Saturday, March 28, 2020

As the UK continues to defy the World Health Organization on mass-testing and contact tracing, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer attempts to gaslight the public into thinking the WHO's recommendations somehow don't apply to us

Friday, March 27, 2020

The latest right-wing American conspiracy theory that could lead to millions of deaths if it goes unchallenged

As we all know, Imperial College published a paper ten days ago stating that if the UK persevered with its mitigation strategy (ie. the notorious 'herd immunity' strategy) the NHS would be overwhelmed and there would be a totally unacceptable number of deaths - at least quarter of a million.  However, if the government switched to a full-on suppression strategy with radical social distancing measures, deaths could be kept to a much lower figure of 20,000 or below.  

A day or two ago, the lead author of the Imperial paper, Professor Neil Ferguson, went before a parliamentary committee and reiterated the figures.  He noted that because Britain had now implemented the recommended social distancing measures, the lower maximum figure of 20,000 would now apply - as long as we stay the course, and that's the crucial caveat.  A three-week lockdown won't be enough to have that effect, it'll have to be extended, and extreme social distancing will have to go on for a very prolonged period.

Because journalists are unable or unwilling to read, Ferguson's comments to parliament were apparently misreported in some quarters as Imperial "walking back" on their estimate of quarter of a million deaths.  That led to Trump supporters in the US pushing the entirely bogus claim that Imperial were admitting they got their sums wildly wrong - when in fact all Ferguson had done was reiterate exactly what had been in the original paper.

Most disgraceful and sinister of all, though, was Dr Deborah Birx of Trump's task-force lying through her teeth at a White House press conference by claiming that Imperial had radically changed their projections, and that she was "trying to understand" how that could possibly have happened.  I simply don't believe she's that stupid - it's pure propaganda on behalf of Trump, intended to undermine the overwhelming scientific evidence that millions of Americans will die needlessly if social distancing is prematurely abandoned, as Trump apparently wants to happen.

The irony is that right-wing American conspiracy theorists are trashing Ferguson as if he's some sort of "liberal" hellbent on ruining the American economy, when the reality is that it was earlier Imperial modelling that had been partly responsible for leading Britain down the disastrous herd immunity path in the first place.  When new data came in from Italy and the UK, the modelling was updated and Ferguson's team concluded that a suppression strategy was the only viable option.  Trump supporters are shooting a messenger who originally told them what they wanted to hear, but who can no longer do so for the simple reason that the evidence in front of him no longer supports it.

It may be that nothing can save America from itself, but it's important that the Trump propaganda isn't allowed to take root in this country.  Professor Ferguson has put out a crystal-clear clarification which you can see below, so there shouldn't be a problem as long as people can read.  But here's the thing: can they read?

"I think it would be helpful if I cleared up some confusion that has emerged in recent days. Some have interpreted my evidence to a UK parliamentary committee as indicating we have substantially revised our assessments of the potential mortality impact of COVID-19.

This is not the case. Indeed, if anything, our latest estimates suggest that the virus is slightly more transmissible than we previously thought. Our lethality estimates remain unchanged.

My evidence to Parliament referred to the deaths we assess might occur in the UK in the presence of the very intensive social distancing and other public health interventions now in place. 

Without those controls, our assessment remains that the UK would see the scale of deaths reported in our study (namely, up to approximately 500 thousand)."

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Why are the most vulnerable people being forced to work and put themselves at risk?

I received this email earlier...

"Hi James,

Imagine being told you are an essential worker when you are blind, forced to travel in taxis and/or on trains, then placed in a building with 100 others. Even though spaced farther apart, you can’t see the hand sanitisers.

My friend who is blind (visually impaired people sometimes have a little sight but she does not) has been told her work is necessary.

This is because she works for a sub-contracted industry for financial services and they are regarded as essential workers. She does not want the specific agency mentioned though it’s not hard to guess what service a blind person can perform so I’m a bit limited in what I can say.

She is concerned that many disabled people work in sub-contracted services for utilities and banking and, though they are providing services for vulnerable people, they are themselves vulnerable. It can’t be right that they have been told they must come in to work.

She thinks this is a loophole in the current situation – forcing disabled people to work. She’s writing to her MSP. I know MSPs will be inundated at this time. Can you help?  People to contact?"

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The UK's boneheaded refusal to accept the World Health Organization's central recommendation on testing and contact tracing remains the missing piece of the jigsaw

First of all, credit where it's due - the government have moved much further than seemed conceivable a few short days ago when they were still talking openly about the desirability of sitting back and allowing 60%+ of the population to be infected.  What's been announced is really lockdown-lite, though, and experience from countries like Italy and France strongly suggests that people will exploit the weaknesses in the rules, and that even more stringent measures will then have to be brought in to achieve the intended effect.  You're still likely to see large numbers of people out and about in the morning as if the lockdown hasn't happened, and if challenged by the police they'll just claim they're out on their permitted 'one daily period of exercise'.  We'll just have to see if Boris Johnson is determined enough to close the loopholes in the way that will almost certainly prove necessary.

But an even bigger issue is the glaring contradiction between the government's actions and their words.  The Imperial College paper which proved such a turning point made crystal-clear that 'mitigation' (ie. an enormous managed epidemic) was no longer a viable strategy, and that 'suppression' would have to be attempted instead - ie. keeping the number of cases as low as possible by means of drastic social distancing measures, and then holding on for a vaccine.  The actions the government have taken over recent days are consistent with a suppression strategy, and yet their language remains that of mitigation.  Although Boris Johnson didn't specifically use the phrases "lower the peak" and "flatten the curve" in his TV address, he did use words that appeared to have a very similar meaning.  And as for the Blighty Knows Best duo of Vallance and Whitty, they've carried on talking without reservation about a mitigation strategy as if nothing has changed at all, while insisting that they're aiming for no more than 20,000 deaths - something that the Imperial paper adamantly stated would only be possible with a suppression strategy.  It really doesn't make any sense.

The obvious way out of this mess would be for the government and their advisers to drop their superiority complex and actually start listening to the World Health Organization's central recommendation of mass testing and contact tracing, which has proved so decisive in turning the tide on the epidemic in both China and South Korea.   Incredibly, this New Scientist piece reveals that the scientific advice the government has been receiving in recent weeks has completely ignored the whole concept of test-and-trace.  Not rubbished it, not advanced reasons for why it might not work, but simply ignored it.  The arrogance of taking it as read that the central recommendation of the relevant international body isn't even worthy of discussion is just breathtaking.

Instead the government apparently intend to eventually ramp up testing but without contact tracing, which makes no sense at all.  It seems the main purpose of the testing will be to attempt to prove Whitty's pet theory about there being a very large hidden number of asymptomatic cases out there, and if that happens to get those people back to work - ie. the 'solution' the government have in mind still appears to be a solution for the economy, not for people's health.  But let's hope a bit of common sense creeps in at that point.  Even if there isn't the manpower for proper contact tracing, it's not beyond the wit of man to find ways in which the public could do some of the work themselves.  If someone tests positive during the mass testing, they could be urged to have a friend or relative ring round their close contacts and suggest that those people should be tested as well.  In that way, the chains of transmission might gradually start to be broken.

Oh, and let's knock on the head Whitty's repeated 'truthy' claim that there's no point in any country trying to suppress an epidemic that is almost everywhere in the world.  The virus does not fly across oceans on its own propulsion - if it's successfully pushed back in the UK it could then be kept at bay with suitable quarantining arrangements until a vaccine arrives.  It's just a question of whether the will is there to actually get on top of this thing as the South Koreans and Chinese have done, or whether the government are still hankering after the impossible goal of 'managing' a mass epidemic with a mortality rate that Scotland's Chief Medical Officer now estimates to be 1.4% - much, much higher than Whitty 'confidently' predicted a couple of weeks ago on the basis of his dud modelling.

*  *  *

For anyone who wants to know more about the crucial role that contact tracing played in stemming the Chinese epidemic, let me once again recommend this excellent interview with the WHO's Bruce Aylward.

Wings-to-English translation

Monday, March 23, 2020

Alex Salmond and the future of Scottish politics

Alex Salmond is my biggest political hero.  I think I've previously recounted the story of how I was converted to the cause of independence about a billion years ago when I watched him one morning on an edition of Election Call with Nick Ross.  He spoke up for millions during the Iraq War, and of course was largely responsible for giving Scotland its first pro-independence government in 2007 - a government that remains in power to this day.

So I was heartbroken when Mr Salmond was charged with a number of sexual offences.  I didn't make any prejudgements about whether the allegations were true or untrue, but I was certainly very much hoping he'd prove to be innocent, and I'm extremely relieved that's turned out to be the case.  After the verdict, I said on Twitter that he should now be able to rejoin the SNP without any stain on his character whatsoever, and a number of people immediately said "he won't be rejoining the SNP, he'll lead Scotland to independence with his own list party".  Stuart Campbell seemed to be vaguely hinting at the same thing with the closing line of his own blogpost.  Is this based on wishful thinking or on inside knowledge of Mr Salmond's intentions?  I've no idea.

What I would say, though, is that when I've pointed out the impossibility of "hacking the Holyrood voting system" with a list-only party, I've sometimes added the caveat that there are a very, very small number of people (you could probably count them on the fingers of one hand) who are high-profile enough and have enough of a following that they might just about be able to tear up the normal rulebook and make it work.  Stuart Campbell isn't one of those people, but Alex Salmond is.  There's certainly no guarantee he'd be able to pull it off - history is littered with charismatic, well-known politicians who set up their own parties and got absolutely nowhere.  (David Owen and Robert Kilroy-Silk are two obvious examples.)  But you could at least make a plausible case that Mr Salmond would be given a hearing by SNP voters and might be able to convince a sizeable proportion of them that they'd be serving the cause of independence by voting for the SNP on the constituency ballot and for another party on the list.  With anything above 5% of the list vote, that other party would start winning seats.

Would Mr Salmond be remotely wise to attempt that?  In my view, no.  Movements that are divided against themselves, particularly along the lines of personal feuds, tend to fail.  I think he'd be much better advised to return to his political home in the SNP (a party he was leader of for almost one-quarter of its entire existence to date) and to fight the good fight from within.  That course of action would also have the added bonus of annoying the controversial journalist David Leask, who for several years has been trying to gaslight us into believing that there is something called "the real SNP" which Mr Salmond and his associates are not part of.

YouGov poll shows overwhelming public demand for lockdown

You probably saw this a few days ago, but I suspect now is an important moment to reinforce the point: a YouGov poll was conducted on Thursday to test support for a lockdown in London, and found that people were overwhelmingly in favour.

At this time, would you support or oppose London being placed under a "lockdown" where people are not allowed to leave their homes except to go to work or get essential supplies?

Support: 64%
Oppose: 17%

There was strong support even among the subsample of London residents, ie. those who would be directly affected - 57% of Londoners were in favour, and only 27% were opposed.  It's reasonable to assume that majority will just keep getting bigger as people wake up to the scale of the catastrophe that is unfolding.

Hopefully also the narrative has moved on since the poll was conducted, due to the disgraceful scenes all over the UK of people ignoring social distancing guidelines and acting like they're on a bank holiday break.  Any lockdown self-evidently needs to be UK-wide.  If there's any suggestion of it being confined to London, Nicola Sturgeon should insist (publicly if needs be) that it's expanded to cover Scotland.

The public demand a lockdown.  The science favours a lockdown.  (Needless to say I mean the international science associated with the WHO, not the discredited Blighty Knows Best "science" pushed by the herd immunity triumvirate of Cummings, Vallance and Whitty.)  What remaining excuse has Boris Johnson got for not acting decisively to save hundreds of thousands of lives?