More Restrictions May Be Required This Winter, Says Professor Ferguson

Professor Neil Ferguson is at it again. He predicts that a full lockdown will not be necessary this winter, but that the reintroduction of some forms of restrictions will be, warning that “we have currently higher levels of infection in the community than we’ve almost ever had during the pandemic”. The Times has the story.

The Imperial College scientist said that there was no “reason to panic” but urged people to be cautious about social contact.

He said it was “critical we accelerate the booster programme” with millions of eligible older people yet to have a top-up jab despite concerns about waning immunity.

Last year hospital admissions were doubling every 10 days. At present, the rate is about five weeks and some believe outbreaks in schools will burn out before then, causing cases to fall again.

Ferguson told Today on BBC Radio 4: “I think we need to be on the case, and we do need to prioritise the [booster] vaccination programme but we’re not in the same position as last year.”

He added: “I don’t think we’re looking at another lockdown… the worst case here are demands on the NHS… it’s very unlikely we’ll see anything like the levels of deaths we saw last year, for instance.

“Coming into the winter, there may be a plan B which needs to be implemented, which involves some rolling back of measures, but I doubt that we’ll ever get close to the lockdown we were in in January of this year.”

The Government’s official ‘Plan B’ involves the return of working from home and compulsory masks, plus the introduction of vaccine passports. Ministers have been confident that this will not be needed but concern has been mounting as cases rise towards 50,000 a day.

“People need to be aware that we have currently higher levels of infection in the community than we’ve almost ever had during the pandemic – for the last three or four months we’ve been up at well over 1% of the population infected at any point in time,” Ferguson said.

He said the Government was “very clear that it wanted to move away from social distancing measures, but it’s notable, clearly, that most western European countries have kept in place more control measures, vaccine mandates, mask-wearing mandates, and tend to have lower case numbers and certainly not case numbers which are going up as fast as we’ve got”.

Professor Paul Hunter, of the University of East Anglia, said he was not “overly worried” by case numbers, pointing out: “We’re doing far more testing of children than most or all European countries and at least 50% of our cases are in children, mostly teenagers.” …

Modellers are finding it increasingly difficult to know what will happen next, given huge uncertainties about the number of unvaccinated people, how fast immunity wanes and how people will behave over the winter.

Worth reading in full.

Half of Brits Think We Will Be Locked Down Again This Year, According to New Survey

More than half of Brits believe that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, according to a new survey. Despite this, 49% of this survey’s respondents also say they believe there will be further lockdowns. The Telegraph has the story.

The survey, by Savanta ComRes, found that 49% believe there will be further lockdowns, with 74% concerned about another virus wave this winter. Fears are highest amongst those aged over 55, at 78%.

While over half – 55% – think the worst of Covid is behind us, 19% believe the worst is yet to come.

Chris Hopkins, of Savanta ComRes, said: “While it may feel to many that the U.K. is out of the woods with coronavirus, there is still an underlying feeling – or perhaps fear – among the public that there are more restrictions, including lockdowns, to come.

“That, coupled with a small but significant proportion who feel that the worst of the pandemic is still ahead of us, shows that trust in the vaccine roll-out may still be undermined if the U.K. enters further restrictions during a winter that will be inevitably challenging for the NHS.” …

Of the 2,103 U.K. adults interviewed online by Savanta ComRes between October 8th to 10th, three in 10 said another lockdown would show that the vaccine roll-out had been a failure. But three in five believe a firebreak lockdown would be effective at relieving pressure on the NHS.

While half of U.K. adults expect there to be further lockdowns in 2021, 33% think there will be no further restrictions.

Worth reading in full.

Lockdown: Where Did ‘The Science’ Come From?

In a previous post, I looked at where ‘The Science’ of community masking came from. Here I’ll do the same thing for lockdowns.

As many lockdown sceptics (including myself) have noted, lockdowns represent a radical departure from conventional forms of pandemic management. There is no evidence that, before 2020, they were considered an effective way to deal with influenza pandemics.

In a 2006 paper, four leading scientists (including Donald Henderson, who led the effort to eradicate smallpox) examined measures for controlling pandemic influenza. Regarding “large-scale quarantine”, they wrote, “The negative consequences… are so extreme” that this measure “should be eliminated from serious consideration”.

Likewise, a WHO report published mere months before the COVID-19 pandemic classified “quarantine of exposed individuals” as “not recommended under any circumstances”. The report noted that “there is no obvious rationale for this measure”.

And we all know what the U.K.’s own ‘Pandemic Preparedness Strategy’ said, namely: “It will not be possible to halt the spread of a new pandemic influenza virus, and it would be a waste of public health resources and capacity to attempt to do so.”

As an additional exercise, I searched the pandemic preparedness plans of all the English-speaking Western countries (U.K., Ireland, U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand) for mentions of ‘lockdown’, ‘lock-down’ ‘lock down’ or ‘curfew’.

Only ‘curfew’ was mentioned, and only once – in Ireland’s plan. The relevant sentence was: “Mandatory quarantine and curfews are not considered necessary.” None of the lockdown strings were mentioned in any of the countries’ plans.

So where did ‘The Science’ of controlling Covid using lockdowns come from? As everyone knows, China implemented the first lockdown (of Hubei province) in January of 2020. Yet it wasn’t until March that lockdowns became part of ‘The Science’.

Prime Minister Accused of Breaking Lockdown Rules Last Christmas

Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie have been accused of breaking lockdown rules last Christmas by allowing a friend to stay at Number 10 while other Londoners were told not to meet up with different households. The Mail has the story.

The Prime Minister denied claims in the U.S. Harper’s Magazine that political campaigner Nimco Ali “spent Christmas with the couple at Number 10 despite pandemic restrictions on holiday gatherings”.

The article also said that Mrs. Johnson “modelled” her wardrobe and public image on the Duchess of Cambridge, but is “bitter” that the duchess gets better publicity.

Spokesmen for the Prime Minister and Mrs. Johnson said both claims were untrue.

The 4,500-word profile of the couple says Mrs. Johnson has “assembled an impressive court around her” while the PM is a “lonely figure” and “quite scared” of her. …

The Harper’s article is written by Lara Prendergast, Executive Editor of the Spectator magazine, edited by Mr. Johnson before he entered politics and which has strong links to Downing Street.

In the piece she describes how she put her claims over the Christmas gathering to Number 10. She says that a spokesman told her “the Prime Minister and Mrs. Johnson follow coronavirus rules at all times” – but did not deny the claim.

She adds that Miss Ali, godmother to the Johnsons’ son Wilfred, “did not respond to repeated requests for comment”.

Last Christmas, London was under ‘Tier Four’ restrictions, meaning people should not have mixed with anyone outside their households, except in support and childcare bubbles.

Worth reading in full.

The House of Commons Report Ignores the Risks of a Suppression Strategy

One of the main conclusions of the recent House of Commons report is that our first lockdown “should have come sooner”. The authors even take seriously Neil Ferguson’s ludicrous suggestion that if we’d locked down one week earlier, “we would have reduced the final death toll by at least half”.

As I noted in my response, this ignores the fact that suppressing the epidemic in the spring could have led to an even bigger epidemic in the winter, when the NHS would have been under greater pressure.

In other words, even if you only consider Covid deaths (i.e., ignore all the collateral damage from lockdown), suppressing the first wave wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do. The boffins in SAGE were actually aware of this, as the report notes:

Modelling at the time suggested that to suppress the spread of covid-19 too firmly would cause a resurgence when restrictions were lifted. This was thought likely to result in a peak in the autumn and winter when NHS pressures were already likely to be severe.

However, the report’s authors dismiss this very legitimate concern on the basis that suppressing the first wave would have “bought much needed time”. And that’s true, but so is the point about risking a perfect storm in the winter.

The correct way to frame the issue (again, ignoring the costs of lockdown) would be to say: the UK faced a trade-off between the benefits of buying time versus the risks of postponing the epidemic until winter. Acknowledging this (or any other) trade-off was apparently too much to ask of the report’s authors.

As a side note, suppressing the first wave would have probably required us to act in January, and we’d have needed to completely seal the borders, in addition to imposing a temporary lockdown. The horse had already bolted by the time anyone knew what was going on, so this discussion is mostly academic anyway.

One simple way to illustrate the risks of postponing the epidemic until winter is to compare European countries that got hit in the first wave with those who missed the first wave but got hit in the second.

To do this, I noted for each 42 European countries whether the official COVID-19 death rate reached 5 per million before 1st September, 2020. Those where it did reach this level were deemed to have been hit in the first wave. Those where it did not were deemed to have missed the first wave.

I then calculated average excess mortality since the pandemic began in the two groups of countries, using the estimates reported by Karlinsky and Kobak. Note: I’m not pretending this is a comprehensive analysis. But it’s still informative.

If the benefits of buying time outweigh the risks of postponing, you’d expect excess mortality to be lower in the group that missed the first wave. However, it was actually slightly higher in this group: 21%, compared to 19% in the other group.

What’s more, the 42 countries in my sample include places like Iceland and San Marino, which you might say aren’t really comparable to the UK. If we remove all six countries with a population of less than 500,000, the disparity is even greater: 22%, compared to 16%.

Now, there are of course other factors to consider, and it’s possible that once you took those into account, there wouldn’t be any disparity, or there’d be a slight disparity favouring the first group. But there’s no evidence that ‘buying time’ led to substantially lower excess mortality.

Someone might respond as follows: it’s implausible that suppressing the first wave would have made a difference in the second. After all, only about 10% of the population had antibodies by December of 2020, and that’s nowhere near herd immunity.  

There are two points I’d make in response. Some people may have cross immunities to Covid, so the 10% figure could be an underestimate. But even if it’s about right, we know that transmission is driven by super-spreaders, and such individuals will be heavily overrepresented among the 10% who got infected in the first wave.

All else being equal, therefore, transmission would have been greater in the second wave if those individuals had not acquired immunity in the first. (Recall that age-adjusted excess mortality was actually lower in the second wave.)

The House of Commons report is in no sense a disinterested attempt to consider the arguments for and against lockdown, so it’s hardly surprising the authors would brush aside the risks of a suppression strategy. We can only hope that the official inquiry next year takes a less tendentious approach. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

No, Locking Down a Week Earlier Would Not Have Saved Tens of Thousands of Lives

Toby has already gone through in detail the new report from the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee of the House of Commons on the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and taken it apart.

One point worth underlining further is that one of its central conclusions – that “if the national lockdown had been instituted even a week earlier ‘we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half'” (the report quoting Professor Neil Ferguson here) – is demonstrably false on all the data available. That’s because it assumes that the epidemic was continuing to grow exponentially in the week before lockdown was brought into effect on March 24th, a growth which supposedly only the lockdown brought to an end.

That this is not the case is evident from all the data we have, as has been shown on numerous occasions.

For example, already in April 2020 Oxford’s Professor Carl Heneghan had noted that by projecting back from the peak of deaths on April 8th it could be inferred that the peak of infections occurred around a week before the lockdown was imposed. This early deduction was subsequently backed up by Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty himself, who told MPs in July 2020 that the R rate went “below one well before, or to some extent before, March 23rd”, indicating a declining epidemic.

Further support arrived in March 2021, when Imperial College London’s REACT study published a graph showing SARS-CoV-2 incidence in England as inferred from antibody testing and interviews with those who tested positive to ascertain date of symptom onset. It clearly showed new infections peaking in the week before March 24th (see below), as well as a similar peaking of infections ahead of the subsequent two national lockdowns.

YouTube Video of the Great Lockdown Debate

The Modern Review has uploaded a video of the Great Lockdown Debate on YouTube that you can watch here (or click on the video below).

Readers will recall that the motion was ‘The lockdowns of the past year caused more harm than good’, with Dr. Carl Heneghan, Luke Johnson and me speaking for the motion, and Oliver Kamm, Andrew Lilico and Dr. Sonia Adesara speaking against. Not only did our side win by an enormous margin, but we also succeeded in changing more people’s minds than the other side. If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, watch from 1hr 24m 20s, which is when things got really lively.

Women Are Consistently More Pro-Lockdown, Study Finds

Scanning the British media, you’d be hard-pressed to find an obvious gender difference in attitudes to lockdown. There are both men and women represented among prominent lockdown proponents, as well as among prominent lockdown sceptics.

Which makes a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year all the more interesting. Vincenzo Galasso and colleagues analysed data from a survey carried out in eight OECD countries (including Italy, the U.K. and Australia) in March–April of 2020.

The survey measured respondents’ concern about the pandemic, their attitudes to lockdown measures such as closing schools and ‘non-essential’ businesses, and their self-reported compliance with government restrictions (see here for a full list of measures).

What did the researchers find? Across all eight countries (with the exception of Austria in the second wave), women were more likely than men to be concerned about the pandemic. They were also more likely to support lockdown measures, and reported greater compliance with government restrictions.

These findings are shown in the chart below. Note: “Overall agreement” corresponds to a measure of agreement with lockdown measures, while “Overall Compliance” corresponds to a measure of self-reported compliance. The units on the y-axis are percentage points.

As the chart indicates, the gender differences were not huge: women were about seven percentage points more pro-lockdown than men. But they were robust, and not explained by demographic characteristics like age, education or occupation type.

The finding that women are more pro-lockdown is somewhat surprising, given that COVID-19 appears to be more lethal for men. After all, you might expect groups that are at higher risk to be more in favour of restrictions.

The authors suggest that women’s greater compliance with government restrictions could help to explain the gender gap in risk of death from COVID-19, though I suspect any contribution is small. Women mount stronger immune responses to most pathogens, and this almost certainly explains why COVID-19 is more lethal in men.

Interestingly, the two Western states at the extreme ends of the ‘containment spectrum’ – New Zealand (the most restrictive) and South Dakota (the least) are both led by women. This illustrates that moderate gender differences in attitudes only go so far in explaining actual differences in policy.

The researchers’ finding is nonetheless interesting, and their paper is worth reading in full.

COVID-19 and ‘Politician’s Logic’

Freddie Sayers, the host of UnHerd’s ‘Lockdown TV’, has written an interesting piece for The Telegraph. Commenting on the Government’s insistence that we must vaccinate 12–15 year olds – in defiance of its own expert panel – he notes that a “dangerous new wisdom is forming, which views action as always better than inaction”.  

“In this view,” Sayers continues, “long-standing rules and institutions of liberal democracies have been demoted to fussy obstacles that prevent us from replicating the successes of the command-and-control governments of Asia.”

He then makes the important but often overlooked point that “action can be every bit as damaging as inaction”. If only politicians had taken this into account last year, the response to the pandemic might have looked very different.

When I asked Philippe Lemoine why lockdowns were implemented with so little regard for costs, he suggested that politicians didn’t want to “leave themselves open to the accusation of not having done anything to curb the epidemic”. They had to do something, even if that something ended up causing more harm than good.

This fallacy was popularised by the much-loved British sitcom Yes, Prime Minister. In the episode ‘Power to the People’, Sir Humphrey Appleby is talking to his predecessor Sir Arnold Robinson about the Prime Minister’s plans to reform local government.

Sir Arnold says, “He’s suffering from politician’s logic,” to which Sir Humphrey replies, “Something must be done; this is something; therefore we must do it.” In other words: ‘Something must be done; lockdown is something; therefore we must do it.’

The incentives that gave rise to ‘politician’s logic’ in this case are obvious. While the ‘benefits’ of lockdown are immediate and visible, the costs may take months or even years to materialise. (By ‘benefits’, I mean the reduction in social and economic activity that is believed to reduce viral transmission.)

Furthermore, even if lockdown’s impact on mortality turns out to be marginal, politicians can claim that things would have been far worse if not for their tough and far-sighted decisions.

After all, we can’t observe the counterfactual of what would have happened in the absence of lockdown. And the politicians themselves? They may well be out of office by the time the full costs of lockdown become apparent.

Incidentally, the fact that ‘politician’s logic’ is a fallacy obviously doesn’t imply we should never do anything. In the case of the pandemic, there was something else we could have done, namely focused protection.

Let’s hope that when the next pandemic arrives, there are a few people around who remember the lessons of Yes, Prime Minister. Just because this is something, doesn’t mean we have to do it.

At the Tip I Found a Public Sector Still Living in Lockdown and in No Rush to Change

I finally went to the tip on Sunday to clear out the junk and defunct household items that had been accumulating since March 2020. I’d been putting it off because since the first lockdown the local tip had introduced an inconvenient booking system and all manner of the usual ‘Covid safe’ nonsense. Bear in mind that this is a facility that exists entirely outdoors and so where the risk of transmission is minimal.

I was waiting for the restrictions to be lifted so that I could just turn up, in the handy, old-fashioned way, and not be harassed by the tiresome ‘safetyist’ propaganda. This had taken considerably longer than I had anticipated, however, and now ‘Freedom Day’ had come and gone, and still the booking system remained stubbornly in place. The rest of the country may have lifted restrictions, but not the tip.

So when the microwave gave up in quick succession to the coffee machine and I faced the prospect of a garden filling up with broken small electrical appliances, I finally admitted defeat and booked myself in for a slot. It was, as predicted, irritatingly inconvenient, as having made the arrangement for three o’clock on the Sunday I now felt bound by it and had to arrange my day around it. The fact that the weather turned out unexpectedly summery and we ended up at a classic car show only meant that, come the hour, I had to drag my two small children away from the enticing bungee bounce in order to be able to make my time.

On arrival at the recycling centre (as the tip is now styled) it was like stepping back to April 2020. Large illuminated signs warned the approaching visitor of the dangers of Covid and reassured them there were numerous measures in place for their safety and to prevent the spread. Staff would not be able physically to help with disposing of items, the signs declared. That’s a noble sacrifice on their part, was the unkind thought that went thought my head.