look at ONS/NHS data every day on cases/hospitalisations/deaths, not wild theories.

So let me speak from personal experience. I have 21 year-old twins, studying at Bristol (Economics) and Montpellier (Year abroad) respectively. Their lives are relatively rubbish at the moment, no enjoyment of the university life for which my daughter at Bristol is paying £18K a year. My son is living under a curfew. But I accept, not a disaster. Their friend killed himself while incarcerated as a student last year. He was in despair.

Just this week we heard of the suicide of a lovely man my husband met at the gym, a Tunisian. He worked as a waiter, so I guess he had financial worries.

We help a Syrian Refugee family in the town. Two children, aged six and 12. In the summer we realised that all the progress they had made at their excellent primary school was slipping away and that the 12 year-old was losing his English (they speak Arabic at home) so we started doing lessons at our house for the mum and the two children. We realised that the boy was virtually illiterate. His parents had been so terrorised by the fear porn churned out by the government (acting on your/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris models) that they would not send the children back to school even though they were ‘allowed’, being in Years 1 and 6. He then started at the local High school, has got into fights, been bullied and I fear for his future. His life chances have been damaged by having his education denied to him by this government relying on the models mentioned above. Of course our weekly lessons had to stop. Online learning started. The family did not have a laptop. The Government agencies that get paid handsomely to do so could not provide a laptop, so we set up a charity to recycle laptops to deprived children.

We’ve helped him and 178 other children in our nice leafy middle-class Stratford-on-Avon. I wonder what it’s like in Middlesborough, Fleetwood, Great Yarmouth? Multiply my young Syrian friend’s experience by literally millions and you start to approach the truth (not a conspiracy theory!) of the world that you have been key in ushering in (and of course LSHTM, Warwick University and the Institut Pasteur Paris). So many young people’s lives will be poorer, in so many ways. My point is this is real world stuff, not theory (either your theory or a conspiracy theory)..

Me and my husband both have widowed mothers. His mum is 94 – one of the last years of her life has been lived in almost total isolation. She has 14 grandchildren who are (should read, were) very involved in her life, regularly travelling 2.5 hours+ to visit her in Suffolk. All stopped. She’s living life as a husk. Both her and my mother’s mobility have seriously declined, because they do not go out any more, due to lockdown (not the virus). My mum is I’d say typical of a lot of 87 year-olds. She’s reasonably intelligent, used to be a teacher. She lives alone in the house she’s lived in for the last 63 years. It is completely in the ‘back of beyond’.  The house sits atop a sea wall and the nearest land mass looking west is Ireland. The Irish Sea hits the house at high tide. She is miles from anywhere and has no part of community life. She isn’t online and gets all her news from the BBC (refusing a newspaper in case “it’s on it”– the virus). The house is for sale as it’s a mad place for an 87 year-old to live in but she won’t allow any viewings – you can guess why. Her mobility is also much reduced and she is desperately lonely. I haven’t seen her in over a year. This isn’t a conspiracy theory. It’s my mum’s life. She lives like this because of the messaging from the Government, acting as a result of modelling by you/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris. The aim of the Government was to terrify the population. I do hope you of all people do not think that this is a conspiracy theory.  I’ve read the relevant minutes from Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) on March 22nd 2020 which says among other things: 

A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened

The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent using hard-hitting emotional messaging

Use media to increase sense of personal threat

Perhaps you think the 47 signatories to this petition are also conspiracy theorists? The BIT feeds into SAGE – so count yourself as part of all this – and together they have set out to terrorise us – and you’ve done such a brilliant job that people like my mum (who has had her first vaccine) is unlikely ever to resume normal life again. Her house won’t sell and we’ll have the same horrendous problems trying to get carers for her as we did for my dad four years ago – except that unlike him, he had mum, she’ll be alone. Just telling you what real life looks like.

Do you get it? You might live a nice comfortable life as an academic. I too want for nothing (apart from normality). I am sufficiently well off to shield my three children from the coming, shall we call them, difficulties.  It’s the ‘left behind’, the marginalised, the poor, the lonely elderly, the millions upon millions of dirt poor people in the developing world that keeps me awake at night. So yes, I’m angry. But you call me the conspiracy theorist! Do you not see reports like this: 270 million marching towards starvation (perhaps they too are infected with conspiracy theories?). This isn’t the virus that’s caused this, it’s lockdowns. First World lockdowns have a terrible impact on the the Third/Developing world – I don’t think that’s in contention.  Surely you can see that? Even if you didn’t foresee it as a consequence.

Or this in the Lancet: 94 million children at risk of not getting their measles vaccine (perhaps the Lancet is in on the conspiracy?)

Maybe if you, Whitty, Valance, Drosten, Farrar and Edmunds are all merrily putting communications in your junk folder you really are totally unaware of what is happening in the real world? Pause: think: what if they are right? What if only half of what I say is right? I thought scientists were supposed to welcome their theories being challenged? I thought that’s how they are tested. You describe me as being “sucked into” an “alternate reality” – and that is precisely my beef – you are the one living in a land of modelled theories – I am the one asking you to look at my reality – the ‘on the ground Real World’ data. What has happened in countries which didn’t/couldn’t lock down? Yes, look at Sweden, though it obviously pains you do to do so. How to explain its death rate? Or Texas? Or Brazil? Or Belarus? How is that a conspiracy? Is the FT in on the conspiracy? Worldometers? Perhaps the health reporting agencies are in on it too! 

I might not be an epidemiologist but it’s fairly obvious to me that your model (and that of Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris) is out by several orders of magnitude and the fact that you resort to calling people who disagree with it “conspiracy theorists” only serves to illustrate how far down the rabbit hole you have fallen. Oh, and what is wrong in pointing out that you have made the self-same error with Swine Flu, Bird Flu, Foot and Mouth? Or do you dispute those figures when you say I’m quoting the “same old misinformation”? Are all those reporting your past predictions v the actuality also in on the conspiracy?

I loathe this Government and its key players in this, the worst mistake the world has ever made. You – I would say that you are obviously a decent human being and I wonder if you do not see that you are going to be hung out to dry by those chancers running this operation.  Just look at their record – the failed Test and Trace, the corruption, the care home deaths, the infection rate in hospitals – you have hitched your star to the worst Government we have ever had but unfortunately it will forever be your name attached to ‘The Science’ that drove them. If you can’t see that then you are not as clever as we all were led to believe. You and Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris have made the biggest mistake of all time and in my view the sooner you accept it and try and proffer some sort of explanation the better. The truth might be able to be suppressed in our society now so bereft of free speech, but it will come out – starting in other countries.

I find it unfathomable that you/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris were listened to, the Pandemic Preparedness Plan thrown away and we embarked on lockdowns, with the rest of the world following. Perhaps you could do some good at this late stage by trying to get the mass-testing/False Positive Rate sorted out (by following the WHO’s guidelines, for instance) otherwise we are never going to get out of this mess. My husband drew this up – from Government data.

Sorry for the long email. The conclusion I’ve reached that it’s you that is living in some parallel universe if you think that I am the conspiracy theorist. The world lies in tatters because of your/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris theory.

If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading

XXXX


Professor Ferguson’s second answer to the Lockdown Sceptics reader was more conciliatory than his first

Dear XXXX

I would start by asking whether you really think I and my colleagues are unaware of the social and economic consequences of societal restrictions? Every life lost is a tragedy, whatever the cause. And I absolutely agree that this pandemic – and the measures adopted – have hit the poorest hardest.

But I wonder what you think motivates me and my (many hundreds of) fellow scientists who have been working on this pandemic for over a year? It certainly isn’t publicity or a desire to impose draconian rules on society. Nor do I have any love of lockdown restrictions myself, personally or ideologically. I don’t know anyone who does. Rather, we are trying to learn as much as possible about the epidemiology of this virus and how best to limit its health impacts.

The judgement call on the balance between compulsory measures and voluntary recommendations is a political one, but the effectiveness of each is likely culturally specific. Sweden made one set of choices, Denmark and Norway another. The result is that Sweden has had fewer restrictions overall, but has had 3-4x the per capita death toll of its neighbours. Our death toll is higher still not because we over-reacted, but because we introduced measures too late last March, and then repeated the mistake last autumn. And because of factors which were just bad luck – the level of seeding last February and the new variant last November.

As for the UK, what are you really suggesting the Government should have done back in December in response to the new variant and the overwhelming levels of hospital demand seen in London and elsewhere? Let people continue to go about their normal business as thousands died at home or on hospital corridors, as is happening in Mexico? 

And to reassure you, we track the pandemic globally. And have a significant research programme comparing how different countries have responded. I am a bit surprised you point to Brazil as a success story though. And if you highlight Belarus, why not China?

I am also aware that there is a continuum between scepticism and outright conspiracy theory craziness. But some of the “facts” you and the lockdown sceptics throw out are tending towards the latter category. Remember the claims that there would be no second wave and that we were just experiencing a “casedemic”?

False positive rates are not a major issue at present. We are aware they will need to be accounted for more in future though. Also, while every suicide is tragic, there is no evidence that the suicide rate has increased in the last year. I am actually much more worried about all the cancer diagnoses and treatments which were postponed in the last few months due to Covid-related NHS demand.

I certainly agree there are many lessons to be learned from this pandemic – including regarding test and trace (especially early on) and care homes. I do not see myself as a Government cheerleader. Indeed, one of the depressing aspects of the discourse around this pandemic is the politicisation of science.

Best,

Neil


The reader replied.

Dear Neil,

Thank you for your considered response.

I suspect you epidemiologists are told that there will be economic and other consequences of the lockdowns but I, and many others, think you have got the balance wrong. The precautionary principle has overtaken acceptable risk. I was quite taken aback by your link to the conspiracy theory website, which does make me worry that reasonable suggestions are being rebuffed by you and people like you as “crazy conspiracy theories”. I hope you would concede that I have made some valid points to you about the outcomes of lockdowns.

You asked in your first reply what would I have done, dealing with a disease that would see 2% in hospital. Nowhere in the world have cases continued to grow “exponentially”, regardless of the level of NPIs imposed.  My point is (and I rely on real world data to support it) that you and your colleagues have concentrated on the 2% to the enormous disbenefit of the other 98% and society in general. We might argue what the IFR is but whether it’s 10 in a 1,000 or two in a 1,000, the BBC and government ministers have focused too much on the (let’s settle for four in 1,000) fatalities rather than 996 recoveries. The result is a terrorised population, lacking the ability to get the risks into perspective and the very real long term threat that people will never get back to normal for fear of flu or other seasonal illnesses. We can’t all live forever.

How can you argue against the fact that other countries do illuminate what could happen if a different approach to NPIs were taken? That NPIs (or lack thereof) made very little difference to Covid health outcomes and that the disease didn’t grow exponentially in those countries, such as Vietnam, India and Japan? Are you suggesting all the data I’ve been looking at – Euromomo, the FT, Worldometers – are somehow presenting false information? How does that make me and other sceptics (not deniers, obviously!) conspiracy theorists? It does rather suggest an over sensitivity on your part. 

Yes, I overlooked the cancers/other missed health treatments (so many other horrors to mention). A year down the line, do you not consider that the cure is going to be worse than the disease, in cancer/missed treatments alone, quite apart from the other societal/economic/libertarian damage

By the way, which ‘fact’ in my email makes you think I am on the side of conspiracy theory craziness?  I think that we should have lived with a greater degree of risk and that in fact you have opened a Pandora’s Box of fear and risk aversion which is going to be a constant plague. Though with a trashed economy, I’m not sure how it’s going to be paid for, if we are to have annual lockdowns. I think that we should have dealt with it differently, by following the Pandemic Preparedness Plan, by shielding the vulnerable (think: Great Barrington Declaration). It might have seemed an impossible task but it is nothing compared to what we have done. We’ll never agree that the NPIs delivered a step change in outcome – but as I said, those who disagree with you can point to countries which didn’t use them/used them lightly and observe that the death rates were much the same as those who did lock down. I guess my point is that if your (and all the other institutions you mention) model were to be tested against these countries, your modelled response would be very far apart from what actually happened. Is that calling it wrong? Or just out by several factors. 

We’ve infantilised the population, created an enormous health crisis and trashed the economy. We’ve turned a once-in-40-years health crisis into a cataclysmic health/economic/political/societal disaster. I agree I don’t know what part your input played in these decisions, but I know that you are so frequently on our airwaves some people think you were pretty instrumental.

But thank you for your time in engaging with me.

Best wishes

XXXX


Niall Ferguson’s Second Correspondent from Lockdown Sceptics!

Following the exchange above, another reader sent an email to Professor Neil Ferguson. And, again, he replied. Here is their exchange in full.

Neil,

Someone sent you an article written by Derek Winton and you replied to that person by sending him/her a handbook about conspiracy theories.

So – anyone who disagrees with you must be a conspiracy theorist? Is that it?

But the Derek Winton article made no reference at all to any conspiracy or conspiracy theory. 

It is possible you know to take a different view from you without thinking that you are part of some conspiracy. 

Your reply referred to above doesn’t come across at all well. You might want to consider proffering an apology for it. 

All the best,

XXXX


The Professor replied, with a couple of references that suggest he may have Googled “Lockdown Scepticsand “no Second Wave” or “Casedemic” before replying.

Dear XXXX,

Reductionist rhetoric such as “anyone who disagrees with you must be a conspiracy theorist?” rather makes my point. It is not just anyone.

Science is about alternative perspectives, debate and being prepared to change ones view. My views are driven by the data and analysis of it – not just that from Imperial, but from researchers globally. Like most other people working on the virus, I learn new things every week, and that sometime involves rejecting previous beliefs.

However, the Winton piece was an ideologically motivated rhetorical rant, not a serious scientific discussion. Criticising 15 year-old C code is never going to be scientifically persuasive, because the science never depended on that (or any other) code. Never mind the bizarre but persistent minority belief that the world locked down because of the results from one modelling study.

That post came from a mindset that has predetermined what the truth is, feels that the “mainstream” world is not listening, and seeks to use polemic rather than actual scientific research to change others’ minds. That ticks quite a few of the conspiratorial thinking boxes. Admittedly not to the same degree as the emails I receive accusing me of being a minion of Bill Gates in wanting to implant microchips in people. But that is not saying much.

That is not to say I don’t think it’s legitimate to disagree about whether the social and economic costs of Covid measures are “worth it”. Or indeed about whether compulsory measures or recommendations should have been adopted. Neither of those issues are fundamentally scientific ones. 

What is dangerous “alternate reality” nonsense is using rhetoric and cherry-picking of the science to try to deny the threat posed by the virus. To give a couple of not too historic examples:

https://dailysceptic.org/2020/09/01/latest-news-121/

https://dailysceptic.org/dr-clare-craig-false-positive-pseudo-epidemic-coronavirus-testing-pcr-lateral-flow/

This last year has been a tragedy for the world, and the consequences will be with us for decades. The response of the scientific community has been a silver lining though. We have learned more about this virus in a shorter time than I could have conceived would be possible. That we have multiple vaccines now available is a remarkable achievement – and one which will benefit the control of many other diseases. And, unlike much of the rest of the response to the pandemic, that research has been a truly global and co-operative effort.

Instead of futilely trying to undermine the work of thousands here and abroad, perhaps try celebrating  human ingenuity in the face of adversity. The pandemic has been a random, terrible event. It is no-one’s fault – and while every country has made mistakes, most decision-makers (and the doctors and scientists behind them) have been trying to do the best they can, faced with very difficult decisions.

Best,

Neil


Our reader then replied to him.

Dear Neil,

Thanks for your email in reply to mine. I am grateful to you for taking the time. I know you are busy. 

Some lockdown sceptics have made predictions that haven’t come to pass. But is that not also true of Imperial College modelling as Derek Winton has said?

You may say that the reason your team’s BSE projection on which he comments never came to pass is because the Government of the day took the projections of that team seriously and took drastic measures to mitigate the disease’s impact.

But what about your telling the Guardian in 2005 that up to 200 million people could be killed by bird flu? Few precautionary measures were taken to mitigate the impact of Avian Flu and yet the number of deaths is a tiny fraction of that figure. 

And in 2009 an Imperial College modelling team of which you were a member significantly over-estimated the likely death toll from Swine Flu.

Again nothing approaching a lockdown was imposed. I accept these things don’t mean your subsequent work should be dismissed, but by the same token I don’t think you can dismiss the central arguments of the lockdown sceptics – that the lockdown policy will ultimately do more harm than it prevents – just because some of their predictions turned out to be inaccurate. 

Correct me if I have this wrong but I don’t think that the adverse health/educational/social/political/other effects of lockdown have featured in modelling with which you have been involved. Could be your view is that that’s not your bailiwick – is that how you see it?

(In fairness to you, I do see on looking again at your email to me that –  whatever your modelling work says – you accept that there is room for debate on the question of the social and economic harms that Lockdown might cause – though you don’t refer to the harm to health it might/does cause.)

If you have a moment I’d love to know how you respond to the evidence that the most severe policies – such as stay-at-home orders and business closures – are not more effective at reducing overall transmission than the more modest policies put in place in countries like Sweden and South Korea. I’m thinking of the work of John Ioannidis and his colleagues at Stanford in particular:

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/eci.13484

In addition, there is the evidence that laypersons like me can see with our own eyes.

Such as the fact that Florida which didn’t lockdown again in the autumn/winter has a lower Covid death toll than some states that did and overall the average number of Covid deaths in those US states that haven’t issued stay-at-home orders is lower than in those that did.

Isn’t it at least arguable that had we kept to our Pandemic Preparedness Strategy we wouldn’t have significantly more Covid deaths than we’ve had in England after three lockdowns? And that we’d have far lower levels of collateral damage? 

Some of the criticism directed at you is deplorable, vitriolic stuff which I find utterly unacceptable. Reprehensible in fact. I am not with the people who put out that kind of material. 

I would like to see reasoned debate instead. 

I would like to see you talking to Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan and John Ioannidis for example.

In fact, I would love to see a proper grown up debate between the leading scientists on both sides of this issue on the BBC or Channel 4.

I bet if you proposed it to the Beeb they’d have a good look at putting it on. (I can’t know whether any of the people I refer to above would want to show up – don’t know them.) 

Take it easy. 

Many thanks. 

Cheers,

XXXX


Professor Ferguson, who must, by this stage, have had a fairly good idea of where his response was going to end up, replied:

Dear XXX,

Can I point out that I never “predicted” 200m would be killed by bird flu. The Guardian article you refer to was reporting this Nature paper – https://www.nature.com/articles/nature04017

What we looked at was what might unfold if bird flu (H5N1) gained the ability to spread from person to person. A threat which still exists, but not something we can predict the likelihood of happening (or ever tried). As I explained to journalists at the time. 

That paper was a small part of a global research effort to improve preparations for a novel influenza pandemic which was stimulated by the emergence of H5N1. Pandemic planning has been a top priority for the UK Government since that time, with a novel pandemic being top of the UK Government risk register.

In relation to Swine flu, I think you are referring to the Dept. of Health reasonable worst case planning scenario which was agreed by SAGE in 2009. Multiple groups input into that, and it was never a prediction (rather it was closer to the upper bound of a confidence interval) – as the name implies – given the data available in April 2009, it quantified the worst case the UK Government might need to plan for. As more data became available, the uncertainty range narrowed and the upper bound on the confidence interval came down, leading the RWC to be revised down. That is how science works. 

I would also note that SAGE has never revised the RWC for Covid agreed last March, largely because the severity we estimated for the virus turned out, unfortunately, to be basically spot on.

Best,

Neil

Latest News

It’s Roadmap Day

Peter Schrank’s cartoon in the Sunday Times on February 21st, 2021

Today is the big day. First in the House of Commons then later in a Downing Street Press Conference, Boris is expected to unveil the long-awaited roadmap, which will detail the route out of lockdown. The Daily Mail has something of a preview.

The first steps to freedom from lockdown will prioritise reopening schools and reuniting families, Boris Johnson said last night.

In two weeks, on March 8th, you will be able to meet one friend or family member in the park for a coffee or a picnic.

On the same date, all pupils will return to the classroom as part of the first of four steps towards getting the country back on its feet.

Unveiling his long-awaited roadmap today, the Prime Minister will announce that on March 29th, outdoor gatherings of either six people or two households will be allowed – enabling families and friend groups to meet properly for the first time in months.

That date will also see the reopening of tennis courts and golf courses and the return of grassroots football.

But in a blow to many families, they will not be allowed to take holidays over the Easter weekend. And shops, hairdressers and pubs are all likely to remain closed until mid-April at the earliest.

Still a fair amount of time left to spend watching Netflix then. Why so slow? Katy Balls has some analysis in the Spectator. It seems that being criticised in the media and elsewhere for coming out of the spring and autumn lockdown too quickly – and for being prematurely optimistic that each lockdown would be the last – has made Boris ultra-cautious. He wants to avoid any more U-turns if he possibly can.

When Boris Johnson stands at the despatch box on Monday afternoon to unveil his roadmap for ending the lockdown, those hoping for a big bang moment in ending restrictions will be left disappointed. Instead, the Prime Minister will announce a very gradual easing of the lockdown stretching to the summer – with Johnson reserving the right to make it even slower should the data go the wrong way. Having been stung by previous promises to avoid further lockdowns, the roadmap will be more cautious than members of the Conservative party’s Covid Recovery Group would like…

When it comes to the timescale, should deaths and hospitalisations plummet the Prime Minister is still keen to have a period of a few weeks between each easing to see the effect it has on the data. As a result, even if things appear to be going better than expected, it could be a long wait for a full reopening. There will be four tests for easing the lockdown at each stage: 1. Vaccine rollout going as planned 2. The vaccine is driving down deaths and hospitalisations in the way expected 3. The infection rate is one that doesn’t risk the NHS being overwhelmed 4. New variants do not change the risk assessment. 

So one bit of good news: the number of infections doesn’t appear to be one of the tests, provided there’s no risk of the NHS being overwhelmed. Does this mean the Zero Covid fanatics have been shown the door? We can but hope.

Worth reading Katy’s piece in full.

The Telegraph has interviewed some of the people most badly affected by the lockdown and they are in no doubt that it must end ASAP.

Lifting lockdown can’t come soon enough for many across the country. While the tragic cost of the pandemic in terms of lives lost has frequently been foregrounded, the cost of the ongoing restrictions has been harder to quantify and often overlooked.

Business owners, mental health and education experts, families, sport coaches and care home managers are now pleading with the Prime Minister to recognise this toll and allow safe reopening as soon as possible.

Michael Caines, chef/patron of Lympstone Manor, Devon

I don’t think it’s extreme, nor is it scaremongering, to say that the hospitality industry is teetering on the edge.

My flagship is Lympstone Manor, a contemporary hotel within an historic country manor house in East Devon, with a vineyard and Michelin-starred restaurant. I’m all set to open another, in Exmouth, which is ready to go. I’m just waiting for the nod from the Government. So much depends on what measures the Prime Minister unveils in his roadmap on Monday…

Sarah Lloyd, 40, mother-of-two from in Farnborough, Hampshire

I have hit absolute burnout. My husband works full-time from home and I run my own business, Indigo Soul PR, while we simultaneously try to homeschool our two daughters, aged seven and five.

It has affected all four of us badly. My two girls are just so pent up and angry all the time, and at one point were even refusing to go out for a walk because they were so upset. They usually get on so well, but at the moment it’s constant tantrums and fights because they just feel so pent up. I really worry about the long-term impact on their mental health…

Sarah Gillow, owner, Galio jewellers, George Street, St Albans

Sarah Gillow opened her high street jeweller in the midst of a recession in 1992. Neither that nor the ups and downs of the intervening years could have prepared her for the brutality of lockdowns, however. 

“It’s hit us really hard,” she said, having had to cut staff and watch her sales slide over the latest year…

Business was good between June and November, but lockdown number three came as a major blow. “I never dreamt in a million years that the Government was going to shut us down just before Christmas,” she said.

Worth reading in full.

Come on Boris. The vaccine roll out is going better than anyone could have expected. The weather is good. Foot to the floor!

Stop Press: The Telegraph has a detailed overview of when the different stages of the roadmap are likely to occur.

Derek Winton Responds to Neil Ferguson

Yesterday, we published Professor Neil Ferguson’s reply to a reader who sent him Derek Winton’s critique of the Imperial College modelling. Derek sent us this response.

I’m not sure of the protocol for responding to an email from a third party to another third party but given that the initial article was published on Lockdown Sceptics perhaps it’s appropriate for the follow up to be published there too.

I should start by saying I don’t suspect any sinister intent on the part of Professor Ferguson or believe he’s part of a conspiracy. As someone with a background in the hard sciences who also got their start in the heyday of British ‘bedroom coders’ I even feel a certain amount of kinship.

To me this is a governance issue. Decisions on pandemic response strategies affect millions of lives and in my (hopefully not unreasonable) opinion should be based on the very highest quality of information and subject to the highest level of scrutiny.

In my article I made eight substantive claims, summarised below:

  1. The Imperial model was influential in the decision to pursue a lockdown strategy.
  2. The research for ‘Report 9’ was not peer reviewed.
  3. The model was not documented.
  4. Professor Ferguson apparently has no formal training in computer modelling, medicine or epidemiology.
  5. Projections of death tolls from the same team in previous epidemics had been out by several orders of magnitude.
  6. The code was of poor quality from a legibility stand point.
  7. The model is an attempt to model a highly complex (and therefore highly sensitive) system but omits at least one key variable.
  8. Projections based on the Imperial model for Sweden were out by a factor of seven and therefore the model was not fit for purpose.

Leaving aside the link to The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, Professor Ferguson does not appear to dispute any of these points. Instead, he points out that other models made equivalent predictions and the report I cite for predictions on Sweden did not in fact use the Imperial model. It’s tempting to say at this point that the prosecution rests but of course we should allow Professor Ferguson the chance to rebut any of the above points.

Professor Ferguson does raise some points though that raise even more questions. Taking them in turn:

1) The Imperial model was influential in the decision to pursue a lockdown strategy

Other Models

Professor Ferguson points out that several other models, upon which the Government relied “all agreed”.

The models written by LSHTM, Warwick University and Institut Pasteur Paris all agreed with “the” Imperial model. All used different code bases.

And in fact, there was never  “one” Imperial model, but several. We now have 4 different COVID models, again which all agree.

Where are the code bases, designs, documentation and assumptions for these models? Given that the Imperial model was considered the gold standard, couldn’t we be forgiven for having concerns about these models too?

What exactly is meant by the term ‘agree’? Do they predict the same death tolls in all of the scenarios modelled in Report 9? If not, by how much do they vary?

The ‘reality’

Professor Ferguson also states that:

Government responses… were driven by the reality that any disease which generates epidemics which double every 3-4 days and for which over 2% of those infected require hospitalisation will overwhelm any health system that exists.”

[Emphasis mine]

This is what philosophers would call question begging, i.e., assuming what we are trying to prove. Of course if we assume the epidemic doubles every 3-4 days indefinitely, any health service would be overwhelmed. The critical question for the Government was to determine whether the epidemic would continue to double every 3-4 days and for how long, and it was this question that the computer modellers purported to answer.

8) Projections based on the Imperial model for Sweden were out by a factor of seven

Professor Ferguson claims that “no-one ran the Imperial model for Sweden (other than us)”. Here he is absolutely correct. Indeed, it is impossible for anyone outside of the Imperial team to run the exact model (used to generate Report 9) as the original source code was never released.

It’s surely reasonable to ask then: If the team did indeed model Sweden, what did they find?

We have created a separate page for Derek Winton’s response and stuck it on the right-hand side beneath Prof Ferguson’s response filed under “How Reliable is the Modelling?”

Other Readers’ Responses

A number of Lockdown Sceptics readers were intrigued by Professor Ferguson’s reply, and indeed by his inclusion of a link to The Conspiracy Theory Handbook. One reader, who has been published here before, even went so far as to send us a line by line analysis of his email.

I was interested to see Professor Neil Ferguson’s reply to one of your readers. I was surprised he had replied, but no less surprised that anyone had bothered to write to him.

Now, I think it’s a bit unfair to write to someone and then publish that person’s reply, especially if it hadn’t been made clear the reply would be published. However, it has been, and I suppose anyone in public life would have to be naïve to believe that anything they say is immune to being disseminated more widely.

I thought it would be interesting therefore to analyse the reply.

I presume you sent me this because you feel upset, angry, that no-one is listening, want to hurt me or change my mind. Or all of the above.

Here we have an assumption of motive. The writer, who is a woman, is depicted as having become emotional (‘angry, upset’), seeing herself as a frustrated victim (‘no-one is listening’), aggressive (‘want to hurt me’) and manipulative (‘want… to change my mind’). Therefore, the original email is dismissed as having come from someone who is behaving irrationally and antagonistically. This is not an especially surprising opening gambit because it is designed immediately to create the impression that the original writer has lost control in some way and therefore by implication that Professor Ferguson is in contrast a rational being who is still in control of himself.

What is odd is that the email he’s responding to just asked him whether he’d seen Derek Winton’s article, but Professor Ferguson, at this point, makes no mention of that. He has responded initially only by seeking to diminish the sender. However, he has only just started.

I and my colleagues and friends (John Edmunds, Jeremy Farrar, Marc Lipsitch, Christian Drosten, Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty,…) get so many of these sort of emails that we barely notice anymore. Most get dumped into junk mail folders automatically nowadays.

This is an interesting paragraph. Firstly, it involves telling the sender that he, Professor Ferguson, is a member of a strong gang consisting of “colleagues and friends”. This means that the sender is attacking the gang, and here he reinforces the idea that the sender is talking rubbish by referring to the way that such emails normally get “dumped into junk folders”. The implication is therefore that even email client algorithms are able to detect such emails as automatically worthless.

Secondly, the listing of gang members is designed to be intimidating, reminding the writer that his assault is against a powerful cabal of highly-qualified people who by being “friends’”will therefore act together to protect each other. Such is their status that they don’t even “notice [these emails] any more”. This is an important way of maximizing the distance between the writer and Professor Ferguson.

We thought this fisking of Ferguson’s email was so good we’ve stuck it in the right-hand menu, where you can read it in full.

Other readers got in touch with additional matters they’d like to see put to Professor Ferguson’s comments. One, for example, flagged up the question of seasonality, which as Nottingham University Student Glen Bishop recently wrote in Lockdown Sceptics, was not considered by the Imperial Model.

He has four models and they all agree, as do various other academic models. Well, colour me convinced. I would however bet a meal for four at the Fat Duck that they all assume NPIs work and that none of them model either seasonality or partial pre-existing immunity.

Our reader also pointed out that Ferguson…

wrote about “epidemics that double every 3-4 days”. I’m not aware of any time-point where SARS-CoV2 was doubling that fast, whether in positive tests, hospitalisations or deaths.

In any event, if the epidemic had doubled every 3.5 days and starting with one case, then everyone in the UK would be infected in three months (and the entire world population around 24 days later). Since we probably started with at least 1,000 imported cases that falls to 56 days for the UK population to succumb in its entirety.

Another reader got in touch with a straightforward point about the inaccuracy of the modelling.

 I suggest that someone email Mr. Ferguson and ask if he can thus explain why all of the models presented on October 31st failed to match what really happened, as shown in the graph presented and update daily in the Spectator.

Neil Ferguson’s Original Correspondent Responds – and He Responds Again!

The reader who originally wrote to Prof Ferguson has herself replied to his email – and he, in turn, replied to her, and she then replied to that.

Here is their exchange in full.

Dear Professor Ferguson,

I was surprised to get a reply to my email – but frankly amazed to read the content of the link you sent me. Is that really the best you can do? Do you respond to other scientists’ theories by shutting them down by yelling ‘conspiracy theorist’? Instead of engaging with the central tenet of the argument, that your/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris model might be wrong, you call me a conspiracy theorist. That is very odd and suggests to me it’s you that have developed a very warped sense of reality and that maybe you do not understand what is going on in people’s lives. We look at ONS/NHS data every day on cases/hospitalisations/deaths, not wild theories.

So let me speak from personal experience. I have 21 year-old twins, studying at Bristol (Economics) and Montpellier (Year abroad) respectively. Their lives are relatively rubbish at the moment, no enjoyment of the university life for which my daughter at Bristol is paying £18K a year. My son is living under a curfew. But I accept, not a disaster. Their friend killed himself while incarcerated as a student last year. He was in despair.

Just this week we heard of the suicide of a lovely man my husband met at the gym, a Tunisian. He worked as a waiter, so I guess he had financial worries.

We help a Syrian Refugee family in the town. Two children, aged six and 12. In the summer we realised that all the progress they had made at their excellent primary school was slipping away and that the 12 year-old was losing his English (they speak Arabic at home) so we started doing lessons at our house for the mum and the two children. We realised that the boy was virtually illiterate. His parents had been so terrorised by the fear porn churned out by the government (acting on your/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris models) that they would not send the children back to school even though they were ‘allowed’, being in Years 1 and 6. He then started at the local High school, has got into fights, been bullied and I fear for his future. His life chances have been damaged by having his education denied to him by this government relying on the models mentioned above. Of course our weekly lessons had to stop. Online learning started. The family did not have a laptop. The Government agencies that get paid handsomely to do so could not provide a laptop, so we set up a charity to recycle laptops to deprived children.

We’ve helped him and 178 other children in our nice leafy middle-class Stratford-on-Avon. I wonder what it’s like in Middlesborough, Fleetwood, Great Yarmouth? Multiply my young Syrian friend’s experience by literally millions and you start to approach the truth (not a conspiracy theory!) of the world that you have been key in ushering in (and of course LSHTM, Warwick University and the Institut Pasteur Paris). So many young people’s lives will be poorer, in so many ways. My point is this is real world stuff, not theory (either your theory or a conspiracy theory).

Me and my husband both have widowed mothers. His mum is 94 – one of the last years of her life has been lived in almost total isolation. She has 14 grandchildren who are (should read, were) very involved in her life, regularly travelling 2.5 hours+ to visit her in Suffolk. All stopped. She’s living life as a husk. Both her and my mother’s mobility have seriously declined, because they do not go out any more, due to lockdown (not the virus). My mum is I’d say typical of a lot of 87 year-olds. She’s reasonably intelligent, used to be a teacher. She lives alone in the house she’s lived in for the last 63 years. It is completely in the ‘back of beyond’. The house sits atop a sea wall and the nearest land mass looking west is Ireland. The Irish Sea hits the house at high tide. She is miles from anywhere and has no part of community life. She isn’t online and gets all her news from the BBC (refusing a newspaper in case “it’s on it”– the virus). The house is for sale as it’s a mad place for an 87 year-old to live in but she won’t allow any viewings – you can guess why. Her mobility is also much reduced and she is desperately lonely. I haven’t seen her in over a year. This isn’t a conspiracy theory. It’s my mum’s life. She lives like this because of the messaging from the Government, acting as a result of modelling by you/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris. The aim of the Government was to terrify the population. I do hope you of all people do not think that this is a conspiracy theory. I’ve read the relevant minutes from Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) on March 22nd 2020 which says among other things:

A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened

The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent using hard-hitting emotional messaging

Use media to increase sense of personal threat

Perhaps you think the 47 signatories to this petition are also conspiracy theorists? The BIT feeds into SAGE – so count yourself as part of all this – and together they have set out to terrorise us – and you’ve done such a brilliant job that people like my mum (who has had her first vaccine) is unlikely ever to resume normal life again. Her house won’t sell and we’ll have the same horrendous problems trying to get carers for her as we did for my dad four years ago – except that unlike him, he had mum, she’ll be alone. Just telling you what real life looks like.

Do you get it? You might live a nice comfortable life as an academic. I too want for nothing (apart from normality). I am sufficiently well off to shield my three children from the coming, shall we call them, difficulties. It’s the ‘left behind’, the marginalised, the poor, the lonely elderly, the millions upon millions of dirt poor people in the developing world that keeps me awake at night. So yes, I’m angry. But you call me the conspiracy theorist! Do you not see reports like this: 270 million marching towards starvation (perhaps they too are infected with conspiracy theories?). This isn’t the virus that’s caused this, it’s lockdowns. First World lockdowns have a terrible impact on the the Third/Developing world – I don’t think that’s in contention. Surely you can see that? Even if you didn’t foresee it as a consequence.

Or this in the Lancet: 94 million children at risk of not getting their measles vaccine (perhaps the Lancet is in on the conspiracy?)

Maybe if you, Whitty, Valance, Drosten, Farrar and Edmunds are all merrily putting communications in your junk folder you really are totally unaware of what is happening in the real world? Pause: think: what if they are right? What if only half of what I say is right? I thought scientists were supposed to welcome their theories being challenged? I thought that’s how they are tested. You describe me as being “sucked into” an “alternate reality” – and that is precisely my beef – you are the one living in a land of modelled theories – I am the one asking you to look at my reality – the ‘on the ground Real World’ data. What has happened in countries which didn’t/couldn’t lock down? Yes, look at Sweden, though it obviously pains you do to do so. How to explain its death rate? Or Texas? Or Brazil? Or Belarus? How is that a conspiracy? Is the FT in on the conspiracy? Worldometers? Perhaps the health reporting agencies are in on it too!

I might not be an epidemiologist but it’s fairly obvious to me that your model (and that of Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris) is out by several orders of magnitude and the fact that you resort to calling people who disagree with it “conspiracy theorists” only serves to illustrate how far down the rabbit hole you have fallen. Oh, and what is wrong in pointing out that you have made the self-same error with Swine Flu, Bird Flu, Foot and Mouth? Or do you dispute those figures when you say I’m quoting the “same old misinformation”? Are all those reporting your past predictions v the actuality also in on the conspiracy?

I loathe this Government and its key players in this, the worst mistake the world has ever made. You – I would say that you are obviously a decent human being and I wonder if you do not see that you are going to be hung out to dry by those chancers running this operation. Just look at their record – the failed Test and Trace, the corruption, the care home deaths, the infection rate in hospitals – you have hitched your star to the worst Government we have ever had but unfortunately it will forever be your name attached to ‘The Science’ that drove them. If you can’t see that then you are not as clever as we all were led to believe. You and Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris have made the biggest mistake of all time and in my view the sooner you accept it and try and proffer some sort of explanation the better. The truth might be able to be suppressed in our society now so bereft of free speech, but it will come out – starting in other countries.

I find it unfathomable that you/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris were listened to, the Pandemic Preparedness Plan thrown away and we embarked on lockdowns, with the rest of the world following. Perhaps you could do some good at this late stage by trying to get the mass-testing/False Positive Rate sorted out (by following the WHO’s guidelines, for instance) otherwise we are never going to get out of this mess. My husband drew this up – from Government data.

Sorry for the long email. The conclusion I’ve reached that it’s you that is living in some parallel universe if you think that I am the conspiracy theorist. The world lies in tatters because of your/Imperial/LSHTM/Warwick University/Institut Pasteur Paris theory.

If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading.

XXXX

Surprisingly, Neil Ferguson replied.

Dear XXXX

I would start by asking whether you really think I and my colleagues are unaware of the social and economic consequences of societal restrictions? Every life lost is a tragedy, whatever the cause. And I absolutely agree that this pandemic – and the measures adopted – have hit the poorest hardest.

But I wonder what you think motivates me and my (many hundreds of) fellow scientists who have been working on this pandemic for over a year? It certainly isn’t publicity or a desire to impose draconian rules on society. Nor do I have any love of lockdown restrictions myself, personally or ideologically. I don’t know anyone who does. Rather, we are trying to learn as much as possible about the epidemiology of this virus and how best to limit its health impacts.

The judgement call on the balance between compulsory measures and voluntary recommendations is a political one, but the effectiveness of each is likely culturally specific. Sweden made one set of choices, Denmark and Norway another. The result is that Sweden has had fewer restrictions overall, but has had 3-4x the per capita death toll of its neighbours. Our death toll is higher still not because we over-reacted, but because we introduced measures too late last March, and then repeated the mistake last autumn. And because of factors which were just bad luck – the level of seeding last February and the new variant last November.

As for the UK, what are you really suggesting the Government should have done back in December in response to the new variant and the overwhelming levels of hospital demand seen in London and elsewhere? Let people continue to go about their normal business as thousands died at home or on hospital corridors, as is happening in Mexico?

And to reassure you, we track the pandemic globally. And have a significant research programme comparing how different countries have responded. I am a bit surprised you point to Brazil as a success story though. And if you highlight Belarus, why not China?

I am also aware that there is a continuum between scepticism and outright conspiracy theory craziness. But some of the “facts” you and the lockdown sceptics throw out are tending towards the latter category. Remember the claims that there would be no second wave and that we were just experiencing a “casedemic”?

False positive rates are not a major issue at present. We are aware they will need to be accounted for more in future though. Also, while every suicide is tragic, there is no evidence that the suicide rate has increased in the last year. I am actually much more worried about all the cancer diagnoses and treatments which were postponed in the last few months due to Covid-related NHS demand.

I certainly agree there are many lessons to be learned from this pandemic – including regarding test and trace (especially early on) and care homes. I do not see myself as a Government cheerleader. Indeed, one of the depressing aspects of the discourse around this pandemic is the politicisation of science.

Best,

Neil

Our reader then replied to Prof Ferguson.

Dear Neil,

Thank you for your considered response.

I suspect you epidemiologists are told that there will be economic and other consequences of the lockdowns but I, and many others, think you have got the balance wrong. The precautionary principle has overtaken acceptable risk. I was quite taken aback by your link to the conspiracy theory website, which does make me worry that reasonable suggestions are being rebuffed by you and people like you as “crazy conspiracy theories”. I hope you would concede that I have made some valid points to you about the outcomes of lockdowns.

You asked in your first reply what would I have done, dealing with a disease that would see 2% in hospital. Nowhere in the world have cases continued to grow “exponentially”, regardless of the level of NPIs imposed. My point is (and I rely on real world data to support it) that you and your colleagues have concentrated on the 2% to the enormous disbenefit of the other 98% and society in general. We might argue what the IFR is but whether it’s 10 in a 1,000 or two in a 1,000, the BBC and government ministers have focused too much on the (let’s settle for four in 1,000) fatalities rather than 996 recoveries. The result is a terrorised population, lacking the ability to get the risks into perspective and the very real long term threat that people will never get back to normal for fear of flu or other seasonal illnesses. We can’t all live forever.

How can you argue against the fact that other countries do illuminate what could happen if a different approach to NPIs were taken? That NPIs (or lack thereof) made very little difference to Covid health outcomes and that the disease didn’t grow exponentially in those countries, such as Vietnam, India and Japan? Are you suggesting all the data I’ve been looking at – Euromomo, the FT, Worldometers – are somehow presenting false information? How does that make me and other sceptics (not deniers, obviously!) conspiracy theorists? It does rather suggest an over sensitivity on your part.

Yes, I overlooked the cancers/other missed health treatments (so many other horrors to mention). A year down the line, do you not consider that the cure is going to be worse than the disease, in cancer/missed treatments alone, quite apart from the other societal/economic/libertarian damage

By the way, which ‘fact’ in my email makes you think I am on the side of conspiracy theory craziness? I think that we should have lived with a greater degree of risk and that in fact you have opened a Pandora’s Box of fear and risk aversion which is going to be a constant plague. Though with a trashed economy, I’m not sure how it’s going to be paid for, if we are to have annual lockdowns. I think that we should have dealt with it differently, by following the Pandemic Preparedness Plan, by shielding the vulnerable (think: Great Barrington Declaration). It might have seemed an impossible task but it is nothing compared to what we have done. We’ll never agree that the NPIs delivered a step change in outcome – but as I said, those who disagree with you can point to countries which didn’t use them/used them lightly and observe that the death rates were much the same as those who did lock down. I guess my point is that if your (and all the other institutions you mention) model were to be tested against these countries, your modelled response would be very far apart from what actually happened. Is that calling it wrong? Or just out by several factors.

We’ve infantilised the population, created an enormous health crisis and trashed the economy. We’ve turned a once-in-40-years health crisis into a cataclysmic health/economic/political/societal disaster. I agree I don’t know what part your input played in these decisions, but I know that you are so frequently on our airwaves some people think you were pretty instrumental.

But thank you for your time in engaging with me.

Best wishes

XXXX

COVID-19 UK Strategy: Have We Got It Wrong and at What Cost?

Cases in Florida have declined at the same rate as they have in the UK, in spite of no stay-at-home orders in the autumn or winter

Today we’re publishing an original essay by Sarah Williamson BSc Dip ION (Dist.), a nutritional therapist with a degree in economics. Now that nearly a year has passed since the country adopted the strategy described at the time as “three weeks to flatten the curve”, Sarah investigates why we did what we did, the key factors that truly explain the peak in cases that we saw in Spring 2020, and crucially whether lockdowns actually stop or slow the infection (Spoiler alert: not really). Finally, she takes a look at the cost.

Coronavirus, a year ago, seemed like something peculiar to Wuhan in China – Oh! How we might long for those days. Since then, like most countries across the world, the UK has pursued a strategy that began with “three weeks to flatten the curve” and has stretched out to restrictions for the best part of a year?

The aim of the UK strategy was to postpone COVID-19 deaths until an effective vaccine became available and to reduce the likelihood of the NHS becoming overwhelmed, allowing surgeries and treatments to continue. The mantra has been “Save lives; protect the NHS”. The real question now is did we save lives and protect the NHS? The question we need to answer is not are the hospitals busy, but did our strategy help reduce hospitalisations and deaths?

Our aim should be saving the most lives, not just COVID-19-positive lives and reducing NHS admissions.

What did the WHO guidelines for a pandemic recommend and why did we do something else?

In October 2019, the WHO guidelines for a respiratory pandemic suggested the following – regular hand washing, respiratory etiquette (i.e. don’t cough or sneeze on people), face masks for symptomatic people, regular cleaning of surfaces, open windows and doors and isolate the sick.

Contact tracing, once the disease has taken hold, was not recommended. The quarantine of exposed individuals was not advised. Border closures were not recommended. School closures were advised only under extreme circumstances and only after careful consideration of the consequences for the wider community. Lockdown of healthy individuals was not mentioned.

So where did the idea come from? Did we import the idea from the Chinese, who exported pictures of a ghostlike Wuhan? Was it this, coupled with the fear generated by the press stories of a ‘killer virus’ spreading uncontrolled throughout the world? No longer in far off China, but now here, in Europe. With reports of deaths in all age groups – no-one was safe. The ‘three weeks of restrictions to flatten the curve’ seemed at least reasonable to most, whilst hospitals geared up.

Who did it affect and why did we have such a peak in spring 2020?

SARS-CoV-2 is recognised as a seasonal virus, like many other corona viruses responsible for the common cold. In the UK in the spring the virus spread rapidly killing the vulnerable, particularly those in care homes, causing a highly unusual spike in deaths.

Notably the viral transmission rate, from the moment we started charting it, appears to have already been decelerating (this was highlighted by Nobel prize winner Sir Michael Levitt). This is a mathematical proof, one that is easy to reproduce, for example plotting the difference in the natural logarithm of the weekly fatal infections in London.

A good summary of the sceptics’ case. Very much worth reading in full.

Postcard from Bali

Georgie Day on a beach in Bali

We have a new addition to our collection of postcards from around the world to add to the growing number on the right-hand side. We originally called this “Around the World in 80 Lockdowns” but at this rate we’ll end up with more than 80 postcards. This one comes to us from Georgie Day, a digital nomad who is now “stuck” in Bali. The Covid world has intruded somewhat on Indonesia’s Paradise Island – it’s brought masks, curfews and widespread temperature checks – and yet Bali still seems like a very nice place to be.

Despite this global pandemic, widespread anxiety and fear, I do feel out here that my life has become incredibly uncomplicated and very simple and I’m not sure if it’s the Bali Effect. My mental load feels exceedingly stripped back I seem to have found clarity and direction in the stillness of allowing myself to not be stressed, pushing, doing, thinking. 

The Bali lifestyle can be frustrating at times. But the ‘expat’ community, to date largely comprised of ‘digital nomads’ – a new term referring to the nomadic (non-locals) with digital occupations (jobs/work/income that relies almost entirely on functioning wi-fi and a laptop) – maintain the buzz of a semi-Western ‘societal norm’ in this eclectic fusion of creative, tropical paradise Neverland. The traditional Balinese culture sings through in the beautiful acts of faithful devotion, frequent ceremonies at the religious temples, daily offerings to the spirits, respectful dress and appropriate uniform. However, the beautiful third-world nature during this time can sometimes miss the mark, as in order to dodge a hefty monetary fine, we can do push-ups or sing a song if caught by the Banjar (local mafia/police) driving around without a mask on.

I’m still not sure what to make of my current reality. Despite needing to wear a mask, sanitise hands and temperature check at the entrance of every establishment, to have access to the amazing world created for transient Bali holiday-makers here in this tourist town, with no traffic, queues, and at discounted rates and daily food deals as businesses battle to maintain their customer flow off the remaining Westerners of Bali. Currently, lockdown laws also enforce a 9pm (just moved from 8pm) curfew, where everything must close, hence the early to bed, early rise routine (yes, happy hours now just start at 2pm!).

I have to often pinch myself, as Bali right now really is a scene in itself. Only here could I be sitting in a Swedish inspired and owned cafe sipping an almond Matcha latte whilst cows roam the streets and the neighbouring plot of land, or driving my motorbike across the island to a New Moon ceremony after shooting for a bikini label on the beach all day. Where I get my need-to-know news updates from Instagram profiles and Tinder is obsolete if you have an Amo Spa or Body Factory membership.

I must admit it continues to surprise me that despite all the creative talent residing here currently (photographers, videographers, designers, branding and marketing creatives, models), and all the #content available, that there has not yet been a Netflix Originals reality series created on The Life of a Digital Nomad in Bali during COVID-19. (Any takers? I’ll hook you up!)

Worth reading in full.

Round Up

Theme Tunes Suggested by Readers

Eighteen today: “Unhappy Anniversary” by Vitamin C, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” by Judy Garland, “Into The Light” by Mariana Bell, “Plan B” by Kevin Rowland and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “I Can Hardly Stand It” by the Cramps, “Take Me Home Country Roads” by Toots and the Maytals, “Hit The Road Jack” by Ray Charles, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” by Ella Fitzgerald, “I Wanna Rule The World” by 10cc, “Wastelands” by Suede, “Bad Day” by R.E.M, “In A Rut” by the Ruts, “Hole in My Life” by the Police, “Strange World” by Iron Maiden, “2+2=5” by Radiohead, “Everyday Is A Winding Road” by Sheryl Crow and “The Final Countdown” by Europe.

Love in the Time of Covid

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in The Americans

We have created some Lockdown Sceptics Forums, including a dating forum called “Love in a Covid Climate” that has attracted a bit of attention. We have a team of moderators in place to remove spam and deal with the trolls, but sometimes it takes a little while so please bear with us. You have to register to use the Forums as well as post comments below the line, but that should just be a one-time thing. Any problems, email Lockdown Sceptics here.

Sharing Stories

Some of you have asked how to link to particular stories on Lockdown Sceptics so you can share it. To do that, click on the headline of a particular story and a link symbol will appear on the right-hand side of the headline. Click on the link and the URL of your page will switch to the URL of that particular story. You can then copy that URL and either email it to your friends or post it on social media. Please do share the stories.

Social Media Accounts

You can follow Lockdown Sceptics on our social media accounts which are updated throughout the day. To follow us on Facebook, click here; to follow us on Twitter, click here; to follow us on Instagram, click here; to follow us on Parler, click here; and to follow us on MeWe, click here.

Woke Gobbledegook

We’ve decided to create a permanent slot down here for woke gobbledegook. Today, we bring you a recent paper in the British Dental Journal which seeks to address racial inequalities in dental education. How should we do that? By decolonising the dental curriculum, obviously.

Like other healthcare professions, dentistry has a historical legacy of being conceptualised as a ‘white’ profession. Despite a growing population of students in higher education including medicine and dentistry, there are stark ethnic disparities in UK academic employment and approximately 76% of academic faculty and staff members identified as white, 9% as Asian and 2% as Black. This is also reflected in the low proportion of minority ethnic dental academics in senior posts in UK dental schools.

Ethnic disparities in turn may influence the power relations and academic hierarchies in dental schools and pose an impediment to proportional representation of minority ethnic staff and students in institutional strategy and decision-making processes. Data from medical schools also highlight that students tend to accept that career progression may be dependent on their capacity to tolerate intimidation and they may not feel confident in questioning the underlying power relations and rules of engagement…

Decolonisation of dental curricula needs to be considered in a psychosocial context. Racial inequalities in dental education have a negative impact on the educational experiences of students from minority ethnic groups and may contribute to poor educational experiences and attainment gaps, and pose barriers to career progression. Lack of representation of minority ethnic groups in dental curricula can also translate into disparities in patient care for minority ethnic groups, with far-reaching implications for their health and wellbeing.  If dental schools are to make meaningful progress on decolonisation of curricula, it would require: a systematic review of the existing governance structure; appropriate representation and empowerment of minority ethnic staff and students in existing committee memberships; and treating decolonisation as a strategic priority

Decolonisation of the dental curricula is also fundamental to improve the cultural competence of dental graduates and warrants a review of curriculum content and delivery, provision of dental care in community settings and promotion of reflective practices…

Get your teeth into it here.

Stop Press: The Wall Street Journal has an an interview with Professor John Staddon who, following a brush with anti-racism and anti-bias training, is speaking out against woke dogma in American universities. “When we lower our standards to pretend we know what we don’t know, we diminish the work and misinform society,” he says.

Stop Press 2: If you thought being a vegan was sufficient to win you plenty of brownie points with the woke left, think again. You may be suffering from “white veganism“, which is only one step away from being a white supremacist.

https://twitter.com/sbakermd/status/1362853308440793088?s=21

“Mask Exempt” Lanyards

We’ve created a one-stop shop down here for people who want to obtain a “Mask Exempt” lanyard/card – because wearing a mask causes them “severe distress”, for instance. You can print out and laminate a fairly standard one for free here and the Government has instructions on how to download an official “Mask Exempt” notice to put on your phone here. And if you feel obliged to wear a mask but want to signal your disapproval of having to do so, you can get a “sexy world” mask with the Swedish flag on it here.

A reader has started a website that contains some useful guidance about how you can claim legal exemption. Another reader has created an Android app which displays “I am exempt from wearing a face mask” on your phone. Only 99p.

If you’re a shop owner and you want to let your customers know you will not be insisting on face masks or asking them what their reasons for exemption are, you can download a friendly sign to stick in your window here.

And here’s an excellent piece about the ineffectiveness of masks by a Roger W. Koops, who has a doctorate in organic chemistry. See also the Swiss Doctor’s thorough review of the scientific evidence here and Prof Carl Heneghan and Dr Tom Jefferson’s Spectator article about the Danish mask study here.

Stop Press: The South Wales Argus reports that those with mask exemptions are experiencing increasing amounts of discrimination.

Stop Press 2: Dr Fauci has confirmed that it may be necessary for Americans to wear masks in 2022, WYMT news reports.

Washington (CNN) Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday that it’s “possible” Americans will still need to wear masks in 2022 to protect against the coronavirus, even as the U.S. may reach “a significant degree of normality” by the end of this year.

Asked by CNN’s Dana Bash on State of the Union whether he thinks Americans will still need to wear masks next year, Fauci replied: “You know, I think it is possible that that’s the case and, again, it really depends on what you mean by normality.”

The comments from Fauci come as the US COVID-19 death toll approaches 500,000 and the country nears a full year in its fight against the virus. And though the US is now steadily rolling out vaccines to fight the pandemic, the nation’s top infectious disease expert underscored the importance of mitigation measures to fight the aggressive virus and its emerging variants as many Americans express pandemic fatigue.

Fauci told Bash that while he can’t predict when the US might return to operating as it did before the pandemic took hold, he thinks that by the end of this year “we’re going to have a significant degree of normality beyond the terrible burden that all of us have been through over the last year”.

The Great Barrington Declaration

Professor Martin Kulldorff, Professor Sunetra Gupta and Professor Jay Bhattacharya

The Great Barrington Declaration, a petition started by Professor Martin Kulldorff, Professor Sunetra Gupta and Professor Jay Bhattacharya calling for a strategy of “Focused Protection” (protect the elderly and the vulnerable and let everyone else get on with life), was launched in October and the lockdown zealots have been doing their best to discredit it ever since. If you googled it a week after launch, the top hits were three smear pieces from the Guardian, including: “Herd immunity letter signed by fake experts including ‘Dr Johnny Bananas’.” (Freddie Sayers at UnHerd warned us about this the day before it appeared.) On the bright side, Google UK has stopped shadow banning it, so the actual Declaration now tops the search results – and Toby’s Spectator piece about the attempt to suppress it is among the top hits – although discussion of it has been censored by Reddit. In February, Facebook deleted the GBD’s page because it “goes against our community standards”. The reason the zealots hate it, of course, is that it gives the lie to their claim that “the science” only supports their strategy. These three scientists are every bit as eminent – more eminent – than the pro-lockdown fanatics so expect no let up in the attacks. (Wikipedia has also done a smear job.)

You can find it here. Please sign it. Now over three quarters of a million signatures.

Update: The authors of the GBD have expanded the FAQs to deal with some of the arguments and smears that have been made against their proposal. Worth reading in full.

Update 2: Many of the signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration are involved with new UK anti-lockdown campaign Recovery. Find out more and join here.

Update 3: You can watch Sunetra Gupta set out the case for “Focused Protection” here and Jay Bhattacharya make it here.

Update 4: The three GBD authors plus Prof Carl Heneghan of CEBM have launched a new website collateralglobal.org, “a global repository for research into the collateral effects of the COVID-19 lockdown measures”. Follow Collateral Global on Twitter here. Sign up to the newsletter here.

Judicial Reviews Against the Government

There are now so many legal cases being brought against the Government and its ministers we thought we’d include them all in one place down here.

The Simon Dolan case has now reached the end of the road. The current lead case is the Robin Tilbrook case which challenges whether the Lockdown Regulations are constitutional, although that case, too, has been refused permission to proceed. There’s still one more thing that can be tried. You can read about that and contribute here.

The GoodLawProject and three MPs – Debbie Abrahams, Caroline Lucas and Layla Moran – brought a Judicial Review against Matt Hancock for failing to publish details of lucrative contracts awarded by his department and it was upheld. The Court ruled Hancock had acted unlawfully.

Then there’s John’s Campaign which is focused specifically on care homes. Find out more about that here.

There’s the GoodLawProject and Runnymede Trust’s Judicial Review of the Government’s award of lucrative PPE contracts to various private companies. You can find out more about that here and contribute to the crowdfunder here.

Scottish Church leaders from a range of Christian denominations have launched legal action, supported by the Christian Legal Centre against the Scottish Government’s attempt to close churches in Scotland  for the first time since the the Stuart kings in the 17th century. The church leaders emphasised it is a disproportionate step, and one which has serious implications for freedom of religion.”  Further information available here.

There’s the class action lawsuit being brought by Dr Reiner Fuellmich and his team in various countries against “the manufacturers and sellers of the defective product, PCR tests”. Dr Fuellmich explains the lawsuit in this video. Dr Fuellmich has also served cease and desist papers on Professor Christian Drosten, co-author of the Corman-Drosten paper which was the first and WHO-recommended PCR protocol for detection of SARS-CoV-2. That paper, which was pivotal to the roll out of mass PCR testing, was submitted to the journal Eurosurveillance on January 21st and accepted following peer review on January 22nd. The paper has been critically reviewed here by Pieter Borger and colleagues, who also submitted a retraction request, which was rejected in February.

And last but not least there was the Free Speech Union‘s challenge to Ofcom over its ‘coronavirus guidance’. A High Court judge refused permission for the FSU’s judicial review on December 9th and the FSU has decided not to appeal the decision because Ofcom has conceded most of the points it was making. Check here for details.

Samaritans

If you are struggling to cope, please call Samaritans for free on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch. Samaritans is available round the clock, every single day of the year, providing a safe place for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel, whatever life has done to them.

Shameless Begging Bit

Thanks as always to those of you who made a donation in the past 24 hours to pay for the upkeep of this site. Doing these daily updates is hard work (although we have help from lots of people, mainly in the form of readers sending us stories and links). If you feel like donating, please click here. And if you want to flag up any stories or links we should include in future updates, email us here. (Don’t assume we’ll pick them up in the comments.)

And Finally…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKN1M74qcYE

Vaccine sceptics will enjoy this – “mRNA” by our favourite band Media Bear. Worth a watch. Some of the lyrics cut to the quick. And all sung to the tune of “YMCA” by the Village People.

Latest News

Boris Panicked and U-Turned Over Lockdown After Seeing Neil Ferguson’s Projections

“I see death in your future – a lot of death.”

The Mail on Sunday is serialising an explosive new biography of Boris by Tom Bower that claims Boris was panicked into imposing a full national lockdown after Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance were presented with Neil Ferguson’s apocalyptic predictions at a meeting of SAGE.

Bower tells how a critical meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) on February 25th was presented with the ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ from Professor Ferguson under which 80% of Britons would be infected and the death-toll would be 510,000 people.

The author writes: “This was an improvement on Ferguson’s earlier assessment that between 2% and 3% would die – up to 1.5 million deaths. Even with mitigation measures, he said, the death toll could be 250,000 and the existing intensive care units would be overwhelmed eight times over.

“Neither Vallance nor Whitty outrightly challenged Ferguson’s model or predictions. By contrast, in a series of messages from Michael Levitt, a Stanford University professor who would correctly predict the pandemic’s initial trajectory, Ferguson was warned that he had overestimated the potential death toll by ‘ten to 12 times’….

The book reveals how shortly before the national lockdown, on March 16th, Ferguson forecast that one third of the over-80s who were infected would be hospitalised, of which 71% would need intensive care using ventilators.

This exaggerated prediction – that hospitals would be overwhelmed by at least eight times the usual admittance rate – made the lockdown all but inevitable.

Worth reminding people again that Professor Ferguson’s estimates of the impact of previous viral outbreaks have been almost comically inaccurate. In 2001, he predicted that foot and mouth disease could kill up to 50,000 people. It ended up killing less than 200. In 2005, he told the Guardian that up to 200 million people could die from bird flu. The final death toll from avian flu strain A/H5N1 was 440. And in 2009, a Government estimate based on one of Ferguson’s models estimated the likely death toll from swine flu at 65,000. In fact, it was 457.

Why did Boris take the predictions of this serial doom-monger so seriously?

BBC Not Telling Us Full Story About Covid – Matthew Parris

Lockdown sceptic Matthew Parris has written an excellent column in the Times today in which he berates the BBC for not doing its job properly in covering the coronavirus crisis.

“Coronavirus: GP letter was like a ‘death warrant from grim reaper’ ” (BBC News); “One death every 80 seconds: Brazil reaches a grim milestone as it becomes the third worst-hit country…” (BBC News); “Grim milestone as virus cases top 25m globally” (BBC News).

Grim, grim, grim. There has been a lip-smacking quality, not only in headlines but in the reports that follow from the world’s news media. All of us should be more rigorous in resisting the appeal of a ghoulish turn of phrase. But the BBC has been a serial offender.

In what follows I’m aware that, when it comes to panic-spreading, our state broadcasting corporation is only one of many miscreants among print and broadcast media. But that’s because I look to the BBC to help set standards. The corporation has a particular duty to stand a little back from the noise and introduce a note of quiet balance into the national conversation.

When our politicians try to use science as propaganda, broadcasters should be rock-solid in resisting the hype. Instead, they’ve swallowed the government’s line that “the science” is clear and unquestioned, and that the prospects, should we fail to “follow” the science, are apocalyptic.

Both are highly disputable. Science is divided. The most apocalyptic, however, are getting the loudest shout. Neither on how, nor where, nor when the virus spreads most virulently is there consensus among epidemiologists; and even if that consensus existed, broadcasters and journalists would still have a duty to remind politicians and the public that combating an illness should not elbow from national attention the equally honourable goal of saving livelihoods as well as lives.

Worth reading in full.

Unfortunately, Parris neglects to mention Ofcom’s “coronavirus guidance” – published on March 23rd, the same day the full lockdown was imposed – cautioning the BBC and its other licensees to treat with extreme caution anyone criticising the advice of the “public health authorities”, i.e. the NHS, the DHSC, PHE, Witless and Unbalanced and the Government more generally. I don’t think this is the major cause of the BBC’s dereliction of duty, but it was one factor among the others – laziness, innumeracy, group think and a deeply misguided belief that it was their public duty to amplify Downing Street’s scaremongering in order to frighten people into observing the rules because that would save lives.

I don’t need to remind readers of Lockdown Sceptics that the Free Speech Union is seeking the permission of the High Court to Judicially Review Ofcom’s “coronavirus guidance” in the hope of having it declared an unlawful interference in free speech. You can donate to the FSU’s “fighting fund” here.

Stop Press: Charles Moore has ruled himself out of running for the role of BBC Chairman for personal reasons. Shame.

Lord Gumption Says Boris is Behaving Like an Authoritarian Dictator

An original work created by artist and Lockdown Sceptics reader Galina Gardiner

Jonathan Sumption wrote a blistering attack on Boris and his ‘strongman’ Government in the Telegraph yesterday.

Behind the spat about Parliamentary control over the Government’s Covid measures, there is an older and more fundamental divide. It is the divide between an authoritarian model of government and a more deliberative and democratic model.

The authoritarians believe in the “strongman”: the boss who gets things done with the aid of a team of technicians, who surmounts crises by intervening swiftly and decisively, without wasting time in argument or debate. The alternative, according to this view of the world, is a bunch of squabbling politicians picking over the entrails while the sand runs through the hourglass.

There has always been a strand of political masochism in Britain which likes this idea: the sort of people who admire dictators because they make the trains run on time. From time to time there is a more widespread move towards authoritarian government. We are experiencing one of those times now.

Worth reading in full.

Grant Shapps Gets His Sums Wrong

A sharp-eyed reader has spotted a mathematical error in Grant Shapps’s attempt to defend sticking Poland on the quarantine list.

I don’t know whether you picked up on Grant Shapps claiming that Poland had to be put back on the quarantine list because their “test positivity has nearly doubled, increasing from 3.9% to 5.8%”. That is, of course, an increase of only 50%, not 100%.

I believe that Mr Shapps, who was formerly the Chairman of the APPG for General Aviation, still holds a Pilot’s Licence. Let’s hope his navigational skills are as good as his maths and the next time he goes for a flight he gets lost and we never have to see him again. If he could take Mad Boris and Nanny Hancock with him, so much the better!

BBC Reality Check Loses Touch With Reality

There’s a snarky piece about Julia Hartley-Brewer under the BBC’s “Reality Check” banner claiming she got her facts wrong about the False Positive Rate. In fact, the BBC journalists who’ve written the hatchet job – Simon Maybin and Josephine Casserly – are the ones who’ve got their facts wrong.

Julia’s sin was to claim that nine out of 10 “cases” could be false positives. The journalists say that is categorically untrue.

Could it be true that 90% of positive results from tests in the community – that means tests not carried out in hospitals – are false? The answer is “no” – there is no way that so-called false positives have had such an impact on the figures.

Actually, there is a way “so-called false positives” could have had that impact. Suppose the true community case rate is eight in 10,000. If the false positive rate is 0.8% – as estimated by this paper submitted to SAGE – then if you test 10,000 people, you’ll get 88 positive results, of which 80 are false positives and eight are true positives. Perhaps the true community case rate is now slightly higher than eight in 10,000 – the latest ONS infection study puts it at 21 in 10,000 – but even so there is certainly a plausible scenario in which 90% of the positive results from tests in the community are false.

The extraordinary thing is that these reality-checking sleuths then go on to admit this.

If you tested 1,000 people at random for COVID-19 in early September, for example, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection study suggests you should have expected one of them to actually have the virus.

With a false positive rate of 0.8% – a figure used by Ms Hartley-Brewer and within the broad range of what we think might be the actual rate for community testing – you would get eight false positives. So in that context, it’s true that roughly 90% of positives would be false.

But having admitted that there is a scenario in which 90% of positives could be false, they then go on to say that it’s no longer plausible because the people volunteering for community testing, as opposed to the people being sampled at random by the ONS, are much more likely to have the virus – the same point made by Tom Chivers in UnHerd and which James Ferguson comprehensively rebutted on Lockdown Sceptics.

Here’s what the reality checkers think is their killer point:

Figures for late September from Public Health England show that 7% of community tests were positive. That means if 1,000 people were tested with a false positive rate of 0.8%, eight would be false positives, but 70 would be true positives – the vast majority.

But hang on. They’re assuming that PHE’s 7% positive rate doesn’t include any false positives – hence their claim that if you test 1,000 people 70 would be true positives. But given that they’ve accepted there’s a false positive rate of 0.8%, it’s more likely that PHE is counting the false positives alongside the true positives when estimating the current rate of infection. That means that of the 70 people who test positive, eight are false positives, leaving 62 true positives.

Come on, reality checkers. If you’re going to chastise another journalist for not getting her facts right – even though she did – you need to get the facts straight yourself.

Stop Press: There’s an excellent letter in the Lancet by three doctors raising the alarm about false positives. I look forward to the BBC’s reality checkers doing a number on them.

Teeth Deteriorate as Dentists Struggle to Reopen

The lockdown has caused a backlog of 15 million dental appointments, leaving many patients suffering badly. The Sunday Times has more.

Patients may have to wait until next year for dental treatment because 15 million appointments have been delayed by the coronavirus.

With restrictions still in place, some dentists can see only emergency cases and are not doing routine checkups. Many are carrying out only serious procedures on patients whose teeth have deteriorated from problems “stored up” for months during the lockdown.

“I’ve taken more teeth out from the average patient in the past three months than at any point in my career,” said Mark Green, 49, a dentist in Whitby, North Yorkshire, who has been treating patients for 22 years.

“It’s like going back in time. I saw someone the other day in his twenties who needs 12 teeth out. I’ve removed those that are [causing] the most pain and then we’re going to try and get him in again [for another appointment].”

Though surgeries were able to reopen in June, strict infection-control measures imposed by Public Health England (PHE) mean many dentists can see only a few patients a day. Before the pandemic they would see about 30 a day.

Worth reading in full.

Are Some Muslim Deaths Being Falsely Attributed to Coronavirus?

A reader has an interesting theory about why a higher percentage of Muslims have supposedly died of Covid than non-Muslims.

I was speaking with a work colleague who is a Muslim this week and he was telling me about his 85-year-old neighbour who died. His neighbour had congestive heart disease and wasn’t a well man. He caught a cold and thus had to have a COVID-19 test which came back negative. A few weeks later the man died, but the Doctor wanted to perform an autopsy which would take weeks. As per the Muslim faith, his family weren’t happy with this as the burial needs to occur within 24 hours, so the Doctor put COVID-19 on the death certificate so that the man could be buried without his having to do an autopsy even though he had not tested positive.

Now I remember looking back at the COVID-19 deaths by Religious group from the ONS and the COVID-19 deaths for Muslims was significantly higher than any other based on population percentage.

So, could this need for quick burial as required by the Muslim faith, and thus COVID-19 being put down as a cause of death, be an influencing factor into why BAME COVID-19 deaths are considered to be so high?

Sixty-Six GPs Urge Hancock to Do No (More) Harm

We’ve seen a number of anti-lockdown letters signed by doctors and medical professionals, such as this one in the US and this one in Belgium. But as far as I’m aware we haven’t seen one in the UK – until now, that is. Sixty-six GPs have written to Matt Hancock urging him to consider the collateral damage being done by the ongoing restrictions, listing the tens of thousands of non-Covid excess deaths in private homes since March, the spike in cardiovascular deaths, the rise in child suicides and the problems besetting the elderly – depression, anxiety and loneliness. It’s not as forthrightly sceptical as I’d like – the docs say they supported the first lockdown –  but the reasonableness of its tone may end making it more effective. And the message is clear: the harm the restrictions are doing to the public’s health outweighs the harm they are supposedly preventing. full text of the letter below.

And Now For the Less Admirable GPs…

A reader was prompted by a recent GP horror story on Lockdown Sceptics to provide an anecdote of her own.

My GP surgery is based in a North Wales coastal town. A pharmacy is adjacent to it. I called in to collect a prescription but noticed a queue of six rather dispirited – young and old – people waiting outside the surgery. It was raining, cold and windy. The surgery insists that you don’t turn up for your appointment nowadays until exactly the appointed time. Well, shame on these people for being too punctual. The surgery has two large waiting areas where they could wait seated probably 12 feet apart with no problems whatsoever.

Whilst I was in the pharmacy a member of surgery staff came in, I asked why these poor people were waiting outside in these conditions. She said: “That’s the way it has to be at the moment.” I asked what was going to happen in the winter. Her reply: “They’ll have to get better clothing.” Then she returned to the surgery, and presumably remained snug and dry in her little office.

Disgraceful.

Tory Constituencies Are Being Spared Second Lockdowns

I wonder what genius thought up this wheeze?

The Sunday Times says that leaked emails between health officials reveal that Tory areas, such as the newly-won Red Wall seats, are less likely to have second lockdowns inflicted on them than Labour areas.

Wealthy areas, including the chancellor Rishi Sunak’s parliamentary seat, are avoiding lockdown despite having higher COVID-19 rates than poorer areas that are subject to restrictions, according to leaked emails between health officials.

The Government is under growing pressure to explain why it has placed large parts of the north and Midlands under local lockdowns while overlooking areas with similar infection rates. Asked why the northwest is “treated differently” from areas such as his own seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in west London, Boris Johnson said on Friday: “I appreciate… people want to see an iron consistency applied across the whole country.”

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, decides which areas to place in lockdown during weekly “gold” meetings with advisers. Yesterday, 50 councils were subject to measures such as bans on household mixing. However, there is no official COVID-19 infection rate that triggers a local lockdown.

The Sunday Times has put together a list that illustrates the scandal:

  • NO LOCKDOWN
  • West Lancashire 137 cases per 100,000
  • Barrow-in-Furness 112
  • Darlington 110
  • Craven 109
  • Newark and Sherwood 84
  • IN LOCKDOWN
  • Chorley 73 cases per 100,000
  • Wyre 71
  • Lancaster 66
  • Oadby and Wigston 63
  • Wolverhampton 56

Worth reading in full.

Round-Up

Love in the Time of Covid

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in The Americans. Credit: Jeffrey Neira/FX

We have created some Lockdown Sceptics Forums, including a dating forum called “Love in a Covid Climate” that has attracted a bit of attention. We have a team of moderators in place to remove spam and deal with the trolls, but sometimes it takes a little while so please bear with us. You have to register to use the Forums, but that should just be a one-time thing. Any problems, email the Lockdown Sceptics webmaster Ian Rons here.

Update: Some of you have asked how to link to particular stories on Lockdown Sceptics. The answer used to be to first click on “Latest News”, then click on the links that came up beside the headline of each story. But we’ve changed that so the links now come up beside the headlines whether you’ve clicked on “Latest News” or you’re just on the Lockdown Sceptics home page. Please do share the stories with your friends and on social media.

Woke Gobbledegook

We’ve decided to create a permanent slot down here for woke gobbledegook. Today, I want to draw your attention to an excellent piece in UnHerd by Helen Pluckrose entitled “Is Critical Race Theory Racist?” Helen is the co-author of Cynical Theories with James Lyndsay, an excellent primer on the woke cult. The whole piece is worth reading, but here’s an extract in which she discusses the ideas of Robin DiAngelo, author of the bestselling White Fragility.

Robin DiAngelo takes a thoroughly postmodern approach. Her belief is that white people are unavoidably racist because of the ways in which they have been socialised in white supremacist countries. DiAngelo identifies America as just such a country but also much of Europe, including the UK.

For DiAngelo, “whiteness” is a system that whites perpetuate with everything they do. In White Fragility, she describes whiteness as a “constellation of processes and practices” consisting of “basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives and experiences purported to be commonly shared by all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people”. For DiAngelo these processes are “dynamic, relational, and operating at all times and on myriad levels”.

Elsewhere, she sets out a tenet of anti-racism, stating that “The question is not ‘Did racism occur?’ but ‘How did racism manifest in that situation?’” There is no possibility of not being racist and DiAngelo’s training aims to get white people to accept that they are racist — as the Trump memo claims.

“Mask Exempt” Lanyards

We’ve created a one-stop shop down here for people who want to buy (or make) a “Mask Exempt” lanyard/card. You can print out and laminate a fairly standard one for free here and it has the advantage of not explicitly claiming you have a disability. But if you have no qualms about that (or you are disabled), you can buy a lanyard from Amazon saying you do have a disability/medical exemption here (takes a while to arrive). The Government has instructions on how to download an official “Mask Exempt” notice to put on your phone here. You can get a “Hidden Disability” tag from ebay here and an “exempt” card with lanyard for just £1.99 from Etsy here. And, finally, if you feel obliged to wear a mask but want to signal your disapproval of having to do so, you can get a “sexy world” mask with the Swedish flag on it here.

Don’t forget to sign the petition on the UK Government’s petitions website calling for an end to mandatory face nappies in shops here.

A reader has started a website that contains some useful guidance about how you can claim legal exemption.

And here’s a round-up of the scientific evidence on the effectiveness of mask (threadbare at best).

Stop Press: A reader with a Down Syndrome child had a bad experience when visiting the audiologists.

On Thursday my 15 year-old daughter had her long-awaited audiology appointment. She has Down Syndrome and the fact that all the faces are covered is deeply distressing to her – so she was quite stressed by the time we got to the waiting area. Passing through the main entrance we were greeted by a young man who detected our un-masked status (I was wearing my lanyard with the mask-exempt card). He helpfully dipped his hand into a box and extended his hand with two masks, saying, “Can I give you these?” I’m polite, I took them, and thanked him, as my daughter looked from my lanyard to my face with a puzzled expression. I put the masks in my bag. As we walked to the right department, I began to wonder whether the lunacy has extended to the audiologists – they who know that facial expressions as well as lip-reading are vital cues for those of us who are hard of hearing. It had. At least the loudspeaker which was used for one part of the test wasn’t muzzled!

Samaritans

If you are struggling to cope, please call Samaritans for free on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch. Samaritans is available round the clock, every single day of the year, providing a safe place for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel, whatever life has done to them.

Shameless Begging Bit

Thanks as always to those of you who made a donation in the past 24 hours to pay for the upkeep of this site. Doing these daily updates is hard work (although we have help from lots of people, mainly in the form of readers sending us stories and links). If you feel like donating, please click here. And if you want to flag up any stories or links we should include in future updates, email us here.

And Finally…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScjuNDZ2Xi0

Danielle Matthews, aka the Bin Singer, has written a song about being stuck in Melbourne that’s worth a watch. Some of her complaints will resonate with people still locked down in other parts of the world.

Latest News

Take Back Control

Brendan O’Neill has written a blistering piece for Spiked in which he urges the British people to take back control – not from Brussels, but from Boris and Dom!

We can’t go on like this. We cannot continue to allow the Government to control every aspect of our lives. We cannot idly accept that the state has the right to introduce rules and regulations that dictate everything from how long we can stay in the pub to who we can invite to our weddings. We cannot sit back and watch as government scientists use jumped-up, fact-lite graphs of fear to try to terrify and pacify the populace and prep us for yet another onslaught on our liberties. We cannot just watch and nod as officials shut down more areas of the economy, with a stroke of their pen, plunging Britain further into the worst recession on record. This is not sustainable. Something has to give, something has to break. The only important question right now is this: how can we make sure that happens?

I know exactly how he feels.

Worth reading in full.

A Reply to Tom Chivers

Tom Chivers and James Ferguson disagree about the significance of the false positive rate of the PCR test

Tom Chivers took a pop at Lockdown Sceptics in UnHerd yesterday, arguing that writers on this site were exaggerating the importance of the false positive rate of the PCR test and, contrary to our claims, there really is a second wave hurtling towards us. The subhead was: “Sceptics who talk up ‘false positives’ are engaging in wishful thinking.”

Tom’s piece is worth reading for anyone interested in this debate – he makes some good points, although not all of them land with the same force.

I asked James Ferguson, the financial analyst who wrote about the false positive problem for Lockdown Sceptics on September 12th, to reply to Tom’s piece.

Tom Chivers delivers what he believes to be a series of deathblows to the idea (of which I am an adherent) that most positives are false positives and therefore that the September surge in cases is not necessarily the start of a second wave but potentially a false alarm. It should be noted from the outset that part of the problem here is that the Government has an unfortunate tendency to call positive tests, ‘cases’, when they are not. The PCR machines that the tests are run on come with a big sticker on the side warning that they are not to be used for diagnostics, only for screening. The manufacturers specifically warn against confusing a positive PCR test result with a medical case, the latter requiring both symptoms and a doctor’s diagnosis. This is typical of the slapdash approach that the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and the Department of Health have taken to jeopardising our entire economy.

To return to Chivers’ case, he agrees that if the incidence of COVID-19 is 0.1%, then a false positive rate of 1% will mean that out of every 10,000 people tested, the test will correctly identify all 10 of those with COVID but will also wrongly positively identify 100 of those who don’t have it. In this instance, Chivers writes, it would mean that if you tested positive, you would only have “about a 9% chance of actually having the disease” (10/110). However, he argues, those that then insist that this means “there’s no real reason to believe that there is a second wave, because positive test results hugely overstate the real number of cases, (are) quite crucially wrong.”

Why? First, because the people being tested in Pillar 2 (community) tests are not selected randomly. He presumes that they have some reason to be tested, either symptoms (which they are supposed to have to apply) or at least exposure to another positive test. So, even if most people are breaking the rules and are having tests whilst asymptomatic, we can assume that 10% do have flu-like symptoms. This changes the maths quite a lot. For the 10,000 being tested, their likelihood of having the disease is higher than the 0.1% prevalence in the population as a whole. If the prevalence among test subjects is 1%, equal to the FPR, then the chances of being positive if you get a positive test result shoot up from 9% to 50%.

All well and good. However, Chivers has made his first error. It is true that the crucial relationship is between the incidence and the FPR. So, if Pillar 2 test subjects are not representative of the population, then the incidence within their subset rises and the proportion of false positives declines. At the same time, though, if Pillar 2 subjects have a higher incidence than the general population, they won’t be representative of the general population any longer and so any increase in positives is only relevant to that subset and not of the population as a whole. So, a surge in ‘cases’ would be of limited relevance to the country as a whole and, unless corroborated, certainly no reason to impose restrictions.

Chivers airily suggests that while the incidence in the general population is 0.1%, according to the ONS, “even if the true number (for those being tested) is only 1%, that makes a huge difference.” Maybe so, but this is sleight of hand. There were only 30-40 COVID-19 diagnoses a day throughout August in all of NHS England. Let’s say Brits are a very hypochondriacal bunch and only 1% of all those reporting COVID-type symptoms actually have the disease. That would make about 110,000 subjects (5%), out of the 2.25m tests carried out, symptomatic. This implies 95% of the test subjects had the same incidence as the population as a whole (0.1%) and just 5% were symptomatic with an incidence of 1%. That averages to a subset incidence of 0.145%, not “1%”, which would mean that 145 true positives out of 100,000 tests would combine with 1,000 false positives for a false positive rate, not of 50% as Chivers implies, but 87.3%. We shouldn’t be forgetting that the more hypochondriacal test subjects are, the less truly symptomatic and the more representative of the wider population, so even 87% is probably an overestimate.

Yet perhaps realising this flaw, Chivers goes on to assert that “it doesn’t really matter” because, as long as the testing hasn’t got any worse, any increase in the number of positives must logically reflect an increase in incidence. This is true enough. If the false positives stay roughly the same – for example, 1,000 out of every 100,000 – and the incidence rises from 100 (0.1%) to 1000 (1%) say, then the FPR drops to 50% and all the new positives might be assumed to be new cases. However, it is equally true that if the positives start to surge almost back to old highs, like they have in September, and yet the number of hospitalisations is no higher than the end of June, then some might think this is prima facie evidence that the tests might well have changed and that possibility should be investigated with as much vigour and speed as possible (think contaminated test kits).

Ah, I hear you say, but we don’t need to do that because the ONS tells us that the incidence is now 0.11% (as at 10th September) which is 3x higher than the 25th August trough. However, what the ONS doesn’t tell you is that they derive incidence in a very basic way from… you guessed it, positives per 10,000. So if there are 11/10,000 that means 73,700 in the whole country. But if instead we take hospitalisations (204 in England on 19th September, so assume about 225 for the UK), multiply by a factor of 10 for asymptomatics and multiply by 21 days for infectious period, we get a far more up-to-date estimate of 47k infectious cases, or an incidence of 0.07%, about 4x higher than the August lows admittedly but still down 93% from the peak rates of incidence we saw back in early April.

Patients can ask their doctors for a second opinion. I think it is only fair that lockdown Britain should be allowed the same courtesy.

James Ferguson’s Parliamentary Briefing

The top graph shows the number of cases rising, whereas the middle one shows hospitalisations and the bottom one deaths.

In addition to the above, James Ferguson has written another piece on the false positive rate, this time at the request of a Parliamentarian (whom he hasn’t named). So not an original piece for Lockdown Sceptics, but he has given us permission to publish it nonetheless.

Some of it will already be familiar to people who’ve been following the coverage of the false positives rate on this site, but some of it won’t. For instance, I wasn’t aware of this tidbit about Dr Susan Hopkins, one of Dido Harding’s scientific advisors.

PHE consultant Dr Susan Hopkins provided Baroness Dido Harding with a “rapid off my head [sic] response that could be used” clearly intended to dismiss the warnings about false positives out of hand, rather than invite further informative discussion. Hopkins confirmed a “population prevalence < 0.02%” whilst insisting that all serological tests (Pillars 1, 2 and 4) had FPRs that are “definitely less than 1 in 100 and… more likely 1 in 1000.” Yet she did not seem to understand the mathematical implications. With 0.02% incidence, a FPR of “1 in 1000” means 83% of positives are false, whilst “1 in 100” means 98% would be. Does H3 (Hancock, Harding and Hopkins) seriously not know this?

Worth reading in full.

Sir Graham Brady Tells Freddie Sayers Mood Among Tory MPs is Changing

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M969RrraRWs&feature=emb_logo

Sir Graham Brady, the Conservative MP and Chairman of the 1922 Committee, has given an interview to Freddie Sayers for UnHerd in which he says he thinks the Government will not force a vote on his amendment – calling for a Parliamentary vote on all future coronavirus measures – but will concede the point. He also says backbench Conservative MPs are becoming increasingly sceptical.

I think like most people in the country my colleagues were pretty apprehensive then. We were facing a new virus, nobody knew how it would behave. There was plausible speculation that it could rapidly overwhelm intensive care capacity in the NHS, and of course the House of Commons was about to go off for an Easter recess. So it did seem reasonable at that point to grant emergency powers to ministers to be able to do what needed to be done if there were terrible pressures with which the NHS couldn’t cope.

We did that, perhaps some of us with a heavier heart than others, but were prepared to accept it as a set of temporary measures.

I think the mood has changed over time. Many of us have been making the case for sensible, cautious opening, since April. Certainly it was pretty obvious back then that you could allow open air markets to operate, and garden centres, all things that could have reduced the economic damage and also helped to give people who have been locked away in their houses for too long a little bit of interest and some fresh air. So all of that could have been done much more quickly than it was.

But increasingly, some sectors like aviation and the events sector have been completely put out of business by the restrictions. As that has become apparent, and sections of the economy have been shut down for a very long period of time, more and more of my colleagues are spending time in their constituencies talking to constituents who are losing their jobs, losing their livelihoods, people who have built up businesses over many years and are seeing them failing, and that is changing the mood. People are recognising that there is a balance to be struck here. We all want to encourage the safest approach in terms of hand hygiene and social distancing (most people have shown they’re quite willing to do their bit) but it’s got to be balanced with the recognition that there are other downsides if you overdo the restrictions.

Worth watching in full.

Ofcom Judicial Review Update

The Free Speech Union has just updated the GoFundMe it launched to cover its legal costs in the Judicial Review it is bringing against Ofcom with respect to the “coronavirus guidance” the regulator published on March 23rd, the same day the full lockdown was imposed. As I’ve written about before, this “guidance” has contributed to the suppression of dissenting views about Covid in the mainstream media, particularly the BBC.

When, on April 20th, Ofcom slapped down Eamonn Holmes, an ITV presenter, for arguing in favour of always maintaining an open mind with respect to different theories about the coronavirus crisis and the Government’s response to it, the FSU believed this was an action of considerable consequence for free speech in the media.

The FSU decided it ought to take action. If a small public interest group dedicated to free speech stood for anything, it should stand for upholding the rights of broadcasters and journalists to discuss matters of considerable public interest without fear of censure by a state regulator. Given that it is likely that Ofcom will become the regulator of the internet in due course, we considered it vitally important that Ofcom should pay proper attention to Article 10 of the Human Rights Act that states that we all have the right to free expression. Ofcom should encourage – rather than discourage – open-mindedness, open debate and tolerance for dissenting views. Ofcom was establishing a worryingly bad precedent.

We made a complaint to Ofcom in the hope that it would realise the error of its ways if we brought the conflict between what it had done and its duties under the Human Rights Act to its attention. However, when Ofcom refused to budge on the issue, the FSU decided to initiate litigation to make the case for open-mindedness and free inquiry.

A judge will shortly be deciding whether to allow us to proceed with a Judicial Review of Ofcom’s censorious behaviour. We think we have a strong case but litigation is never certain so we have asked the judge for a “Protective Costs Order” which would place a limit on the liability faced by the FSU should we lose the case. Given that Ofcom claim already to have spent over £16,000 just responding to our application for a court hearing, the amount at risk could be considerable. The bigger the size of this fund the more likely that the action will go ahead and we will have the opportunity to strike a major blow in favour of free speech and the right to challenge the Government’s narrative.

If things go our way and we defeat Ofcom in court, the money in this fund will be held over and used to support other litigation to protect free speech.

Thanks again for all your support, which has already helped us a great deal. If we can ask just one more thing, it’s that you share this GoFundMe on social media. The more the word gets out, the better our chances of being able to fight these and similar battles in future.

Please donate to the Free Speech Union’s “Fighting Fund” GoFundMe here so we can take Ofcom to the High Court and, if you can, share the link with others. This is a vitally important case.

Global Panic and Mass Hysteria

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.” – Hamlet

We’re publishing another original piece today, this one by Manfred Horst, a a senior consultant to pharma and biotech companies. It’s a rueful reflection on how the world responded with mass hysteria to what is, essentially, just another virus, no worse than a bad flu.

None of the governments which imposed societal lockdowns and deprived their populations of most of their fundamental liberties seems to have done so on the basis of any kind of benefit/risk analysis. They all followed the advice of some very peculiar “experts” – mostly virologists and epidemiological model builders. They all seem to fear that they could be held to account for an exponential number of deaths resulting from this “new” disease. They all seem to however completely disregard the enormous damage which their measures are inflicting on their citizens, their societies and the world at large. None of them listened to – let alone stimulated – contrarian opinions from other experts, who often had to accept an appearance in alternative media outlets in order to make their views known. Hopefully, the cautionary tale of the current hysteria will serve as a lesson for the future. Science is not monolithic dogma, but continuous hypothesis testing and falsification. Supposedly scientific models predicting the future can be as awfully wrong as any oracle or prophecy.

Worth reading in full.

A Solicitor Writes…

A solicitor who is very well-informed about the impact of the coronavirus guidance on businesses – particularly small businesses – heard something quite ominous in Boris’s 8pm statement last night that less eagle-eared viewers will have missed.

You have probably spotted the worrying sentence in the PM’s address today “in retail, leisure, tourism and other sectors, our Covid-secure guidelines will become legal obligations”. As ever, we await the actual law, but it sounds very much as if the Government is planning to give the guidance legal force. This will presumably take precedent over the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 so that risk assessment for COVID-19 would become incidental. We have already seen steps towards that approach in 5G(b)(ii) of the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2020 but it sounds like the plan is now to force businesses to take measures to protect against transmission which would not be warranted by a risk assessment.

In other words, businesses will be forced to jump through even more hoops before staff can return to work, having to comply with volumes of pointless red tape instead of using their common sense. Is Jeff Bezos a donor to the Conservative Party?

Government “Pauses” Plans to Allow Fans Back in to Stadiums

For me, this was the worst piece of news yesterday: the Government has changed its mind about letting fans back into sports stadiums from October 1st. As a QPR season ticket holder, I miss going to see my team play more than anything else and was so confident that things would soon return to normal – after all, outdoor transmission of the virus is almost unheard of – that I renewed my season tickets for me and my son a few weeks ago. I didn’t factor in the idiocy of this Government.

Even the bedwetting Guardian thinks this measure is completely unnecessary.

The government has dealt a devastating blow to sport by pausing its plans for the partial return of fans to stadiums on 1 October because of the rapid spike in Covid-19 cases. It will add to growing fears that clubs could go out of business due to lack of gate receipts for potentially months more to come.

The decision, which was first reported by the Guardian on Monday, was confirmed by Michael Gove, who told BBC Breakfast: “We do want to, in due course, allow people to return to watch football and other sporting events but it is the case that we just need to be cautious at the moment and I think a mass reopening at this stage wouldn’t be appropriate,” the Cabinet Office minister said.

I’m sorry to report that Michael Gove is himself a Ranger.

Letter to an MP

A reader has sent us the letter she wrote yesterday to her MP, Stuart Anderson. This one’s a doozy.

Dear Stuart,

I’d appreciate your response to the questions below:

As the number of PCR tests being done has increased massively over the course of the summer, why are the case numbers consistently presented to the public without a clear framework of percentages of the tests done?

Why is a positive test now automatically called a ‘case’?

Why is the fatally flawed PCR test still being used to measure cases when the only statistics of any real importance are deaths and hospitalisations?

Does Matt Hancock understand that ‘less than 1%’ false positives when a virus is circulating at such low levels means that most positive cases are in fact false positives? Does he even care?

Why does he insist that the case numbers are doubling every seven days when they’re clearly not? Is he just really thick? Is he blatantly dishonest? Is he both?

If it’s down to dishonesty, why is he lying to the public?

Why was yesterday’s television briefing by Whitty and Vallance concentrating on a potential 49,000 ‘cases’? Is this because they really like big, scary numbers?

Why are they being encouraged to extrapolate the currently non-existent doubling as part of a worst case scenario?

Have they been told to do this by Hancock? By Johnson? Is this why they cover their backs with the repeated use of words such as ‘if’ and ‘could’?

Why is everyone so keen to use the word ‘exponential’ when any increase (I include France and Spain in this) has been nothing of the sort?

Why is everyone so keen to use France and Spain as examples, but not Germany, Sweden, etc.?

Why are scientific advisors being wheeled out to smooth the path for further restrictions with their doom-laden scaremongering?

If the ‘worst case scenario’ of 200 deaths a day from Covid by Hallowe’en is true, is that really enough reason to lock down the country again?

If 200 people died a day of flu, would it be front page news? Would it lead to a tv address by the PM outlining yet more restrictions on civil liberties?

If masks and social distancing work, then why no discernible impact on flu and pneumonia deaths?

As the pool of people vulnerable to becoming seriously ill from Covid is limited and shares many of the criteria of the pool of those vulnerable to serious illness from other respiratory ailments, what is the likelihood of them dying of both, twice?

Why did we not lock down the country in the winter of 1999-2000, when (off the top of my head) 50,000 died? See also (again off the top of my head) the bad flu seasons of 2014-2015/2017-2018?

Is the ongoing issue of casually assigning Covid deaths to those who died with, rather than of Covid being properly addressed?

Are you surprised to discover that keeping work colleagues, schoolchildren and families apart for months and then allowing them to meet again has resulted in an uptick in infections of all kinds?

If the government hadn’t locked the country down over the summer, do you think more people might have developed immunity to the virus by now?

Why does Patrick Vallance keep insisting that immunity in the population is at such low levels? Has he not heard of T cell immunity?

If the majority of new cases are in care homes, followed by workplaces and schools, how will closing pubs early or preventing people meeting socially in groups of seven have any effect on these?

Why do the latest restrictions treat outdoor spaces as though they were indoor spaces?

Why is the government paying any attention whatsoever to what Neil Ferguson has to say?

Why does the government think it’s in any way appropriate to rush through a vaccine, and then start by injecting the most vulnerable people in the population with it?

Seeing as bad flu seasons are often the result of ineffective vaccines, why would even a safe Covid vaccine be any more successful, particularly as there is no coronavirus vaccine in existence as yet?

If the NHS is in imminent danger of being overwhelmed, why have the Nightingale hospitals been mothballed?

If the NHS isn’t in imminent danger of being overwhelmed, why do we need another lockdown?

As the NHS wasn’t overwhelmed in the Spring, why does the government assume it will be now – or is that no longer the primary reason for imposing further restrictions on the public?

If ‘protecting the NHS’ is no longer the primary reason for imposing further restrictions on the public, then what is the reason?

And finally…

When is this Government going to take responsibility for its poor decisions and stop blaming, threatening, and punishing the British public for a catastrophe of its own making? And when are you going to stop defending its actions?

Postcard From Istanbul

We’ve received a “Postcard” from a reader who’s just back from Istanbul. Doesn’t sound too bad, once you realise the rules aren’t being enforced.

Unfortunately, the “city of mosques” has become “the city of maskes” as Istanbul pretends to play its part in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. But before fellow sceptics stop reading or cross Istanbul off their Covid bucket list, there is good news. Despite fairly rigid enforcement of “maske, maske!” in shops, public transport and museums, we walked the streets naked – except for our clothes – without challenge or even a second look from the Istanbulis. The face mask here is not considered a virtue signal, rather it is considered a talisman. It does not matter where it is worn, so long as it is worn. Under the nose, under the chin, on the elbow (yes!) and I even saw one person with a mask on the back of his neck. These all seemed acceptable and, in fact, there were plenty of people who, like us, had simply abandoned them. The police were not enforcing mask wearing and were among the worst offenders for not doing so. Our hotel was next to the Karakoy Police station where Istanbul’s finest sat sunning themselves daily, ready to fall asleep at a minute’s notice. They watched us walk past several times a day without comment.

Worth reading in full.

Round-Up

Theme Tunes Suggested by Readers

Four today: “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” by the Pet Shop Boys, “How Long” by Charlie Puth, “Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen and “Banned From the Pubs” by Peter and the Test Tube Babies.

Love in the Time of Covid

We have created some Lockdown Sceptics Forums, including a dating forum called “Love in a Covid Climate” that has attracted a bit of attention. We have a team of moderators in place to remove spam and deal with the trolls, but sometimes it takes a little while so please bear with us. You have to register to use the Forums, but that should just be a one-time thing. Any problems, email the Lockdown Sceptics webmaster Ian Rons here.

Woke Gobbledegook

We’ve decided to create a permanent slot here for woke gobbledegook.

Monday saw the publication of a report by the National Trust on the links between various National Trust properties and slavery and colonialism. This is from the introduction to the report:

The National Trust has made a commitment to research, interpret and share the histories of slavery and the legacies of colonialism at the places we care for. Those histories are deeply interwoven into the material fabric of the British Isles; a significant number of the collections, houses, gardens and parklands in our care were created or remodelled as expressions of the taste and wealth, as well as power and privilege, that derived from colonial connections and in some cases from the trade in enslaved people. We believe that only by honestly and openly acknowledging and sharing those stories can we do justice to the true complexity of past, present and future, and the sometimes-uncomfortable role that Britain, and Britons, have played in global history since the sixteenth century or even earlier.

Slavery is “deeply interwoven into the material fabric of the British Isles”?

Come off it.

The Telegraph has more.

“Mask Exempt” Lanyards

We’ve created a one-stop shop down here for people who want to buy (or make) a “Mask Exempt” lanyard/card. You can print out and laminate a fairly standard one for free here and it has the advantage of not explicitly claiming you have a disability. But if you have no qualms about that (or you are disabled), you can buy a lanyard from Amazon saying you do have a disability/medical exemption here (takes a while to arrive). The Government has instructions on how to download an official “Mask Exempt” notice to put on your phone here. You can get a “Hidden Disability” tag from ebay here and an “exempt” card with lanyard for just £1.99 from Etsy here. And, finally, if you feel obliged to wear a mask but want to signal your disapproval of having to do so, you can get a “sexy world” mask with the Swedish flag on it here (see above).

Don’t forget to sign the petition on the UK Government’s petitions website calling for an end to mandatory face nappies in shops here.

A reader has started a website that contains some useful guidance about how you can claim legal exemption.

And here’s a round-up of the scientific evidence on the effectiveness of mask (threadbare at best).

Stop Press: A German children’s charity got laboratory tests done on one of the masks typically sold in shops after it had been worn by a child in school for eight hours. Eight hours! Result: 82 bacterial colonies and four mould (fungoid) colonies. More here.

The Care Home Scandal – A Call For Evidence

Lockdown Sceptics has asked an award-winning investigative journalist, David Rose, to investigate the high death toll in Britain’s care homes. Did 20,000+ elderly people really die of COVID-19 between March and July or were many of them just collateral lockdown damage? With lots of care homes short-staffed because employees were self-isolating at home, and with relatives and partners unable to visit to check up on their loved ones because of restrictions, how many elderly residents died of neglect, not Covid? How many succumbed to other conditions, untreated because they weren’t able to access hospitals or their local GP? After doctors were told by care home managers that the cause of death of a deceased resident was “novel coronavirus”, how many bothered to check before signing the death certificate? The risk of doctors misdiagnosing the cause of death is particularly high, given that various safeguards to minimise the risk of that happening were suspended in March.

David Rose would like Lockdown Sceptics readers to share any information they have that could help in this investigation. Here is his request:

We are receiving reports that some residents of care homes who died from causes other than Covid may have had their deaths ascribed to it – even though they never had the disease at all, and never tested positive. Readers will already be familiar with the pioneering work by Carl Heneghan and his colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, which forced the Government to change its death toll counting method. Previously, it will be recalled, people who died of, say, a road accident, were being counted as Covid deaths if they had tested positive at any time, perhaps months earlier. But here we are talking of something different – Covid “deaths” among people who never had the virus at all.

In one case, where a family is deciding whether to grant permission for Lockdown Sceptics to publicise it, an elderly lady in reasonable health was locked in her room for many hours each day in a care home on the south coast, refused all visitors, deprived of contact with other residents, and eventually went on hunger strike, refusing even to drink water. She died in the most wretched circumstances which were only indirectly a product of the virus – and yet, her death certificate reportedly claims she had Covid.

I’m looking for further examples of 1) elderly people who died as a result of the lockdown and associated measures, but whose deaths were wrongly attributed to “novel coronavirus”, and 2) those elderly people who clearly died from other causes but whose deaths were still formally ascribed to Covid because they once tested positive for it, even after the counting method change.

If you have relevant information, please email Lockdown Sceptics or David directly on david@davidroseuk.com.

Samaritans

If you are struggling to cope, please call Samaritans for free on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch. Samaritans is available round the clock, every single day of the year, providing a safe place for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel, whatever life has done to them.

Shameless Begging Bit

Thanks as always to those of you who made a donation in the past 24 hours to pay for the upkeep of this site. Doing these daily updates is hard work (although we have help from lots of people, mainly in the form of readers sending us stories and links). If you feel like donating, please click here. And if you want to flag up any stories or links we should include in future updates, email us here.

And Finally…

In the latest episode of ⁦our London Calling podcast, James Delingpole⁩ and I commiserate with each other over our mutual heartbreak regarding the PM. Send in the army to make sure people drink up by 10pm?!? It’s as if he’s reading from a script written by his enemies. Has a Marxist terrorist cell kidnapped his baby? “Wreck the economy or the kid gets it.”

Listen to our ramblings here and subscribe on iTunes here.

The Real Fault with Epidemiological Models

by Hector Drummond

Imperial College’s Professor Neil Ferguson has drawn a lot of criticism recently for the poor state of the code in his COVID-19 model:

This criticism, it should be noted, is not even directed at his original code – which he still refuses to release, so we can guess how bad that is. The criticism concerns the completely rewritten code that has been worked on by teams from Microsoft and Github.

However, Simon Anthony, sometime contributor to Hector Drummond Magazine, has recently written in the Critic magazine that the poor quality of Ferguson’s code is beside the point.

I actually agree with this claim. Of course, it is quite right that the poor quality of Ferguson’s code should have been drawn out into the open, and I think his critics should be congratulated for doing this. I also think it is revealing of the poor standards at work in general with Ferguson’s team. But, in the end, Anthony is right that the sort of modelling Ferguson is doing is not discredited by the fact that his own effort was so shonky, because any number of epidemiological modellers could have come up with similar analyses using impeccable code. If we make this the main point of criticism of Ferguson’s predictions then we risk being undone when another group backs his analysis up with a top-notch piece of coding.

Reliability

I want to focus on what I consider to be the real failure not just with Ferguson’s model, but most epidemiological modelling of this sort: the lack of proven reliability of these models. It doesn’t matter whether your code is the equivalent of a brand-new shiny Rolls-Royce or a beat-up old Ford Transit van that’s been up and down the motorway way too often with rock bands. What matters is that your model makes predictions that we can have reason to trust. Can we trust Ferguson’s predictions? I have no reason to think we can.

For one thing, we have heard many reports of his extreme predictions in the past which have failed to come true. To be fair to Ferguson, it may be that he has learned from all these past failures, and has recently perfected his model by testing it repeatedly against reality, and it is now constantly providing accurate predictions. But I have no evidence that this has happened. Months after Ferguson came to public attention – months in which he has received large amounts of criticism for just this point – he has declined to point anyone in the direction of any reliability tests for his models. So I have no reason to put any store in them.

Models are “speeded-up theories”

It is sometimes said that a computer model is just a “speeded-up theory”, and I think this is true. A computer model is not just a neutral bit of maths that we can nod through. Assumptions are made about how this part of reality works, and about how this part of reality can be imitated by a vastly simplifying piece of computer code and some maths. So a computer model embodies a theory about how this part of the world works.

This theory has no special status in the pantheon of theories. It’s like any other theory: it has to be tested against the world to see if it stands up – and not just tested in easy, artificial situations where it’s not hard to produce the right answers. Nor can it just be tested post hoc – that is, tested against scenarios which have already happened. It’s not hard to adjust a model so that it outputs the correct predictions when you already know what those predictions have to be. Post hoc analysis and adjustment is important, of course, but it alone doesn’t count as testing. Just like any other theory, the theory embodied by the model has to be shown to produce accurate results in advance. And in this particular field, you’d want to see it do so in a wide range of real-world situations. This is not the sort of theory where one decisive experiment can settle things one way or the other.

The demand for testing and reliability is not in any way controversial. Having worked in academia for many years, I saw scientist friends in various fields who would work with models, and their concern was always with the reliability of the models. You couldn’t just use any old model that suited you and which gave you the results you wanted. You had to use something with a track record, and which other people in your field trusted because it had independently proven its worth.

Models in other fields

Many models have proven their worth over the years in many fields. Engineers, for example, have long used computer models to design bridges and other structures. These models can be very sophisticated and complex, and usually involve advanced mathematics (the engineering commentators at my magazine and my Twitter page like to boast of their mathematical superiority over the likes of economists and epidemiologists). Despite that, these models generally work. They pass the reliability test. They have to work, of course: you can’t have your engineering firm build a bridge that falls down at the opening ceremony and kills everyone. So reliability testing is incredibly important in fields such as engineering, but even then they don’t always get it right, because these things can get extremely complex and difficult and mistakes happen.

Grant-funding incentives

There isn’t the same imperative to get it right in academic epidemiology. Neil Ferguson can keep making very high overestimates of the amount of people who will be killed by the latest disease, and he keeps his jobs and government appointments and still gets massive amounts of funding from bodies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He won’t be sued and made bankrupt if he gets it wrong. The government didn’t require him to publish reliability tests for his models in order him to be part of the SAGE and NERVTAG committees.

Epidemiology seems to be one of those areas, like climate change, where model reliability matters far less than it should. This can happen to areas that become politicised and where the journals are controlled by strong-armed cliques. It can also be a consequence of modern academia, where the emphasis has shifted almost totally to funding success. Funding success in areas like epidemiology can depend on exaggeration to impress people with agendas and money to burn, like Bill Gates. In an objective field you would expect, after all, underestimates to be as prevalent as overestimates. Yet in this field, overestimates are rife. And the reason for this is the same as the reason why alarmism thrives in climate “science”: it’s because all the research money goes to those who sound the alarm bells.

Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease

The case of variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD), which can be caught from eating meat from animals that had BSE, or “mad cow disease”) provides a telling example. In August 2000, Ferguson’s team had predicted that there could be up to 136,000 cases of this disease in the UK (and disturbingly, this article mentions that Ferguson and his team had previously predicted 500,000 cases).

A rival team at London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine developed their own model which predicted there would be up to 10,000 cases, with a “few thousand” being the best case scenario. Ferguson pooh-poohed the work of this rival team, saying it was “unjustifiably optimistic”.

I should note that Ferguson had made some lower predictions as well – in fact he made a wide range of predictions based on whether various factors, such as incubation periods, applied. But the fact that he laid into the rival team in this way tells us that he thought we were looking at the high end of the range.

Seeing as pretty much everyone who gets vCJD dies from it, this was serious.

So how many people died from vCJD in the UK in the two decades since? 178.

My point here isn’t just that Ferguson’s model was stupendously wrong (or, if you want to emphasise the very large range of predictions he made, useless for most practical purposes). The point is that even the team that performed better still greatly overestimated the number of deaths. Their model only looked good compared to Ferguson’s – his model wasn’t even in the right universe – but it was itself highly inaccurate and misleading, and not at all up to the job we required to be done.

The other advantages of bridge-building models over epidemiological models

Bridge-building models also have other advantages over epidemiological models. The principles of physics and chemistry that are involved are very well established, and have been worked on for a very long time by very many, and many great, scientists. Also, the basic principles of physics and chemistry they deal with don’t change. Some things in the field do change, of course – for example, new materials are constantly developed, and one must take account of construction techniques varying from place to place, and that mixtures of materials are not always quite right, and so on. But there is a great advantage in the fact that, for example, the laws of gravity don’t change.

Epidemiology, on the other hand, is dealing with things that are, in general, far less locked down, and which can change from decade to decade. Diseases have more-or-less different structures from one another. They don’t all behave alike. Countries vary from one another in various relevant respects (temperature, sanitary conditions, crowd behaviour, and so on). Medicine improves, but it’s not always well known how a modern medicine interacts with a certain disease. There is little that is fixed in a physics-like way with disease, and even for those things that are somewhat fixed our knowledge of some of the important detail is lacking.

The basics behind bridge-building models are not completely set in stone, of course, but they are much more settled than epidemiological models, which are trying to model far messier situations, with many more unknown parameters and influences.

Adding detail to make the models more realistic

The other problem with this messiness is that the models need to be made more and more complex to try to deal with all these extra factors. It appears that Ferguson has attempted to do this to some degree, which explains the length of his code. It also appears that the rewritten version of his model has added in even more of this sort of thing, for example, the Github page for it originally noted that it had now added in “population saturation effects”.

While I regard the attempt to capture the complexity of the real world as admirable, there can be no end to it when modelling some of the messier parts of reality, and you can end up needing a model as large as reality itself before your model starts to give you any reliable predictions. Models, remember, are attempts at drastic simplifications of reality, embodying various theories and assumptions, and there is no guarantee that any such simplification will work in any particular area. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. The only criterion for deciding this is reliability testing. It’s not enough just to say, “Well, this should work, we’ve taken everything that seems to be influencing the results into account”. If your model still isn’t reliable, then you haven’t accounted for all the complexity – or else you’ve just gone wrong somewhere. Or both. It can be extremely hard to know where the fault lies.

In fact, given the repeated failure of epidemiological models, it seems most likely that a lot of relevant and important factors are being left out. Threatening diseases often just “burn out” quicker than epidemiologist modellers expect, so it’s likely that their models have failed to account for some of these other factors.

For instance, recent research has claimed that many people may have partial or full immunity to COVID-19 due to past encounters with other coronaviruses.

This no doubt applies to a great many new diseases: some proportion of people will have full or partial immunity already. But this is not something that can be easily modelled – at least not without a great deal more information than we currently have.

Epidemiological modellers also try to incorporate knowledge about genetics into their models, but our knowledge of how diseases interact with our differing genetics is still fairly rudimentary. We also know little about why some diseases affect children more than others. Furthermore, our knowledge of how viruses survive in various different environments and temperatures is very incomplete. Without better information about such factors being incorporated into the models, why should we continue to trust them after their many failures?

In the absence of such specific information, one thing modellers could do is to feed the information about their past failures back into their models. If your model consistently overestimates death numbers by, say, 100%, then at the very least you should be changing your model so that it adjusts its predictions 50% downwards every time; but of course it would be extremely embarrassing for any modeller to add in any such “repeated past failure” module into their model, and most likely there is no consistent mathematical pattern to their failures anyway.

The Sensitivity to Inputs

Yet another difference between bridge-building and epidemiological models concerns the issue of inputs. With an epidemiological model, small changes in input data can produce output results which are, for our purposes, vastly different, as Simon Anthony demonstrated recently in an article at Hector Drummond Magazine. The difference between a prediction of a disastrous epidemic or a normal winter virus can depend on small differences in the data that goes into the model. (This may recall to mind all those books and articles on chaos theory from the 1980s, where massive differences can result from small changes in the initial circumstances.)

This issue does not affect bridge-building models to the same extent. Bridges can now be made stable and strong (which is what we want) under a usefully large range of circumstances. This is partly because a bridge is something we are designing and building ourselves to exhibit behaviour we desire and using well-understood materials, whereas an epidemic is a part of nature that we do not have much control over, and also because we still do not understand disease spread that well – other than in the most basic ways.

That is not to deny that there will still be some scenarios – such as those involving extreme weather – where the bridge model will exhibit non-linearities; but in general, the outputs of standard epidemiological models are vastly more sensitive to their inputs than engineering models.

Wrong input data

This brings me to my final point of difference between bridge-building models and our COVID-19 models, and that is the issue of incorrect data being put into the model. This is an enormous problem with epidemiological models, whereas it isn’t a problem to anywhere near the same extent with bridge-building models (although it does sometimes happen, but not as a matter of course).

(Strictly speaking, this is not a fault of the model itself, but since it concerns the overall attempt to model the future of diseases such as COVID-19, I am going to include it here.)

It doesn’t matter how good a model is: if you are putting incorrect data into it, you’re going to be producing incorrect results. You can’t just assume that whatever results come out are going to be good enough for now, because as we have seen with epidemiological models, different data can produce vastly different results.

I won’t labour this point – it is one that has been made many times – except to note that despite about six months having passed since the first COVID-19 case was identified in China, there is still great disagreement over both the disease’s infection fatality rate (IFR), and its transmission rate (Ro) in various scenarios, and these are the critical numbers an epidemiological model requires to have any chance of being accurate. Ferguson could have created (despite appearances) an absolutely perfect model for COVID-19, but that will be of no use to anyone if the wrong numbers are going into it, as appears to be the case.

In fact, this problem cuts even deeper than many appreciate. With many diseases we never get a proper handle on what the real death rate and the transmission rates are. For instance, we still don’t really know much about the Spanish flu. We don’t know that much about how it spread and how many people were really infected. We don’t even know whether the different waves of it were caused by the same virus. And if you don’t trust my word on this, take Anthony Fauci’s word for it.

Even with modern influenza we have to rely on very crude estimates of how many people died with it. Even when we have the leisure to take a close look at some recent epidemic in order to improve a model, we often can’t put any solid, definitive numbers into it, because they just don’t exist. In fact, some of the time we’re using the models themselves to estimate how widely a disease spread, and what the transmission and fatality rates were. It’s not surprising, then, that it’s very difficult even now to create epidemiological models that work well enough to be trusted in difficult situations like the one we face with COVID-19.

Do all the top experts who you’d think love modelling really love modelling?

I leave you with the words of two of the worlds’ most high-profile epidemic scaremongers, who have both been at it since the days of the hysteria over AIDS. It seems that these two have finally started, after many decades, to get an inkling that epidemiological models are more dangerous than useful. (I owe these spots to Michael Fumento.)

The first is the Director of the USA’s Centre for Disease Control (and Administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) Dr Robert Redfield, who said on April 1st that COVID-19 “is the greatest public health crisis that has hit this nation in more than 100 years”.

A week later, though – as it started to become clear that the models had once again oversold a disease threat – he said, “Models are only as good as their assumptions, obviously there are a lot of unknowns about the virus. A model should never be used to assume that we have a number.

Consider also Dr Anthony Fauci, the long-term director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the very man who has been telling Donald Trump that the USA has a disaster on its hands. He said, for example, during a hearing of the House Oversight Committee on March 12th, that COVID-19 “is ten times more lethal than the seasonal flu”.

But the fact that Fauci is very worried about COVID-19 does not mean that he thinks the models are gospel. A few weeks later he was reported as saying, “I’ve looked at all the models. I’ve spent a lot of time on the models. They don’t tell you anything. You can’t really rely upon models.

If Robert Redfield and Anthony Fauci are not great believers in epidemiological models, I don’t see why the rest of us should be either.

Hector Drummond is a novelist and the author of Days of Wine and Cheese, the first novel in his comic campus series The Biscuit Factory. He is a former academic and the editor of Hector Drummond Magazine. He tweets at hector_drummond.

Government Innumeracy

by James Ferguson

Matt Hancock and his closest advisors receive the latest modelling update from Prof Neil Ferguson

Are you positive you are ‘positive’?

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?” – John Maynard Keynes

The UK has a big problem with the false positive rate (FPR) of its COVID-19 tests. The authorities acknowledge no FPR, so positive test results are not corrected for false positives and that is a big problem.

The standard COVID-19 RT-PCR test results have a consistent positive rate of ≤ 2% which also appears to be the likely false positive rate (FPR), rendering the number of official ‘cases’ virtually meaningless. The likely low virus prevalence (~0.02%) is consistent with as few as 1% of the 6,100+ Brits now testing positive each week in the wider community (pillar 2) tests actually having the disease.

We are now asked to believe that a random, probably asymptomatic member of the public is 5x more likely to test ‘positive’ than someone tested in hospital, which seems preposterous given that ~40% of diagnosed infections originated in hospitals.

The high amplification of PCR tests requires them to be subject to black box software algorithms, which the numbers suggest are preset at a 2% positive rate. If so, we will never get ‘cases’ down until and unless we reduce, or better yet cease altogether, randomized testing. Instead the government plans to ramp them up to 10m a day at a cost of £100bn, equivalent to the entire NHS budget.

Government interventions have seriously negative political, economic and health implications yet are entirely predicated on test results that are almost entirely false. Despite the prevalence of virus in the UK having fallen to about 2-in-10,000, the chances of testing ‘positive’ stubbornly remain ~100x higher than that.

First do no harm

It may surprise you to know that in medicine, a positive test result does not often, or even usually, mean that an asymptomatic patient has the disease. The lower the prevalence of a disease compared to the false positive rate (FPR) of the test, the more inaccurate the results of the test will be. Consequently, it is often advisable that random testing in the absence of corroborating symptoms, for certain types of cancer for example, is avoided and doubly so if the treatment has non-trivial negative side-effects. In Probabilistic Reasoning in Clinical Medicine (1982), edited by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his long-time collaborator Amos Tversky, David Eddy provided physicians with the following diagnostic puzzle. Women age 40, participate in routine screening for breast cancer which has a prevalence of 1%. The mammogram test has a false negative rate of 20% and a false positive rate of 10%. What is the probability that a woman with a positive test actually has breast cancer? The correct answer in this case is 7.5% but 95/100 doctors in the study gave answers in the range 70-80%, i.e. their estimates were out by an order of magnitude. [The solution: in each batch of 100,000 tests, 800 (80% of the 1,000 women with breast cancer) will be picked up; but so too will 9,920 (10% FPR) of the 99,200 healthy women. Therefore, the chance of actually being positive (800) if tested positive (800 + 9,920 = 10,720) is only 7.46% (800/10,720).]

Conditional probabilities

In the section on conditional probability in their new book Radical Uncertainty, Mervyn King and John Kay quote a similar study by psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute and author of Reckoning with Risk, who illustrated medical experts’ statistical innumeracy with the Haemoccult test for colorectal cancer, a disease with an incidence of 0.3%. The test had a false negative rate of 50% and a false positive rate of 3%. Gigerenzer and co-author Ulrich Hoffrage asked 48 experienced (average 14 years) doctors what the probability was that someone testing positive actually had colorectal cancer. The correct answer in this case is around 5%. However, about half the doctors estimated the probability at either 50% or 47%, i.e. the sensitivity (FNR) or the sensitivity less the specificity (FNR – FPR) respectively. [The solution: from 100,000 test subjects, the test would correctly identify only half of the 300 who had cancer but also falsely identify as positive 2,991 (3%) of the 99,700 healthy subjects. This time the chance of being positive if tested positive (150 + 2,991 = 3,141) is 4.78% (150/3,141).]As Gigerenzer concluded in a subsequent paper in 2003, “many doctors have trouble distinguishing between the sensitivity (FNR), the specificity (FPR), and the positive predictive value (probability that a positive test is a true positive) of test —three conditional probabilities.” Because doctors and patients alike are inclined to believe that almost all ‘positive’ tests indicate the presence of disease, Gigerenzer argues that randomised screening is far too poorly understood and too inaccurate in the case of low incidence diseases and can prove harmful where interventions have non-trivial, negative side-effects. Yet this straightforward lesson in medical statistics from the 1990s has been all but forgotten in the COVID-19 panic of 2020. Whilst false negatives might be the major concern if a disease is rife, when the incidence is low, as with the specific cancers above or COVID-19 PCR test, for example, the overriding problem is the false positive rate (FPR). There have been 17.6m cumulative RT-PCR (antigen) tests in the UK, 350k (2%) of which gave positive results. Westminster assumes this means the prevalence of COVID-19 is about 2% but that conclusion is predicated on the tests being 100% accurate which, as we will see below, is not the case at all.

Positives ≠ cases

One clue is that this 2% positive rate crops up worryingly consistently, even though the vast majority of those tested nowadays are not in hospital, unlike the early days. For example, from the 520k pillar 2 (community) tests in the fortnight around the end of May, there were 10.5k positives (2%), in the week ending June 24th there were 4k positives from 160k pillar 2 tests (2%) and last week about 6k of the 300k pillar 2 tests (2% again) were also ‘positive’. There are two big problems with this. First, medically speaking, a positive test result is not a ‘case’. A ‘case’ is by definition both symptomatic and must be diagnosed by a doctor but few of the pillar 2 positives report any symptoms at all and almost none are seen by doctors. Second, NHS diagnosis, hospital admission and death data have all declined consistently since the peak, by over 99% in the case of deaths, suggesting it is the ‘positive’ test data that have been corrupted. The challenge therefore is to deduce what proportion of the reported ‘positives’ actually have the disease (i.e. what is the FPR)? Bear in mind two things. First, the software that comes with the PCR testing machines states that these machines are not to be used for diagnostics (only screening). Second, the positive test rate can never be lower than the FPR.

Is UK prevalence now 0.02%?

The epidemiological rule-of-thumb for novel viruses is that medical cases can be assumed to be about 10x deaths and infections 10x cases. Note too that by medical cases what is meant is symptomatic hospitalisations not asymptomatic ‘positive’ RT-PCR test results. With no reported FPR to analyse and adjust reported test positives with, but with deaths now averaging 7 per day in the UK, we can backwardly estimate 70 daily symptomatic ‘cases’. This we can roughly corroborate with NHS diagnoses, which average 40 per day in England (let’s say 45 for the UK as a whole). The factor 10 rule-of-thumb therefore implies 450-700 new daily infections. UK government figures differ from the NHS and daily hospital admissions are now 84, after peaking in early April at 3,356 (-97.5%). Since the infection period lasts 22-23 days, the official death and diagnosis data indicate roughly 10-18k current active infections in the UK, 90% of whom feel just fine. Even the 2k daily pillar 1 (in hospital) tests only result in about 80 (0.4%) positives, 40 diagnoses and 20 admissions. Crucially, all these data are an order of magnitude lower than the positive test data and result in an inferred virus prevalence of 0.015%-0.025% (average 0.02%), which is far too low for randomized testing with anything less than a 100% perfect test; and the RT-PCR test is certainly less than 100% perfect.

Only 1% of ‘positives’ are positive

So, how do we reconcile an apparent prevalence of around 0.02% with a consistent positive PCR test rate of around 2%, which is some 100x higher? Because of the low prevalence of the disease, reported UK pillar 2 positives rate and the FPR are both about 2%, meaning almost all ‘positive’ test results are false with an overall error rate of 99:1 (99 errors for each correct answer). In other words, for each 100,000 people tested, we are picking up at least 24 of the 25 (98%) true positives but also falsely identifying 2,000 (2%) of the 99,975 healthy people as positives too. Not only do < 1.2% (24/2024) of pillar 2 ‘positives’ really have COVID-19, of which only 0.1% would be medically defined as symptomatic ‘cases’, but this 2% FPR rate also explains the ~2% (2.02% in this case) positive rate so consistently observed in the official UK data.

The priority now: FPR

This illustrates just how much the FPR matters and how seriously compromised the official data are without it. Carl Mayers, Technical Capability Leader at the Ministry of Defence Science and Technology Laborartory (Dstl) at Porton Down, is just one government scientist who is understandably worried about the undisclosed FPR. Mayers and his co-author Kate Baker submitted a paper at the start of June to the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) noting that the RT-PCR assays used for testing in the UK had been verified by Public Health England (PHE) “and show over 95% sensitivity and specificity” (i.e. a sub-5% false positive rate) in idealized laboratory conditions but that “we have been unable to find any data on the operational false positive rate” (their bold) and “this must be measured as a priority” (my bold). Yet SAGE minutes from the following day’s meeting reveal this paper was not even discussed.

False positives

According to Mayers, an establishment insider, PHE is aware the COVID-19 PCR test false positive rate (FPR) may be as high as 5%, even in idealized ‘analytical’ laboratory environments. Out in the real world though, ‘operational’ false positives are often at least twice as likely to occur: via contamination of equipment (poor manufacturing) or reagents (poor handling), during sampling (poor execution), ‘aerosolization’ during swab extraction (poor luck), cross-reaction with other genetic material during DNA amplification (poor design specification), and contamination of the DNA target (poor lab protocol), all of which are aggravating factors additional to any problems inherent in the analytic sensitivity of the test process itself, which is itself far less binary than the policymakers seem to believe. As if this wasn’t bad enough, over-amplification of viral samples (i.e. a cycle threshold ‘Ct’ > 30) causes old cases to test positive, at least 6 weeks after recovery when people are no longer infectious and the virus in their system is no longer remotely viable, leading Jason Leitch, Scotland’s National Clinical Director to call the current PCR test ‘a bit rubbish.’

Test…


The RT-PCR swab test looks for the existence of viral RNA in infected people. Reverse Transcription (RT) is where viral RNA is converted into DNA, which is then amplified (doubling each cycle) in a polymerase chain reaction (PCR). A primer is used to select the specific DNA and PCR works on the assumption that only the desired DNA will be duplicated and detected. Whilst each repeat cycle increases the likelihood of detecting viral DNA, it also increases the chances that broken bits of DNA, contaminating DNA or merely similar DNA may be duplicated as well, which increases the chances that any DNA match found is not from the Covid viral sequence. 

…and repeat


Amplification makes it easier to discover virus DNA but too much amplification makes it too easy. In Europe the amplification, or ‘cycle threshold’ (Ct), is limited to 30Ct, i.e. doubling 30x (2 to the power of 30 = 1 billion copies). It has been known since April, that even apparently heavy viral load cases “with Ct above 33-34 using our RT-PCR system are not contagious and can thus be discharged from hospital care or strict confinement for non-hospitalized patients.” A review of 25 related papers by Carl Heneghan at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) also has concluded that any positive result above 30Ct is essentially non-viable even in lab cultures (i.e. in the absence of any functional immune system), let alone in humans. However, in the US, an amplification of 40Ct is common (1 trillion copies) and in the UK, COVID-19 RT-PCR tests are amplified by up to 42Ct. This is 2 to the power of 42 (i.e. 4.4 trillion copies), which is 4,400x the ‘safe’ screening limit. The higher the amplification, the more likely you are to get a ‘positive’ but the more likely it is that this positive will be false. True positives can be confirmed by genetic sequencing, for example at the Sanger Institute, but this check is not made, or at least if it is, the data is also unreported.

The sliding scale

Whatever else you may therefore have previously thought about the PCR COVID-19 test, it should be clear by now that it is far from either fully accurate, objective or binary. Positive results are not black or white but on a sliding scale of grey. This means labs are required to decide, somewhat subjectively, where to draw the line because ultimately, if you run enough cycles, every single sample would eventually turn positive due to amplification, viral breakdown and contamination. As Marianne Jakobsen of Odense University Hospital Denmark puts it on UgenTec’s website: “there is a real risk of errors if you simply accept cycler software calls at face value. You either need to add a time-consuming manual review step, or adopt intelligent software.”

Adjusting Ct test results

Most labs therefore run software to adjust positive results (i.e. decide the threshold) closer to some sort of ‘expected’ rate. However, as we have painfully discovered with Prof. Neil Ferguson’s spectacularly inaccurate epidemiological model (expected UK deaths 510,000; actual deaths 41,537) if the model disagrees with reality, some modelers prefer to adjust reality not their model. Software programming companies are no exception and one of them, diagnostics.ai, is taking another one UgenTec (which won the no-contest bid for setting and interpreting the Lighthouse Labs thresholds), to the High Court on September 23rd apparently claiming UgenTec had no track record, external quality assurance (EQA) or experience in this field. Whilst this case may prove no more than sour grapes on diagnostics.ai’s part, it does show that PCR test result interpretation, whether done by human or computer, is ultimately not only subjective but as such will always effectively bury the FPR.

Increase tests, increase ‘cases’

So, is it the software that is setting the UK positive case rate ≤ 2%? Because if it is, we will never get the positive rate below 2% until we cease testing asymptomatics. Last week (ending August 26th) there were just over 6,122 positives from 316,909 pillar 2 tests (1.93%), as with the week of July 22nd (1.9%). Pillar 2 tests deliver a (suspiciously) stable proportion of positive results, consistently averaging ≤ 2%. As Carl Heneghan at the CEBM in Oxford has explained, the increase in absolute number of pillar 2 positives is nothing more than a function of increased testing, not increased disease as erroneously reported in the media. Heneghan shows that whilst pillar 1 cases per 100,000 tests have been steadily declining for months, pillar 2 cases per 100,000 tests are “flatlining” (at around 2%).

30,000 under house arrest

In the week ending August 26th, there were 1.45m tests processed in the UK across all 4 pillars, though there seem to be no published results for the 1m of these tests that were pillar 3 (antibody tests) or pillar 4 “national surveillance” tests (NB. none of the UK numbers ever seem to match up). But as far as pillar 1 (hospital) cases are concerned, these have fallen by about 90% since the start of June, so almost all positive cases now reported in the UK (> 92% of the total) come from the largely asymptomatic pillar 2 tests in the wider community. Whilst pillar 2 tests were originally intended to be only for the symptomatic (doctor referral etc) the facilities have been swamped with asymptomatics wanting testing, and their numbers are only increasing (+25% over the last two weeks alone) perhaps because there are now very few symptomatics out there. The proportion of pillar 2 tests that that are taken by asymptomatics is yet another figure that is not published but there are 320k pillar 2 tests per week, whilst the weekly rate of COVID-19 diagnoses by NHS England is just 280. Assume that Brits are total hypochrondriacs and only 1% of those reporting respiratory symptoms to their doctor (who sends them out to get a pillar 2 test) end up diagnosed, that still means well over 90% of all pillar 2 tests are taken by the asymptomatic; and asymptomatics taking PCR tests when the FPR is higher than the prevalence (100x higher in this instance) results in a meaningless FPR (of 99% in this instance).Believing six impossible things before breakfast

Whilst the positive rate for pillar 2 is consistently ~2% (with that suspiciously low degree of variability), it is more than possible that the raw data FPR is 5-10% (consistent with the numbers that Carl Mayers referred to) and the only reason we don’t see such high numbers is that the software is adjusting the positive threshold back down to 2%. However, if that is the case, no matter what the true prevalence of the disease, the positive count will always and forever be stuck at ~2% of the number of tests. The only way to ‘eradicate’ COVID-19 in that case would be to cease randomized testing altogether, which Gerd Gigerenzer might tell you wouldn’t be a bad idea at all. Instead, lamentably, the UK government is reportedly doubling down with its ill-informed ‘Operation Moonshot’, an epically misguided plan to increase testing to 10m/day, which would obviously mean almost exclusively asymptomatics, and which we can therefore confidently expect to generate an apparent surge in positive ‘cases’ to 200,000 a day, equivalent to the FPR and proportionate to the increase in the number of tests.

Emperor’s new clothes

Interestingly, though not in a good way, the positive rate seems to differ markedly depending on whether we are talking about pillar 1 tests (mainly NHS labs) or pillar 2 tests, mainly managed by Deloitte (weird but true) which gave the software contract to UgenTec and which between them set the ~2% positive thresholds for the Lighthouse Lab network. This has had the quirky result that a gullible British public is now expected to believe that people in hospital are 4-5x less likely to test positive (0.45%) than fairly randomly selected, largely asymptomatic members of the general public (~2%), despite 40% of transmissions being nosocomial (at hospital). The positive rate, it seems, is not just suspiciously stable but subject to worrying lab-by-lab idiosyncrasies pre-set by management consultants, not doctors. It is little wonder no one is willing to reveal what the FPR is, since there’s a good chance nobody really knows any longer; but that is absolutely no excuse for implying it is zero.

Wave Two or wave goodbye?

The implications of the overt discrepancy between the trajectories of UK positive tests (up) and diagnoses, hospital admissions and deaths (all down) need to be explained. Positives bottomed below 550 per day on July 8th and have since gone up by a factor of three to 1500+ per day. Yet over the same period (shifted forward 12 days to reflect the lag between hospitalisation and death), daily deaths have dropped, also by a factor of three, from 22 to 7, as indeed have admissions, from 62 to 20 (compare the right-hand side of the upper and lower panels in the Chart below). Much more likely, positive but asymptomatic tests are false positives. The Vivaldi 1 study of all UK care home residents found that 81% of positives were asymptomatic, which for this most vulnerable cohort, probably means false positive.

Chart: UK daily & 7-day COVID-19 cases (top) and deaths (below)

This almost tenfold discrepancy between positive test results and the true incidence of the disease also shows up in the NHS data for 9th August (the most recent available), showing daily diagnoses (40) and hospital admissions (33) in England that are way below the Gov.UK positive ‘cases’ (1,351) and admissions (53) data for the same day. Wards are empty and admissions are so low that I know of at least one hospital (Taunton in Devon), for example, which discharged its last COVID-19 patient three weeks ago and hasn’t had a single admission since. Thus the most likely reason < 3% (40/1351) of positive ‘cases’ are confirmed by diagnosis is the ~2% FPR. Hence the FPR needs to be expressly reported and incorporated into an explicit adjustment of the positive data before even more harm is done.

Occam’s Razor

Oxford University’s Sunetra Gupta believes it is entirely possible that the effective herd immunity threshold (HIT) has already been reached, especially given that there hasn’t been a genuine second wave anywhere. The only measure suggesting higher prevalence than 0.025% is the positive test rate but this data is corrupted by the FPR. The very low prevalence of the disease means that the most rational explanation for almost all the positives (2%), at least in the wider community, is the 2% FPR. This benign conclusion is further supported by the ‘case’ fatality rate (CFR), which has declined 40-fold: from 19% of all ‘cases’ at the mid-April peak to just 0.45% of all ‘positives’ now. The official line is that we are getting better at treating the disease and/or it is only healthy young people getting it now; but surely the far simpler explanation is the mathematically supported one that we are wrongly assuming, against all the evidence, that the PCR test results are 100% accurate.

Fear and confusion

Deaths and hospitalizations have always provided a far truer, and harder to misrepresent, profile of the progress of the disease. Happily, hospital wards are empty and deaths had already all but disappeared off the bottom of the chart (lower panel, in the chart above) as long ago as mid/late July; implying the infection was all but gone as long ago as mid-June. So, why are UK businesses still facing restrictions and enduring localized lockdowns and 10pm curfews (Glasgow, Bury, Bolton and Caerphilly)? Why are Brits forced to wear masks, subjected to traveler quarantines and, if randomly tested positive, forced into self-isolation along with their friends and families? Why has the UK government listened to the histrionics of discredited self-publicists like Neil Ferguson (who vaingloriously and quite sickeningly claims to have ‘saved’ 3.1m lives) rather than the calm, quiet and sage interpretations offered by Oxford University’s Sunetra Gupta, Cambridge University’s Sir David Spiegelhalter, the CEBM’s Carl Heneghan or Porton Down’s Carl Mayers? Let’s be clear: it certainly has nothing to do with ‘the science’ (if by science we mean ‘math’); but it has a lot to do with a generally poor grasp of statistics in Westminster; and even more to do with political interference and overreach.

Bad Math II

As an important aside, it appears that the whole global lockdown fiasco might have been caused by another elementary mathematical mistake from the start. The case fatality rate (CFR) is not to be confused with the infection fatality rate (IFR), which is usually 10x smaller. This is epidemiology 101. The epidemiological rule-of-thumb mentioned above is that (mild and therefore unreported) infections can be initially assumed to be approximately 10x cases (hospital admissions) which are in turn about 10x deaths. The initial WHO and CDC guidance following Wuhan back in February was that COVID-19 could be expected to have the same 0.1% CFR as flu. The mistake was that 0.1% was flu’s IFR, not its CFR. Somehow, within days, Congress was then informed on March 11th that the estimated mortality for the novel coronavirus was 10x that of flu and days after that, the lockdowns started.

Neil Ferguson: Covid’s Matthew Hopkins

This slip-of-the-tongue error was, naturally enough, copied, compounded and legitimized by the notorious Prof. Neil Ferguson, who referenced a paper from March 13th he had co-authored with Verity et al. which took “the CFR in China of 1.38% (to) obtain an overall IFR estimate for China of 0.66%”. Not three days later his ICL team’s infamous March 16th paper further bumped up “the IFR estimates from Verity et al… to account for a non-uniform attack rate giving an overall IFR of 0.9%.” Just like magic, the IFR implied by his own CFR estimate of 1.38% had, without cause, justification or excuse, risen 6.5-fold from his peers’ rule-of-thumb of 0.14% to 0.9%, which incidentally meant his mortality forecast would also be similarly multiplied. Not satisfied with that, he then exaggerated terminal herd immunity.

Compounding errors

Because Ferguson’s model simplistically assumed no natural immunity (there is) and that all socialization is homogenous (it isn’t), his model doesn’t anticipate herd immunity until 81% of the population has been infected. All the evidence since as far back as February and the Diamond Princess indicated that effective herd immunity is occurring around a 20-25% infection rate; but the modelers have still not updated their models to any of the real world data yet and I don’t suppose they ever will. This is also why these models continue to report an R of ≥ 1.0 (growth) when the data, at least on hospital admissions and deaths, suggest the R has been 0.3-0.6 (steadily declining) since March. Compound all these errors and Ferguson’s expected UK death toll of 510k has proved to be 12x too high. His forecast of 2.2m US deaths has also, thankfully but no thanks to him, been 11x too high too. The residual problem is that the politicians still believe this is merely Armageddon postponed, not Armageddon averted. “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once” (Shakespeare).

Quality control

It is wholly standard to insist on external quality assurance (EQA) for any test but none such has been provided here. Indeed all information is held back on a need-to-know rather than a free society basis. The UK carried out 1.45m tests last week but published the results for only 452k of them. No pillar 3 (antibody) test results have been published at all, which begs the question: why not (official reason – the data has been anonymized, as if that makes any sense)? The problem is that instead of addressing the FPR, the authorities act as if it is zero, and so assume relatively high virus prevalence. If however, the 2% positive rate is merely a reflection of the FPR, a likely explanation for why pillar 3 results remain unpublished might be that they counterintuitively show a decline in antibody positives. Yet this is only to be expected if the prevalence is both very low and declining. T-cells retain the information to make antibodies but if there is no call for them because people are no longer coming into contact with infections, antibodies present in the blood stream decline. Why there are no published data on pillar 4 (‘national surveillance’ PCR tests remains a mystery).

It’s not difficult

However, it is relatively straightforward to resolve the FPR issue. The Sanger Institute is gene sequencing positive results but will fail to achieve this with any false positives, so publishing the proportion of failed sequencing samples would go a long way to answering the FPR question. Alternatively, we could subject positive PCR tests to a protein test for confirmation. Lab contaminated and/or previously-infected-now-recovered samples would not be able to generate these proteins like a live virus would, so once again, the proportion of positive tests absent protein would give us a reliable indication of the FPR.

Scared to death

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has filtered four facts from the international COVID-19 experience and these are: that the growth in daily deaths declines to zero within 25-30 days, that they then decline, that this profile is ubiquitous and so much so that governmental non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) made little or no difference. The UK government needs to understand that neither assuming that ‘cases’ are growing, without at least first discounting the possibility that what is observed is merely a property of the FPR, nor ordering anti-liberal NPIs, is in any way ‘following the science’. Even a quite simple understanding of statistics indicates that positive test results must be parsed through the filter of the relevant FPR. Fortunately, we can estimate the FPR from what little raw data the government has given us but worryingly, this estimate suggests that ~99% of all positive tests are ‘false’. Meanwhile, increased deaths from drug and alcohol abuse during lockdowns, the inevitable increase in cases of depression and suicide once job losses after furlough, business and marriage failures post loan forbearance become manifest and, most seriously, the missed cancer diagnoses from the 2.1m screenings that have been delayed must be balanced against a government response to COVID-19 that looks increasingly out of all proportion to the hard evidence. The unacknowledged FPR is taking lives, so establishing the FPR, and therefore accurate numbers for the true community prevalence of the virus, is absolutely essential.

James Ferguson is the Founding Partner of MacroStrategy

Latest News

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.

Was the Government Really Following “the Science”?

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.

Norwegian Prime Minister Admits Lockdown Was Mistake, Says Sorry

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.

Was the Government’s Response Predicated on Coronavirus Behaving Like Influenza?

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.

As always, Guy’s piece, which I’ve published as a subpage of “How Have We Responded to Previous Pandemics?“, is worth reading in full.

Apocalypse Not

Martyn Sheen goes native in Apocalypse Now

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’s Little List

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.

My Sweet Lord

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qd5sF1ZP0IY

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.

Boris: Less Like Churchill, More Like Eden?

Anthony Eden, Prime Minister of Great Britain, speaking to the nation from the BBC studio at Lime Grove at the time of the Suez crisis

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!”

Government Says Odds of Catching COVID-19 Fall From 1/40 to 1/1000

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.

Round-Up

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:

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 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.

And Finally…

The line at the top of the poster says “Dreadful influenza germs!” and the line at the bottom says “Not wearing a mask recklessness!” Taken from The Influenza Pandemic in Japan, 1918-1920: The First World War between Humankind and a Virus, an book written by Hayaka Akira

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.

The Glitch That Stole Christmas

Fear of Covid now 70% more transmissible

by James Ferguson

Blind faith in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.

 Albert Einstein

On December 20th the UK Government put 44% of the English population into Tier 4 lockdown, cancelling Christmas get-togethers for 24m people, following a recommendation from the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag).

Nervtag had identified a new variant of the novel coronavirus in the South East of the country, which was 70% more transmissible than its predecessor, carried a viral load up to 10,000x higher and which the primer on the widely used Thermo Fisher TaqPath PCR machines failed to pick up.

However, these conclusions are highly dependent on the interpretation of the data and logically (Occam’s Razor) none of the claims made at that time about the new variant’s increased transmissibility, higher viral load or ability to escape detection appear justified.

The PCR test

The primers used to detect short gene sequences in reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) machines under the COVID-19 protocol, search for three gene types: ORF1ab (or just ORF), N and the ‘spike gene’, S. Positive test results require at least two of the three genes to be found but since amplification is run to a very high cycle threshold (Ct) of 40-45, known as ‘the limit of detection’ (LoD), usually all three genes are found, albeit at slightly differing Ct values. However, in October researchers started to notice that an increasing number of PCR results, though positive for ORF and N, were failing to pick up the S gene at all, suggesting a mutation to the S gene that meant it could no longer be detected by the PCR primer. Furthermore, this ‘S-dropout’ variant of concern (VoC) was concentrated in the South East, having originated in the Medway area of Kent (right-hand side of Chart 1 below).

Chart 1: England local authority daily positive tests (Apr-Dec)

The initial Italian variant had burned itself out by end-June and hospitalisations were down by -97% from their April peak (Wave 1). Since September though, a new variant D614, was picked up by Spanish holidaymakers before being spread by students returning to university in early October. This variant too appears to have been in decline from end-October, aided by the November 5th to December 2nd lockdown. The new S-dropout VoC, which incidentally only occurs with the primer supplied with the widely used Thermo Fisher TaqPath PCR machine (other makers’ primers are still identifying the S gene), has now been traced back to late September but has become ever more predominant throughout the South East. However, the virus is constantly mutating and there have been over 4,000 different variants worldwide to date, so what is it that makes this new variant so special?

New variant (relative) growth rate

On December 14th, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock told parliament that the new variant of coronavirus was “increasing rapidly. Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants…predominantly in the South of England.” The UK Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), which reports to Chris Whitty the Chief Medical Officer, announced on December 18th that the “growth rate of (the variant under investigation) VUI-202012/01 is 71% (95%CI: 67%-75%) higher than other variants.”

Higher viral load

Almost immediately, on December 20th, a Tier 4 lockdown was imposed on the 24m residents of London and the South East, effectively ‘cancelling Christmas’ for 44% of the English population. Over 50 countries responded by banning flights to or from the UK. The same day, Susan Hopkins the PHE liaison with NHS Test and Trace, told the BBC that we “won’t know for definite” if the new variant is more deadly but it does have a “higher viral load” though this is merely inferred because it is positive at a lower Ct. Susan Hopkins is the one who quashed the false positive story last summer, despite the disease incidence having fallen as low as 0.01% (zero?) by end-June according to the ONS survey, whilst Pillar 2 tests had positivity consistently > 1.4% (the probable false positive rate?). The ONS has subsequently admitted that it doesn’t actually “know the true sensitivity (FNR) and specificity (FPR) of our nose and throat swab test.”

70% more transmissible?

The Nervtag ‘70% increased transmissibility’ estimate came from a Public Health England (PHE) technical briefing, not published until December 21st, that compared PCR tests that were positive for the two genes ORF-1 and N but negative for the S-gene as a proxy for the variant of concern (VOC). The authors then “applied the models to estimate the association of VOC frequency and reproduction number (R). This analysis shows an increase of Rt of 0.52,” which raises the distinct possibility that we might have a causality-correlation problem here. Is increased transmissibility leading to an increase in the observed Rt, or is it an increase in the model’s Rt assumption that is feeding back into an implied increase in transmissibility?

Never knowingly under-estimated

What is also of note is that three of the authors of the PHE paper (Meera Chand, Wendy Barclay and Neil Ferguson) also sit on the Nervtag committee. So, they were effectively reporting on their own, non-peer-reviewed and, at that stage, not even published, work. Neil Ferguson, you may recall, is the creator of the infamous model, rumoured to be more than a decade old but whose parameters are yet to be released for peer review, that predicted half a million UK deaths (2m in the US) in the absence of lockdown, with a ‘best-case scenario’ of 1.1m US deaths, even with lockdown; which he originally argued doesn’t save lives but merely ‘flattens the curve.’ Furthermore, this Dr Strangelove of epidemiology has, as they say, ‘form.’ Back in 2001, Neil Ferguson’s foot-and-mouth modelling recommended culling over vaccination (thankfully he has moderated this strategy for COVID-19), which was responsible for the slaughter of 6m animals. The following year, his BSE model estimated a worst-case scenario of 150,000 UK deaths from vCJD (actual deaths 177) which led to another mass livestock cull. In 2005 he told the Guardian that the worst-case scenario for global H5N1 bird flu deaths was feasibly 200m (actual deaths 282); and in 2009 he initially forecast a worst-case scenario of 65,000 UK deaths from H1N1 swine flu (actual deaths 457). So, let’s just say Prof. Ferguson’s models tend to have an extremely high upper bound bias. The man’s inherent honesty is also in question. He was forced to resign from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) after being caught entertaining his married lover within the 14-day self-isolation window following a positive test and the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Yet to this day, his infamous Covid model parameters remain secret and non-peer-reviewed, whilst he remains an unapologetically influential figure within both PHE and Nervtag, which makes a bit of a mockery of his high-profile ‘resignation’ from SAGE. Now, most surprising of all, in spite of his history of extreme worst-case scenarios, eliciting extreme policy response by fearful politicians, his research for PHE now seems to be going, via Nervtag, straight into policy without being either published or peer reviewed.

Tier 5

Nevertheless, the PHE study reported that “it is highly likely that (spike variant) N501Y is enhancing the transmissibility of the virus” leading Nervtag to conclude, three days earlier, that it had “moderate confidence that VUI-202012/01 demonstrates a substantial increase in transmissibility compared to other variants” (my bold). On Christmas Eve, the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine confirmed that according to their model, the new variant was 56% more transmissible, though thankfully no more lethal, than the strain it was replacing. This in turn led Prof. Andrew Hayward, another member of Nervtag, to tell the BBC on December 28th that “a 50 per cent increase in transmissibility means that the previous levels of restrictions won’t work now. We are going to need decisive, early, national action to prevent a catastrophe” (assuming, of course, that an extended Tier 5 lockdown isn’t in itself a ‘catastrophe’).

The logic test

The Neil Ferguson/PHE study noted that during November (Weeks 44-48) tests that were positive for ORF and N but that were ‘S gene negative’ were both growing on average 70% faster than the more common variant (see blue line in Chart 2 below) and proliferating. Given the scatter plot, this doesn’t look like the most robust statistical conclusion to draw. However, of more concern is the fact that the growth rate of the S-dropout is being measured against the growth rate of the older variants, which itself appeared to be in decline (see Chart 1). The inappropriateness of this comparison is exacerbated by the differing geographical distribution, with the old variant predominantly found in the North of England and the new S-dropout variant in the South. If the Northern infection is naturally in decline and there is a new infection blooming in the South, we would logically expect the growth rate of the old variant to be slowing (R < 1) and of the S-dropout to be accelerating (R > 1). If so, then comparing the two would naturally yield a faster growth rate for the S-dropout because both variants would be at different stages of their epidemic cycle (Gompertz curve). Crucially though, this would not necessarily imply that the S-dropout was any more, or less, transmissible than its predecessor.

Chart 2: Relative growth rate of ‘S-dropout’ over variant D614G

Source: PHE

How therefore, if increased transmissibility is not the culprit, to explain the surge in new positive tests, which reached 57,725 on January 2nd? The most salient point to make is that the number of tests carried out has leapt by +50% since early November. With a largely asymptomatic disease like COVID-19, the more absolute tests carried out, the more absolute positives are returned, especially when the authorities target testing capacity at the newest outbreak areas. There were 445,000 daily tests in the week to December 21st (the most recent data available at time of writing) and 36,410 a day came back positive (a positivity rate of 8.2%). If, for example, we compare that to November 4th, the day before lockdown, the 7-day average number of daily tests was 298k and the average number of positives found each day that week was 23,763 (8.0% positivity). So, there has been no real change in positivity, despite the leap in “new cases”, not least because there has been no real change in disease incidence either, which is still ~1.2%, the same as its pre-November lockdown peak, having bounced back after restrictions were lifted on December 2nd (see Chart 3 below). What there isn’t is any sign of though in this data, is any increased transmissibility.

Chart 3: Estimated COVID-19 incidence in UK population (%)

Source: ONS

Therefore, whilst it is quite possible that the new S-dropout variant turns out to be more (or perhaps even less) transmissible than those variants it is replacing, there is nothing logical sustaining that assumption at this stage. Which brings us to the claim that the new variant comes with a higher viral load, which supports the idea that it is more infectious because surely more virus means more opportunity to pass onto and infect new victims. However, the case for an increased viral load is even weaker than the assumptions backing the increased transmissibility claim.

Lateral flow devices

The University of Birmingham, which has just started up a new coronavirus PCR facility as part of the nation’s Lighthouse Lab network, studied the comparable efficacy of the Innova lateral flow device (LFD), a test whose advantage is that it gives immediate results, by testing 7,185 asymptomatic students, of which just two tested positive. The study then randomly tested 710 LFD negatives on their state-of-the-art PCR machines and found 6 further positives which the LFDs had missed and implying that out of the whole group about 60 positives might have been missed by using the LFD. What is really interesting about this however, is that all these 6 ‘false negatives’ required a cycle threshold (Ct) > 29, whilst the two LFD positives were at Ct 20 and Ct 25. As Chart 4 below shows, studies reveal that PCR positives at the limit of detection (LoD) cannot reliably yield live virus in vitro (in the lab) much above Ct 29 and zero live virus above Ct 33. Therefore, the LFD test is not necessarily as woefully insensitive as the Birmingham study concludes but is probably picking up (almost) all the positive cases. But what therefore is a PCR test that only turns positive at Ct > 33 telling us if there is no live virus present? The answer is that PCR tests set to the LoD not only pick up live infections at low Ct but also old, dead viral strands from infections that people have recovered from but which are only picked up by the PCR machine at the higher Ct. This feature, it turns out, is crucial for understanding the possible confusion about the S-dropout variant and its transmissibility.

Chart 4: Positive PCR result Ct & ability to culture live virus

The importance of calibration curves.

Birmingham Uni generated a calibration curve to compare Ct and viral loads for the PCR protocol. PCR machines output data by measuring the number of amplification cycles before a positive signal is seen (Ct). High numbers of cycles get more sensitive, detecting smaller and smaller amounts of DNA, but there exists a point when the output of the PCR machine no longer reflects the number of initial copies of the target gene, this is known as the limit of detection (LoD).

How much initial virus a Ct number represents is determined by calibrating the process using a series of increasingly dilute samples with a known number of viral copies. Chart 5 below shows that in the case of norovirus, for example, if amplification needs to be taken as high as 2 billion to get a positive, only about 20 initial copies of the virus RNA are being detected, crossing the threshold at 31 cycles (Ct 31). However, with fewer than 20 initial copies, the PCR becomes unreliable, no matter how many cycles are performed. Therefore, the LoD for the Norovirus PCR test is 20 viral copies per sample at Ct 31. Like the coronavirus, norovirus is a positive-strand RNA virus, so the PCR process is very similar. The chart plots 10:1 dilutions against the Ct at which the sample tests positive and falls, as is to be expected, along a straight line (logically, you shouldn’t be able to dilute something by a factor of 10 and get a stronger Ct signal). This sort of calibration curve is useful because the Ct for any unknown sample can be traced on the line and the corresponding amount of norovirus can be read off on the x axis.

Chart 5: Norovirus PCR positive Ct & number of viral copies

Faulty data

The data from the Birmingham University study has been used to create exactly the same type of chart for coronavirus detected using the Thermo Fisher TaqPath PCR test, as used in most of the Pillar 2 Lighthouse labs including Birmingham University (see Chart 6 below). Unlike the Norovirus calibration curve however, these observations, which are derived from serial dilutions carried out by the Birmingham laboratory, should all lie on a straight line too but clearly don’t. With increased viral copies, the positive Ct should always be lower because less amplification should be required. Yet several points on the Birmingham calibration curve are a significant way away from the line. Log10, 3.7 to 4 (i.e. between 5,000 and 10,000 viral copies) the Ct rises by 3.3 when it should, by definition, fall. A Ct 3.3 cycle error is roughly equivalent to a 10-fold difference in viral load. Yet this calibration curve is the only scientific link between Ct in the TaqPath protocol and viral load in any sample; and therefore absolutely central to the inference that the S-dropout has a higher viral load.

Chart 6: ORF gene PCR positive Ct & number of viral copies

Source: Birmingham University, MacroStrategy LLP

Although the line of best fit would imply that the ORF target gene can be detected with as few as 50-100 viral copies per ml, the table below shows that nothing above Ct 25.8 can be reliably replicated (non-grey boxes), which is the true LoD of the TaqPath protocol for ORF. Even with the 2-out-of-3 rule, the protocol starts to fall over at Ct 30, just like with Norovirus. Yet, the pillar 2 PCR labs, including Birmingham, still register a positive test (‘diagnoses’ as the government now prefers to call to them), at Ct 38, i.e. samples at least 2ˆ8 (250x) more dilute than the PCR true LoD. We should treat all positives at Ct > 29 as merely shadows of old, prior ‘cold cases.’

Table 1: Ct values for 3 gene targets & viral copies per ml

Source: Birmingham Lighthouse Turnkey Lab

New for old

The median TaqPath PCR is positive at Ct 22-23 (~10,000 viral copies), whilst the median S-dropout turns positive at the lower Ct of ~18 (~100,000 copies), which implies a 10-fold ‘higher viral load’. However, unlike the calibration curve for norovirus, the points along the TaqPath curve are not straight, which looks very much like a calibration error. Therefore, whilst the ORF gene, at Ct 19.5, indicates an initial concentration of just 5,000 viral copies, 20x less viral load than the S-dropout gene, this is cherry picking the data, because at Ct 18.3 the ORF gene also indicates 100,000 viral copies per ml, exactly the same as the S-dropout median. Instead of the S-dropout viral load being “10-10,000-fold” higher as the study concludes, it is more like zero to 10-fold higher. When you consider that there are 3 x 10ˆ22 molecules in one ml of saline buffer, a factor of zero-10 is far, far less than a rounding error. For a detailed critique of the shortcomings of the PCR protocols for COVID-19, see here. Positives detected at Ct > 29 are mere shadows of past infections and live infections start to fall away above Ct 20. The arrow on Chart 7 below illustrates this, what the Birmingham researchers refer to as “a nadir in Ct frequency between 22-24…a possible multiphasic distribution of sample results” but they do not pursue this angle.

Chart 7: Frequency of Ct values for ORF gene positive samples

Source: Birmingham University

More precisely, what we have here is a biphasic distribution, the result of two fairly normal distributions overlaying each other (illustrated by the red curves on Chart 8 below). The one on the left, with its peak around Ct 17-18, is the distribution of new ‘live’ infections, whilst the distribution on the right, with a peak around Ct 27-28, reflects past cases that can only be identified following high Ct amplification. The observed trough between the two, from Ct 22-24 and marked by the arrow, indicates where the two viral distributions, new and old, overlap each other.

Chart 8: Frequency of Ct values for ORF gene positive samples

Source: Birmingham University, MacroStrategy LLP

The Birmingham lab processes samples from all over England and the team illustrate these distributions in a pair of vertical scatter plots (see Chart 9 below) showing ORF gene positives on the left-hand side and all the N gene positives on the right. The two ORF and N gene positive distributions are further split into those where the S gene was also positive on the right (presumably old infections and from the North) and those that were negative for the S gene (mainly new infections from the South) on the left. The report makes the point that positive tests which were negative for the S gene tended to have a lower median Ct (i.e. higher viral load) than those which tested positive for the S gene as well (see horizontal black bars) and conclude that the S-dropout variant must therefore have a higher viral load (lower Ct). However, this conclusion is logically faulty on at least two levels.

First, if the S positive subset is multi-, or more accurately bi-phasic, then the median (horizontal black bar) is an average of not one but two distributions drawn by me in red (see Chart 9 below), one of which (old cases) has a higher median and the other (new cases) has a lower median line (horizontal red bars). Samples were processed between October 25th and November 5th, only 4 weeks after the first S-dropout was first processed; and because the S-dropout (S-neg) variant is so new, it has relatively few old cases that can only be picked up by high Ct > 30. It is only logical therefore, that the median Ct of new cases will be lower than that of new and old cases combined. Sure enough, it appears, that the median Ct of the S-dropout distribution is about equal to the median of new cases alone. It definitely isn’t safe to infer that the S-dropout viral load is any higher than that of its, now waning, predecessor variant, especially when the latter was at the same point in its infection cycle.

Chart 9: Comparative Ct values for viral targets

Source: Birmingham University, MacroStrategy LLP

Second, a lower Ct does not even mean you necessarily have a higher viral load. The protocols used have to show that Ct is proportional to the number of viral copies at that point in the curve, or there is something wrong with the protocol. Yet the chart shows that the ORF1ab gene target calibration was not proportional to the number of copies per ml. at several points on the curve where the TaqPath PCR protocol goes awry and the non-grey areas on the table show that results cannot be reliably replicated above a Ct of 26 for the ORF gene, Ct 30 for the S gene and Ct 31 for N. I.e. the true LoD is somewhere between Ct 26 (500 viral particles per ml) and Ct 31 (100 copies). All TaqPath PCR tests that don’t turn positive until Ct > 30-31, are therefore manifestly unreliable anyway.

The transmissibility feedback loop

Of the 641 positive samples analysed, 178 (28%) had an undetectable S gene profile, which they artificially assigned a Ct of 45 (see yellow diamond, top right-hand corner of Chart 10 below). This compares to only 13 positive samples (2.1%) with an undetectable ORF (red circles) and another 13 with an undetectable N gene (green squares). The researchers jump to the conclusion that these missing S gene positives and their lower median Ct (which they forgot could have been caused by the multiphasic nature of the distribution) lead to “a conservative estimate of a significantly larger population of infectious subjects that have an increased viral load up to 10,000-fold higher” with commensurately increased transmission. The rest, as they say, is history.

Chart 10: Frequency of positive Ct values for 3 gene targets

Source: Birmingham University, MacroStrategy LLP

Whilst the researchers are clearly implying that if the primer is failing to capture one of its gene targets, that not only is there a large population of infectious subjects roaming around undetected, these people also carry a viral load that could be 10,000x higher than those infected with the earlier variant. As for the latter claim, we have already established that the lower median Ct could only imply a 10-fold higher viral load at most; the 10,000 figure being alarmist hyperbole. Yet even this isn’t even relevant because of the multiphasic distribution. So, we can junk the whole ‘higher viral load’ argument; but what about these infectious S-dropouts roaming undetected among us like latter-day Typhoid Marys?

Chart 10 clearly shows that even when the S gene was still being detected by TaqPath, it was so at a higher Ct than the other two genes, i.e. the yellow diamonds are shifted to the right (within the red ellipse). However, since only two of the three genes are required to give a positive result and the primer does a better job picking up both of the ORF and N genes anyway, the number of cases that will have gone undetected will be the 26/641 (4%) where either the ORF or the N gene primers failed. Is 4% truly what any responsible researcher would call “a significantly larger population of infectious subjects” (my bold)?

What we know

  1. An increasing number of positive ORF and N gene samples tested using the Thermo Fisher TaqPath PCR machine primers are no longer picking up the S gene, indicating a new S-dropout variant originated in the Medway area of Kent.
  1. The median Ct of samples positive for ORF and N but not the S gene is lower than the median Ct of samples also positive for S.
  1. The relative growth rate of the S-dropout is about 170% of the growth rate of those positive ORF and N samples that are also positive for the S gene.

Illogical academic data interpretation

  1. A significant proportion of S-dropout samples are associated with lower Ct values of ORF and N in the same sample; from which it (sic) possible to infer a relatively higher viral load in these specimens(my bold).

Yet, for the reasons explained above, it is not possible to infer higher viral load at all. A far more likely explanation is that the S-dropout variant is a newer variant, from which we can infer that there will be far fewer old cases to pick up with a very high Ct > 30.

  1. Clearly, the higher viral loads inferred from S-dropout samples could determine the infectiousness of subjects, and thus the ability of the virus to transmit onwards (my bold).

Or nothing of the sort. A naïve interpretation of median Ct, that fails to take account of the bi-phasic nature of the distribution, renders this conclusion utterly meaningless.

  1. The significant difference in population median Ct value, between S-dropout and S-detected samples, represents between 10 and 100-fold increase in target concentration for S-dropout. The cluster of S-dropout samples having ORF and N Ct of between 9 and 15 (63/178 (35.4%); 46/450 (10.2%), respectively) is a corresponding further increase in relative viral load of between 10 and 1,000-fold (my bold).

The difference in median Ct, which can be explained by the new variant being, uh, new, is < 4 Ct (actually about 3.6) between the S-negative and S-positive samples. Mathematically, 2ˆ3.6 equates to a factor of almost exactly 10. Not 100, not 1,000 and definitely not 10,000 (see 4. below).

  1. A Ct value of approximately 15-16 corresponds to a viral load of 1 x 106 copies per millilitre (mL). Therefore, our observed cluster of S-dropout samples at Ct less than 15 corresponds to a conservative estimate of a significantly larger population of infectious subjects that have an increased viral load up to 10,000-fold higher. Such capability of increased transmission has been ascribed to an S ‘variant of concern’ apparently spreading throughout the South-east of the UK” (my bold).

Ignoring the fact that the whole low Ct/high viral load idea only stems from ignoring the bi-phasic nature of the positive distribution and cherry-picking the data from the TaqPath calibration curve, you still only get a zero (more likely) to a maximum 10-fold higher implied concentration. “10,000-fold” is scientifically inexcusable, and deliberately alarmist, hyperbole. Then this wholly fallacious idea is fed back into the concept of increased transmissibility… except that this argument is all a house of cards. Besides, these numbers only seem large in the macro world. At the micro scale, where there are 3 x 10ˆ22 molecules in 1ml of water, the difference between 10,000 and 100,000 viral copies per ml? Hmm, not so much.

Conclusion

There is a new COVID-19 variant in the UK, which we only identified because it isn’t being picked up by the S gene primer, even when the ORF and N gene primers flash positive, on the Thermo Fisher machines. Being a new variant (i.e. R > 1) it is naturally growing faster (by 70%) but only relative to its predecessor, which is now past its peak and on the wane (i.e. R < 1). You cannot logically infer from this relative growth rate anything about transmissibility. It is even possible that this new S-dropout variant could be less transmissible than its predecessor was when it was in its ascendancy back in Sep-Oct. Whilst positive tests are growing fast, this can be wholly explained by the increase in testing (+36% from November 4th to December 21st). Positivity is even down slightly compared to a month ago. The lower Ct of S gene negative positive samples, from which has been inferred a higher viral load, from which has been inferred a positive feedback increase in transmissibility, is actually much more easily and logically explained by the variant being relatively new, which means there are relatively few old cases that can only be picked up by the highest Ct.

Footnote

The UK government has explicitly tied the transmissibility of the new S-dropout variant (despite its existence being traced back to early October) to the very recent surge in new cases, which hit a record high of 80k positives on December 29th. Thus, 11 days after the disease prevalence was estimated to be < 1.3% of the population, and 9 days after a quarter of the population was put under Tier 4 lockdown, 23.2% of all people tested by pillar 2 came back positive (see grey line and green ellipse on Chart 11 below). Note that as with December 29th all the spikes in the data are Mondays, because testing capacity is redirected to new hotspot areas each week; but even the national 7-day average positivity had risen from sub-8% at Christmas, to 13% by NYE. This has all been driven by London, where 7-day positivity was 14.9% on December 20th, the day of Tier 4 lockdown, but nevertheless had risen to 17.8% on Christmas Day and is now 26.8% (20x higher than prevalence). How and why is too early to tell.

Chart 11: UK COVID-19 prevalence & pillar 2 test positivity

James Ferguson is the Founding Partner of MacroStrategy

Latest News

Second Wave of Hysteria Arrives

Here we go – brace positions. The UK’s “Rule of Six” ban on social gatherings over six people comes into force today, and the Government confirmed yesterday that it includes children in England (unlike in Wales and Scotland).

Denmark – the country once lauded for its coronavirus response – has been placed on England’s quarantine watch list due to rising cases (even though on most days since June it’s had no Covid deaths at all). Countries around Europe tighten restrictions. Israel locks down again.

SAGE scientist Professor Sir Mark Walport warns that the UK is “on the edge of losing control” while Professor Peter Openshaw (of, you’ve guessed it, Imperial College) intones that the public must “act fast” and fall into line or face a second lockdown. Panic is back.

“You’ve only got to look across the Channel to see what is happening in France and what’s happening in Spain,” says Professor Walport. “The only way to stop the spread of this infection is to reduce the number of people we all come into contact with.”

And what is happening in France and Spain? Let’s see.

A huge rise in cases positive tests, and little else. Hospitals in some areas such as Madrid have seen a gentle rise in COVID-19 admissions, but nothing they can’t handle or to indicate runaway growth like in March. Sweden, meanwhile, is seeing an ongoing decline in deaths and cases and a strong economic recovery – the most likely explanation for which is the emergence of population immunity at lower than anticipated antibody levels, as Professor Sunetra Gupta has long argued.

Time to get a grip before we find ourselves plunged into a dismal and economically devastating winter. The facts are these. No country has yet seen more than 0.1% of its population die with COVID-19 – Peru is currently the worst hit with 925 deaths per million (even though it has the world’s most severe lockdown), while most others are well below that. Sweden’s death toll stands at 578 deaths per million, around 0.06% of its population, 75% of whom were residents of nursing homes or receiving at-home care. The average age of death in most countries is over 80 and in general countries are worse affected when their recent flu seasons have been mild, suggesting this epidemic is little different in form or scale to the annual seasonal round of flu.

Crucially, no country has yet seen anything that could be called a “second wave”. Florida and the southern United States experienced a delayed first wave in the summer along with South America but that now seems to be on its way out. Spain, France, Denmark and others are seeing an Autumn ripple, presumably as a result of having full herd immunity deferred by lockdown, and which we can assume will be larger or smaller depending on how far the country still has to go.

The fear is that these ripples will become new waves as winter sets in. But that is pure conjecture, and Sweden’s experience suggests it is baseless. We can’t keep wrecking economies, undermining livelihoods and stunting lives out of an abundance of caution when all the evidence suggests the fear is unwarranted.

Time for our political leaders to learn from Sweden and lead us out of this mess, not deeper in.

Casedemic Grows

A rise in “cases” (positive tests) is not always down to a rise in infections. It could be a result of doing more tests or it could come through testing more people from higher risk groups. A nurse has got in touch to flag up a potential new source of such second wave “cases”.

I work as an acute medical nurse delivering care to patients in the community. Thought you might like to know that the trust I work for is now asking that we swab all care and nursing home patients on admission to our service. If this is being replicated across the country then I expect we’ll soon see a ‘second wave’ caused by false positive results. The moronic inferno continues.

Since the Government still appears to be basing policy on raw case numbers regardless of the number of tests and other key indicators, expect the idiocy to continue.

Delingpole Battles Mask Hysteria

James Delingpole has written a great piece for Lockdown Sceptics about his recent trip to Greece and the absurdity of having to wear masks on planes – but only when you’re not eating or drinking.

I do feel half-sorry for the airlines, caught between a rock and hard place. They have to give the appearance of strictness in order stop Covid bedwetters like the woman in the above story bleating to the press. At the same time, though, they cannot be too strict because flying would simply become unbearable: how could you eat or drink if you had to wear your mask for the entire journey? So what you end up with is a ridiculous fudge. Or, if you prefer, a canny compromise. The bedwetters get to satisfy their Stasi urges by seeing the head steward tell people like me off for wearing their mask incorrectly as they board the plane. And people like me get their revenge by making one packet of crisps and one bottle of water last an entire three and a half hour flight, aware that if you’re visibly drinking or eating– or on the verge of doing so – no steward or stewardess is going to tell you to pull your mask up.

Tell me, any epidemiologists or virologists reading this: is it true that coronavirus never infects people who are removing their masks for the purposes of eating or drinking, only those who have removed their masks just to be obstreperous, disobedient sods? I’m no scientist, but my gut feeling is that viruses make no such distinction and that therefore the whole exercise in enforcing masks on aeroplanes is utterly fraudulent. Even more absurd was the announcement after the plane landed ordering us to make sure that as we disembarked we should be sure to maintain two metres social distancing in the aisles. R-i-g-h-t. So the cunning virus lies dormant when you’re sitting for three and a half hours six inches away from the passengers either side of you – biding its time ready to strike as you leave, the moment you are foolish enough to close the two metre gap between you and the person leaving ahead of you? Truly we are living in Clownworld. But the really scary thing is, most people don’t seem to know we’re living in Clownworld. They’ve accepted the insanity as normal and think that people like you and me are the weird ones.

We’ve given it pride of place on the right-hand side under “Masks: How Effective Are They?”.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Listen to James Delingpole interviewing Douglas Murray for the Delingpod.

Kim-Jong Dan Sends In The Storm Troopers

High drama in the nut aisle. Picture: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images
Ve have vays of making you vear a mask

Lockdown protests in Melbourne, capital city of the People’s Democratic Republic of Victoria, ended in 74 arrests and nearly 200 fines yesterday. News.com.au has the story and footage.

Riot police were seen holding shields, attempting to separate the “hostile crowd” chanting “freedom”. Several people were arrested and issued with fines, with police escorting more protesters away as they contained the demonstration. Peel St where the protesters marched was completely blocked off. In its statement, police said they were disappointed that many protesters were aggressive and threatened violence towards officers. However, there were no injuries to police identified so far.

Police say they expect to issue further fines once they confirm the identity of other individuals. “Anyone thinking of attending a protest can expect the same swift and firm response from police as has consistently occurred in relation to such behaviour,” the police statement said. “We again urge people not to leave home to protest.”

Hundreds of protesters showed up but they struggled to gather and were overwhelmed by the police. The organisers say they hope to have larger numbers in the coming days and put the police on the “back foot”.

Shocking to see such hard-line and disproportionate treatment of people merely for exercising their democratic rights in the face of the most extreme curbs on liberty the Western world has ever seen (including during wartime). Depressing how quickly democratic Governments can turn monstrous.

A Professor of Economics Writes…

Edinburgh University has renamed this building. It was the David Hume Tower, named after the great Scottish empiricist. It’s now 40 George Square, named after King George III, who opposed the abolition of slavery and during whose reign 1.6 million Africans were transported as slaves to British colonies

Gordon Hughes, a former Professor of Economics at Edinburgh, has emailed to say how good he thought yesterday’s analysis by James Ferguson of the false positive rate of the PCR test was.

I am glad that you have published the piece by James Ferguson as it covers almost exactly what I had thought of writing up when the Boris plan of testing everyone daily was first mooted – not so much moonshot as moonshine!

Since anyone with some undergraduate training in probability or statistics should be able to spot the consequences of mass testing when prevalence rates are lower than test error rates, it is astonishing – and sad – that the whole of the UK’s official establishment gets stuck on an approach that is simple statistical nonsense. In part this reflects the absence of serious consequences for failure. The NBA in the US realised that false positives might jeopardise their TV revenues from the current play-offs and rapidly introduced a two-test procedure (using different labs) before excluding participants who tested positive.

There are two points that might interest you – the first ironic, the second important.

A. Matt Hancock has an M.Sc in Economics from Cambridge which includes compulsory course in statistics, etc. He was at Christ’s College, where I taught maths and statistics for economics for 15 years, though I moved on before his time. It is often argued that more mathematical or scientific education would ensure that policymakers have a better grasp of scientific and technical issues. What this example shows is that both politicians and senior civil servants are the archetypal victims of group-think, displaying a complete incapacity to apply independent judgement even when they are in a deep hole.

B. It seems possible – even likely – that local or regional clusters of new covid “cases” are no more than artefacts of differences in testing procedures across different labs leading to differences in false positive rates. Any competent and responsible body managing a decentralised program of mass testing should carry out and publish cross-validation tests – this is elementary quality control. Differences in Ct values is one example but there are other potential sources of spurious differences. In current circumstances any public health body should publish aggregate statistics for each lab on a daily basis – differentiated by date of swab and date of test.

In any area where a positive test – e.g. drug testing – may imply large personal or social costs it is a fundamental principle that a single positive test may be suspicious but consequences only follow if it is confirmed by a separate test carried out at a different lab. The concern to minimise transmission means that it may be reasonable to ask people to self-isolate on getting an initial positive result but it should be the obligation of testers to organise a second test within 48 hours (easily manageable for a few thousand daily positives). No-one should be asked to put up with a 14-day quarantine period unless an initial positive test has been confirmed by a second positive test at a different lab.

It will please Professor Hughes to learn that James Ferguson has a degree in Economics from Edinburgh.

LinkedIn Again – But Gagged

Following our story on Saturday about the LinkedIn user whose account was summarily shut down merely for posting a link to a mainstream lockdown sceptic, the reader has been in touch to say his account is back – but with a heavy price.

Holy s***. LinkedIn just responded and said they would restore my account only if I agree not to post content which may “interfere in or improperly influence an election” or “directly contradicts guidance from leading global health organisations and public health authorities”.

In these hysterical and censorious times social media censorship is one of the big challenges Western civilisation faces. When free speech dies, so does truth. Tolerance of dissent is at a low ebb right now and the public health “emergency” has only supercharged the efforts of the thought police.

Freshers’ Week Without the Fun

Image
Virtual Freshers Welcome Week at the University of Sunderland. Because human contact is overrated

Sunderland University have invited its new intake to get their avatar ready for “Virtual Freshers Welcome Week“. I’m sure they can’t wait.

Write To Your MP

It is always encouraging when readers send us copies of the letters they’ve sent to their MPs explaining why the Government’s Covid suppression strategy in all its lamentable manifestations is so misguided. Writing to MPs is great way of doing something to make sure our political representatives are aware of the facts and counter-arguments and that not all their constituents have been brainwashed by Project Fear on Steroids.

We can’t publish them all, though they are all a delight to read. Here’s one we received today, which is worth quoting at length.

My feelings towards the policy the Government has taken over COVID-19 are the same as they were in March. I am totally against Lockdown and the effect it has on the population, and especially the younger generations.

I am a fit retiree of 65 years, and Lockdown has not affected my life particularly, as indeed it hasn’t with many other retirees I know.  However, I would like to illustrate some close personal cases:

– My cousin of 68 years, who lives on her own, was due a double hip replacement in May.  It was delayed because the hospitals in her area (Midlands) were closed to all elective surgery in preparation for Covid.  She is in pain, and can barely walk despite using crutches. She still has no date for her much needed surgery.

– My daughter, aged 34, a lawyer with a charity in London, has recently been made redundant because of redundancies within the organisation. She and her husband, who also has job insecurities as he is a Theatre Manager in London, have been working from their small home in London since March. Their plans to move, with mortgage now impossible, have put their lives on hold.

– My father in law’s funeral is taking place tomorrow in north Norfolk. Many of us, in the 20 strong group, are travelling 100s of miles for the ceremony, and yet because of the ridiculous and arbitrary rule of six are not able to have a reception afterwards.

– An elderly friend of mine, in her 80s, living on her own, is suffering with isolation. She does not have family living nearby and relies on the game of bridge for her connection with others. This is not possible now because so many of her friends are terrified of socialising over cards etc. The successful online bridge is not easy for many elderly folk, and they are suffering.

– Yesterday I met with a young single friend in her 40s who is in despair as she says it feels like her life is imploding. She works in the finance sector in London, and her job is insecure and now she is unable to proceed with the mortgage for the purchase of her first home, which she had set her heart on.

– Last week, my husband and I were up in London. We caught a rush hour train from Surrey, which was all but empty,  and it was utterly dispiriting, in walking from Leicester Square to Piccadilly, to see the empty restaurants and tourist shops open, but with the staff pleading with us to come in.  London life is totally unsustainable in its current state.

And yet the Government persists in this collision course. What don’t you get? Why don’t you listen to the increasing evidence that says that Lockdowns don’t work?

As far as I can see, this Government’s only success has been in scaring much of the British population witless. I am appalled at the way the Government and the BBC revel in figures of pending doom.

I quote Professor Carl Heneghan from the Spectator, in today’s online version: “Admissions for Covid, critical care bed occupancies and deaths are now at an all-time low. There are currently 600 patients in hospital with Covid compared to over 17,000 at the height of the epidemic. An average of ten patients a day die with Covid registered on their death certificate, compared to over 1,000 at the peak.”

At the start of Lockdown in March, I registered as an NHS volunteer responder. Like many in our area, I logged on every day for 2 months, and was never called.  I also joined a local Scrubs sewing group to “help”, and it was farcical (pattern drafting, fabric selection etc… and was akin to “Dad’s army”) and this has since closed, as the demand for scrubs and gowns is not required.

 I quickly became a very disillusioned but caring and concerned citizen of Elmbridge.

When I received a recent email from NHS volunteer  “ we urgently need your help Louise “ I despair. Who is funding this campaign and how much is it costing the taxpayer?

Given the personal cases I have noted and the misery this Government’s policy is causing you should be ashamed of yourselves.

I joined the Conservative Party under Theresa May, and whilst not a Brexiteer wanted to help and supported you.  I met you briefly at a local function a few years ago and liked what you said. Like many,  I wanted things to work for you and for the country.

However, I can never support this Government who appear intent on complete destruction of the fabric of our society. I suspect I am not alone.

Indeed you are not.

Government Consultation on Vaccine Roll Out

If you haven’t responded to this Government consultation on the roll out of a Covid vaccine, you probably should, particularly if you’re a scientist. It begins: “COVID-19 is the biggest threat this country has faced in peacetime history…” and it’s all downhill from there.

To give you a taste of what it is the Government is “consulting” about doing, read the section on liability.

The current legal framework already recognises that if manufacturers or healthcare professionals are asked to supply an unlicensed medicine in response to a public health threat, it is unfair also to ask them to take responsibility for the consequences of the use of that medicine in the way that they normally would.

The deadline for responding is September 18th.

Round-Up

Theme Tunes Suggested by Readers

One today: “You Failed” by We Are Scientists.

When sending in a theme tune don’t forget to include a link to the video so we don’t have to go searching for it. Thanks!

Love in the Time of Covid

We have created some Lockdown Sceptics Forums that are now open, including a dating forum called “Love in a Covid Climate” that has attracted a bit of attention. We’ve also just introduced a section where people can arrange to meet up for non-romantic purposes. We have a team of moderators in place to remove spam and deal with the trolls, but sometimes it takes a little while so please bear with us. You have to register to use the Forums, but that should just be a one-time thing. Any problems, email the Lockdown Sceptics webmaster Ian Rons here.

Stop Press: Nice piece in the Telegraph by Anna Moore about the difficulties of dating in the current climate. Love in a Covid Climate gets a mention.

Small Businesses That Have Re-Opened

A few months 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 re-opened, 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.

Now that non-essential shops have re-opened – or most of them, anyway – we’re focusing on pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants, as well as other social venues. As of July 4th, many of them have re-opened too, but not all and some will have had to close again thanks to the Rule of Six. 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 – particularly if they’re not insisting on face masks! If they’ve made that clear to customers with a sign in the window or similar, so much the better. Don’t worry if your entries don’t show up immediately – we need to approve them once you’ve entered the data.

“Mask Exempt” Lanyards

We’ve created a permanent slot down here for people who want to buy (or make) a “Mask Exempt” lanyard/card. You can print out and laminate a fairly standard one for free here and it has the advantage of not explicitly claiming you have a disability. But if you have no qualms about that (or you are disabled), you can buy a lanyard from Amazon saying you do have a disability/medical exemption here (now showing it will arrive between Oct 14th to Oct 23rd). The Government has instructions on how to download an official “Mask Exempt” notice to put on your phone here. You can get a “Hidden Disability” tag from ebay here and an “exempt” card with lanyard for just £1.99 from Etsy here.

Don’t forget to sign the petition on the UK Government’s petitions website calling for an end to mandatory face nappies in shops here (now over 32,000).

A reader has started a website that contains some useful guidance about how you can claim legal exemption.

And here’s a round-up of the scientific evidence on the effectiveness of mask (threadbare at best).

Shameless Begging Bit

Thanks as always to those of you who made a donation in the past 24 hours to pay for the upkeep of this site. Doing these daily updates is a lot of work (although we have help from lots of people, mainly in the form of readers sending us stories and links). If you feel like donating, please click here. And if you want to flag up any stories or links we should include in future updates, email us here.

And Finally…

Applying Math To Guesses - Dilbert by Scott Adams
Dilbert starts work at Imperial College London

Steps Towards a Technocratic Dystopia

I have a research background in the social sciences and dozens of peer-reviewed publications to my name. There’s a lot that sets off my crap detector in Ferguson’s comments – mostly to do with overestimating the validity of his own data, and using this to in effect depoliticise political questions and naturalise a kind of technocratic despotism under the guise of neutral science. I don’t think this is a deliberate conspiracy; I think it’s a predictable result of a particular way of seeing.

The political assumption is that ‘we’ as a society make decisions for the whole society (i.e., society is not an aggregate of individuals), that within this range of decisions, anything goes (the only criteria are quantitative), and that the decisions should be made based on expert data. These are highly contentious beliefs: they are not apolitical or scientific. I believe lockdowns are always wrong because people are autonomous beings with a need for freedom, and acts such as threatening violence if a person leaves their home are abusive regardless of circumstances (I don’t believe there is any significant moral difference between a Government, a terrorist group, or an individual abuser making such threats, and I don’t believe the ends justify the means). But I could also cite dozens of political theories which oppose the general model that the Government should do whatever it likes on behalf of the entire society based on expert guidance. Literally everything from right-libertarianism to the Marxist class model of society, from Kantian deontology to participatory and deliberative democracy, from conservatism to deep ecology to postcolonial theory, runs against this view. The closest philosophical forerunner is probably Hobbes: the idea that we need to submit to tyranny or our lives will be nasty, brutish and short – though I think the current version is a novel ideology which has developed out of cybernetic information theory and behaviourist psychology, and which reaches us mainly through the Third Way. There is also a background here in disaster management theory (e.g., Quarantelli): the idea that the main problem in disasters is the public response, and that this response should be managed through media and behavioural manipulation, with the goal of preventing the disaster – which by definition is already horrific for the human beings affected – from overwhelming the state’s ability to cope. In other words, it’s a strategy based on damage reduction, permitting or increasing human suffering so as to preserve state/Government stability (again clearly a contentious view, and again with Hobbesian and behaviourist roots). Yet Ferguson embeds this view of politics in such a way as to make it seem obvious, apolitical. It isn’t. It is a choice in favour of technocratic governance.

Ferguson’s desire not to ‘politicise’ science involves effectively making policy decisions based on the ‘expert’ conclusions arising from computer modelling. This kind of technocratic model is perfectly compatible with how countries like China are run. There is a current tendency to turn western democracies into electorally competitive technocracies in which changes in elected Government has little impact on the ‘evidence-based’ functioning of the policy machines – a narrowing in political space which dates back at least to the early 2000s. It is not a desirable trend, and it likely reflects the economic success of China and the resultant appeal of its model in the same period. I don’t think this requires secret conspiracies or Chinese manipulation; it might just be a matter of elites/experts seeing what works and copying it. But it means that, if we follow the path of ‘what works’, and China clearly works (or keeps up a good enough appearance of working), we will end up copying China. This happens both because China ‘works’ and because China has a model of governance based on experts applying ‘what works’.

Having decided to defer to ‘experts’ in making policy, there is then a second political decision as to which data counts. The choice to rely on computer modelling – and to treat it as if it were impartial, apolitical expertise – is itself a political choice. Different methods would have produced different outcomes. Suppose, for instance, that the response had been based on the knowledge provided by historians who have studied previous epidemics. The Government and public would have been told that non-medical interventions do no good, that even such an intuitive measure as closing borders between affected and unaffected regions only delays spread by a few weeks, and that one of the biggest dangers is public panic. Suppose the discussion was driven by virologists. The focus might have been on rapidly testing promising drugs and fast-tracking these into use with Covid patients. In this scenario, Remdesivir might have been confirmed effective back in March (say), instead of only in autumn, and lives might have been saved. Or suppose a decision had been taken early on to test virus transmission and impacts of interventions on small but substantial communities of volunteers from among the low-risk population. One would, within a month of the outbreak, have clear evidence on whether (for example) masks or distancing or Vitamin D have any effect. If the ‘experts’ were people working in sociology of health, likely they would have recommended avoidance of compulsion and encouragement of community support. The response might then have been more like Venezuela’s or Kerala’s. It’s also worth noting here that had scientists, including modellers, been consulted earlier, NHS beds per capita might be nearer to those of Sweden and Belarus, who never feared their health systems being overwhelmed. Ferguson suggests a novel pandemic was the Government’s number one priority risk, yet neither the current nor the previous Governments ensured there were enough ICU beds to handle a pandemic on the scale of the 1918 flu. If the central focus was preparedness, this failing would be at the centre of the public debate – and lockdowns could also cost lives if they incentivise future Governments to keep under-resourcing healthcare without accepting resultant risks.

Medical data arising from methods such as clinical trials is (in my view rightly) highly trusted. Clinical trials are what I would call a ‘conservative’ method: they are far more likely to produce false negatives than false positives in terms of effectiveness, and thus, any positive result is highly likely to be true (provided of course that there is no foul play). However, this trust is being squandered through the misleading association of medical authority with less-developed, less-reliable methods.

Any discussion of non-medical interventions is a social science discussion, not a medical science discussion. Pandemic modelling is similar in scientific reliability to the slew of statistics on things like the crime rate, the impact of trade liberalisation, development strategies in poor countries, causes of mental health problems, the impact of internet use on children, etc. None of this evidence is very reliable: there is always substantial scholarly debate, competing models which show different things, and vastly different outcomes from different quantitative and qualitative methods. For example, it’s quite common that I look into the impact of structural adjustment policies in a country like Uganda or Egypt, and there is one set of data showing that the SAP improved economic indicators, another showing that it did terrible harm, and a third, qualitative data-set which suggests that, from the perspectives of the worse-off, the impact was entirely negative. There are those on both sides of the debate who point to their own ‘science’ as conclusive data and denounce the politicisation or bias on the other side. But the truth is, there just isn’t currently a way to provide in human/social settings the kind of decisive evidence people expect in the physical sciences (in these cases, I lean towards trusting the qualitative). Even a strongly reliable method like clinical trials starts to fail in the social sciences, because the criteria of ‘success’ become more questionable: when testing psychiatric interventions for instance, one often has to rely on self-reports.

Having made a political decision to treat statistical modelling as gold-standard expertise, the devastating consequences of lockdown come to seem a ‘tragedy’, a ‘random, terrible event’, and ‘no-one’s fault’ – a series of perverse disavowals typical of a certain style of technocratic politics. The (unconscious) sleight-of-hand here is to confuse the virus with the responses. It’s plausible to argue that the virus is no-one’s fault (though it may well have human causes, whether these be eating undercooked meat, a lab leak, or something else). The policies result from human agency, and from the choice to rely on computer modelling as the main source of ‘data’. Now, there is no avoiding here the fact that all deaths and other harms caused by lockdowns are due to human agency. At most Ferguson can appeal to a kind of ‘necessity defence’: yes, we killed all these people, but it was necessary so as to save a greater number of others. Right away this opens a can of ethical worms outside the domain of ‘science’ on Ferguson’s definition (and one which is certainly not limited to the question of whether it was ‘worth it’). Assuming lockdown passes this test, we’re then in the situation where, if lockdown doesn’t work, there has been a cock-up of monumental proportions, and methodologies and assumptions need to be revised to avoid a repetition (what the computer-modelling establishment are currently resisting). I assume Ferguson realises that a group of people causing large numbers of deaths based on well-meaning but flawed methods in which they had excessive confidence is more serious than just an academic disagreement.

A few standard problems with statistical approaches. Firstly, it is easy to miss statistically things which are obvious on the ground at a qualitative level, or to deduce things which are completely fallacious (as the most attractive or parsimonious explanation). Secondly, the very fact of presenting things numerically has the effect of depersonalising them, of making inhumane, barbaric actions seem sensible and reasonable (planning for nuclear wars is a classic example of this). And thirdly, the reliability of the outputs depends on the inputs. (I have seen, for example, statisticians claiming very high lockdown compliance in India based on mobile phone tracking; every on-the-ground source I’ve found says completely the opposite.) Quantitative approaches mean the worse-off get observed, but do not get any input into the process; their voices are not heard, and often the reasons they act a certain way are not deduced or understood – reasons which could easily be established with a little simple qualitative research. The overemphasis on quantitative research over qualitative, tends to produce a set of top-down findings which reinforce the widespread impression among the worse-off that the political and scientific elites are out-of-touch. Hence responses like those of the first correspondent: that Ferguson seems to be living in a parallel world where the things she’s seeing day-to-day don’t exist. Statistics cannot see either the microsocial or the intrapersonal; human relations and human suffering are largely invisible to it. Hence a massive cost at these levels registers either weakly or not at all at a statistical level. I don’t think people like Ferguson have the slightest idea of the human effects of lockdown (or, most likely, of Covid): the sheer misery and desperation, the rage or despair arising from the violation of assumed rights or the loss of sources of survival or wellbeing, the existential collapse of known parameters, the violations of fairness and trust, the ripping-away of the simple ways people stay sane.

These are problems with statistical approaches based on existing data. With statistical modelling, there is the additional problem of dealing with the unknown. Computer modelling is not a longstanding established science. It has very low reliability compared to (say) laboratory virology or peer-blind clinical trials. Computer modelling looks scientific because it’s mathematical and the decision is made by the machine. But it depends completely on the inputs and the model, which are at base human inventions (however much algorithmic learning is layered on top of them). It’s basically the same procedure which is used to tailor targeted ads, Amazon recommendations and Facebook feeds. That gives something of a sense of its reliability as a method. It’s a bit like leaving a bunch of AIs playing Risk and concluding from this that we’re about to be nuked. And it is also possible to use computer modelling to show that lockdowns will cause millions of deaths. For example, there’s a study in America which predicts 800,000 suicides, based on previous evidence that a 1% increase in annual unemployment generates 21 extra suicides per 100,000, and the current crisis had at that point caused a 12% increase. This isn’t necessarily any more reliable than the Imperial modelling, but it’s not much less reliable either (nobody really knows if the unemployment-to-suicides rate applies to very high rates). At least in this case I can check the maths (and the maths works). The point is, however, that an expert on suicides in a position like Ferguson’s could very easily have told the Government, “even if you’re expecting 200,000 covid deaths and you can prevent these with a lockdown, you must not lock down because you will cause 800,000 suicide deaths”. It might be true, it might not; it’s just what happens when you choose this particular method.

I read the notorious Imperial study back in March, and two things stood out for me. The first is that all the claims about the characteristics of Covid and the impact of lockdowns were derived from WHO studies in Wuhan, i.e., from data the Chinese Government were feeding to the WHO. I’m sure you were privately aware that the Chinese Government were probably manipulating statistics, and it’s been reported that the Government expected the Chinese data to be underreported, but still, these were the statistics that underpinned the model. The second is that the paper explicitly admitted that it was only considering impacts on Covid, and bracketing out other economic and social effects and ethical implications – leaving it to the Government to ‘weigh’ these. I can understand leaving out ethics, but excluding other quantifiable variables was quite methodologically irresponsible, given that these effects could be modelled in similar ways, and that the impact of the paper was predictably going to be pressure to implement lockdowns to avoid consequences which seemed (to a non-specialist) so great as to override everything else. By the way, this would not just include suicides over many years (not just during the acute crisis), but deaths arising from economic crisis, cancelled operations, increases in coping strategies (drugs, drink, overeating, thrill-seeking) developed during or after lockdown, etc. We are probably never going to be able to calculate these, because it will be impossible to unpack the impact of Covid, the impact of lockdown, the impact of economic crisis (which may or may not have happened anyway), the impact of war or civil unrest or whatever else might happen, so as to definitively say “lockdown killed this many people”.

A third point: the initial messaging was ‘slow the curve’, the idea being that fewer people would die if infection rates could be slowed. Lockdown sceptics always pointed out that any delay in infections would simply be displaced to second or subsequent waves. This seems to have been confirmed. But lockdown supporters have not turned around and said, “OK, you were right, we just postponed infections until later waves and ended up in an indefinite cycle of lockdowns.”

Ferguson and Imperial College have (rightly or wrongly) come under suspicion for using faulty models. (It doesn’t matter much here whether the suspicion is valid, whether it’s a reasonable misunderstanding, or whether it’s just a ‘conspiracy theory’). Ferguson’s response is basically that critics don’t understand the model because it hasn’t been published – therefore they cannot run the model for Sweden or other cases, cannot talk about ‘the’ model (because unbeknownst to us there are actually four Imperial models plus several from other institutions), etc. But here’s the problem: the model’s secrecy does not at all rebut suspicions, particularly when this model (or these models) has led to politically contentious outcomes and has led to predictions which do not seem to have been confirmed. One is caught in a situation where any criticism is a ‘conspiracy theory’ or at least mistaken because it might not be referring to the real model.

Now, it’s not a scientific norm that people can get out of scepticism (whether justified or not) by simply concealing the basis for their claims. Even if the suspicion is unjustified or malicious, it’s important that scientists take measures to prevent it. In academic publishing, the way to mitigate such suspicion is to publish details of the entire method used so that it can be replicated if necessary, and any flaws pointed out. In computer programming, the best method is open-sourced release of the source code so any programmer can review it for bugs, followed by inspection of the source code by independent experts. Ferguson/the Imperial group are refusing to do any of these things – thus making it impossible to test whether or not critics of the model are right about its flaws. And in fact, it’s becoming more common for researchers working with corporations or Governments to avoid scrutiny by using closed-source proprietary software to reach conclusions which nobody (sometimes including the researcher) can account for. Sometimes, the software is produced and owned by the same entity that benefits from the research. This generates, in practice, a perverse incentive-structure for companies and academic clusters to use secret algorithms to produce ‘data’ which cannot be tested by others, and thus claim for themselves expertise similar to that of oracles. Whether or not Ferguson’s group are doing this, it’s a danger which needs to be reduced. It is simply good practice for scientists’ methods to be fully public so they can be replicated if necessary.

Now, clearly there is a world of difference between saying “this is what we should do because a highly tried and tested method has shown it” and “this is what we should do because this relatively new, dubiously reliable method, applied to complex material, indicates it if we put in certain data of dubious reliability”. It seems to me that people in the computer modelling sector (so to speak) have interests in exaggerating the reliability of their methods and data, promoting themselves as the definitive gold-standard experts ahead of the hundreds of other species of academics, and promoting worldviews (technocracy) and policies (‘behavioural’ interventions) which direct status, power and resources towards their own discipline. I have no idea how far this is working at an individual or group level with Ferguson and his research cluster, or whether it’s also speaking to a general propensity to risk-aversion, scaremongering, assuming the worst, etc. (a propensity which certainly seems historically to encourage abject endorsement of authority).