by Guy de la Bédoyère
In one of the early Blackadder episodes the hapless sidekick Percy informs Blackadder, who has been told he has to marry the Spanish Infanta, that he has heard “her eyes are more beautiful” than the “Blue Stone of Galveston”, based on the fact that the Infanta’s eyes are bluer. In the ensuing discussion it emerges that Percy has never seen either and thus has absolutely no sphere of reference for his assertion that one is “slightly less blue” than the other. Blackadder concludes that Percy is as much use as a hole in the head. I know just how he felt.
When the pandemic crisis broke, we were all instantly bombarded with figures by scientists and journalists, and almost invariably out of context. They included data that had been measured, and figures that were predicted, most notoriously in the UK the 510,000 prospective deaths put about by Imperial College that played such a large part in the first lockdown. This has carried on remorselessly ever since.
It struck me almost immediately right back in March that I had no idea at all what the normal rate of death was in the United Kingdom. Therefore, any statement about deaths from Covid, real or predicted, whether made by a member of SAGE, the Government or a wittering TV journalist, was meaningless to me. Way back then I looked it up on the Office of National Statistics (ONS) website. It’s in the high 1,600s per day which translates into over 600,000 per annum in a normal year (if any year is normal).
I think I can say without fear of contradiction that in the last nine months I have not met a single person who knew how many people die per day or per year in the UK. What that means is that every time they have heard a news bulletin or listened to a SAGE comment, recommendation, or ill-disguised threat, they have had no means of positioning what they’ve just heard. Instead the reaction tends to be an emotional one, based on the metaphorical impact of hearing a figure involving hundreds of people.
Indeed, a well-informed and highly educated friend of mine worked out the average number of annual UK deaths for herself. She had, though, underestimated the total and come up with about half a million deaths per annum. So incredulous was she that she did not believe so high a figure was possible and contacted me. I directed her to the ONS website.
On that website you’ll find that in 2018 there were 616,014 deaths in the UK. That’s 1,687 as a daily average and it’s fairly representative of the last few years.
Now I’m not telling you that because I am trying to tell you either COVID-19 is of no significance at all. I’m mentioning it because a) it is a fact and b) it is an excellent example of how the statistics from the same moment in time can lead to two quite different impressions.
Let’s look at Week 45 (to November 6th) of 2020, essentially the week leading up to and into our latest lockdown. In that week this year there were 11,812 deaths. This represents a considerable jump over 2019 when that same week had 10,697 deaths (in 2018 it was 10,151). Of the 11,812 deaths this year 1,937 had COVID-19 mentioned on the death certificate.
That isn’t the whole story because the implication is that without Covid only 9,875 would have died in Week 45. Of course, the truth is that those 1,937 include those who would have died from something else anyway but were killed by or with Covid, and those who have additionally died because of untreated conditions.
Nonetheless, there is clear statistical evidence for excess deaths directly or indirectly caused by the pandemic and if you look at it that way there is nothing more to be said. But let’s look at the figures another way. Those 11,812 deaths in Week 45 divided by seven equals 1687.43 deaths per day – by some extraordinary coincidence, the exact overall average daily rate for 2018. In other words, the same number of people died in Week 45 of 2020 as did each week on average in 2018. And that was just at the time the government was deciding to lock us down again on the basis that the rise in deaths was going to be exponential.
This illustrates another fascinating facet of statistics. The narrower the sample, the shorter the time frame, the more specific the focus, then the more ‘extraordinary’ any situation may appear to be. Only comparing one week with its exact counterpart the year before isn’t very sensible because there are too many variables. It’s like assuming the weather ought to be the same every Week 45 every year.
The picture gets more complex still. On November 24th the news broke that in Week 46 (to November 13th) 12,254 deaths had been registered. That was undoubtedly worse than the same week at any point in the last eleven years and Covid, dying with or by, seems to be the biggest part of the explanation. By Week 47 (to November 20th) the week’s deaths had risen to 12,535. This was said to be 20.8% higher than the five-year average – for that week. I suppose one should ask just how useful something as short as a five-year average is since almost by definition any individual measurement will vary from the average. What we need is the standard deviation, calculated over as long a period as possible and weighted to compensate for the growth in the overall population, but that’s a whole different story. You can whistle for that one but without it almost all these judgements are meaningless.
Meanwhile let’s look at the beginning of 2018. For the first eight weeks of 2018, thanks to a flu epidemic, the weekly registered deaths exceeded 12,000 every week. In Week 2 of 2018 registered deaths exceeded 15,000 (15,050 actually). Indeed, for those weeks the registered deaths exceeded the five-year average by a considerable margin (as much as 14.8% in one week). The average weekly death rate for the first eight weeks of 2018 was 13,266 (1,895 per day). The tenth and eleventh weeks of 2018 were also over 12,000. The average weekly death rate for the first 11 weeks of 2018, when 142,771 people died, was 12,979 and that’s only because Week 9 came in at 10,854. In the first eight weeks of 2017 the average weekly death rate was 12,548.
Both 2017 and 2018 were considerably worse than the same couple of months in 2019 when only Week 2 exceeded 12,000, so you can’t attribute early 2018’s or early 2017’s high figures to post-Xmas delayed registration. Week 51 of December 2019 incidentally showed a total of 11,926 registered deaths, a tad under 12,000 and that’s from two months before the pandemic.
In short – the first two months of 2018 were worse than the last couple of months this year. The obvious objection here would be to say again I’m not comparing one week with its exact counterpart. That’s not the point. I’ve just read news stories with the headline that 12,254 people died in week 46 this year as if such a figure was unprecedented. The fact is that it isn’t. Not by quite a margin. In terms of deaths as a rate, as a proportion, and the impact on a particular segment of the population, we have been here before but just at a different time of year. And you don’t need me to tell you that no-one at the time thought that destroying the economy and closing the NHS to almost anyone else was the right way to deal with early 2018’s excess deaths.
None of this diminishes the fact that we are confronted with a new and major challenge. I’m no Covid denier. But the only way we can ever make sober, considered, and informed decisions is if the hyperbole is confronted with the knowledge of a framework on which we can base, individually and collectively, our understanding of the overall impact of this disease before we turn our world upside down permanently.
This entire crisis has been driven as much by an obsession with tabloid-style headlines in the print and broadcast media as by the disease. Some of the scientific community have been equally guilty though I’m not suggesting there was any deliberate attempt to obfuscate or mislead. But why on Earth did none of these sources make as much – or indeed anything – of what happened in early 2018 which was quite clearly in some ways as bad as the present, even if the precise cause was different? Why did the then Government not take away our civil liberties, exhort us to “save the NHS”, and close down businesses across the country? This lack of perspective was briefly forgivable (just) when the pandemic started, but is it now we know so much more?
Why also is a death from Covid still automatically treated as a newsworthy tragedy in a way that a death from almost any other cause isn’t? That phenomenon alone has driven people into a blind panic, wholly unable to react in a proportionate way to what is going on. You can be certain that elderly people who die from a heart attack, a fall, or even flu a few weeks after being vaccinated for Covid won’t get a mention on any news outlet. All the Government cares about now is that those people don’t go down as Covid deaths.
None of the statistics or figures cited here is a lie (so far as I know). I have taken them all from the ONS website. They each tell a different version of the truth and by the same token serve to hide other versions of the truth if we only choose to look at one of them or from only one angle, or if the people who lead us and guide us by obscuring alternative perspectives – whatever their personal, professional or political motives, and usually predicated on the idea that their predictions of the future are as factual as their selective measurements of the past.
With the news on December 2nd that the vaccine roll-out will start within days we might start to see the end of this appalling phase in our lives. Whatever your views about the vaccine, it’s the get-out-of-jail card for the shattered, disorientated and waffling Government.
Then the reckoning will start. But let’s just suppose there was no vaccine, nor one on the horizon. Where would we be now? Thanks to being forced down one route by experts who have refused to think outside their boxes we were plunged into a partly self-inflicted lockdown-based crisis, terrorising themselves and us, that could never have been sustained socially, economically, politically or on the basis of wider public health. Nor can we ever do this again. It will take years to claw ourselves back to where we were, perhaps decades. We’d have had to find another way. So why did we ever start down this road?
History begins when people start disagreeing about what happened, usually because they only choose to look at events in a single way and invent narratives to suit their agendas. One of the remarkable things about Covid is seeing that take place before our very eyes. Now you can prepare yourself for the blame game until someone thinks of something else to terrorise us.
We only live a few conscious decades and we fret ourselves enough for several lifetimes.Christopher Hitchens