Saturday, May 2, 2020

The vast majority of the British public want to extend the lockdown, according to new YouGov poll

First of all, I have an article in The National with more analysis of yesterday's sensational YouGov poll, which showed the SNP on an almost unbelievable 54% of the Holyrood constituency vote.  You can read it HERE.

But there was also another significant YouGov poll yesterday, which asked respondents across Britain for their views on extending the lockdown.  The verdict was emphatic - a total of 77% of Britons think the lockdown should continue and a mere 15% disagree.  Among the Scottish subsample, the majority is even bigger - 80% to 12%.  This once again exposes the media narrative of "public pressure to get back to normal" as utterly bogus.  It's not that anyone likes being under lockdown - but it looks like the vast majority of people realise that it's by far the lesser of the two available evils.

If you haven't already seen it, you might also be interested in this long video interview from a few days ago with Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, who has (since mid-March at any rate) been one of the 'doves' on SAGE arguing against a 'herd immunity' strategy and in favour of a full-on suppression strategy.  He makes a number of interesting points, but there are a couple that particularly address some of the red herrings that are regularly raised by the usual suspects in the comments section of this blog.  He explains that it's simply not the case that what is happening in Sweden can be taken as an example of the end result of a country following a mitigation (ie. herd immunity) strategy, because in fact Sweden's strategy is a halfway house - he describes it is a semi-suppression strategy which has dramatically reduced the reproduction rate of the virus, but not to below 1.  In many ways that leaves Sweden with the worst of all worlds, because there's enough social distancing to ensure that collective immunity won't be achieved in the foreseeable future, but the virus is still rampant enough to be causing carnage in environments like care homes. In a perverse way the Swedish approach looks like survival of the fittest for the elderly and other vulnerable groups, but with a degree of protection for everyone else.

Ferguson also highlights the magical thinking of those who argue that lockdown causes more harm than the virus itself would in the absence of lockdown.  He points out that some of the harms ascribed to lockdown are actually caused by the virus, and that if you lifted the lockdown they would get a lot worse rather than better.  For example, people may be currently dying of non-coronavirus conditions because they're not accessing the health service, or because the health service doesn't have the capacity to help them.  But if you decide "there's more to life than the virus" (as someone absurdly said on Twitter yesterday), and act as if the problem isn't there anymore so that you can get on with other things, that doesn't mean the virus goes away - quite the reverse.  Without suppression measures it comes back with a vengeance, the NHS will be totally overwhelmed, and people with other conditions won't have a hope of getting the care they need.  Non-coronavirus excess deaths will further increase, not decrease.  OK, eventually the epidemic will pass of its own accord, but that will take several months, and by then the damage will have been done.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Unionist journalists learn the hard way that wishful thinking doesn't get the job done, as sensational YouGov poll shows the SNP on course for an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament

Scottish Parliament constituency ballot:

SNP 54% (+8)
Conservatives 23% (-3)
Labour 12% (-2)
Liberal Democrats 8% (-3)
Greens 2% (+1)

Scottish Parliament regional list ballot:

SNP 45% (+8)
Conservatives 23% (-2)
Labour 12% (-2)
Greens 8% (n/c)
Liberal Democrats 7% (-3)

Scottish voting intentions for next UK general election:

SNP 51% 
Conservatives 25% 
Labour 15% 
Liberal Democrats 6% 
Greens 2%

In YouGov's first Scottish subsample after Keir Starmer became Labour leader, there seemed to be some tentative signs that the SNP were taking a small hit as a result of Labour's move back towards the centre.  I'm not sure whether that was merely a transitory Starmer bounce or whether it was an illusion caused by the small sample size, but either way it most certainly has not been replicated in YouGov's first full-scale Scottish poll since Starmer's election, and indeed since the coronavirus crisis started.  Labour are in every bit as dire a position as they were under Corbyn, and it's the SNP that are surging forward.

Why is this happening?  It's easy to assume that it must be a 'rally round the flag' effect caused by Nicola Sturgeon coming into her own as a 'war leader' during the pandemic, but in fact these figures are broadly in line with Survation and Panelbase polls (the latter commissioned by this blog) at the start of the year when it wasn't known there was going to be a coronavirus outbreak on these shores.  So it's difficult to unpick how much of this is an ongoing honeymoon effect caused by the SNP's landslide victory in December's general election, and how much of it can be explained by the unique situation we now find ourselves in.

What might give us more of a clue would be figures on independence, but there's no information yet on whether this poll contained an independence question.  A Panelbase poll in late March, when the epidemic was still in its relatively early stages, suggested that support for independence had slipped back (not dramatically, but a little) even as the SNP had gained further support.  If that trend has continued, it might suggest that the SNP are prospering due to Ms Sturgeon's steady leadership during the crisis, and that the effect is not directly linked to views on the constitutional issue.

Even if YouGov didn't ask the independence question, it's possible there may be an independence poll very soon.  To use the dread Laura Kuenssberg phrase, "I'm hearing that" a Panelbase poll is in the field, asking about independence, Holyrood voting intentions, the Alex Salmond trial, and the handling of the coronavirus crisis.  It remains to be seen whether it's a private poll or one intended for publication.  Panelbase's two most frequent clients for published Scottish polls are the Sunday Times and Wings Over Scotland, and the questions don't sound very Wings-like, so if the poll does see the light of day it'll probably be in the Sunday Times either this weekend or next.

Bear in mind that, although YouGov conducted a couple of other Scottish polls earlier this year, this is the first time they've asked for Holyrood voting intentions since the general election.  So that means the eight-point increase in SNP support may be partly artificial, due to the post-election revision in methodology.  However, the SNP's estimated vote share for Westminster is 6% higher than they actually achieved in December, which suggests there has been genuine and substantial movement in public opinion.

It should be noted that the SNP having an outright majority of the popular vote essentially destroys the specific case that was made last year in favour of a new pro-independence party to stand only on the list.  The claim was that the SNP would be bound to take a hammering due to fallout from the Alex Salmond trial, and that they would therefore need 'help' to retain the pro-indy majority at Holyrood.  That appears to have been proved definitively wrong.  The arguments for 'gaming the system' do tend to conveniently mutate when circumstances change, so I wouldn't be totally surprised if we still haven't heard the end of the idea.  However, I remain firmly of the view that a new party would have almost no chance of winning seats unless it's fronted by a very high-profile and popular person.  A Salmond-led party might well enjoy success, but I do have a concern that in the long run it might further entrench the 'cultural' divide in the Yes movement.  I still have hopes that Alex Salmond may return to the SNP and fight from within for a stronger push towards independence, but time will tell.

The Scottish Government is more trusted as a source of information about the current crisis than the UK Government, the BBC or any newspaper, according to a remarkable poll from Survation

I think this may be the most extraordinary opinion poll finding I've ever seen - maybe not in terms of its long-term significance, but certainly in terms of how startling it is. Survation interviewed more than 3000 UK adults between the 16th and 23rd of April, and asked them to give a number of institutions, broadcasters and newspapers a score out of ten for providing trustworthy information related to the current emergency. It turns out that the Scottish Government is not only far more trusted than the UK Government, it's also more trusted than twenty-one of the other twenty-two information sources listed - with only the NHS itself scoring more favourably. Yes, folks, the Scottish Government is considered a more trusted source than BBC News - which, given the mythology surrounding the BBC, ought to be an absolute impossibility.

Here is the percentage of respondents who gave each information source a score of at least 7 out of 10...

National Health Service: 81%
Scottish Government: 70%
Organisation I work for: 64%
Welsh Government: 56%
UK Government: 54%
Local council/regional authority: 52%
BBC News: 52%
Friends/family: 51%
Channel 4 News: 50%
Northern Ireland Executive: 48%
ITV News: 47%
Sky News: 44%
Private healthcare provider: 39%
News media: 39%
The Guardian: 39%
Financial Times: 38%
Channel 5 News: 34%
The Times: 33%
The Telegraph: 29%
Daily Mail: 21%
Daily Express: 19%
Daily Mirror: 19%
The Sun: 14%

So far only a summary of the poll's results has appeared on Twitter - I can't see any sign of the datasets on the Survation website. That means we need to be a little careful about jumping to conclusions - there's just a chance that the Scottish Government was only offered as an option to respondents in Scotland, the Welsh Government was only offered as an option to respondents in Wales, and so on. But assuming that all of the results are genuinely UK-wide, the Scottish Government's showing is nothing short of incredible. Usually Britain-wide ratings for the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon or the Scottish Government don't tell us very much at all - either there is a very large amount of Don't Knows for understandable reasons, or the numbers are negative in a knee-jerk way due to Jock-bashing in the London media. I would guess what's different on this occasion is that the public have been actively seeking out information about the pandemic wherever they can find it, and as a result there have been high levels of exposure to the Scottish Government's televised briefings. That has allowed people to make up their own minds without going through the filter of Laura Kuenssberg, Sarah Smith or whoever, and it appears that they find those briefings more authoritative, detailed and honest than almost anything else they've seen.

Is that assessment justified? As far as the contributions of Nicola Sturgeon and Jeane Freeman are concerned, I would say yes, absolutely - Ms Sturgeon in particular is renowned for the unusual trait of actually answering direct questions, rather than answering the questions she wished she'd been asked instead. As regular readers know, I'm much more dubious about Jason Leitch, who it seems to me has been blagging his way through this crisis and mainly just lustily regurgitating whatever happens to be the London line from Whitty and Vallance on any given day. I've been spontaneously contacted in recent days by a couple of people with strong scientific backgrounds, and they were both scathing in their verdict on Leitch. But of course the poll simply measures perceptions of trustworthiness. There's no doubt that Leitch has the gift of the gab and that some people are tremendously impressed by that.

UPDATE: It's been pointed out to me on Twitter that Carl Shoben of Survation clarified that only respondents in Scotland were asked about the Scottish Government.  Nevertheless, it's the Scottish people who will decide the outcome of next year's Holyrood election, and it appears that their relationship with Nicola Sturgeon and her ministerial team has grown much stronger as a result of this crisis.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

To squash the epidemic and make contact tracing feasible, the lockdown needs to last several more weeks - but we're being edged towards a second disaster by a deeply irresponsible "get Britain moving again" campaign from the right-wing media

* * *

But on a more positive note, closer to home...

Sunday, April 26, 2020

How did it ever come to this? Iain Macwhirter is now at one with Tory right-wingers in calling for a premature lifting of the lockdown to allow a mass epidemic - and he dismisses the resulting biblical death toll as a "marginal risk"

Of the UK-based scientific experts who were brave enough to speak out vociferously against the 'herd immunity' madness from the start, I'm aware of only one who has been given an official position advising government.  Devi Sridhar, as Professor and Chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University, has a place on the Scottish Government's advisory body.  How much difference that's made is hard to say, because she's just one voice among several.  However, at least it means the Scottish Government have directly heard the same message in private that Sridhar has been consistently delivering publicly.  Essentially she's pointed out that governments had two basic options for going forward, and one was demonstrably and vastly superior to the other.

Option 1: Allow the virus to move through a large majority of the population in pursuit of the possibly unachievable goal of 'herd immunity', and only have in place restrictions that are sufficient to prevent NHS capacity from being overwhelmed by too many hospitalisations at any one point in time.  This option would cause catastrophe on multiple counts.  It would lead to hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths as a direct result of the virus, but it would also cause a large number of other deaths as an indirect result of the chaotic process of lockdown being repeatedly lifted and reimposed over a period of eighteen months or two years.  That would be inevitable, because the virus is highly infectious and has a high hospitalisation rate, so as soon as you relax restrictions enough to allow a sizeable chunk of the population to be infected, the situation will swiftly spiral out of your control again and you'd need yet another lockdown to avoid NHS collapse.  What's so stupid about this idea is that at the end of eighteen months or two years of carnage, you'd probably have a vaccine anyway and you'd wonder why you'd just allowed a quarter of a million people to pointlessly die.

Option 2: Use the current lockdown to properly squash the epidemic, and only ease restrictions when the number of new cases has come down dramatically.  In the post-lockdown period, keep the numbers persistently low by means of mass testing, meticulous contact tracing and moderate social distacing, and then hold out for a vaccine.  That's the closest thing to a win/win that's available to us.  It means the vast majority of people will not become ill, hundreds of thousands of lives will be saved, and the indirect harms caused by lockdown will be minimised in the long run, because suppression of the virus via contact tracing should ensure that second, third, fourth and fifth lockdowns will not be required.

The Scottish Government, to their great credit, came out decisively in favour of Option 2 a few days ago.  It's a pity they didn't do that in February or early March before people started dying, but better late than never.  Perhaps the change of heart was partly down to Sridhar's influence, or perhaps the penny just dropped with ministers and their other advisers that they should have been listening to the World  Health Organization all along.  Either way, it was an encouraging moment for progressives everywhere - because, after all, surely the cornerstone of progressive beliefs is that the lives of 'weaker' people are not somehow expendable.

That said, there is at least one person who we'd normally regard as a progressive but who takes a radically different view.  Iain Macwhirter was one of the liberal journalists who were seduced by herd immunity in the early days, but unlike most of his peers he's remained stubbornly wedded to it, even as the arguments in favour have been utterly discredited.  He's penned yet another bewildering column today, in which he denounces Nicola Sturgeon for trying to prevent mass infections, and for seeking to keep lockdown measures in place for long enough to achieve that.  He suggests that the Scottish Government should just accept the prospect of the vast majority of the population being infected, because "everyone realises" that is likely to happen anyway.

Oh, really?  Everyone realises that?  Well, the World Health Organization certainly don't - they say the virus can and must be suppressed until vaccines or antivirals are ready.  The great majority of governments around the world don't realise it either, and nor do their scientific advisers.  The Scottish Goverment don't realise it, and even a sizeable chunk of the UK government's own advisers don't realise it.  So who is this "everyone" that Iain speaks of?  Oh wait, here we are - 

"Professor Jason Leitch, the National Clinical Director, has been saying it loudly since March."

Ah.  Jason Leitch is "everyone".  You know, I'm almost beginning to wonder if Iain is an old buddy of Leitch, because the unshakeable faith he has in the man's infallibility, to the exclusion of all other expert opinions, is close to incomprehensible otherwise.  As impressed as we all are by the salesman's patter of Leitch, and even by the fabled Masters degree that he boasted to Piers Morgan about, I'm not convinced that he outranks the world-leading experts of the World Health Organization.

Elsewhere in the article, Iain gets into dangerously Trump-like territory by presenting his own wishful thinking as if it is established scientific fact.

"It is well established that the virus cannot survive long in sunlight and that people are much less vulnerable to coronavirus-type diseases in summer."

That is, let's be honest, utter rubbish, and Iain is deeply irresponsible to peddle misinformation in that way.  This is a new coronavirus which has not co-existed with humans for a prolonged period, and it's therefore purely a matter of speculation whether it will have the strong seasonality that is associated with the four coronaviruses that cause the common cold.  But if anything, the balance of scientific opinion at the moment is that it probably won't, and that increased temperatures during the summer will have only a marginal effect on infection rates.  Professor Neil Ferguson suggested that transmission might dip by around 10-20% during summer, but that this won't be enough to avoid a mass epidemic if suppression efforts are stopped.  But Iain seems to have a curious idea that we're over the worst for now thanks to the weather, and that we should lift the lockdown and enjoy some freedom while we can, before restrictions are reimposed in winter due to the second wave that "everyone knows" is coming.  (Presumably that'll be Leitch again.)  If we did what Iain wants, a huge second wave would be inevitable, right enough, but it would happen in the next few weeks, not on a convenient schedule later in the year.  It's lockdown that is holding back the tide for the moment, not the spring weather.

The main source for Iain's faith in the seasonality theory appears to be Professor Carl Heneghan, whose outlier views have made him a poster-boy for right-wing Tory MPs gagging for any pretext to "open up the country".  But the reality is that even 'herd immunity' enthusiasts on SAGE like Graham Medley disagree with Heneghan's opinion that lockdown wasn't responsible for taking the heat out of the epidemic.  Medley is on record as stating that the lockdown was absolutely essential.  So Heneghan really is out on a limb.  Incidentally, it's probably not a coincidence that Heneghan was also selectively quoted the other day in a front-page Times piece co-written by Mark McLaughlin, who has emerged as another leading propagandist for the notion of lifting lockdown and allowing the virus to spread widely.  (McLaughlin has a very different tactic from Macwhirter, though - instead of attacking Nicola Sturgeon, he pretends that she and the rest of Scottish Government, and all of its advisers, are in total agreement with his own views.  His basic proposition is that anyone who wants to 'lift lockdown without a vaccine' - which to the best of my knowledge means the entire human race - must be a supporter of 'herd immunity'.)

The consequence of abandoning suppression of the virus in the way that Iain urges would be a biblical death toll.  250,000 deaths was Imperial College's projection of what would happen in the absence of suppression, but if anything that's starting to look like an underestimate.  It's believed that 40,000 people have died already, and yet the modelling suggests that only around 4% of the population have been infected so far.  We can all do the sums and work out how many will be dead if we allow a 60-80% infection rate.  But Iain's own characterisation is that people of his generation and older would be "marginally at risk".  I've no idea whether he's got his head stuck in the sand or whether he's lost his moral compass completely - but I do know it must be one or the other.