Saturday, April 4, 2020

With a voice in London once again banging the "herd immunity" drum, the time has come for Nicola Sturgeon to follow Jacinda Ardern by loudly saying "no way, not EVER"

It's going to be a source of bafflement and embarrassment to SNP members for many years to come that the Scottish Government remained in lockstep with London during the period when Vallance and Whitty were quite openly planning to achieve 'herd immunity' by deliberately allowing 60%+ of the population to be infected - a crazy and immoral strategy that would have cost hundreds of thousands of UK lives, that wasn't seriously contemplated by more than a tiny handful of other countries, and that is considered so extreme that even Donald Trump eventually disavowed it. The charitable interpretation is that Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues were only hearing the UK government's version of "the science" and therefore didn't realise how much of an outlier it was in international terms, how sharply it diverged from World Health Organization guidance, and how catastrophic the loss of human life would have been.

But there are no such excuses anymore. Anyone who has been paying attention over the last few weeks knows the score. So now that the UK government's "chief pandemic modeller" is suggesting that the lockdown should be lifted and that we should go back to allowing most of the population to be infected and put at risk of severe illness and death, we really do need Nicola Sturgeon to immediately knock this one politely and firmly on the head. We need to hear her echoing the words of Jacinda Ardern by saying that 'herd immunity' will never be acceptable to her or to any other Scot, and that the "Four Nations" approach will be immediately abandoned if London start flirting with it again.

The 'chief modeller' in question is not from the Imperial College team, incidentally - he's Graham Medley, the head of another team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who also advise the government. The language he uses is deeply disturbing - he effectively implies that the old should be sacrificed for the best interests of the young, which suggests that he knows full well that a biblical death toll would be unavoidable if he gets his wish. But of course the whole notion of generational sacrifice is bogus anyway, because we've seen large numbers of young people become seriously ill and dying. The two nurses that were mourned today were both in their thirties. The carnage that Medley wants to unleash would be no respecter of youth.

He suggests that people should be infected in the least deadly way possible - as if there's some kind of 'non-deadly' way to catch a virus with a death rate estimated as being as high as 1.4%. He rubbishes the idea that mass-testing might form the basis of an alternative exit strategy, simply because his mathematical modelling suggests that the virus will start spreading again as soon as lockdown is lifted - but that takes us straight back to the idiotic error that got us into this mess in the first place. During the early weeks of this year, the government were totally ignoring the real world experience in China and South Korea and were putting all their eggs in the basket of mathematical modelling instead. That led them to make two huge false assumptions - a) that the virus was much less deadly than it actually was, and b) that it was less controllable by means of testing and tracing than it actually was. South Korea has clearly demonstrated that the number of new cases can be kept persistently low by that method. It would be crazy to condemn hundreds of thousands to death without at least attempting that ourselves.

The message to the Scottish Government must be: don't even think about ending lockdown until there is a credible exit strategy in place that does not involve sitting back and allowing the majority of the population to be infected. Testing and tracing would inevitably be central to any such strategy.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Ipsos-Mori poll suggests the public are aware that Johnson was too slow in ordering a lockdown

It's often said that leader ratings are more predictive of election results than voting intention numbers.  Given that governments almost always have sky-high approval figures in the middle of a major crisis, I wonder if it's also true that we need to look at other polling questions to get a more accurate sense of what the fallout for the current government might be in the longer run.  (Tony Blair, for example, was given the benefit of the doubt by the public during the Iraq War, but that swiftly changed after major hostilities were over and no WMDs were found.)

There are already some worrying signs for Boris Johnson.  A YouGov poll suggests that 31% feel the UK is handling the crisis worse than other countries, and only 27% take the opposite view.  OK, those aren't disastrous figures for Johnson, but they do suggest that a substantial minority have wised up to the failings on PPE, testing and contact tracing.  Even more telling is an Ipsos-Mori poll showing that 56% of respondents feel that Britain didn't go into lockdown soon enough.  At present, that seems to be the mistake that has the greatest potential to come back to haunt the Prime Minister.

There can be little doubt that the majority are right on this one, because the hundreds of people who are now dying in the UK on a daily basis were largely infected at a time when the government were still saying that large gatherings were fine (and that there wasn't much risk in the open air!), that schools should remain open and that pubs and clubs could carry on with their normal business.

The Scottish Government of course moved slightly faster than the rest of the UK in ending large gatherings, but it's difficult to give them much credit for that, because even when the decision was taken they still perservered with the silly fiction that "the science" showed that big crowds did little harm and that the only good reason for stopping major events was to reduce the burden on the emergency services.  That simply wasn't true.  Even the modelling that ministers were relying on at the time clearly showed that banning big public gatherings would reduce the rate of infection, and that if done in combination with the closure of schools, pubs and clubs, the effect could be extremely substantial.

As late as 15th March - less than three weeks ago - the Scottish Government inexplicably allowed a Lewis Capaldi concert to take place in Aberdeen, even though the decision had already been taken to stop gatherings of more than 500 from the following day.  Infamously, Scotland's National Clinical Director Jason Leitch told Good Morning Britain that people "should have gone" to large gatherings on the weekend of the 14th/15th, and that he would have "gone himself".  When Piers Morgan reacted incredulously, Leitch sneered at him and asked when he had received his Masters in public health.  The clip was shared thousands of times by social media users who were excited to see the unpopular Morgan being "taken down" by a Scottish Government "man in the know", but my own reaction was very different -

"There's probably no other circumstance in which I'd be on Piers Morgan's side in a confrontation with a Scottish Govt spokesperson, but my guess is that much of what Leitch has been saying in his tour of the TV and radio studios isn't going to age well."

Tragically, that guess has been proved right extremely rapidly.  The reality is that there was never any public health justification for allowing the Capaldi concert, or the Scotland v France game a week earlier, or the Cheltenham festival, or the Liverpool v Atletico Madrid game.  The evidence was clear that these events would fuel the epidemic - and for ministers and their advisers that was the whole point of allowing them to go ahead.  They actively wanted infections to occur (albeit at a 'managed' rate) because their crazy objective at that point was not to stop or limit the epidemic, but rather to "land the peak" at what they thought was going to be the 'perfect' moment.  

However much Matt Hancock may try to rewrite history, there is ample on-the-record evidence that this was the government's motivation for delaying the introduction of social distancing measures.  One estimate suggests that the delay means there'll now be an epidemic three times larger than would otherwise have been the case, and as a result thousands will die needlessly.

It looks like the public aren't all that far away from joining up these dots.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Dounreay offered large supplies of PPE to health workers in Caithness - but the bureaucrats said "no"

I was kindly sent some information yesterday about community procurement of PPE in the Highlands (from businesses, police and the like), which is intended to help plug the gaps in the totally inadequate NHS supplies.  I gather that some of the details were featured on Channel 4 News recently, but the most striking revelation is that Dounreay offered a large supply of PPE to the NHS in Caithness, and it was turned down by management because it hadn't followed the normal procurement guidelines.  Frontline staff were understandably furious that bureaucratic absurdities had left them needlessly at risk.  It seems pretty likely that supplies that are good enough for decommissioning Scotland's most dangerous radioactive site would be of great use to NHS workers.  [UPDATE: I see from a news story posted in the last few hours that a donation from Dounreay appears to have been accepted, so it looks like the original decision was reversed either wholly or in part.  A 'better late than never' moment - we've had quite a few of those during this crisis.]

There are also suggestions that the PPE that has arrived from central procurement is much inferior to the supplies that have come from local businesses - for example, glasses that fall off and gowns that don't cover elbows or the whole of arms.  There's a plea for the Scottish Government to follow the example of other nations by urging industry to donate their PPE to the NHS.

It's well-known that the shortages of PPE (and the inadequacies of the supplies that do exist) are a massive problem because they put health workers at grave risk of infection and illness, and also because seriously ill patients are much less likely to receive optimum treatment if a significant percentage of health workers are self-isolating after showing symptoms.  But there's also a third issue: lack of PPE is a significant factor in fuelling the overall epidemic.  I believe I'm correct in saying that in Italy, no fewer than 8% of all confirmed cases are health workers.  Many of those people have gone home and infected family members.

*  *  *

On a totally unrelated subject, I've been having a look at the datasets for the recent Scottish poll from Panelbase, and you might be interested to know just how close we came to a 50/50 split on the independence question.  After weighting, 415 respondents said they would vote Yes, and 424 said they would vote No.  That works out as Yes 49.46%, No 50.54%.  (Those figures are approximate, because I'm fairly sure that even weighted respondents are rounded to the nearest whole number.)  If the Yes figure had been 49.5% or above, it would have been reported as 50%.  So it looks as if just the tiniest smidgeon more would have kept Yes in the 50s - which is pretty incredible in the middle of the biggest international crisis since the Second World War.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The number of excess deaths caused in the UK by a "herd immunity" strategy would be comparable to the Hiroshima bombing

Among the dwindling band of enthusiasts for the "take it on the chin" / "herd immunity" approach, a favourite refrain is that it doesn't actually matter if an unimaginable number of people die, because (supposedly) "they would have died anyway". Incredibly, even the BBC tried that line the other week. The idea is that many of the deaths are elderly people with severe health conditions who would otherwise have had an extremely short life expectancy. Now let's be clear what we're talking about here: Imperial College estimate that without a full-on suppression strategy, around 250,000 people would die of the virus in the UK, and of those, around half to two-thirds "might" otherwise have died of another cause at some point this year - although of course that leaves open the possibility that they could have lived on for many months, and no price tag can really be put on that.

But even if those people are completely excluded, that means the real total of excess deaths would be "only" somewhere between 83,000 and 125,000. As we've seen, many of those victims would be relatively young, and a significant minority would have no underlying health conditions. We're talking about people who can reasonably expect to live a great many years or decades in the absence of a herd immunity strategy.

For comparison, the death toll from the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 is estimated to have been somewhere between 90,000 and 146,000.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

It looks like the Dr Strangelove-style "herd immunity" plan of Whitty and Vallance may need to be defeated for a second time

Here's the most disturbing thing I've read since the start of the lockdown - BuzzFeed says a source has told them that Whitty and Vallance are still privately plotting to deliberately allow 60%+ of the population to be infected with the virus in a deranged attempt to foster "herd immunity", albeit over a longer time-scale than they originally had in mind.  This apparently explains their appalling refusal to commit to sufficient levels of testing.  I must say that was the impression I formed when I saw the pair at a press event held several days after the Imperial College paper had forced a change of strategy.  It was as if, for them, nothing had changed at all - they were still talking about merely delaying the peak of the epidemic until the summer and spreading the infections out more.  Whitty at one point even went into a technical explanation about how delaying the epidemic could potentially reduce the overall number of infections somewhat by avoiding "overshooting".  That's unmistakeably the language of a mitigation strategy, not of the suppression strategy that the Imperial College paper told them was absolutely essential to avoid a catastrophic loss of life.

So what's going on?  I think it's professional arrogance - they're reluctantly going along with suppression for the time being, but still want to be proved right at a later date and so are refusing to modify their language or their objectives.  It would be psychologically too difficult to admit to themselves that avoidable deaths will now inevitably occur because the disastrous herd immunity strategy led them to delay vital decisions on social distancing and the ramping up of testing.  By continuing to gaslight us now, ie. by pretending that the WHO's recommendations on mass testing and contact tracing somehow don't apply to the UK, are they trying to put in place another self-fulfilling prophecy?  

We all know there is a perfectly viable alternative exit strategy that doesn't involve a mass epidemic.  It involves waiting until the lockdown reduces the number of infections to a low level, and then keeping them low by testing and contact tracing after the lockdown is lifted. Are Vallance and Whitty hellbent on leaving a mass epidemic as the only option by making sure sufficient testing capacity still won't be there when the moment arrives?  If so, we mustn't let them get away with it.

The good news is that Whitty and Vallance aren't the only scientists advising the government.  Professor Neil Ferguson set out a much saner way forward last week - he said that he had been told that testing capacity would soon improve markedly, and that this would allow us at some point to safely come out of lockdown while keeping the number of new infections at an acceptably low level.  My guess is that Jeremy Hunt has been having private conversations with other experts on SAGE who are exasperated with the attitude of Whitty and Vallance, and that might explain why he's been doing his best to use his influence to steer the government in the correct direction.

The Whitty/Vallance plan no longer even makes sense on its own terms.  One of Whitty's original excuses for herd immunity was the supposed impracticality of asking people to maintain social distancing over a very prolonged period.  But part of the plan was always to "cocoon" the most vulnerable people during the "managed epidemic", and sure enough my elderly mum belatedly received a letter today telling her to avoid all face-to-face contact for 12 weeks.  As things stand, that will probably mostly cover a period of lockdown and suppression.  If Whitty and Vallance then get their hearts' desire of a slow-motion human tragedy of biblical proportions (you know, just to avoid losing face), will that mean vulnerable people actually have to avoid all social contact for 78 weeks until the carnage is finally over?  An intelligent hamster could spot the flaw in that plan.

Once again, if you feel as strongly about this as I do, it might be a good idea to contact your MP or MSP (or both).  Here are the most important points to make -

* The government must commit to mass testing and contact tracing as its strategy for eventually bringing lockdown to an end.  If the testing capacity isn't there at the moment, they should be honest about that, and undertake to reach that capacity as soon as humanly possible.  It should be an all-out effort with no more delays and no more excuses.

* A hazy promise of "more testing" is NOT sufficient. We're not just talking about testing health workers (although of course they should be first in the queue).  We're not just talking about community surveillance.  The WHO recommendation is absolutely explicit - all countries should test every suspected case.  If the test is positive, that person should be quarantined and their close contacts should be traced and tested.  Until a vaccine arrives, that is the only way to break the chains of transmission and avert a mass epidemic.

* Deliberately allowing 60%+ of the public to be infected is not an acceptable alternative exit strategy, and will not become acceptable under any circumstances whatsoever.  It would cause an unimaginable number of deaths, and ironically might well fail to produce 'herd immunity' anyway.  Many experts believe that people who recover from the virus might be susceptible to reinfection after a few months, or a year, or a couple of years.  Not enough is known about the virus to be sure, and allowing huge numbers of people to die in the vague hope that it might possibly produce some speculative benefit at a later date is totally outrageous and downright immoral.

* Perhaps most importantly of all, there should be no question of lifting the lockdown until there is a commitment to mass testing and contact tracing, and until the ability is there to carry it out.  Disturbingly, Scotland's Chief Medical Officer suggested the other day that suppression measures might be relaxed when the NHS has enough spare capacity to treat more patients.  The idea that it's somehow OK to needlessly allow people to become seriously ill just because there's a hospital bed ready for them is, let's be honest, utter lunacy.

*  *  *

I criticised Robert Peston earlier in this crisis for regurgitating government propaganda on herd immunity, but he's done a splendid job tonight of exposing government propaganda on the lack of testing...

"Michael Gove said just now that the difficulty in increasing number of #COVID19 tests was due to a shortage of the relevant "chemcial reagents". Well I've just talked to the Chemical Industries Association, which represents the UK's very substantial chemicals industry. It has contacted its members, and they've said there is no shortage of the relevant reagents. So the Association has now been in touch with Michael Gove's office to find out what he means, because it is stumped. The Association also points out there was an industry chat with a business minister today, who made no attempt to find out if there was a supply problem for the vital ingredients of Covid19 testing kits. So this question of why there aren't enough tests for the virus is an even bigger mystery. Also, if it turns out there is a shortage these manufacturers are more than happy to increase their production. But they need to be asked, which has not happened. PS It was Labour MP Bill Esterson who initially spotted this gap between what Gove said and what the industry believes to be true."

So there you have it - the failure to build up testing is not unavoidable, it's a choice. That choice must now be relentlessly challenged, and reversed.

*  *  *

This is superb from Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand and someone who I know that Nicola Sturgeon admires greatly -

"There were some countries that initially talked about herd immunity as a strategy.  In New Zealand we NEVER EVER considered that as a possibility EVER.  Herd immunity would have meant tens of thousands of New Zealanders dying, and I simply would not tolerate that, and I don't think any New Zealander would."

New Zealand has of course got roughly the same population as Scotland (in fact it's marginally smaller), so we'd be looking at tens of thousands of deaths as well.  And yet this is the outcome that the UK government's Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser are apparently still privately hankering after.  And this is what the Scottish government are effectively still in lockstep with as part of the so-called "Four Nations" approach.

We've got to put a complete end to this madness once and for all.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The time has come to accept Alex Salmond's innocence, and to welcome him back into the SNP fold

Those of you with very long memories may recall that when cameras were first allowed into the Scottish courts, one of the first televised criminal trials (in fact I think it might have been the very first one) featured Alex Salmond's future defence counsel Gordon Jackson.  He was defending a client against a charge of murder, and he gave a brilliant explanation to the jury of the concept of "beyond reasonable doubt".  He said that if they were 90% sure the defendant was guilty, the correct verdict was to acquit.  The point he was making is that a lot of people would assume that 90% certainty is more than enough for a guilty verdict, but in reality a 10% doubt means that guilt has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt and that acquittal should be inevitable.

That's why it's wrong to say "if Alex Salmond was acquitted, it means the jury think his accusers were lying".  It may have been that the jury weren't sure whether the accusers were telling the truth, in which case they had to give the benefit of doubt to the defendant.

But the flipside of that coin is that there is no justification whatever for treating an acquitted defendant as if he is essentially guilty.  As I understand it, the position of Rape Crisis Scotland and certain commentators is as follows -

* If someone is accused of sexual assault, he must by definition be guilty.

* The accused person is worsening the ordeal of his 'victims' if he tries to defend himself in court.

* The jury is worsening the ordeal of the accused person's 'victims' if it returns a not guilty verdict.

* An accused person who is acquitted should still be assumed to be guilty in every non-legal sense and his professional and social life should effectively be extinguished in much the same way that would have occurred if the verdict had been guilty.

That attitude is quite simply incompatible with the principles of the justice system.  The returned verdict means that society must regard Alex Salmond as innocent, not merely in a criminal sense but in every other sense too, except to the extent that certain facts were accepted by both prosecution and defence.  Do those agreed facts justify the continued demonisation of Mr Salmond?  Predictably, the SNP's highly controversial Equalities Convener Fiona Robertson believes that they do, but I'd suggest that's exactly the kind of extreme puritanism that led to the US Republicans over-reaching themselves two decades ago by attempting to impeach Bill Clinton.  

The Panelbase poll yesterday suggested that, against the confident expectations of a great many people, the SNP have come through the Salmond trial totally unscathed - indeed SNP support seems to have increased even further.  Having miraculously dodged a bullet, now is the time to bring unnecessary division to a definitive end by welcoming Alex Salmond back into the fold.  I know not everybody likes him, but we don't all have to like each other to be part of the same party.  There are one or two Russia-obsessed SNP parliamentarians who will probably never get over Mr Salmond's association with RT, but to the best of my knowledge there is no party rule that prohibits appearances on certain TV channels.

*  *  *

The coronavirus crisis has marked a new nadir for British journalism, and I think this tweet sums it up best -

"I've seen journalists be full of s*** before but I have never seen anything quite like this thing with UK journalists rallying around 'herd immunity', patting themselves on the back for understanding THE SCIENCE (everybody gets the virus), and then pretending it never happened."

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sensational Panelbase poll shows SNP have further increased their enormous lead over the Tories

A few people have mentioned over the last few days that they'd just taken part in a Scottish voting intention poll for Panelbase. My assumption was that it was probably a private poll that would never see the light of day, because I couldn't believe a newspaper would commission such a poll in the middle of an unprecedented global crisis, but amazingly it turned out to be for the Sunday Times. The Holyrood figures are almost unbelievably good for the SNP - they're marginally better even than the figures in the previous Panelbase poll, which was commissioned by this very blog in late January.

Scottish Parliament constituency voting intentions:

SNP 51% (+1)
Conservatives 26% (n/c)
Labour 14% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 6% (-1)
Greens 3% (n/c)

Scottish Parliament regional list voting intentions:

SNP 48% (+1)
Conservatives 26% (+1)
Labour 13% (-1)

I'll have to wait a few hours to find out the list numbers for the Lib Dems and the Greens, because I don't pay the Murdoch Levy and the preview of the article cuts out at that point!  But there's no doubt that the SNP would win a comfortable outright majority on results such as these.

I know from what people have said that the poll also asked about independence and the Alex Salmond trial (the latter possibly explains the weird timing of the exercise), but I can't see any information about those results yet.

I have to say I feel slightly cheated, because until I found out about the Panelbase poll a few minutes ago I was all set to write a blogpost entitled: "Hello!  Is it me you're looking for?"  One of our resident trolls had left a comment on the previous thread saying he couldn't wait to see how I would "spin the poll showing a 9% swing from the SNP to the Tories".  It turned out there was no such poll - he was referring to a tweet by a journalist from Hello! magazine (I'm genuinely not making this up) who apparently couldn't tell the difference between a poll and a tiny subsample of 99 people.

UPDATE: Many thanks to Paul Martin for sending me the full Sunday Times article.  The Liberal Democrats and Greens are both on 6% of the list vote - that's a 1% drop for both since January.

The independence figures are...

Should Scotland be an independent country?

Yes 49% (-3)
No 51% (+3)

Luckily the Sunday Times are measuring percentage changes from their own previous poll in November, rather than from the more recent Panelbase poll commissioned by this blog, so they're very helpfully reporting this as a 2% increase for Yes!  For my money the Yes vote has held up remarkably well given that people tend to be much more cautious and conservative in the middle of a crisis.  A virtual 50/50 split in the current circumstances suggests there is considerable potential for Yes to build up a sustained lead if and when the attention of the public returns to the Tories' plans for an extreme Brexit.

Respondents to the poll feel that Nicola Sturgeon is responding better to the current crisis than Boris Johnson - she gets a net rating of +54 compared to Johnson's rating of +17.  That's highly significant, because fieldwork took place entirely after Johnson's much-lauded TV address announcing the lockdown.  Bear in mind, though, that it may be harder for Ms Sturgeon to keep such a high profile going forward, now that BBC Scotland are cutting back on TV news bulletins.  (It's hard to be too critical of that decision given the need for social distancing and to keep the number of people travelling for work to an absolute minimum.  Nevertheless, it does illustrate again that the BBC tend to regard London-based news as 'essential' and Scottish news as an optional extra.)

On the Alex Salmond trial, the poll finds that the impact on Nicola Sturgeon's reputation has been more or less neutral.  Mr Salmond himself fares somewhat less well, but it's scarcely a disaster for him - a majority of the sample either say that their opinion of him has not been changed, or that they now have a more positive view.