Nicola Sturgeon faces criticism from opposition parties and business leaders on her plans to force ‘large venues’ to check vaccine passports. The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader says his party is “fundamentally opposed” to vaccine passports and the Chair of the Night Time Industries Association Scotland says the plans are “completely incoherent”. But will this be enough? Guardianhas more.
John Swinney, Deputy First Minister, had previously described passports as “the wrong way to go”, while the Scottish Greens – who last week entered a power-sharing agreement with the Scottish Government – described them as “discriminatory”.
Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, told the Holyrood chamber at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday that the proposal represented “shambolic, last-minute, kneejerk decision-making” and suggested that tensions were already emerging between the SNP and the Scottish Greens.
Sturgeon replied that she believed businesses were showing “understanding and pragmatism… in recognition of the severity of the situation we face”.
But Neil Doncaster, Chief Executive of the Scottish Professional Football League, earlier issued a warning that the plans would have “significant unintended consequences” for clubs, with the proposals for events of more than 10,000 people affecting Scotland games and some Scottish Premiership matches.
He told BBC Sport Scotland: “It’s not clear what IT infrastructure will be in place, what timescales clubs will be asked to work to, or what can be done for those without smartphones.
“And it’s not clear if it’s going to cut across terms and conditions of seasons tickets already bought by people across the land.”
Although Sturgeon said on Wednesday that she hoped not to extend the measure to other venues, the Managing Director of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, Colin Wilkinson, described it as a “threat hanging over the whole of the hospitality industry”.
On August 26th, Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at University of Edinburgh and Covid advisor to the Scottish Government, tweeted this:
Sridhar has been a high-profile contributor of allegedly scientific expertise throughout the Covid months; recently, she has featured in the Telegraph in support of the roll-out of the Covid vaccination programme to children of 12 years and above, as well as on the BBC’s Newsround, when she assured her school-aged audience of the ‘100%’ safety of the Covid injections when administered to children.
Notwithstanding her tweet that her interventions in the Covid debate have been nothing more than simple explanations of what’s happening, many of Sridhar’s claims during the past year-and-a-half have been contestable at best, plain false at worst. The BBC quietly retracted Sridhar’s ‘100%’ safety statement, although not before it was broadcast in thousands of schools across the U.K., complete with that air of implicit authority that the BBC continues to confer on its content and contributors.
In response to this, and possibly other ‘bumps’, Sridhar is now running for cover. But it is a curious kind of cover, worthy of our consideration. “I’m just an academic,” she is pleading, as if that condition comes with a great exemption, with indemnity for all fallout from inaccurate forecasts and implausible explanations.
One of the more stunning aspects of the Covid era has been the almost total absence of debate about the official Covid narrative among teaching and research staff at universities. Except for a small few – and very few of those have been sceptical – our supposedly most advanced thinkers in the humanities and the sciences have remained silent in the face of Government measures of the most dubious scientific justifiability and horrific humanitarian implications.
It has been demoralising – this terrible silence in our universities. So contrary to what we might have expected from our dens of latest research and deepest thought. But is it surprising, really? Or is there such profound affinity between academic achievement and worldly inefficacy that silent acquiesce is baked into our great institutions of knowledge and expertise?
The dictionary definition of ‘academic’ is twofold: “A scholar in an institution of higher education” and “not of practical relevance”. Odd bedfellows – scholarship and irrelevance. Yet bedfellows they are, grafted onto one another by the advance of critical thinking (see below), which has reduced scholarship to an irresponsible parlour game and set our universities apart from the real world.
Little wonder that Professor Devi Sridhar retreats to academia after a bumpy week; in academia, anything goes and nothing sticks and nobody is ever to blame.
* * *
Greatest of all assumptions about the special merit of so-called ‘higher’ education is the assumption that it, and it alone, teaches us how to question that which we are told to believe or forced to accept or assumed to know – how to debate, how to argue, how to think for ourselves.
This assumption about universities reflects their position at the centre of the project of enlightenment. “Dare to know!” Immanuel Kant urged readers of the Berlinischer Monatschrift in 1784, in an essay on the question: “What is Enlightenment?” “Have the courage to use your own reason!” he exhorted, so that you attain the ‘maturity’ of which only humankind is capable.
In so framing the mission of enlightenment, Kant opened the way for the ultimate degradation of human ‘maturity’ as delivered by institutions of ‘higher’ education, insofar as he installed at the centre of intellectual endeavour a fundamentally irresponsible daring, defined by the extent to which it sets at nought existing practices, rituals, traditions, and values, in favour of never-ending intellectual reset.
Two centuries after Kant submitted his article – in none other year than 1984 – Michel Foucault published a set of reflections on it, among which is the claim that enlightenment is defined and guaranteed as “permanent critique”. “In what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory,” Foucault wrote, “what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent?”
Foucault’s update of Kant’s original challenge confirmed enlightenment as the relentless production of sentences beginning with “but”, before which nothing is immune from question, revision, suspension and rejection: “But isn’t Shakespeare just another dead white male? But isn’t marriage just another institution of patriarchal oppression? But isn’t freedom just a bourgeois fantasy?”
Insofar as permanent critique has come to dominate our institutions of ‘higher’ education – and it has – we may cease to wonder at the increasing irrelevance of those institutions, at their merely academic significance. Under their tuition, anything of practical and moral worth must be ready to give way before the endless march of “but”, which empties every canon and topples every statue.
Ironically, given the ever-expanding irrelevance of the scholarship they foster, universities have in recent years seemed to thirst after the efficacy that they simultaneously and necessarily erode. What are called ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ are now the most touted of universities’ stated values, used to assess and reward many aspects of teaching and research. This effort to claw back some vestige of worldly relevance is of course nothing more than a sign of how thoroughly it has been purged from ‘higher’ education, of how academic the academy has now become.
* * *
The spectre that has spurred the project of permanent critique has always been that of childish acceptance, infantile acquiescence, what Kant put before us as “immaturity” in all its forms. If we do not learn to say “but”, it is everywhere implied, then we remain at the mercy of authority in all of its irrational forms.
What a lie this has been. If the silence of academics during the past year-and-a-half has shown us anything, it is that the project of permanent critique offers little or no protection against whatever authority presents itself with force. Academics – often award-winning critical thinkers in their field – have stayed at home in fear of a virus whose infection fatality rate was quickly confirmed as comparable to that of seasonal flu, and have masked and distanced and continue to mask and distance despite the heaps of evidence that have mounted against such measures.
The great talent for saying “but” may be the preserve of academics, but only, it turns out, if saying “but” is academic, that is, of no practical relevance whatsoever. For all practical purposes, silence reigns and no ‘buts’ at all resound through the halls of ‘higher’ education.
It is not surprising that the likes of Professor Sridhar run for cover to academia when the going gets tough – insofar as our universities have been institutions of enlightenment, they have long been a refuge for irresponsible opinion and wild theories of every kind, which they absolve of all sin by rendering them as purely academic.
What is surprising is that Sridhar and her like were ever allowed out of academia in the first place, that their ‘expert’ models and theories and forecasts and projections were ever accorded the dignity of relevancy.
Our universities – more is the pity – have evolved as little more than soft-play areas for amoral and impractical thought, for ‘but’ projects wielded at any target that presents itself. It is a serious category error to assume that anyone employed in them is qualified to pronounce on anything of material significance.
To give him his due, Kant warned against this grave error. He saw that once we were busy submitting everything to ‘but’ questions we would be far too reckless to determine anything of practical or moral significance. “Argue as much as you like about whatever you like,” he encouraged his readers – “but obey!”
And, to give him his due, Foucault also issued a warning: that permanent critique was not to be allowed a free rein, that it must always be an “experimental” attitude and “put itself to the test of contemporary reality, both to grasp the points where change is possible and desirable, and to determine the precise form this change should take”. Most importantly – and particularly painful now – Foucault urged that enlightenment as permanent critique must “turn away from all projects that claim to be global or radical”.
* * *
Foucault’s colleague, Paul Veyne, has written that Foucault never sought to “justify action with thought”. If that is true, it is a dispiriting summary of a philosophical life.
We may regret that things should come to this pass, that what counts as ‘thought’ should be so irrelevant as to be unable to propose or justify actions. We may believe that no institution for teaching and research should operate above the fray, and not be accountable for the ideas and objects that it develops and disseminates. We may judge that our universities should have convictions and then the courage of their convictions, and not shrink from instilling wisdom rather than only promoting expertise.
And we may be right to so regret and so believe and so judge. But while we are doing so, we should for now cease to presume that from our universities is to be had anything other than the irresponsibility that ought to be the preserve of children.
If academia has sought to fulfil Kant’s call to maturity, what it has shown is that using ‘your own reason’ is not maturity – not, that is, if it blithely disregards values and practices that ought to be above the wanton ‘buts’ of those with intellectual impunity, that ought, in fact, to be treated with the cautious sobriety appropriate to all matters of moral and practical import.
I wish that Professor Sridhar and her like may stay now in their academic retreat and leave the world to those who accept the heavy responsibility of relevancy on all its fronts.
Dr. Sinead Murphy is an Associate Researcher in Philosophy at Newcastle University.
Stop Press: Take a look at this clip of Barak Rosenshine debunking the notion that ‘higher order thinking skills’ can be taught (or even exist in the sense of skills that can be transferred from one domain to another once mastered).
Reported positive ‘cases’ have been increasing slightly in the U.K. recently, though the trend appears to be flattening.
Interestingly, the rise has been concentrated outside England, which has been declining in the last week or so.
Scotland has seen the most striking rise, linked it appears to the return of children to school on August 18th.
The Scottish surge in ‘cases’ is linked to a surge in testing – it seems that parents have not been testing their children over the summer, and the requirement to do so for school has picked up a load of hidden infections (presumably these children and their families have not been isolating over the summer either).
Not for the first time, Nicola Sturgeon has hinted that Scotland could be plunged into yet another lockdown due to rising ‘cases’, saying that the country is now at a “fragile and potentially pivotal moment”. The National has the story.
Speaking at a Scottish Government coronavirus briefing in Edinburgh, the First Minister said the daily case figure [of 4,323 on Tuesday] is “the largest we have ever recorded in a single day”.
She said new cases in Scotland have more than doubled in the past week, making this “one of the sharpest rises we have experienced at any point during the pandemic”.
And she warned Scotland is now at a “fragile and potentially pivotal moment” in the fight against the virus as vaccinations have weakened the link between cases and serious harm but not completely broken it.
“Even with vaccination we can’t be totally relaxed about this surge in cases,” Sturgeon said.
“The link between new cases and serious health harms has weakened significantly but it has not been completely broken.
“That means the rise in cases in the last week may well result in people having to go to hospital in the coming days and perhaps requiring intensive care treatment and unfortunately a rise in cases like… I consider likely to be the case in an increase in the number of people dying.
“This means that if this surge continues and if it accelerates and if we start to see evidence of a substantial increase in serious illness as as result we cannot completely rule out having to reimpose some restrictions.” …
During the briefing the First Minister said she wanted life in Scotland to remain “normal” and that large scale outdoor events were less a cause for concern than indoor events.
She also suggested schools remaining open would be a priority for her Government. …
She added: “In terms of the restrictions that are still in place with schools [with secondary pupils required to wear face masks in class] we said the basic mitigations would be in place for at least six weeks after the return of schools…
“So we are not yet at the point of formally reviewing… we will keep mitigations in place for as long as we think is necessary to provide protection for young people and staff in schools but for no longer than we judge as necessary.”
One of the most alarming things about the response to the pandemic by democratic governments across the world is the enthusiasm with which they’ve granted themselves ’emergency’ powers, suspending civil rights – and elections – so that they might better deal with the ‘crisis’. Executives have faced little opposition from legislatures, attempts to restrain political leaders through the courts have been largely unsuccessful and the media has, for the most part, failed to hold them to account. Bad though this has been, however, we have always been able to take some comfort from the fact that these extraordinary powers were temporary and that, eventually, when things returned to normal, governments would have to relinquish them.
Turns out, that was naive. The Scottish Government has unveiled plans to make its ’emergency’ Covid powers permanent. The Telegraphhas more.
John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, unveiled a public consultation on removing the March 2022 expiry date for a host of extraordinary powers, including the ability to impose lockdowns, close schools and require people to wear face coverings.
Controversial rules allowing more prisoners to be released early could also be extended, along with the wider use of fines as an alternative to prosecution.
Mr Swinney insisted measures that were no longer needed would be removed, but argued those with “demonstrable benefit to the people of Scotland” should be retained for use against Covid or anything else deemed a public health threat.
He argued the consultation was “an opportunity to maintain changes that have been welcomed by people who now don’t want to lose transformations that have been innovative” during the pandemic.
New figures from Scotland show that an increase in issues relating to alcohol caused by lockdowns hasn’t been unique to England, with the most alcohol-specific deaths recorded north of the border in more than a decade in 2020. The Guardianhas the story.
There were 1,190 alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland in 2020, an increase of 17% from 2019 and the highest number registered since 2008 when 1,316 people died, according to figures published by the National Records of Scotland (NRS).
The tally of alcohol-specific, rather than alcohol-related, deaths excludes those only partially attributed to alcohol.
After annual increases between 2012 and 2018, the number of alcohol-specific deaths fell by 10% in 2019, which experts took as early evidence of the success of minimum unit-pricing for alcohol, which was introduced in May 2018 in order to tackle Scotland’s chronically unhealthy relationship with alcohol and is currently fixed at 50p a unit.
More than two-thirds of last year’s deaths were of men, and almost one in three were of people in their 50s and 60s. Inverclyde and Glasgow City had the highest rates over the past five years, and the NRS calculated that the death rate in the most deprived areas was 4.3 times the rate in the least deprived areas in 2020.
Responding to the figures, Alison Douglas, the Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said…
“Scotland has made good progress in addressing the problems we have with alcohol by introducing policies like minimum unit-pricing which is showing promising results. Yet the impact of the pandemic [that is, lockdown] threatens to undermine this progress. Many people, particularly heavier drinkers, have reported that they have increased their drinking during the last 18 months. The effects are felt most by those living in our poorest communities, who are eight times more likely to die due to alcohol.” …
The NRS data also revealed a decrease of 3% in probable suicides registered in Scotland in 2020, to 805, but showed that between June and September there were 28% more suicides than usual for those four months. Last year 71% of suicides were of men, with deprived areas of the country experiencing the highest rates.
Restrictions have been partially eased in Scotland today, but it’s not all good news. Scots must continue to wear face masks on public transport and inside public spaces and, more worryingly, Nicola Sturgeon has refused to rule out introducing further lockdowns in the future, saying: “Keeping this virus under control depends on all of us continuing to do all of the sensible things I’ve been talking about.” She told BBC Breakfast (as quoted in the Guardian):
This has been a long, hard year-and-a-half, but we’ve got to continue to exercise care and caution – this virus is unpredictable, and I think it’s true that we underestimate it at our peril. …
Every fibre of my being hopes that the restrictions we are lifting today in Scotland will never, ever have to be imposed, and am I optimistic about that? Yes.
Can I guarantee it? Well, I could tell you that right now for the sake of an easier interview, but it wouldn’t be the right thing to say because keeping this virus under control depends on all of us continuing to do all of the sensible things I’ve been talking about.
We also know that this is a virus that has already mutated, new variants continue to be our biggest threat, so we’ve got to be careful and we’ve got to be realistic.
But I very much hope that all of that, coupled, of course, principally with the power of vaccination, will mean that never again do we have to face lockdowns.
How well do the vaccines protect from death? The two mostrecent weekly reports from Public Health Scotland give us death data by vaccination status, and by subtracting one from the other we can work out how many Covid patients died in the week July 9th-15th. The results are shown below.
We see that 38 people died with Covid that week, 37 of whom were over 50. Twenty-eight (74%) were fully vaccinated (18 of whom were over 80 and 24 were over 70). Thirty-three (87%) had had at least one dose. Just five (13%) were unvaccinated.
To fully interpret these we need to know how many people were vaccinated in each age group. The problem with obtaining this information is that the official Scottish statistics appear to use the same method as the NHS for estimating vaccine coverage, which gives figures which exceed the likely more accurate estimates of Public Health England by around 5%.
Some people are suggesting that the recent surges and drop-offs in Covid infections in England and Scotland can be pinned on the football. The idea is that infections rose as fans mixed during the Euro 2020 championship and declined once Scotland was eliminated and England lost in the final.
It’s true that the summer surges in England and Scotland broadly coincided with when their teams were active in the tournament. Scotland’s new daily infections dropped off a few days after its exit on June 22nd, and England’s a few days after their loss to Italy on July 11th. Also, the male to female ratio of new infections briefly went up during the tournament.
However, that’s about where the coincidences end. The fact that the decline has continued for weeks in Scotland suggests it’s not a short term effect.
Perhaps more important, though, is the different shape of the curves in the two countries during June when both teams were still in the competition.
A reader (an academic economist) has analysed the Scottish Covid data and reached a depressing conclusion: Covid vaccination seems to offer the over-60s little protection from severe illness.
Wasn’t busy today so I decided to collect all the Scottish data and do a bit of mining. Many of the datasets are not properly organised and are downloaded from separate parts of the Government website, so I wondered if they were missing something.
Lo and behold, they were – something big. The reason it was hard to track down was because the government does not publish positive test results by age. This is a problem because testing in Scotland – and across the UK – is far higher this summer than it was last year. Lateral flow tests are everywhere now and people upload their results to the Government app. Only neurotics were doing this last year, but now everyone is doing it.
Okay, so I managed to construct a positive test rate for the over-60s. This can then be compared to hospitalisations. If hospitalisations are low relative to the positive test rate in over-60s then we can have some confidence that the vaccines are protecting this group. This means that even if they seem borderline useless at preventing case growth, they would at least be a prophylactic against severe cases of the virus.
But as you can see from the table above, there is no evidence that hospitalisations are lower for the over-60s that are testing positive and so no evidence that the vaccines protect the over-60s from severe illness.