The fear is ramping up again. Articles are appearing talking up the threat from Omicron. Leading U.S. scientist Dr. Eric Topol, Director of Scripps Research in California, has produced a classic of the genre. Titled “The Covid Capitulation“, it lambasts the U.S. and other world governments for trying to move on from the pandemic, criticising the CDC in particular for propagating “delusional thinking” and “conveniently feeding the myth that the pandemic is over”.
New Omicron subvariants like BA.2 and BA.2.12.1 are surging in the U.S. and around the world, he says, and the “real number of cases [in the U.S.] is likely at least 500,000 per day, far greater than any of the U.S. prior waves except Omicron”.
But Omicron is mild, right? Dr. Topol is having none of it. Infections spread like wildfire, he says, and “beget Long Covid, they beget sickness, hospitalisations and deaths. They are also the underpinning of new variants”.
At the heart of his worries is the immune evasion of Omicron and its fast-appearing subvariants, particularly BA.2.12.1 which is becoming dominant in the U.S, and BA.4 and BA.5 in South Africa. He argues that Omicron subvariants are producing larger and more frequent Covid waves than earlier variants owing to “more immune evasion” – evasion so marked that he suggests Omicron should really be considered a new virus, approvingly quoting Dr. Linfa Wang that, “based on its immunological profile, it should be called SARS-3”.
Dr. Topol goes so far as to say that even Omicron BA.1 infection does not protect against infection with Omicron subvariants such as BA.2.12.1 – at least not without vaccination, which he seems to think makes natural immunity work better against subvariants, even though it produces a narrower immune response based only on the Spike protein from the original strain.
There follows a guest post by Dr. Mark Stephen Nesti, a Chartered Psychologist, Consultant Performance Psychologist and former Associate Professor of Psychology in Sport, who is very concerned about the long term ramifications of the societal anxiety deliberately generated during the pandemic to increase compliance. He is author of Meaning and Spirituality in Sport and Exercise – Psychological Perspectives.
Much has been said about how fear has been used to drive the narrative and help impose restrictions on personal liberty we have faced during the pandemic. In this article I would like to suggest that anxiety, rather than fear itself, has become the much bigger concern, and one whose effects will haunt us for years to come.
If we take a step back for a moment, we can see that psychological language has been in the spotlight throughout the last two years. Some sections of the media and various bodies of experts have undoubtedly used their influence to generate fear in the general public. Although fear can paralyse our thoughts and actions, I believe that what we have actually been subject to has been a deliberate attempt to generate massive levels of societal anxiety. As a psychologist, I believe that anxiety, rather than fear, will turn out to be a major health problem facing individuals in the years ahead. Due to a number of complex factors operating at personal and community levels, the incidence of clinical and sub-clinical anxiety has never been higher in the U.K. population. The data to support this claim are well known, and yet, we have just been through a situation where psychologists on SAGE supported by others have deliberately stoked anxiety to increase compliance around various Covid measures.
There’s a good piece in the Telegraph today by Laura Dodsworth who argues that the fact the Government is holding off on imposing ‘Plan B’ restrictions “at this point” paints only one side of the picture. While new measures haven’t yet been introduced (or, rather, old, failed measures haven’t yet been reintroduced), “the threat of lockdown hangs like a Sword of Damocles”, ‘nudging’ us into courses of action we wouldn’t otherwise take. To put it simply: “Eat your vegetables, kids, or you’ll lose your right to dessert.”
There’s a chill in the air. Not from the changing seasons – it’s still fairly balmy – but from the latest attempts to orchestrate a subtle psychological manipulation of us all.
About 18 months ago, in the lockdown summer of 2020, I started to argue that the Government’s response to Covid is driven not so much by medical science or epidemiology, but instead by the psychological insights of behavioural scientists. In my book, A State of Fear: How the UK Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid Pandemic, I argue that controversial ‘nudge theory’ lies at the heart of Westminster’s response. It refers to sneaky attempts to prime, prepare and prod us into their desired mindset and course of action, without us ever realising we are being coerced.
Some responses to my book seemed naive. Many believed that Downing Street’s approach was genuinely grounded in public health epidemiology. Now, I think the dial is starting to move; the Government’s strategy becomes ever-more clear. Once nudge is seen, it can’t be unseen. Behavioural scientists were dazzling the public with card tricks. This week, the Government may have overplayed its hand.
On Tuesday, Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College Epidemiologist whose modelling was used as the basis for the U.K.’s lockdown policy, made an illuminating comment on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “Nobody likes having their freedoms curtailed by measures but it’s prudent to be cautious, in everyday interactions certainly,” he told presenter Sarah Smith, “and wearing masks certainly helps that: it reminds people we’re not completely out of the woods yet.”
It was a startling admission, if we needed one, that masks are as much about psychology as they are about preventing infection. They act as a social cue, to use the language of behavioural scientists, nudging us into vigilance.
Then, on Wednesday, after NHS leaders urged the Government to implement its Covid ‘Plan B’ immediately (including the reimplementation of mandatory masks in crowded indoor spaces, and advice to work from home), Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng took to television to herald the “hard-won gains” Britain has eked out of lockdown, adding: “I don’t want to reverse back to a situation where we have lockdowns, I don’t think it’s necessary”. It was a deployment of the sunk-cost fallacy: we’ve come so far, we mustn’t allow our good work to be undone. Until hearing Kwarteng’s words, you mightn’t have known there was even a risk of another lockdown. But now the idea has been seeded in your mind, ever so subtly.
Yesterday, the Health Secretary Sajid Javid gave the first Downing Street briefing in a month – surely a portentous sign in itself… – in which he announced that Covid infections had risen 15% in a week, and warned that cases could hit 100,000 a day this winter.
But, he continued: “If we all play our part, then we can give ourselves the best possible chance in this race… [We can] get through this winter and enjoy Christmas with our loved ones.”
Why is Christmas even in doubt, an alarmed listener might think?
These psychological cues are carefully calibrated, more so than many realise.
It is interesting to consider just how different the past 18 months would have been without dozens of Government briefings and constant Covid ad campaigns. The propaganda pushed by the Government as part of its Covid response is the subject of an upcoming public lecture by Dr. Colin Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Political Communications at Nottingham Trent University, on September 13th at 7.30pm. He will argue that the Government has “more or less copied the British wartime propaganda strategy from World War II when dealing with Covid”.
In a previous blog post, which gives a taste of lecture’s content, Dr. Alexander writes that: “The best propaganda is the propaganda that the audience doesn’t realise is propaganda.”
The public information briefings that occurred at about 5pm each day from Downing Street during the first lockdown in spring and summer of 2020 were episodes in propaganda straight out of the wartime playbook. Rather than being ‘public information’ events as they were so described, they were in fact filled with ‘strategic communications’ intent on manipulating the public to the ends of the powerful. They were carefully staged, choreographed and scripted by spin doctors and other political communications professionals working for a Government that is addicted to propaganda and cannot fathom engagement in public communications through any other prism.
Furthermore, the U.K. Government’s approach to Covid briefings in the first half of 2020 may harm the long-term trust of the public in governance and the various organs of state that are entwined with the crisis. Public Health England, for example. Indeed, Chris Witty [Whitty], Patrick Valance [Vallance], Jenny Harries, et al – by standing next to the cabinet minister of the day – may end up tainted as manipulators-in-chief themselves through their (and the organisations that they represent) implicit endorsement of the Government’s approach to public communications.
Tickets for the event, which is free and which anyone can attend, are available here.
A middle-aged woman, walking along a pavement in the afternoon sunshine, sees a young family approaching and instantly becomes stricken with terror at the prospect of contracting a deadly infection. A man in a queue in a garage kiosk leans into the face of another and screams, “You selfish idiot! Hundreds of people will die because you don’t wear a mask.” The aggressor is oblivious to the fact that his victim suffers a history of asthma and anxiety problems. A neighbour puts on a face covering and plastic gloves before wheeling her dustbin to the end of her drive. These are three recent examples of many similar events I’ve observed or read. What could be the main reason for such extraordinary behaviour? Has the emergence of the SARS-COV-2 virus magically re-wired our brains, transforming many of us into vindictive germaphobes?
No, of course not. These extreme human reactions are, I believe, primarily the result of the Government’s deployment of covert psychological ‘nudges’, introduced as a means of increasing people’s compliance with the Covid restrictions.
In an article in the Critic, I discussed the remit of the Government’s behavioural scientists in the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), a subgroup of SAGE which offers advice to the Government about how to maximise the impact of its Covid communications strategy. The methods of influence recommended by the SPI-B are drawn from a range of ‘nudges’ described in the Institute of Government document, MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy, several of which primarily act on the subconscious of their targets – the British people – achieving a covert influence on their behaviour. The three ‘nudges’ to have evoked the most controversy, among both psychological practitioners and the general public, are: the strategic use of fear (inflating perceived threat levels); shame (conflating compliance with virtue); and peer pressure (portraying non-compliers as a deviant minority) – or ‘affect’, ‘ego’ and ‘norms’, to use the language of behavioural science. (Specific examples of how each of these covert strategies have been used throughout the Covid crisis are described here).
The British Psychological Society (BPS) is the leading professional body for psychologists in the U.K. According to their website, a central role of the BPS is: “To promote excellence and ethical practice in the science, education and application of the discipline.” In light of this remit, I – together with 46 other psychologists and therapists – wrote a letter to the BPS on January 6th, 2021, expressing our ethical concerns about the use of covert psychological strategies as a means of securing compliance with Covid restrictions. In particular, our alarm centred on three areas: the recommendation of ‘nudges’ that exploit heightened emotional discomfort as a means of securing compliance; implementing potent covert psychological strategies without any effort to gain the informed consent of the British public; and harnessing these interventions for the purpose of achieving adherence to contentious and unevidenced restrictions that infringe basic human rights.
Responses from the BPS to our initial letter were slow and circuitous. However, on July 1st we received an email from Dr. Roger Paxton, the Chair of the Ethics Committee, which clarified the BPS’s position: in the Committee’s view, there is nothing ethically questionable about deploying covert psychological strategies on the British people as a means of increasing compliance with public health restrictions.
An in-depth inspection of Dr. Paxton’s defence of the BPS reveals that it is evasive, disingenuous and wholly unconvincing.
First, he quibbles about the use of the word “covert”, arguing that the compliance techniques under scrutiny are more appropriately described as “indirect”. Behavioural-science documents routinely refer to the psychological strategies underpinning Government communication campaigns as evoking responses from people that are “unconscious”, “subconscious” or “automatic”. The crucial point is that the human targets of these ‘nudges’ are often unaware that the intention of the SPI-B psychologists is to scare, shame them and socially pressure them to conform. The MINDSPACE publication – co-authored by Professor David Halpern, an SPI-B and SAGE member – seems to concur: “Citizens may not fully realise that their behaviour is being changed… Clearly, this opens Government up to charges of manipulation… [as] it may offer little opportunity for citizens to opt-out.” (p. 66)
Second, Dr. Paxton rejects the idea that it would be ethical to offer citizens an opportunity to opt-out by asserting that the application of covert psychological strategies to shape people’s behaviour falls outside the realm of individual consent. The BPS appears to be claiming that an appeal to some nebulous, ideologically-driven concept of social decision-making exempts psychologists from the fundamental requirement to seek a person’s informed agreement before delivering an intervention. So according to the BPS – the formal guardians of ethical practice in the U.K. – the Covid communications strategy, aimed at achieving mass behavioural change, was intended to influence some anonymous collective rather than the actions of as many individuals as possible.
Again, the BPS stance is at odds with Professor Halpern’s position. In his 2019 book, Inside the Nudge Unit, he states: “If Governments… wish to use behavioural insights, they must seek and maintain the permission of the public. Ultimately, you – the public, the citizen – need to decide what the objectives, and limits, of nudging and empirical testing should be.” (p. 375)
Third, Dr. Paxton’s claim that the levels of fear throughout the Covid pandemic were proportionate to the viral threat is ill-informed and does not stand up to scrutiny. The minutes of the SPI-B meeting of March 22nd, 2020, demonstrate that its endorsement of a covert psychological strategy was a calculated decision to scare the British people, recommending that: “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent… using hard-hitting emotional messaging.” In her book, A State of Fear, Laura Dodsworth interviewed members of SPI-B who confirmed that there had been a concerted effort to elevate the fear levels of the general public. One committee member, Educational Psychologist Dr. Gavin Morgan, admitted: “They went overboard with the scary message to get compliance.” Another SPI-B member – who wished to remain anonymous – was even more forthright: “The way we have used fear is dystopian… The use of fear has definitely been ethically questionable. It’s been like a weird experiment. Ultimately, it backfired because people became too scared.”
The mission to indiscriminately instil fear in the British public has been highly effective. An opinion poll prior to ‘Freedom Day’ suggested most people were worried about the prospect of lifting the remaining Covid restrictions. Even now, when all the vulnerable groups have been offered vaccination, many of our citizens remain tormented by ‘Covid Anxiety Syndrome’ – a disabling combination of fear and maladaptive coping strategies – with 20% of the population ‘markedly affected’. And this psychology-assisted fear inflation will be responsible for a substantial proportion of the extensive collateral damage associated with the restrictions, including excess non-Covid deaths and mental health problems.
Fourth, Dr. Paxton’s response makes no reference to the use of shame and scapegoating, and whether these are acceptable strategies for a civilised society to use. One can only assume that the BPS either views these tactics as acceptable, or that they seek to avoid acknowledging that psychologists have recommended practices that, in some respects, resemble the methods used by totalitarian regimes such as China, where the state inflicts pain on a subset of its population in an attempt to eliminate beliefs and behaviour they perceive to be deviant.
The dismissal of our ethical concerns by the BPS was predictable: a cursory glance at the scientists comprising the SPI-B shows that several of its members are also influential figures in the BPS; a major conflict of interest that renders the impartiality of their views highly questionable. What was surprising was the strident tone of Dr. Paxton’s rejoinder, as exemplified by his assertion that the psychologists’ role in the pandemic response demonstrated “social responsibility and the competent and responsible employment of psychological expertise”. I suspect the lady trembling on the pavement, the young man being verbally abused in the garage, and the neighbour donning mask and gloves to wheel out her dustbin – along with the many others in similar positions – might all beg to differ.
Dr. Gary Sidley is a retired NHS Consultant Clinical Psychologist.
A series of SARS-CoV-2 variants have arisen, many of which possessed a transient selective advantage that led to a wave of infection that peaked some three-to-four months later. Several such variants have spread globally, though different successful variants have arisen simultaneously in a number of countries. The result is a three-to-four month wave pattern per country, which is also apparent globally.
Seasonality affects variant transmissibility. Colder seasons accelerate the growth and increase the size of waves, but the continually changing environment may also differentially affect the relative transmissibility of competing variants (i.e., negatively as well as positively), thereby helping to terminate previously dominant variants and promote the growth of new ones.
Overall there is a minimal positive impact from quarantine policy, isolation requirements, Test and Trace regimes, social distancing, masking or other non-pharmaceutical interventions. Initially, these were the only tools in the tool-box of interventionist politicians and scientists. At best they slightly delayed the inevitable, but they also caused considerable collateral harms.
Immunity created by SARS-CoV-2 infection, layered on top of pre-existing immunity due to cross-immunity to other coronaviruses, provides good protection against infection, severe disease/death, and being infectious. Immunity created by vaccination also helps protect against serious disease and death, but does little or nothing to provide protection against infection or being infectious (which completely negates the case for vaccine ID cards).
Population immunity stems mainly from natural infections, with vaccines adding only slightly to this (and only in recent months). Population immunity is created by societal waves of infection and is somewhat variant-specific. An emerging new variant is able to infect (or re-infect) some fraction of individuals and this serves to top up and broaden the scope of our population immunity to also protect against the new variant.
This empirical and data-driven understanding of the pandemic allows us to make predictions. Such predictions don’t look good for some of the U.K.’s new Green List countries. But in these and all other places the ongoing arms-race between viral mutations and growing human immunity will always eventually be won by the human immune system. The virus then becomes a low-level endemic pathogen in equilibrium with its human host species. If this were not the case all humans would have been wiped out by viruses eons ago!
For the past one and a half years, experts and amateurs alike have been trying to understand the Covid pandemic, hoping to be able to defend against it and predict how it will develop and end. A multitude of uncertainties has led to an environment of fear, and regrettably, that fear has been exaggerated and employed to justify policies that may or may not have been effective but were uncomfortably authoritarian. Perhaps it had to be this way, given that no one had a working crystal ball (not least the computer modellers) and yet people at all levels needed to feel they had some degree of control over the situation. The sad truth, however, is that our leaders, scientists and the public have basically been stumbling through the Covid quagmire, challenged by complexities of subjective data interpretation, imperfect modelling, political machinations, hidden agendas and unhelpful human egos.
Here, I attempt to pull together an empirical and rational summary of the underlying driving forces behind the whole pandemic. This is aided by the fact that modern genetic technologies have enabled extensive virus testing and variant detection, while vaccines and lockdowns have been applied to very different degrees in different countries thereby giving us many alternatives scenarios and empirical observations for direct comparison. From this, it becomes increasingly clear which factors did and did not truly drive the dynamics of the pandemic.
A central conclusion has to be that despite all our efforts, this SARS-Cov-2 virus has done what it was always determined to do. It spread across populations via waves of infection, and like ripples of water from a dropped stone these waves have been remarkably evenly spaced (by three-to-four months). This repeating pattern of rises and falls in virus prevalence has remained sufficiently synchronised across the planet to be apparent in the global death chart.
To make sense of this picture we need to consider the box of jigsaw pieces from which it can be constructed – that is, the range of factors that are driving (alone or in combination) the ability of the virus to spread well for a while before then losing that ability (operationally even if not innately), with uncanny regularity.
First up has to be the ‘virus variant’ piece of the puzzle. Time and time again we have seen new variants emerge which progressively displaced the previously dominant variant(s). As soon the ‘Wuhan’ variant began spreading around the globe, the forces of mutation and natural selection created an array of more transmissible strains that quickly supplanted the original strain. Many countries saw numerous variants competing with each other to achieve dominance, and several of these variants spread between countries. But within less than six months this initial ‘battle of the variants’ settled down to a far smaller number of the most transmissible variants which started to spread and dominate worldwide. Obvious examples include the Spanish variant (20A.EU1) of last summer/autumn, followed and displaced in many places by the U.K. variant (Alpha) just three-to-four months later over the autumn/winter/spring. And now three-to-four months after that, the Indian variant (Delta) has been establishing itself as the major variant almost everywhere. It is thus apparent that waves are being driven by variants that have some selective advantage(s), but critically we need to understand what the mechanism is that creates this advantage.
One big clue comes from the fact that each variant wave, regardless of location, continues to respect the noted three-to-four-month time period. Theoretically, replacement sweeps could entail variants that possess no or very little transmissibility advantage over other/previous variants. However, given the way some variants have been seen to spread between countries and then replace whatever previously dominant variant(s) existed in those other places, we can conclude that increased variant transmissibility is a large puzzle piece in the overall Covid picture. But saying that some variants have a significant transmission advantage at certain time periods and settings does not mean that this advantage is an inherent or a permanent property of that variant. This is because transmissibility depends on many other pieces of the puzzle.
One such additional puzzle piece is seasonality. Seasons change significantly over the timeframe of a few months, which is compatible with the rate of change for Covid waves. This makes seasonality a good candidate as a second large section of the Covid picture. Seasonality is widely accepted to have helped truncate the first U.K. wave in spring 2020, as the weather warmed up from mid-March. It is also notable that variants that arrive in a country during winter lead to new wave peaks in a far shorter time frame than they do in summer. But variant-driven waves occur in all the seasons, including in warmer periods (e.g. the Delta variant arose in India and spread to many other summer localities). So the seasonality puzzle piece might partly work by differentially changing the effective transmissibility of each variant. Specifically, as the seasons change, an initially dominant variant might find itself no longer especially compatible with the altered environmental conditions (and/or the associated changes in human behaviours). Conversely, one of the myriad background variants being repeatedly re-created by random mutation (or recently imported) might instead now be most suited to the new seasonal conditions. This new variant would then inevitably embark on a rapid replacement sweep. This rather obvious model of how evolutionary selection must work in a changing environment also fits perfectly with the observation that the secondary attack rate (SAR) of a new variant is initially higher (~15% according to PHE) but then reduces over a few months (<10%), even though the genome sequence of that variant is constant.
Several additional factors could contribute to making a dominant, highly transmissible variant less transmissible and less prevalent. Lockdown supporters would undoubtedly rummage through the box of Covid jigsaw pieces for anything having the appearance of a quarantine policy, an isolation requirement, a Test and Trace regime, a masked face, or some social distancing behaviour. Objective evidence indicates that such Non-Pharmaceutical Intervention (NPI) measures may together have had a marginal net effect on the rate of viral transmission, but overall they completely failed to halt the progress of the pandemic (see here, here and here). Instead, by slightly reducing the ease with which infections occur, they simply slowed the average rate at which people became infected (e.g. even a 50% reduced exposure would mean it simply takes four instead of two visits to a crowded environment to become infected). We know they did something because the incidence of all other respiratory viruses has reduced dramatically over the course of the pandemic wherever such measures were applied (even in Australia, where Covid is all but absent). Most respiratory viruses have Ro values of less than two, and so suppression measures need only be mildly potent to push these Rt values below one. In contrast, SARS-CoV-2 has a far greater Ro (typically estimated as three-to-four, or even more) and so those same suppression measures will not so easily push the covid virus Rt below one. Furthermore, people instinctively act more defensively when they know the virus is spreading rapidly, and so there may be very little added benefit of lockdown-related measures over just letting people respond naturally. This would then explain why there is no obvious impact of lockdowns in any curves of virus prevalence over time, why studies are yet to convincingly demonstrate any significant beneficial effect of lockdowns or masking, why virus prevalence began falling in the U.K. before the November 2020 and before the January 2021 lockdowns, and why we witnessed nothing whatsoever of the pessimistically-predicted massive ‘Exit Wave’ after the U.K.’s ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19th, 2021. So perhaps we allow NPI jigsaw pieces to have a token role as supporting edge pieces in the jigsaw, so long as we never overlook the enormous collateral damage they also impose (past, present and future).
That leaves just one final type of jigsaw piece – population immunity. Building on pre-existing cross-immunity to other coronaviruses, immunity due to SARS-CoV-2 infection is superior to immunity generated by vaccination in that it defends against a broader range of variants and engenders good protection against infection, illness and infectiousness. By contrast, vaccines do little to stop a vaccinated individual from becoming infected or being infectious (see here and here) and whatever small benefit they may provide in terms of reducing transmissibility will merely delay the occurrence of infections, as explained above for NPIs. Vaccines are, thankfully, very good at reducing serious illness, hospitalisation and death, and so on that basis they are only well merited for use in old and vulnerable individuals. It is critical that the very significant limitations of vaccines regarding infection and transmission control are now widely advertised and understood, as this makes the idea of vaccine ID cards completely nonsensical in scientific terms – as well as highly discriminatory and illiberal. Vaccine safety profiles are an additional consideration.
Nevertheless, to some degree, the combined effect of vaccines and natural infection generates our overall level of population immunity, and this must be playing some role in terminating each variant wave every three-to-four months. Substantial population immunity in the U.K. was achieved by the initial Covid waves of spring 2020, as evidenced by its impact on the development of second waves later that year. The peaking of each Covid wave in all places has little or nothing to do with lockdown measures (as explained above). It also cannot have much to do with immunity generated purely by vaccination, given that the vaccinated individuals still catch and pass on the virus, and that many waves ended in 2020 before vaccination campaigns got underway. This leaves only population immunity as an explanation, working in concert with the seasonality effects described above.
To fully understand the role of herd immunity in wave termination, one must recognise that while the level of population immunity achieved at any stage may be sufficient to suppress the spread of a dominant variant (whose SAR may also be falling due to seasonality effects), it may not be sufficient to restrain the next emerging variant (whose SAR would be temporarily high owing to partial immune evasion or seasonal advantage). The new variant may also arise and spread in somewhat different sub-sections of society (age, ethnicity, geography, etc.) than did the previously dominant variant. Thus, herd immunity would be expected to have to be topped up and broadened by a wave of further infections and re-infections in society, in order to bring each subsequent wave to an end. This seems to be what is happening, with each sequential wave being generally smaller and ending naturally despite fewer suppression measures being enforced as populations tire of having their lives and freedoms excessively restricted. This also fits with the fact that over 95% of U.K. adults and 80% of 16-24 year-olds now have detectable Covid antibodies, much of which comes from natural infection. Others will be immune without detectable levels of antibodies, and from prior infections and cross-coronavirus immunity.
So overall we can be pretty sure that population immunity is now contributing to (and possibly directly causing) the ending of each wave of Covid infections. It certainly has lowered the Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) down to or below that of influenza for society as a whole, meaning that the vaccination of the young cannot now be medically or ethically justified (especially given the substantial known and unknown risks imposed by these novel genetic technology vaccines). A scientific consensus on herd immunity will presumably begin to emerge, as the data and jigsaw pieces all continue to fall into place. Indeed, even lockdown champion Professor Neil Ferguson recently confirmed that because we have now released all lockdown measures in the U.K., this latest wave “will peak because herd immunity has been reached”. And it has indeed now peaked!
Finally, with an essentially complete Covid jigsaw picture now assembled using an empirical data-driven approach, we can offer up some testable predictions. The first is that current Delta waves unfolding in different countries will reach natural peaks around three-to-four months after this variant arrived in each location. For example, considering countries recently added to the U.K.’s Green List, we would expect: Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania (where Delta arrived little more than one month ago) will see their nascent summer waves grow further and peak in about two months’ time; Latvia (where Delta has only just arrived) will face a multi-month wave starting very soon; and Austria, Germany and Norway (where Delta has already been present for several months) will likely see their summer waves peak around the end of August. NPIs will do little to change this, and neither will vaccines (see Israel for evidence of this).
The really big question, however, is whether or not Delta is the last major variant we will all have to deal with. SARS-CoV-2 and the human immune system are basically in an arms race. Population immunity increases and targets the latest variant, causing new variants with different immunological profiles and transmission advantages to rise in abundance, which in turn further strengthens and broadens our population immunity. Vaccines merely help accelerate this arms race. But the end of the war is always the same – the virus runs out of strategies a long time before the highly adaptable immune system runs out of defences. The virus then gives up and resigns itself to becoming a low-level endemic pathogen in equilibrium with its human host species. If this were not the case all humans would have been wiped out by viruses eons ago! What we do not know is whether Delta is that last throw of the dice for Covid, or whether one or a few more guises of troublesome variants will yet come along. If they do, from what we now know we should probably place more trust in our immune system than we have in previous waves. And in either case, we can be very sure we are far closer to a permanent and natural end of this pandemic than we are to its beginning.
Anthony Brookes is a Professor of Genomics and Health Data Science at the University of Leicester.
There follows a guest post from our in-house doctor, formerly a senior medic in the NHS, who says the widely trailed tsunami of hospitalisations has not only failed to arrive after ‘Freedom Day’, but we seem to be on the downslope of the ‘third wave’.
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once remarked: “Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.” I have been reflecting on that comment, now we are three weeks since the inappropriately named July 19th ‘Freedom Day’. Readers will remember the cacophony of shrieking from assorted ‘health experts’ prophesying certain doom and a tidal wave of acute Covid admissions that would overwhelm our beleaguered NHS within a fortnight. Representatives from the World Health Organisation described the approach as “epidemiologically stupid”. A letter signed by 1,200 self-defined experts was published in the Lancet predicting imminent catastrophe.
Accordingly, this week I thought I should take a look at how the apocalypse is developing and then make some general observations on the centrality of trust and honesty in medical matters.
Let’s start with daily admissions to hospitals from the community in Graph One. Daily totals on the blue bars, seven-day rolling average on the orange line. Surprisingly the numbers are lower than on July 19th. How can that be?
Perhaps there are more patients stacking up in hospitals – sicker patients tend to stay longer and are hard to discharge, so the overall numbers can build up rather quickly. So, Graph Two shows Covid inpatients up to August 5th. Readers should note that Graph Two includes patients suffering from acute Covid (about 75% of the total) plus patients in hospital for non-Covid related illness, but testing positive for Covid (the remaining 25%). How strange – numbers seem to be falling, not rising. This does not fit with the hypothesis – what might explain this anomalous finding?
Maybe the numbers of patients in ICU might be on the increase – after all, both the Beta variant and the Delta variant were said to be both more transmissible and more deadly than the Alpha variant. Graph Three shows patients in ICU in English Hospitals up to August 5th. It shows a similar pattern to Graph Two – a small fall in overall patient numbers in the last two weeks. I looked into the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre ICU audit report up to July 30th. This confirms the overall impression from the top line figures. Older patients do not seem to be getting ill with Covid. Over half the admissions to ICU with Covid have body mass indices over 30. Severe illness is heavily skewed to patients with co-morbidities and the unvaccinated. Generally speaking, the patients have slightly less severe illness, shorter stays and lower mortality so far.
Finally, we look at Covid related deaths since January 1st, 2021, in Graph Four. A barely discernable increase since the beginning of April.
So, whatever is going on with respect to the progress of the pandemic, the widely trailed tsunami of hospitalisations has not arrived yet – in fact, we seem to be on the downslope of the ‘third wave’.
We’re publishing an original article today by Dr Sinéad Murphy, a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University, about the parallels between the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries and the move today to discriminate against those who have not been vaccinated against Covid. She begins by denouncing the introduction of vaccine passports in the Republic of Ireland.
In the Republic of Ireland as of July 26th, only those who have accepted two jabs are allowed to go inside the pub – that den of such life and good cheer that there is an Irish Pub to be found in the remotest corners of the globe.
On va à l’Irish? a French friend of mine used to say to his college mates, when they had a free afternoon in Poitiers.
Can this really be happening? Can the people of my native land really be refusing entry at pub doors to friends and neighbours who have not agreed to receive a particular medical treatment? I’ve been gone for over a decade – have things really changed that much?
What of the good-humoured scepticism that used to mitigate every piece of Irish officialdom? I know someone who lost his Irish passport while living and working illegally in the U.S., and who managed to have it replaced via a network of ex-patriots in the police and the passport office there. Years ago, I was stopped by the Gardai for exceeding the speed limit on a stretch of road approaching Cork city – “You were travelling quickly there, do you know that?” asked the garda. “God, I’m sorry,” I said. “Watch yourself next time, girl,” he said. That was it.
And what of the courage that used to lie beneath these soft to-and-fros of Irish life? …
The two have gone hand-in-hand – the courage and the craic, the friendliness and the fight. A verve for life and for people and for talk will tend to draw a person into whatever news is abroad and whatever struggle is afoot.
But now they’ve disappeared hand-in-hand, it looks like. Irish men and women sit well apart from other Irish men and women because their Government has ruled that they must or because they’re afraid of getting sick, or both.
The words of W.B. Yeats resound in my despondency: “Was it for this the wild geese spread? For this that all the blood was shed?”
If you don’t get vaccinated against Covid, you won’t be able to enjoy your life, young people are told in the latest Government ad campaign which will be shown on billboards, on television and on social media platforms. In a nod to the introduction of vaccine passports at nightclubs and other “large venues” later this year, the ad tells young Brits: “Don’t miss out on going clubbing” by not getting ‘jabbed’.
“It’s easy to get yours done quickly,” the ad says, “so you don’t miss out on anything.” The Timeshas more.
Boris Johnson is said to have been “raging” about relatively low youth uptake and had to be talked out of requiring vaccination for students returning to university in the autumn.
He has said proof of vaccination will be required for nightclubs from September, with officials suggesting this will probably be widened to other mass events. Although there is scepticism about whether the policy will ever be introduced, given opposition from Tory backbenchers, ministers are seeking to drive home the message that jabs will be required for many leisure activities.
Past efforts appear to have failed. Yesterday 33,334 people were vaccinated and the seven-day average is down to 32,550 daily doses, a fall of 85% since June. …
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, warned that proof of vaccination was likely to be a feature of international travel “for evermore” as most countries would demand it as a condition of entry. “It’s important to understand that there are simply going to be things that you will not be able to do unless you’re double-vaccinated or have a medical reason not to be, including going abroad,” he told LBC. “So actually there are good reasons if you’re perhaps in your twenties and you feel like, ‘Oh, this doesn’t really affect me’. Well, it is going to because you won’t be able to leave the country.”
Vaccination rates in the young are starting to plateau, with 68% of those aged 18 to 24 and 71% of those aged 25 to 29 having had a first jab, compared with at least 95% in the over-50s. …
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, told young people to be vaccinated “to make sure you can return to creating those special moments”.
DJs and nightclubs have been recruited to the campaign, with the NHS holding a pop-up jab unit in the London nightclub Heaven. The Gateways music festival in Skipton, North Yorkshire, and Birmingham New Street station will also host walk-in centres this weekend. …
Campaign images include young people frolicking on a beach under the slogan “don’t miss out on going travelling”, a music festival with the warning “don’t miss out on the big events” and a packed dancefloor with the legend “don’t miss out on going clubbing”.
It’s as if ‘Freedom Day’ never happened. A new Government ad campaign tells Brits to carry on wearing face masks and to use the NHS Covid app so as to “keep life moving”. One poster warns that “Covid is still with us” and that you can still pass on the virus “even if you’ve been vaccinated”: “[So] let’s wear face coverings in crowded places to protect others.” The Evening Standardhas the story.
An official information campaign, which will hit airwaves, newspapers and other media from Thursday, will see the Government replace its “hands, face, space, fresh air” slogan with its new catchphrase: “Keep life moving.”
A video fronted by TV doctor Dr Amir Khan will also recommend people continue to follow social distancing guidance, as the film shows a young man stepping off a pavement to allow an older neighbour to pass.
The advice comes despite Monday being trumpeted as England’s ‘Freedom Day’, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson removing almost all legal restrictions, including social distancing guidelines.
Pressure has also been placed on young people to get a vaccine, as Health Secretary Sajid Javid reiterates the Prime Minister’s plan to make full vaccination a “condition of entry to nightclubs” by the autumn.
The campaign will warn, however, that being doubled jabbed does not entirely protect you from being infected with coronavirus, or from being told to self-isolate.
The campaign instructs people to stick with the behaviour that has become “second nature” over the past year of lockdowns. This advice appears to have been pulled directly out of Susan Michie’s rule book. In June, the top Government adviser and long-time member of the Communist Party of Britain said measures adopted during the pandemic should become part of our “normal” routine behaviour, just as wearing car seat belts has become commonplace. The Evening Standard continues:
The recommendations include using quick-result lateral flow tests twice a week and booking a PCR test if there is any sign of even mild coronavirus symptoms.
People will be encouraged to keep washing their hands regularly, to check in to pubs, bars and restaurants using the Covid app, and to wear face masks in crowded places where “distancing is not possible”, such as public transport or small shops.
It will also place renewed emphasis on the importance of ventilation in fighting infection during social gatherings, while vaccine take-up will also be pushed.