Saturday, April 11, 2020

BBC make 'Herculean effort' to conceal the scale of the catastrophe from the public

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Friday, April 10, 2020

91% of the British public say the lockdown should be extended, according to YouGov poll

One of the really odd things about the last couple of days is that the daily death toll in the UK is now roughly the same as it was in Italy at the peak (both in absolute terms and per capita terms), and yet the media have been downplaying that and trying to move the narrative on to "can we all get back to normal now?"  Which is, obviously, a bit nuts.  Ending the lockdown in the near future would be the rough equivalent of telling everyone to come out of their bomb shelters at the exact moment the bombs are dropping.  Things are worse in the UK right now than just about anywhere else in the world (with one or two obvious exceptions like New York) and the real question journalists should be asking is what more the government plan to do to suppress transmission and protect the public.  A cynic might wonder if the media's bizarre narrative is driven largely by self-interest - after all, sales of print editions of newspapers are thought to have plummeted to record lows due to the lockdown.

The good news, though, is that the public haven't been hoodwinked - or not yet, anyway.  A new YouGov poll finds voters are practically unanimous in their support for extending the lockdown - a total of 91% approve of the idea, and 69% "strongly" support it.  A mere 5% are opposed.  I'm struggling to think of any other subject on which you'd get such a lopsided result.

Professor Anthony Costello, a former director of the WHO and one of the voices of sanity on Twitter, has suggested that the government's scientific advisers are split between "hardliners" who still hanker after the crazy and immoral herd immunity policy that Matt Hancock pretends was never the policy, and "moderates" who understand that a full-on suppression strategy is absolutely essential for preventing a biblical death toll and the total collapse of the NHS.  That would explain why we periodically see articles suggesting that herd immunity is still the covert strategy - that may at least be half-true.  The hope must be that the inevitable extension of the lockdown will buy the moderates more time to win the argument.  The promised boost in testing capacity (if it actually materialises) should help to make the case that the mass testing and contact tracing recommended by the WHO is actually feasible and can help to keep the number of new cases persistently low even without a full lockdown, as has already been demonstrated in both South Korea and China.  There's simply no need to destroy the economy by letting the virus spread freely - and destroying the economy would be precisely the effect, because NHS collapse would inevitably lead to a much longer and harsher lockdown further down the track.

The Scottish government may have a crucial role to play in this, because it's been suggested that Boris Johnson is extremely keen to maintain a UK-wide united front - which if true gives Nicola Sturgeon some leverage in private discussions.  With a bit of luck she's learned from the mistake of remaining in lockstep with London a few weeks ago when Whitty and Vallance were openly talking about herd immunity.  This time she must make abundantly clear that she won't sign off on a lifting of the lockdown in Scotland until a credible alternative strategy for suppressing transmission of the virus is in place - one that at the very least ensures that the average number of people infected by 1 person is below 1, thus keeping the epidemic in retreat indefinitely.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The German plan to put the pandemic into retreat: we MUST have a similar plan in place before we even think about ending the Scottish lockdown

Like everyone, I was profoundly shocked to hear that the Prime Minister has been moved into intensive care, and I truly, desperately hope he pulls through this.  But I also hope this turn of events acts as a jolt to politicians, and makes them realise the virus must be treated with respect and can't be left to "move through the population" under any circumstances whatsoever.

Among the dwindling band of enthusiasts for the idea of deliberately allowing 60%+ of the population to be infected in the hope of producing 'herd immunity', there's a debating trick of framing the choice as being a straight one between letting the virus rip, and a lockdown of a year or eighteen months' duration that would wreck the economy.  Curiously, they seem to believe that presenting the choice in this way will guarantee that any 'reasonable' person would always choose a biblical death toll over economic damage.  They're completely wrong about that, but luckily it's a false choice anyway.  South Korea demonstrate on a daily basis that the epidemic can be tightly controlled, and new cases can be kept persistently low, through a blend of mass testing, fast contact tracing, and social distancing measures that fall short of full lockdown.

Germany have just drawn up a plan to do something similar, and crucially, the respected Robert Koch Institute believe that it will ensure that the average number of people infected by 1 person will be lower than 1.  For as long as that figure remains below 1, the epidemic will always be in retreat rather than growing, although obviously how significant and/or rapid the retreat is depends on how far below 1 the number is.

The measures being suggested are:

1) Most importantly, mass testing and fast contact tracing, with the aim of tracing 80% of a person's close contacts within 24 hours of them testing positive.

2) Continued stringent social distancing measures, with the bans on large public gatherings and private parties remaining in place.

3) Compulsory use of face-masks in public buildings and in buses and trains.

4) Some schools might re-open but only in low-intensity areas.

The implication is that all of this would carry on until a vaccine is ready, possibly next year.

Clearly none of this describes a full return to normal life, but neither is it a blueprint for economic Armageddon.  Despite what the herd immunity zealots would have us believe, there is a way of both protecting the economy AND controlling the spread of the virus, but we must have a credible, fully-fledged plan such as the German one in place before we even think about lifting the lockdown in this country.  It would be totally irresponsible to relax the current rules until there is an alternative suppression strategy in place.  It would also be irresponsible to do it before lockdown has succeeded in bringing the numbers down to a low enough level to actually make an alternative suppression strategy viable, and according to Professor Neil Ferguson that won't happen until late May or June.

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Given his track record of extreme views, a lot of people will be deeply concerned about Dominic Raab's status as Johnson's designated deputy.  If it gets to the point where he's trying to make big strategic decisions that will determine whether hundreds of thousands of people live or die, there's going to be a huge question mark over his democratic authority given that neither the public nor the Conservative party have elected him.  The obvious way of conferring legitimacy on a stand-in PM would be to form a temporary government of national unity.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Nothing better symbolises the UK's open defiance of the World Health Organization than the Chief Medical Officer returning to work when he might still be infectious

The World Health Organization's guidelines on isolation are quite straightforward and specific - an individual should not have contact with others until 14 days after symptoms end.  It's acknowledged that even this doesn't eliminate the risk of transmission entirely - it's estimated that around 1% of people might still be infectious after 14 days.  But the aim is to reduce the risk to an acceptable level, and clearly anything above 1% would be totally unacceptable, given how high the mortality rate of this virus is and how easily it spreads.

It's not hard to see that the risk must be much, much greater than 1% if people ignore the WHO and instead follow the UK's much laxer guidelines - which are only to isolate for seven days after symptoms begin.  In practice, that could be as much as ten days earlier than the WHO say is safe.  A string of senior people in the UK establishment, including Prince Charles and Matt Hancock, have already abandoned self-isolation when there was a significant risk that they were still infectious.  Their excuse was that they were following the advice of the government's Chief Medical Officer.

But today the Chief Medical Officer himself returned to work only around ten days after he first started showing symptoms.  So what's his excuse for putting his colleagues and the wider community at unnecessary risk?  Essentially he's defying the WHO through his own personal choice.

And of course the length of the isolation period is not even the most serious way in which the UK is defying the WHO on a daily basis.  Even more disgraceful is the abandonment of testing and contact tracing, which the WHO stress is the key to controlling the pandemic.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Nicola Sturgeon must make 100% sure that whoever is appointed as the next Chief Medical Officer is not a "herd immunity" zealot

Before the UK went into lockdown, I felt like certain journalists and celebrities were missing the point somewhat by lambasting irresponsible individuals for ignoring social distancing advice.  However much self-righteous satisfaction might be gained from ranting at members of the public, the reality was that a percentage of the population were always bound to ignore the guidelines until they ceased to be guidelines and became enforceable rules.  So any pressure that wasn't on Boris Johnson to impose a lockdown was misdirected pressure.

In a similar way, I felt the media were missing the bigger picture today by getting on their high horse about Catherine Calderwood's hypocrisy in thinking her own strictures shouldn't apply to herself.  Yes, she deserved to be criticised, and yes, the ever-reliable Jason Leitch made his umpteenth gaffe of this crisis by initially trying to pretend that what she did was absolutely fine.  But the media outrage over a small personal misjudgement seems wildly disproportionate when you consider the far more serious strategic errors that ministers and their advisers (including Calderwood herself) have made in their response to the outbreak - most obviously the catastrophic 'herd immunity' idea, which apart from being immoral and unworkable, also directly led to us being woefully unprepared for a mass-testing drive when the change of direction came.

I must be a glass half full sort of person, because whatever Calderwood's personal responsibility for the mistakes that have been made, I tend to worry more about how her replacement could be a lot worse if the appointment is made in a rush and the wrong person is chosen.  It ought to go without saying that Nicola Sturgeon should make 100% sure that the new CMO is not a herd immunity zealot.  The ideal person would be someone with a good grounding in the basics of public health - such as testing, contact tracing, and quarantining.  Those are the prosaic methods by which (as South Korea has demonstrated) it's perfectly possible to eventually get on top of the virus without the majority of the population being infected.