How can former Remainers treat the subject of Brexit now that the irreversible (for the time being) step has been taken?
Firstly, I reject the idea that former Remainers should just give up and get with the programme. The idea that if we do so, we can make a success of Brexit, is ridiculous. Brexit cannot succeed, even on its own terms. We cannot draw a line under Brexit; it is a process which is still unfolding. Most people do not know, or have lost interest in, how much of Brexit remains to be done. The status of Northern Ireland is dangerously chaotic, with unionists hardening their position against the NI Protocol.
The denouncing of EU regulation was a constant drumbeat of the Eurosceptics, even though most of those who voted Leave, support regulations when they are asked specific questions about air travel, pharmaceuticals, food, nuclear materials, electrical goods, cars and chemicals. The power of regulation lies in the fact that it is negotiated with others; the more countries follow particular regulations, the more powerful and useful they are. This runs counter to the Brexiter concept of sovereignty as a zero-sum thing which cannot be amplified by sharing.
Labour has shrunk from criticising the implementation of Brexit and the damage it is causing, for fear of being shackled to the already-lost Remain position in the Brexit culture war. However, criticising the way Brexit is done is distinct from re-fighting the 2016 referendum. The impact of Brexit cannot be a political no-go area. Perhaps the biggest impact is on the Union itself. Scotland may or may not hold indyref 2, and may or may not vote for independence, but the possibility would not even be on the table but for Brexit, and the campaign cannot be fought by pretending that Brexit isn’t the driving force.
Brexit is not sustainable, not settled, and not “done” in any sense. Drawing a line under it and moving on is therefore not a political option. This puts the opposition in a bind; only by thinking out, and then clearly articulating, a positive and workable position on Brexit, can they avoid being painted as frustrated Remainers, forever on the losing side of a culture war. While, ultimately, this must mean rejoining the Single Market and customs union, it will need careful selling if it is not to be dismissed as “betraying the will of the people”. Whether Labour is up to that, I doubt. This is why culture war has been such a successful tactic for the right.
Labour must learn how to win in this environment – not by fighting battles of the right’s choice, on the right’s chosen ground, but as progressives have done in the past. Culture wars go back a long way; let me recall some of them. The socially conservative right rail against:
Taking the knee
The climate-change nonsense
The human rights brigade
Health and safety gone mad
Do-gooding Loony left lawyers
The multicultural society
Foreigners, especially Europeans
Liberal bias in the media
Immigration, especially non-white
Insufficiently harsh sentencing
Gay rights, especially marriage
Believers in institutional racism
Critics of the British empire
Bra-burning women’s libbers
Abolition of hanging
Long-haired pot-smoking layabouts
Pop culture and rock music
There is a never-ending list of enemies in the conservative’s culture wars. The advantage of the politics of backlash is that the progressive side can never be defeated, so grievances are never in short supply. This is actually a vital characteristic; without a dangerous slide towards liberalism to react against, conservatism cannot define itself and has no purpose. Without these points of focus, it is just the inchoate anger of those who have realised that younger people are having too much damn fun. Even with these points of focus, conservatism is little more than fighting the tide of history, even in its own terms. Look at the list and you’ll realise that the older issues, further down the list, are no longer live debates; the progressive side long ago won the argument on questions like the pill, the death penalty, and sex equality.
Ironically, eventually the progressive victory becomes embedded in the way things are, and is then a part of what conservatives seek to conserve. When was the last time anyone seriously objected to votes for women? Female suffrage is now part of Britain’s proud heritage of democracy. Similarly the NHS; the Tories opposed its creation, and many of them still hate it now, but on the surface at least, they tell us to “protect the NHS”, they wear blue NHS lapel pins, and seek to convince the voters that the NHS is safe in their hands. It isn’t, but that’s what they want us to believe. The NHS is therefore a culture battle which the right have lost, but still secretly think they might win, although they dare not articulate what winning would look like.
Indeed, nobody can define what a conservative victory in the culture wars would look like. It might mean stopping any further progress towards liberalism; but it cannot mean turning the clock back to an imagined version of the 1950s, a time when everybody stood up for the National Anthem, all young men did conscription, and cars didn’t even have seat belts. Winning is not the objective; the aim is to maintain a voting base of people who see themselves as underdogs in a never-ending fight to stop the soul of the country slipping away and going to the liberal dogs.
The conservative culture warrior will always wrap themselves in the flag, and claim all the other symbols of national pride and patriotism for their cause. The right of today have been smart enough to unhook the class conflict from its old economic basis and connect it up to their culture wars instead. Hence an economically liberal argument (spending £350m a week more on the NHS) was coupled to reactionary social-conservative causes in the Brexit campaign (chiefly, immigration), and has allowed the Eton-educated, Davos-attending, Latin-speaking, millionaire Bullingdon club member Boris Johnson to pose as the tribune of the people and win votes in the Red Wall of deindustrialised northern towns. For him to be on the socially conservative working man’s side over Brexit and immigration, was enough to trounce the more humble (if not impeccably working class) Jeremy Corbyn, whose culture-war position was compromised.
By defining, and then appearing to stick up for, tradition, British values and the homeland, the conservatives advance their agenda of making the rich, richer and the poor, poorer. Culture war is not a destination but a perpetual journey which serves to define a division between good people and bad people. Having defined themselves as the good guys, the right and their followers forgive each other their many faults, because deep down, the good people are always to be preferred over the bad people. So if Johnson breaks the rules to have his way, that doesn’t make him bad; he’s only done it to achieve the right thing. This dynamic creates a powerful incentive to wrangle any new issue into a position on the good/bad spectrum; this is why, for example, certain possible treatments for Covid-19 have become politically charged in this way, when a simple clinical trial could tell you all there is to know about them. All kinds of things get dragged through the machine of moral sorting, and in the process, sadly, most journalists lose their objectivity over them.
So how does Labour fight this? Refusing to fight at all is not a position, as culture war pacifism only makes you look weak. However, fighting the culture wars benefits only the right, providing them with the glue to stick together their support; remember, that support is based on being plucky underdogs, fighting a brave rearguard action against the wicked forces of change and liberalism. By this subterfuge, they steal the left’s traditional position of resistance, struggle and change, and the romance of rebellion and defiance. It is this which puts a wedge between Labour’s traditional, socially conservative, industrial working class voters, and its educated metropolitan progressives.
And yet, how many people these days, even in Hartlepool, stand up for the National Anthem? It used to be a universal thing, like men wearing hats; now it would invite ridicule. The Anthem used to be played in cinemas; that faded away and stopped altogether around 1970. The nearest proxy for that cultural battlefield recently was an abortive attempt last year to stir up a frenzy over the singing of Land of Hope and Glory at the Last Night of the Proms, accompanied by many “Anger at…” and “Fury over…” headlines in the Daily Mail. But I don’t think that’s the cultural ditch that the northern working man wants to die in. The Last Night is not the finest expression of British national pride, nor is the audience likely to include many who have ever done a day’s work down a mine or in a factory. There is a lazy assumption being made that the traditional working class are all social dinosaurs, and I don’t buy it. The sight of a working class community in Glasgow last week, spending a whole day successfully resisting the immigration detention of two Muslim men, gives me hope that such people should not be casually dismissed as old-school bigots.
Johnson gets the idea of culture war and uses it to the utmost, which distinguishes him from his predecessors Cameron and May. When full marriage equality came in under David Cameron (who felt the need to apologise for it to his voter base), and women become priests in the Church of England, there was a reaction from the illiberal billionaire press and the older generation who felt the ground shifting under their long-held beliefs. Yet, who would now reverse these or any other changes once we get used to them? Even the end of the death penalty, once a touchstone culture issue, is no longer a thing; it’s been very many years since I heard anyone seriously demanding to bring back hanging. This has been part of the right’s advantage; they wring the last drop out of each culture war issue, and once that issue is firmly settled in the progressive’s favour, they move on, or even pivot to defending it as part of our national traditions; but they never let the progressive side take the credit for it.
Even though the right have control of the Tory party; the Tories have control of government and both houses of Parliament; the constitution is being demolished to entrench right wing hegemony; the judiciary is deeply conservative; the media are largely biased to the right; and they’ve just pulled off Brexit, you might think Labour would at least have the appeal of the defiant underdog. But no; a culture war in which the reactionary right are in perpetual retreat maintains the illusion that they are, in fact, the persecuted minority. This is how they exploit the feelings of powerlessness and alienation. Brexit still works for the Tories because it is bound up in a posture of victimhood and the aggressively confrontational reaction typical of a victim.
So, what is the weakness of the culture warriors? It’s a con, it relies on people having the wool pulled over their eyes. I don’t believe that the mass of voters are stupid; nor are they necessarily as socially conservative as all that. The right choose to fight on the territory defined by their own lies; progressives need to focus on pulling out that rug, rather than joining them on it.
Last Thursday’s election results are a bitter blow to anyone who hoped that there would be any electoral consequences for the Tories over their lies; incompetence; authoritarian abuses of power; corruption and cronyism; their deadly ineffectiveness over Covid-19; the dreadful handling of education and exams; and the disastrous twin policies of Brexit and Lockdown. All this, following the years of austerity and the ever-widening poverty gap.
Just how crappy do they have to be, to lose support? What strange madness has taken hold of former Labour voters – tribal, generational Labour supporters – who are now voting Tory?
Something profound has changed in politics. So many things that used to matter – honesty, integrity, competent government, accountability, working within the boundaries of legal and democratic norms – no longer matter, and may even count against you. Johnson has got clean away with breaking all the rules; there were no consequences for the illegal prorogation, for example, or for the Internal Market bill which, the government admitted, broke international law. There are no consequences for wading in the cesspit of dirty money; nor for the public subsidies for his mistress; the fact that he had a mistress; or the contracts awarded to cronies without competitive tenders. Gone is the independence of the civil service, and soon to be gone the restraint of judicial review. As the excellent columnist Rafael Behr put it, we have a potentate with courtiers, who still bear the old titles of Prime Minister or secretary of state; and “honour is a plastic trophy that losers award themselves in consolation for unfulfilled ambition” (I couldn’t put it better myself, so I quote the man who did).
All of this is out in the open, completely obvious; it’s not that people are being deceived about how he behaves. While Johnson never actually admits to wrongdoing in as many words, he dismisses it with a non-denial. Who cares about the flat redecoration, he says? And, going by these results, he’s right: the voters didn’t care. For so many years, people have smiled at him and indulged his buffoon shtick. Now he’s no longer playing the clown, but acting like the man on a mission, refusing to be bound by rules that limit only lesser men, and his supporters lap it up. He is totally shameless, and they love it. The more rules he breaks, the more they see him as strong and powerful.
The whole ugly mess revolves around Brexit, although there is a good deal more to it – a change like this takes a long time, but Brexit has been the pivot around which it all revolved. And it is a revolution; Johnson is behaving and governing in a revolutionary way, having swept aside the old structures and restraints. It is often said that Britain is an elective dictatorship; I shrink from drawing the obvious historical comparison, but this does resemble the way in which other dictators have risen to power – at least, during the stage at which they enjoyed popular support and their defiance of restraint was admired. It never ends well.
One interesting aspect of this is that Johnson’s approach doesn’t work at all in Scotland, and barely at all in Wales. Not that he cares; England is enough to keep him in power. But, the psychology fails at the border. His approach is uniquely English. Scotland has, for long enough, known what it is to be treated as a province, and to be ruled from a distance, like a colony. The Scottish identity has been defined, for centuries, in contrast and opposition to the English. Hence, an English nationalist who wraps himself in the flag and harks back to the glory of Empire, plays the wrong tune for Scotland; it is also the reason that the dominant party in Scotland is the SNP, not Labour. Even in Wales, Labour has held its ground, winning half the seats in the Sennedd.
Nor does it play well with the young. There is a generation who have grown up rather less steeped in the national foundation myths of World War 2 and who don’t have any nostalgia for the days of Empire, or delusions of national grandeur. They are also less likely to be Brexiters and more likely to be among those suffering from its effects.
But for the moment, at least, Johnson’s support is solid, possibly even growing. For them, he can do no wrong, and under our present system, they are enough. Will they ever change their minds? The constant stream of policy failures, and the endless demonstrations of arrogance, incompetence and corruption, may eventually bring him down – but what will be left to save by then?
It’s tempting to think it can’t last. To expect that:
Once almost everything is opened, and more and more people calm down from disease panic, there will be a realization that what happened over these last 14 months was a catastrophic disaster of public policy. The collateral damage is appalling and will continue over years
The slow but relentless unfolding of the consequences of Brexit will continue, the damage spreading and the pain being felt by ever more people, while the illusory promised benefits always fail to arrive
Fewer and fewer people can afford to buy a home; more and more wealth is concentrated in the hands of a privileged few
There will come a time when there are so many losers and so few winners, that even his core support will fade
But it could be a very long time before those things happen. Until then, we seem to be in what amounts to a one-party state. Waiting for Tory failures to push things back to Labour will not work.
The government is so bad, it can only win because the opposition presents no alternative. It is not just poor; it is absent from the field. Labour is dangerously close to fading away as a political force. If I were a betting man, I would bet some pretty good money on Labour never winning another general election under the current system. They were founded to represent the industrial working class, which has been shrinking for decades, and is now far less numerous and less cohesive than it was, although it is still a large potential base of support; but the Labour party membership of today is largely young, southern, college educated, ethnically diverse, and metropolitan; barely a flat cap in sight. They have little contact with the original bedrock of working class support, which is why that bedrock felt left behind in the first place. Labour has lost touch with the more socially conservative traditional working class, and the Tories have moved onto that turf with great success, using Brexit to lever open the door. We now see a great reversal: the Tories becoming the party of the working man, and Labour the party of liberal professionals and city dwellers.
Who can say what Keir Starmer stands for, if even Keir Starmer hasn’t done so? It is not enough to show that he isn’t Jeremy Corbyn. For most of the last year, Starmer has behaved as if his enemy was Corbyn, not Johnson. Given a free pass, the Tories have left behind Cameron’s austerity and become a populist party, promising high spending to “level up”, while becoming more extreme on immigration and increasingly authoritarian. For too long, Labour has chosen to sit out these fights.
It may have been elected to get Brexit done, but Johnson’s government has come to be defined by lockdown. It is the only truly big decision he has made since coming to power. And what did the “opposition” do? They supported it wholeheartedly and urged him to do it again, only sooner. Starmer’s main political posture since becoming Labour leader has been as Johnson’s most enthusiastic supporter in the most important decision he’s made; hardly surprising the voters have chosen the real McCoy over his little echo. You only have to imagine the situation in reverse; if it had been Prime Minister Starmer imposing totally ineffective lockdowns while the bodies piled up, the Tories would have given them both barrels, one for the world’s fourth worst Covid death toll, and the other for the terrible consequences of ineffective lockdowns. Starmer has not objected once to the massive, publicly-funded campaign of advertisements and briefings telling the voters to respect government lockdown policy, reinforcing the assumption that this policy is right and effective. Nor has he lifted a finger against the Tories’ shameless adoption of a pro-NHS brand (despite their real-terms pay cut for NHS staff), by which they have stolen Labour’s traditional strongest selling point.
Scotland has the option of leaving, and while it would be a shame, I will not blame them if they choose to do so. But what options do we have, who live in England? I have long since given up hope that all the non-Tory politicians will ever unite, just once, to bring about the voting reform which would end the dictatorship of the largest minority (the Tory candidate in Hartlepool got 15,529 votes out of an electorate of 70,855 – just under 22%). I do not believe in violent revolution, nor do I imagine that it would work. So, should we just hunker down, look after number one and wait, however long it takes, for the next sea-change? This is not only selfish, but allows Britain (or the rump of it after Scotland and possibly Northern Ireland leave) to join the list of countries which serve as an awful warning of what happens when you stand by and allow arbitrary power to be wielded.
Not content with his current electoral advantages, Johnson now plans to bring in voter suppression measures, starting with requiring photo-ID to vote. Given that about 25% of voters don’t have a driving licence and 17% no passport, this amounts to the most radical disenfranchisement in British history. It would cement the Tories in power permanently, which is the obvious reason for it. On top of that, boundary changes will give them several more seats. They will become unbeatable.
Possibly the next real change will come from the Tories themselves. In any one-party state, the real struggle is conducted between factions in the ruling party. Johnson has forced many of his opponents out, but there are plenty left who are uneasy with his ways. The old-school Tories like Michael Heseltine have had their day, but never discount the ambition of up and coming Tories whose dreams extend beyond Johnson’s term in office. The centre ground of politics belongs to nobody right now, and eventually someone will realise this and take vacant possession. Splitting from a big party and forming a new one is political suicide under the current electoral system, as was proved yet again only a couple of years ago. But the Tory party has been taken over from the right in the last few years, and could be taken back again eventually. The party membership is old and shrinking; if it is to replenish its ranks it may need to widen its appeal to younger people, and do so in a time when the passions aroused over Brexit will have faded; the Covid epidemic and any “vaccine bounce” effect is over and done with; and some semblance of political normality may have returned. Voters will expect to see results on the levelling up promise, and other forms of competent delivery, and that, of course, is the government’s weakness.
This is my longest ever post by about a factor of four. I have, until now, respected a self-imposed word limit of 2000. I promise that this post will be the only one I make which breaks that rule, but I could not shoehorn all I wanted to say into my normal size post. My apologies to any who find it indigestible. After getting this off my chest, I will avoid the subject for a while.
Towards the end of 2019 a respiratory virus epidemic began in Wuhan and started to spread to other countries. Early reports from China indicated that the virus was causing human deaths on a large scale. It appeared to spread rapidly from one person to another.
Western countries initially responded with measures recommended in their existing flu pandemic plans, including the promotion of hand washing and the use of PPE in hospitals dealing with Covid patients (although many countries immediately found themselves short of PPE). Otherwise, no substantial public policy responses were mounted, and there was, initially, no attempt to restrict, test, or quarantine arrivals from China, Northern Italy, or other infection hotspots. Western countries mostly took no substantial action until late March 2020. Far Eastern countries, having been through the SARS epidemic some years ago, responded much more rapidly (starting in January 2020) with incoming border restrictions and a test, trace and isolate system (TTI) focused on locating and quarantining those infected.
Western epidemiological modellers began to build scenarios in which they assumed that there was no pre-existing immunity in any human population, and that people could become infected, shedding new virus particles, and infecting others, without themselves having any symptoms at any time (ie. asymptomatic, not pre-symptomatic). It was further assumed that asymptomatic transmission was a major driver of the spread of infection. It was assumed the virus could be transmitted via a contaminated surface. Ferguson’s paper of March 2020 stated the assumption that Covid 19 had “comparable lethality to H1N1 influenza in 1918” – Spanish flu, and that 81% of the population would be infected. Some surprisingly crude arithmetic (81% of 65m people times a 1% infection fatality rate) led to an expected total of 510,000 deaths in the UK, resulting from an unmitigated epidemic. The models were (and still are) built on an elapsed time basis from the index case, disregarding the seasonality effects typical of respiratory infections. Models built on the basis of these, and other, behavioural assumptions, also suggested that social restrictions (lockdowns, face coverings etc) would be highly effective in limiting the spread until vaccines could be developed; Ferguson’s model suggested that the combined effect of all the NPI measures he considered, could reduce the total deaths from 510,000 to as low as 8,700.
Largely as a result of such models, a year ago, in late March 2020, the UK and much of the world began an experiment, using mandatory business and school closures and whole-population stay-at-home orders (“lockdowns”) in an attempt to control the Covid epidemic. These measures were taken alongside many other precautions and interventions, all of which overlapped in uncontrolled ways, forming a chaotic experiment at the end of which, we will have little definite proof of which specific interventions helped, which harmed, and which just did nothing. We have to acknowledge that, despite the natural desire for certainty, we will get no firm, cut-and-dried answers to these questions.
The use of lockdowns on such a scale had no precedent and could therefore only be assumed to be effective. The argument given at the time in favour of the policy was that the empirically untested epidemiological models (especially the Imperial College/Ferguson model) predicted an unacceptably high death rate from an unmitigated Covid epidemic, but also a very much lower death rate if whole-population social controls were mandated. No attempt was made, however crude, to carry out a cost-benefit analysis of this policy, partly because the lockdown was initially supposed to be brief – a few weeks, a period which would do limited economic and human damage. Johnson initially talked about “three weeks to flatten the curve” and “we can send the virus packing in 12 weeks”. The adoption of such policy was therefore driven by the twin assumptions of a very high unmitigated death rate, and of highly effective NPI policies of short duration.
This pro-lockdown argument was widely accepted in the UK and has been the official narrative ever since. Almost all public discussion starts from the assumption that lockdowns work (however that might be defined). It has reached a point at which those who question this assumption are treated as a danger to public health and their arguments are not engaged with. Dissent has been equated with sedition. The opposition has gone along with the official narrative and has provided no push-back to the policy responses.
However, it’s been a year, and there are now real-world outcomes available to assess whether the models were realistic, and what effects the lockdowns had. We can now revisit and test the original assumptions to see if they were correct.
How bad is Covid-19?
This question is important because it has long been acknowledged that the restriction of basic human rights is allowable on public health grounds if it is “necessary and proportionate”. However, the law is weak in that it does not state when and in what forum proposed restrictions should be held up to those tests, nor the legal standard which a case for restrictions should meet. The burden of proof is not imposed. By default, this gives governments an unrestrained power.
The coronavirus is indeed deadly, but the question is, how deadly, and deadly to which people? Early estimates of fatality rates were (as usual in most epidemics) far too high. Public ignorance of epidemiology was understandable, but professional ignorance inexcusable: the WHO issued a tweet on 3rd March 2020, stating “Globally, about 3.4% of reported #Covid19 cases have died. By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1% of those infected. – Dr Tedros”. These two sentences are both (approximately) true, but the linking words (“By comparison”) equate the case fatality ratio (the higher number) with the infection fatality ratio for flu. It is therefore a highly misleading statement, relying on public ignorance of the huge difference between IFR and CFR to make an apples-to-oranges comparison. In line with this statement, the definitions of established medical terms such as “case” have been misused throughout the last year, and the long established principles of cause-of-death attribution overturned.
It became clear at an early stage that the severity of Covid-19 is strongly age-dependent. The US CDC currently estimates the IFR to be 0.002% for under 18s, and 0.05% for 18 – 50s (or, about 0.02% for all under-50s together). The small number of deaths represented by these figures are very largely those who had other, pre-existing, serious conditions. It is therefore questionable whether it is truthful to call Covid a deadly disease for the ¾ of humanity who are under 50 and in average condition for their age. This pattern of lethality is very different to that of the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed millions of under-50s, but Covid was painted simply, and in black-and-white terms, as deadly for everyone (Spanish flu is variously estimated to have caused between 100,000 and 200,000 excess deaths in the UK).
The IFR is much higher for older people: 0.6% for 50 – 64 year olds, rising as high as several percent for over 70s. The median age at death of those dying of Covid has been 82. So it is definitely a deadly disease for those age groups.
It turns out that Covid-19 presents a high risk of death to a few – chiefly the very old and those with other medical conditions – and a low risk of death to the large majority, those who are of school and working age.
We accept 78,000 deaths a year from smoking, something which is entirely avoidable. The public policy response is limited to measures to discourage smoking, and heavy taxation. We live with this level of death, and people remain free to decide for themselves whether to take this risk. And, that is 78,000 deaths every year – while the Covid epidemic is more of a one-off event. In 2019, there were 36,800 deaths from alcoholic liver disease, and again, the response is limited to advice, and discouragement by taxation. We have closed all the pubs and bars in the country to prevent Covid, but have never done so to prevent the deaths and other harms directly caused by alcohol. Similarly, air pollution is variously estimated to cause 40,000 premature deaths per year, and again, that’s every year, not just one epidemic year, yet we do disgracefully little about it, given what is in our power to do.
At the peak of the second wave, the week of January 15th, a total of 18,676 people died in England and Wales (of all causes). This was less than the 20,566 who died in the week ending 7th January 2000, a bad flu year; or the 20,116 who died in the week ending 8th January 1999, also a bad flu year. In neither of those years was there any suggestion that we should close small businesses and all stay at home.
So, on the scale of things, Covid-19 has been a worse-than-average respiratory pathogen, but hardly the Black Death. The initial estimates of fatality ratios were an order of magnitude too high, leading to threat-inflation and panic responses. Its impact is severe on the old and the vulnerable; the vast resources poured out over the last year would, if focused on the protection of those at risk, have been more than enough to mitigate the death toll, while those not at any significant risk could have been allowed to make their own decisions, as usual, about their behaviour – as they were in some countries which have had similar or better public health outcomes.
We accept, through familiarity, various causes of similar numbers of deaths. We choose to take avoidable risks because of a common acceptance that life is not, and should not be, risk-free. But when Covid-19 appeared, and amid initial uncertainty as to how deadly this disease is, there was a period of inaction (during which relatively low-impact but effective measures could have been taken), followed by a sudden panic, at which point the bar was set far higher, and it remains higher today. Governments assumed the authority to take away individual choice and make one-size-fits-all decisions about human social behaviour. We have to ask, why is the Covid death toll unconscionable when the deaths from other causes in other years were not? Any why are the deaths caused by lockdown ignored? There has been an inexcusable indifference to the harm done by lockdowns, to the point of a failure even to acknowledge they exist. It has become a failure so great, like the Iraq war for the Blair administration, that the government cannot now ever acknowledge that it was a mistake.
Were the assumptions made correct?
Many have been infected with this virus, but few people turned out to be susceptible to severe disease. There does appear to have been a significant, non-zero level of pre-existing immunity; this is now widely accepted in the academic literature. The idea that 81% of the population would be infected has been quietly dropped down the memory hole.
The assumption about asymptomatic spread has also been falsified. The WHO (always a little late to the party) finally acknowledged in June 2020 that “asymptomatic spread of coronavirus is very rare”. How the assumption arose in the first place is not clear, given that previous medical experience showed that “in all the history of respiratory viruses of any type, asymptomatic transmission has never been the driver of outbreaks. The driver is always a symptomatic person” (A Fauci, 28 Jan 2020).
The virus has also proved to be seasonal, with infection and illness levels reducing during the warmer months, just like other respiratory viruses. The assumption about surface contamination was completely wrong; no cases have been recorded of this kind of transmission. Nor is the virus easily transmitted outdoors.
A number of effective treatments have been found which substantially reduce the severity of the disease and therefore, the case fatality ratio. Budesonide and Dexamethasone are effective in reducing the severity of illness, and vitamin D is an effective preventative. Asymptomatic people (ie. people who in any other context are not ill) are not major drivers of the spread of disease. Lockdowns have not worked and have caused great harm. In short, all the main assumptions made in the models used in February and March 2020 were incorrect by a wide margin. Yet, most Western countries are still continuing with lockdown policies, or similar restrictions, to some degree. The incorrect assumptions made a year ago, still have us restricted and impoverished. There has been no public process to monitor the improving state of knowledge and recalibrate our public policy responses accordingly.
The effects of Public Policy responses
In the UK, certain policy measures were taken which have proved to be either ineffective or counter-productive. In the case of stay-at-home lockdowns, with tight restrictions on going outdoors, and all outdoor sports and activities prohibited, this may have made the epidemic worse. It is now clear that it is extremely difficult to catch Covid outdoors; negligibly few such cases have been identified. On the other hand, mandating people to stay indoors puts them in an environment more conducive to infection. People who are active outdoors gain general physical and mental health benefits, including higher vitamin D levels, which is effective in preventing infection. Restrictions on outdoor activity have therefore been at best ineffective, and at worst, actively counter-productive.
In the first wave of the epidemic, some 40% of deaths were in care homes, and a similar proportion of hospital deaths were of patients who did not have Covid on admission – hospital-acquired infections. Policy responses, designed to “protect the NHS”, included discharging Covid patients from hospital directly into care homes, while they were still infectious – this was a major cause of the terrible death rate in the care home sector. This practice has stopped now, and we have learned other lessons about protective equipment and hygiene measures, which, coupled with the vaccination of residents and staff, mean that any future Covid death rate in the care homes will be far lower (there is also the “dry tinder” effect – many of the most vulnerable are now dead). However, the conclusion is that while taking ineffective measures such as prohibiting the young and healthy from going outdoors, the government was also failing to take effective measures in the places where it mattered most. The fact that these stable doors are now mostly closed does not change the fact that tens of thousands of deaths occurred last year as a result of public policy errors.
Do Lockdowns Work?
Asking this question, we immediately run into the problem of defining what is meant by “work”, and what a convincing answer might look like. Pro-lockdowners are still relying on their models and assumptions as their counterfactual case, rather than looking at the mounting evidence of real-world outcomes. My argument is entirely evidence- and outcome-based, therefore it may be that there is no common ground for a discussion. There is also disagreement over where the burden of proof should lie, and whether a precautionary approach could justify lockdowns, at least a year ago, when there was greater uncertainty.
Naturally, we can think of many uncontrolled factors which will have an effect on outcomes, and there are probably also some unknown factors yet to be thought of. However, the case for lockdowns requires that they have a very significant positive impact, big enough to show through any confounding factors, since they have such immense negative impacts – human, social and economic – including deaths. Hence Johnson’s recent statement (14th April) emphasising lockdowns over vaccination, for example. Lockdown was his decision, and if the lockdown wasn’t the overwhelming factor, it wasn’t justified, therefore he has to argue that lockdowns are the overwhelming factor driving down the epidemic numbers.
We might ask, what would a satisfactory evidence-based argument in favour of lockdowns look like? Firstly, evidence should show a positive correlation between the use of lockdown policies, and public health outcomes, especially death rates. This would be evidence against the null hypothesis (that lockdowns are ineffective). Then, further evidence should show that the positive correlation was causative, not coincidental. This would be the limit of scientific argument; we would then move on to the moral and political arguments around the balance of costs and benefits, and the rights and wrongs of imposing heavy costs (up to and including death) on one section of society, for the benefit of another.
For now, we are still at the beginning of that chain of argument; testing the null hypothesis. While there will always be uncontrolled factors which distort like-for-like comparisons between countries which did lockdown and those which didn’t, a comparison of US states is a useful starting point. Although there is a wide spread in the figures, the average death rates per capita are very similar between lockdown (1374 per million) and no-lockdown (1278/m) states. The outcome in Fig 1 is entirely compatible with the null hypothesis. In Europe, the discussion tends to centre around Sweden, the only large country which did not mandate a lockdown. Sweden’s death rate from Covid to March 22, 2021 is 1289 per million; for Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland (the most populous EU nations which locked down), it averages 1332/m. These figures are not significantly different, so the outcome is again, entirely compatible with the null hypothesis. Nor is there much difference if we compare Sweden to itself in other years; Fig 2 shows all-cause mortality in Sweden since 1900. The stand-out line is the year of Spanish flu. 2020 was worse than 2019, but better than any year before 2013. Another country which did not lock down, Belarus, has suffered just 227/million Covid deaths, while several Far Eastern nations such as South Korea and Taiwan have had far lower death rates.
Fig 1 US states Covid deaths per capita, lockdown vs no-lockdown
Fig 2 Sweden all-cause mortality vs year
In addition to comparing one country to another, we can look at trends within a single country which introduced lockdown measures, such as the UK on 23rd March 2020. The trend of new cases had been following a constrained growth model (such as the Gompertz function) with a peak on 1st April. The introduction of lockdown did not disturb that trend at all. The death rate peaked on 8th April; a peak which was already inevitable before the lockdown began, given the 18 day average interval between infection and death.
Fig 3 (Wood et al): grey dots are hospital deaths from Covid-19. Black line is inferred fatal infections given the disease duration. Red vertical lines mark the start of each of 3 lockdowns. Relative peak amplitudes are not directly comparable as the IFR has declined with the development of more effective treatments
It is clear from this graph, that lockdowns have consistently been imposed after a peak in fatal infections, and have made no noticeable impact on the shape of the curves. This does not prove the null hypothesis, but it does show that the lockdowns cannot have been responsible for turning the fatal infection rate down.
This is not to say that lockdowns have no impact at all on the epidemic’s trajectory. That cannot be proved. But this, and the previous examples, do prove conclusively that lockdowns are not necessary for the epidemic to decline, measured by fatal infections and deaths. Therefore, the argument (repeated on 14th April by Johnson) that “the lockdown … has been overwhelmingly important in delivering this improvement in the pandemic” is demonstrably false; and the legal requirement for emergency powers (that they should be both necessary and proportionate) has not been met. If Johnson doesn’t grasp this himself, his scientific advisers must; but none have contradicted him.
Britain has had among the most stringent Covid restrictions in the world and spent a total of 213 days under national stay-at-home orders from 23 March 2020 to 29 March 2021. This is among the highest totals in the world. And yet, Britain has also suffered the fourth highest Covid death rate in the world. As well as causing painful cognitive dissonance among those who went along with lockdowns, that single fact is leading a lot of people to ask, why didn’t it work? All that sacrifice and we still have the world’s fourth highest death rate. What went wrong, and why, a whole year later, are we still doing the things that didn’t work, and not doing what worked elsewhere?
The table below uses the stringency index – a measure of the combination of NPI policies, not just lockdown or no-lockdown – compared to 2020 Covid death rates:
Country Level of stringency Covid-attributed deaths per million in 2020
Taiwan 0.53 0.3
Japan 0.88 27
Estonia 0.90 173
Finland 1.01 101
Norway 1.10 80
Denmark 1.30 224
Singapore 1.32 5
Sweden 1.31 861
South Korea 1.41 18
Germany 1.54 404
United Kingdom 1.59 1066
France 1.59 985
Italy 1.65 1218
Australia 1.77 35
Canada 1.81 410
United States 1.91 1058
The level of stringency indicates the relative severity of a nation’s combined policies of school closures, workplace closures, restrictions on public events, restrictions on gatherings, closures of public transport, stay at home requirements, restrictions on internal movement, and restrictions on international travel.
Sources: The Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker, Policy indictors (C1-C8), containment and closure index; Worldometer, Coronavirus, December 31
We can pick apart the “stringency index” if we like, but the simple fact is – there is no correlation between the use of lockdown policies and the death rate, in countries which are otherwise comparable and had outbreaks of Covid at around the same time.
So, why is grudging consent for lockdown policies still so widespread? Partly it’s because most people, for better or worse, accept what they are told by authority figures. Partly it’s because it is truly awful to confront the increasingly obvious fact that the immense sacrifices we have made through lockdowns, were wasted. Also, though, it’s because there was an appeal to common sense in the original lockdown pitch: that if you stop people meeting other people, they will have fewer opportunities to pass on infections. Many people simply accepted that argument, and still do, without further thought. What’s wrong with it?
The prevalence of Covid deaths in hospitals, care homes, and to a lesser extent other institutions, shows that the necessary concentration of elderly and vulnerable people in such indoor environments created the conditions in which the majority of fatal infections occurred. Lockdowns did not abolish such institutions; we cannot close the hospitals and care homes. To some extent, therefore, focusing public policy on closing business premises, factories, schools, shops and outdoor sports, was a huge distraction from the fact that the infected and the vulnerable were herded into indoor spaces, with mixing going on (especially the discharge of Covid patients from hospitals into care homes) in ways which actually made the transmission of infection more likely; while the healthy were forced to spend more time together indoors as well, doing nothing to reduce the likelihood of transmission among those not at risk of dying.
The fig leaf of a “common sense” argument for lockdown policies was a cover for the fact that no real threat analysis had been made. The Government did not understand who was at risk; who was not at risk; and which measures could have protected which group. While implementing ineffective policies restricting the young and healthy, they failed almost completely to implement policies which could have protected the elderly and vulnerable. This was a failure of rational thought on a vast and catastrophic scale.
What does science tell us?
A substantial amount of statistical work on the epidemic is being published, with a range of conclusions, and we may expect a great deal more over the coming years. It is normal, and to be expected, that honest analysts will differ, given the many variables and the data quality issues; and it is also to be expected that many people will seek to defend their established position, given how much is at stake. Looking for a consensus is therefore no guide to the right conclusions.
However, already, even a superficial look at the outcomes shows that there is no obvious and positive correlation between lockdowns and a lower death rate from Covid (or lower all-cause mortality). The null hypothesis, while it cannot be absolutely proved, is certainly in front on the evidence. More detailed analysis will seek to allow for the uncontrolled differences, including population density, GDP, ethnicity, climate, urbanisation level etc. Already it is clear that the age profile and the prevalence of obesity are strongly correlated with death rates, for example. But there is no such strong correlation for lockdown policies. Taiwan, with a similar population, urbanisation, and age profile to the UK, has had 10 Covid deaths. That’s not 10 per million; just 10 in total, despite its proximity to the origin of the virus. Yet, the pro-lockdown argument relies on it being the sledgehammer which controls the epidemic by brute force: if lockdowns are not overwhelmingly effective, there is no case for their use, as the harm they cause will be greater than any good they do.
You might argue that age-demographics and the prevalence of obesity are not open to government action. Yet this is a tacit acknowledgement that lockdowns were a case of “something must be done, this is something, therefore this must be done”. Also, it’s not entirely true that obesity is not open to government action. Britain has been getting fat for years, and last summer, the very first thing the government did when the initial lockdown was being lifted, was to offer a 50% subsidy for eating out.
What’s the alternative?
It’s worth pointing out that the alternative to mandatory business and school closures, and whole-population stay-at-home orders, is not “do absolutely nothing” and “let it rip”. That, of course, is the straw-man argument put forward by the pro-lockdowners, and a rather crude attempt to pass their own guilt for what has happened onto those of us advocating something more effective. When I refer to the guilt for Britain’s excessively high Covid death toll, plus the death toll of lockdowns, I should clarify that I’m willing to believe that the pro-lockdowners, at least in March 2020, were perfectly sincere in their hope that it would do good; they had no malicious intent back then. But the longer this situation goes on, the harder it is to maintain that outlook in the face of all the evidence. It is only human to be wrong, and that is forgiveable. What is culpable is staying wrong, long after the error is clear.
What should be very obvious is that Covid has “ripped” anyway; what Britain did, lockdown and all, was ineffective or counterproductive, especially so in hospitals and care homes. The alternative is not business as usual pre-2019. Many voluntary changes including widespread home working, hand hygiene etc. had already occurred before the first lockdown was imposed. The use of border restrictions at the right time – before the infection was widely seeded in the UK – and an effective TTI system were critical to the success of countries like Taiwan, along with targeted protection for the vulnerable. The use of these effective measures also required a certain degree of preparation – stocks of PPE, and sufficient NHS capacity – which had been deliberately run down over recent years for largely financial and political reasons. It is the policies and outcomes of countries which were better prepared and which reacted more effectively, which are the alternative to which Britain’s late and repeated lockdowns should be compared.
So, if the null hypothesis cannot be ruled out, how did so many governments manage to do an end-run around the question, and establish lockdowns as a received wisdom? After all, the next question, if you can show some evidence against the null hypothesis, is to demonstrate a causal relationship. So far, I’m not aware that anyone has produced any evidence of this type. In a clinical trial of a drug, the null hypothesis (that the drug has no significant effect) can be ruled out by showing a significant correlation between the drug and better outcomes, in a double-blind controlled trial. Showing a causal relationship for that correlation would involve studies of the biochemical mechanism for the drug’s action. The corresponding work in the epidemic case would involve studies of the transmission of the virus and experimental work to stand up the many assumptions about that, built into the epidemiological models. However there’s a problem with that.
The Imperial College model – by far the most influential – not only wildly overestimated the death rate without lockdown (as tested in places such as Sweden and Florida) but also underestimated the death rate if lockdown-type restrictions were imposed. In short, it heavily overestimated the death rate in the no-lockdown scenario, but also heavily overestimated the beneficial impact of social restrictions. Most of the assumptions built into the model had not been tested or quantified in real-world situations. Hence the WHO’s 2019 report “Non-pharmaceutical public health measures for mitigating the risk and impact of epidemic and pandemic influenza” warned of the flimsy empirical basis for epidemiology models such as the one developed by ICL. “Simulation models provide a weak level of evidence.”
In late October, Johnson was once again panicked into a lockdown by alarmist modelling. The graph in Fig 3 was distributed to MPs to get them to vote through the November lockdown:
Fig 4: Chart used in a government presentation (no-lockdown scenarios) – Halloween 2020
The government’s chief medical and scientific advisers, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, stood in front of this graph, knowing at the time that the 4000-going-on-6000 deaths per day scenario had already been falsified by real outcomes at that point. They spent the rest of the week backtracking and expressing regret for doing so, having been called out for such alarmism, but too late; the lockdown vote had been passed. And yet, the pro-lockdown argument is still based on claiming credit for the huge difference between such alarmist models and the real-world outcome. Still has no explanation been offered by the modellers as to why their outputs are so wildly and consistently wrong on the high side; plenty of explanations are offered by others, but somehow only the modellers have the ear of government. Nobody in the government or SAGE seems to ask: these estimates are out by a factor of several times, so which of our assumptions are wrong? Because to do so would destroy the only case that has ever been made for lockdowns.
It is interesting to note that the curves in Fig 4 all predicted steep falls in the death rate, following peaks variously anticipated to be in late December or early January, in a no-lockdown scenario. Three of the four models appear to show the death rate reaching close to zero by the end of March 2021, without lockdown. That feature of the modelled trends, is the only one that is borne out by reality. In this respect, these no-lockdown models predicted the outcome we have had, with a lockdown. And yet, now that we are on this predicted downslope, and have reached very low death rates, the pro-lockdowners (led by Johnson) are attributing this trend to the January 5th lockdown, claiming credit for something they had predicted would happen anyway! The alarmist model was dishonest when it was first presented; to now claim that the current falling figures are attributable to lockdown is double dishonesty.
Johnson (14th April 2021) made a statement that it was “the lockdown that has been overwhelmingly important in delivering this improvement” rather than the vaccination program. However, this is based on the presumption that there is anything needing to be explained and attributed. Given that his own modellers had already predicted deaths falling to background noise levels by April without any measures being taken, there is nothing that requires to be explained or attributed, whether to lockdowns or vaccination. It is what the government told us would have happened in any case. Johnson might as well be claiming the credit for the sunrise this morning.
During the Black Death, there was a widely held belief that bubonic plague was God’s punishment for sinners, and that repentance and prayer would end it. We could call that the prayer hypothesis. The null hypothesis would be that praying made no difference to the course of the plague. Like today, no controlled trial was possible. The plague eventually went away, leaving many people convinced that their prayers had done the trick. They saw the epidemic die down, and correlated that with their prayers. Given their pre-existing, deeply held religious beliefs, this left them firmly convinced of the prayer hypothesis. We must avoid falling into the same logical trap.
The modern equivalent is that “confining the entire population to their homes for over a year makes such a significant positive impact that it is a necessary and proportionate response to an epidemic with an infection fatality ratio below 0.02% for people under 50”. That is the Lockdown Hypothesis. Look, the believers say, we locked down on 5th January, and behold, the plague is going away. This is no more valid than the prayer hypothesis of the 1300s. One can understand and forgive the error of the medieval people given their mindset; but today, we at least claim to be logical and scientific in our thinking, so there is no such excuse.
Having failed to give convincing answers to the questions addressable by science, governments moved straight on to swerve the next questions; what level of collateral damage caused by lockdowns is acceptable; and why should the heaviest burden of lockdown policies fall on those at least risk of serious illness or death from Covid? In short, is it right, or preferable, for one 40 year old to die of cancer than for two 80 year olds to die of pneumonia? Is it right to privilege one cause of death over all the others?
The biggest unresolved question created by the use of lockdowns is, what is the measure of their success, and when can we return to normal life? Some proponents of lockdowns argue for total eradication, while others at least imply that once the death rate from endemic Covid is down to a reasonable level, we can get on with normal life. This raises the question nobody dares to answer; how many deaths are acceptable? In the winter flu season of 2017/18, there were more than 50,000 excess deaths in England and Wales, and it went almost completely unnoticed in the press and public sphere. 78,000 people die prematurely each year from smoking, and we continue to defend their right to choose to smoke. These numbers should set an expectation of what is within the parameters of a normal, acceptable national death rate, the sort of level which is tolerated without drastic policy responses and without attempting to shift the burden of death from those on which it would naturally fall, onto others. Yet, public policy has been entirely focused on deaths from one, highly visible cause – Covid – and has neglected to give similar weight to other causes.
Without specifying the measure of success or defining the end point, the door is wide open to shifting the goalposts. The original rationale for lockdown one year ago was that it would be short – “three weeks to flatten the curve” – and prevent the NHS being overwhelmed. It was compared to August in France, when many businesses close for a month but basic services carry on and the economy survives unharmed. A year later, the original rationale, objective, and sales pitch are no longer mentioned. Despite the accumulating evidence that it’s not effective, the lockdown – or something like it – continues, supposedly to keep out possible variants.
The abandonment of rational thought
A number of the points made above relate to the lack of rationality in public policy. Examples of this include:
The continuing failure to carry out any cost-benefit analysis reflects “this time is different” thinking and the back-covering defence of entrenched positions
Scientific ideas can be defined as those capable of being objectively disproved, yet lockdown policies, while claiming to be driven by “the science”, have never acknowledged the possibility of being falsified, nor set criteria for disproof
The over-reliance on models, despite the underlying assumptions being untested, and a continuing refusal to revisit those assumptions in the light of real-world outcomes
Consistent failure to present Covid statistics in context
Repeated confusion of correlation with causation (as in Johnson’s claim that the spring fall in the epidemic was attributable to his decision to lockdown)
The emphasis on death counts rather than the long established use of life-years to assess public health policies
The suppression of different views and refusal to engage in logical argument
It has to be recognised that all sides in the discussion share the problem that we cannot know what would have resulted from different choices. Pro-lockdowners rely on claims that outcomes would have been much worse without lockdowns, and seldom acknowledge that this cannot be proved. Nor do they easily engage with analysis of outcomes in countries which did not lockdown. On the other hand, our knowledge of the negative impacts of lockdowns is also limited. We have only statistical methods to estimate how many will die from undiagnosed and untreated non-Covid conditions, or from the economic impacts of lockdown; and statistical arguments are often unconvincing to the public.
All the same, justifying a novel policy option such as lockdown should require that the net benefit be very substantial. The imposition of great harm, up to and including death, on certain sections of the population, for the benefit of other sections, might possibly be justifiable if the net gains were overwhelming and indisputable – let’s say, a factor of ten. If this were the case, we would see it clearly in the data from all countries: those which did, and those which didn’t lockdown. We would also see it in those countries which did lockdown, in before-and-after data.
While correlation doesn’t prove causation, the lack of correlation is an absolute slam-dunk. The failure of lockdown policies to show an overwhelming impact is now beyond any doubt at all. That anyone is still advocating them is a profound failure of rational thought
Where are we now?
Because our government never had a coherent strategy to deal with Covid, one which contained answers to these questions, they are forever making it up as they go along. Having announced a timetable for lifting restrictions, and despite the epidemic disappearing almost completely in the UK, they are now dithering over their decisions.
We are in far better shape now (April 26th) than in January 2021. The number of positive tests per day is well under 2,500 (probably largely accounted for by the operational false positive rate); 33.6m have been vaccinated (including almost all in the at-risk groups); the average daily deaths-with-Covid figure is 17.6 (down from 1,283 on Jan 19th) and still trending down (although it cannot reach zero, as it is includes all-cause deaths among those who have had a positive test within 28 days, and among a numerous group, someone is bound to die of something). There are 1,961 Covid patients in hospital, down from 38,800 in January, and also trending down. These trends in the figures, along with the modelling from late last year (for what it’s worth), all suggest that we are on the normal downslope of an epidemic curve which peaked in late December, and the vaccination programme is reinforcing that and making sure that the numbers stay down. The schools re-opened a few weeks ago with absolutely no impact on the levels of infection, which surprises only SAGE. Two thirds of adults in Britain have received at least one dose of vaccine; if the vaccine is effective – as controlled trials showed it to be – we are now at, or possibly over, the herd immunity threshold, the level at which the disease no longer spreads. Under last year’s tier system, the whole country would now be in tier one. The NHS is tired, but not anywhere near being overwhelmed; indeed, it is all the more important to normalise things and deal with the 5m people now on waiting lists for other reasons. All-cause mortality is now below normal. By any standard, we are not in an emergency. Yet we are still under emergency restrictions.
The damage caused by lockdown is cumulative. Every day causes more economic and human harm, more deaths, more businesses which will never re-open, more livelihoods lost, and more widening of the poverty gap. Each additional day of lockdown is something which needs to be justified, but the thing which has been glaringly absent all year is a cost-benefit analysis of lockdowns. The government has made no serious attempt to evaluate the cost of lockdowns, and thereby is playing down their impact. This impact is heaviest on the poor and those with insecure livelihoods; that is true both nationally and globally. Among their many other side-effects, lockdowns transfer suffering from the rich to the poor.
On the basis of some of the biggest sunk costs of all time, nobody in either main party will now be able to acknowledge that lockdowns don’t work, any more than Brexiters can ever acknowledge the harm they have caused with that misguided policy. It is just too big a deal to acknowledge that it was a mistake, apologise, and move on. Our political system and its advisers are fully invested in safety-through-lockdown and will never be able to change their position. What if an eventual public inquiry concludes that the government’s response was disastrously wrong? The question only has to be asked to suggest the obvious answer: the terms of reference will be set, and the inquiry leader selected, to make sure this outcome cannot happen. The inquiry will be defined so as to vindicate the government’s basic lockdown approach, not call it into question. The inquiry will be allowed only to consider whether the government should have locked down sooner, or for longer; not whether it was barking up altogether the wrong tree.
The precedents which have been set
As well as the direct harm of lockdowns, there is huge constitutional harm which will become clear over time. The government took powers under the Coronavirus Act, which was passed in just five days, without a vote, and without any of the line-by-line scrutiny given to the introduction of the 5p charge for plastic shopping bags. It is striking how there is always time to write the most draconian laws, but not to read them. Many, possibly most, of the rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the ECHR (1959) are either removed altogether, or infringed, by the lockdown. After a whole year of this, it is becoming a legally established fact that these fundamental, supposedly inalienable rights are not actually rights at all, but privileges which ministers can turn on and off like a light. Johnson, always inclined to dodge mechanisms of accountability, was already keen, before all this, to restrict judicial review and re-write the Human Rights Act 1998; now he has seen how easily draconian measures can be passed. Neither Parliament nor the courts have stood in his way; there has been no opposition worth the name. Ministers have become used to controlling us by executive fiat; through measures which are not humbly recommended to Parliament for debate, amendment, and voting on, but announced from the new Press Room at Downing Street, by Ministers standing in front of starched flags and telling us how our lives will be. Ministers have taken the right to decide whose lives matter, whose illnesses get treated, whose livelihood is “essential”, who can practise their religion, who can earn a living, how long you must wait for your case to be heard in a court, whether you can receive your education, which lovers can meet, and in every respect, when and where you can go about your life.
Our rights and freedoms, established by so many struggles down the centuries, have been treated as a luxury to be dispensed with as soon as something moderately bad happens. The precedent is now firmly in place, that these freedoms are no longer our birthright, but are in the gift of our rulers. Already it seems that the freedom to assemble and protest is to be removed permanently; protest is henceforth to be something the authorities will permit only as long as it causes no “nuisance”, in the opinion of a police officer or the Home Secretary.
When rulers take extra powers, they seldom give them up again. Emergency powers are always sold as being temporary, but somehow fail to expire. The Patriot Act, passed in the US in just six weeks after 9/11, granted the government a long (and obviously pre-existing) wish-list of intrusive powers which made a mockery of the US constitution and bill of rights; many of them are still in force. So it will be in Britain after the epidemic. Some powers will expire, but it will have been established that we can all be put under prison-like restrictions at the stroke of a Prime Minister’s pen. An underlying principle of liberal democracy has been surrendered.
Governing by edict; disregarding basic rights and freedoms; and the vast over-reaching of government authority beyond its normal range and into the micromanagement of personal behaviour, has created the toolkit for tyranny. Tyrants do not all come carrying guns and building gulags; I’m perfectly willing to accept that the people in government sincerely believe they are acting for good reasons and with the intention to protect against a public health threat. That doesn’t matter; the principle is now established and the precedent set, that when it feels the need to do so, government can reach into all these areas of life and rule by edict. If they subsequently stop doing so, the precedent remains for the tyrants of the future, that they can take such power. The Conservatives used to be the party of limited government; well, they’ve made a very Big State now. They have shown that belief in limited government only applies during the good times; come even a small emergency and it goes right out the window. Covid happened to come at a time when new technologies, especially mobile phones, have created immense new types of data about every individual, our actions, movements and communications. Just as other trends, such as the decline of high street shops, have been accelerated by the epidemic, so has the toolkit of social control expanded ever faster. The use of cash has declined much more quickly in the last year; more and more of our transactions are now done through the banking system, leaving a trail; while we have at times, been made to sign in to pubs, and encouraged to install a tracing app which monitors who we meet. The idea being floated now, of Covid passports, raises the prospect of the introduction of a kind of ID card through which almost anyone will have access to some aspect of our medical history.
There are some on the political right who still do believe in limited government, and have until recently provided the only push back against the use of all these powers. The left mostly went along with the official narrative, although the burdens of lockdown are heaviest on the poor, the insecure, the disadvantaged, the young, and the global South. The Labour party have not only failed to oppose the government, they have secured nothing in return for their support; not even a promise of some kind of restitution after the epidemic. The government will continue to run down the NHS and there is no plan to strengthen the education system after all the damage done to it. The rich are still getting richer even with much of the economy shut down, and Labour has been the enabler of all this.
The role of government communications; the fearsome and threatening advertisements; the excessive punishments for breaking the rules; and the slavish support of almost all the press, together these things have manufactured popular consent for lockdowns. People have been told to leave all the thinking to the experts, or scientists, or ministers; people who are smarter than us. Democracy has been put on hold; not just through postponed elections and a sidelined, rubber-stamp Parliament, but stifled debate and withered opposition. But there are now signs that it’s no longer working – more people are disregarding the rules, and complaining about them. Elements of the press, beginning on the political right but increasingly also on the left, no longer buy the lockdown narrative. Scepticism is no longer the preserve of professional contrarians like Nigel Farage; the Mail and the Telegraph have started printing anti-lockdown opinion pieces, and they reach a lot of the Tory heartland. Johnson doesn’t care what the opposition thinks, but he does care what his own voter base thinks. Manufactured consent can disappear very rapidly once it starts to erode. There is a gathering sense that people are just waiting, increasingly impatiently, for all this nonsense to be officially called off. A huge protest march took place in London on 24th April; it was only reported in the context of some trouble afterwards in Hyde Park, but shows that plenty of people are now willing to turn out and protest against lockdowns.
Government communications have been terrible throughout this episode. Often contradictory, seldom clear, and frequently changing, ministers have taken their turn to stand in front of those starched flags and tell us how our lives will be. Vacuous slogans are repeated everywhere from radio commercials to motorway overhead signs, such as “stay local”, but there is no legal or official definition of “local”. Even the police don’t know the difference between the law – which we are obliged to obey – and guidance, which is a request for us to behave in certain ways. The entire government approach was based on dividing all activities into essential and non-essential categories, but these have never been defined in law. The extreme government over-reach has encouraged Police over-reach; they were drawn into making roadside checks on drivers’ purposes for travel, or employing drones to survey dog walkers thought to have gone too far from home. Meanwhile the opposition failed to oppose any of this structure of badly-written law and ministerial edict. Ministers often claimed to be guided by “the science”, but many of the restrictions are arbitrary (eg. how many people can meet, how often people are allowed to go out for exercise) for which there has never been the slightest scientific evidence. The opposition failed to demand a full cost-benefit analysis of policy; and where policy was originally precautionary, they failed to demand proper monitoring of effectiveness; they gave the government their support without getting anything in return, not even legally binding promises of restitution for the NHS, the education system, and full support for those hardest hit by restrictions. Emergency powers have been in force for far too long, and still have no firm end in sight. The opposition have still failed to demand a full return to normal, rather than a new-normal in which some of the recently introduced powers and restrictions are indefinite. They have never engaged in the discussion of where we are going with all this. The government have flown by the seat of their pants, without a plan; the opposition have failed to hold them to account for this, or develop their own plan. Still, more than a year into this ongoing disaster, we have no date for a public inquiry; the opposition have failed even to establish the public understanding that it is a disaster. Never has the government been able to articulate its overall policy objective: do they intend to eliminate Covid completely, or reduce it to an acceptable level, and if so, what level is that? There has been no attempt to hold a grown-up conversation as to what an acceptable level of mortality might be, despite the fact that everyone knows such a thing exists and that it cannot be zero. We have submitted quietly while the government followed a “whatever it takes” approach in which no attempt was made to measure the costs or the harms of the responses, which have, as a result, been allowed to run vastly out of control. Above all, nobody, back in March last year, asked: what would make me wrong? What new information would prove me wrong about this approach? If the world of politics had been more humble and accepted that not everything is, or ever can be, under their control, and that their emergency policies could turn out not to work, we might by now have dropped the failed approaches. It was the job of opposition to point out what wasn’t working, and wiser heads would not have invested so much in an uncertain approach. Sadly, government and opposition are both fully bought in and cannot now row back. It will be a generation before the facts can be dispassionately acknowledged.
Covid-19 has been a genuine crisis which has killed a large number of people and played havoc with the lives of many others. But it too will pass and the worst of it has passed already. It must not be allowed to become an excuse for permanent, even higher levels of governmental intrusion and control.
In what we think of as an age of reason, it seems we were primed to expect an apocalypse. Out of fear of a deadly threat, we went along with an untested approach which was assumed, without evidence, to work. Now we have a year’s worth of evidence that it doesn’t work, but every day, the government continues to prevent normal social contact, to destroy businesses and jobs, and to ruin children’s education, their mental health and future prospects. Today’s youth have had to sacrifice their schooling, happiness, prosperity, career prospects, sense of purpose, sanity and freedom, all for no benefit to themselves. Those who work as actors, musicians, and waiters; bar, restaurant and hotel staff and owners; instructors of all kinds, and those in a wide variety of hospitality, tourism, sport and retail businesses, are watching in despair as everything they have ever worked for is steadily destroyed. A vast amount of normal economic output has been prevented, and £400bn of public money has been poured out, for a gain which is still only assumed to exist at all.
Our rulers have done what rulers often do: they said, “give up your rights and freedoms, trust me, and I will protect you”. History has proved this is never a bargain to accept. In the face of an overstated threat on one side of the scale, no rational or measured consideration on the other side can ever match up. Then, in the name of protecting society, harm is done. In this case, the harm is to those who will die from other illnesses which were deprioritised; those in the care homes who went unprotected; those whose livelihoods were sacrificed and who will suffer the deaths of despair, unemployment and poverty. They have been killed, just as dead as anyone who was ever put against a wall and shot.
In a tacit acknowledgement that the original Covid no longer has a death rate which justifies bringing the world to a standstill (if it ever did), we are invited to remain paralysed with fear that some possible future variant will emerge that will be worse. Everything that makes life worth living has been sacrificed to this fear. Churches and theatres have been closed. Childrens’ football games and rounds of golf became criminal offences, despite there being absolutely no evidence that outdoor sport was a risk to anybody. Getting your hair cut or having a pint with friends was off the menu for months. Music festivals still hang in the balance. Holiday travel may resume but with a significant cost barrier.
We now have a far better understanding and a good measure of the severity of the epidemic and the consequences of how we respond to it. Even if we didn’t know what we were doing a year ago, we do now. We are treating a case of head lice with a guillotine.
I have previously mentioned emergency powers, and their dismal record. It is remarkable how easily, even in countries with strong, written constitutions, governments have been able to order people to stay at home; close businesses; prohibit churchgoing; ban all kinds of social events and activities; prevent couples meeting; and stop people travelling. Things which were previously seen as the most basic rights – freedoms of movement, association, religion, protest, and trade, have been suspended, and with no firm date for restoration – which means, of course, no guarantee of full restoration at all. Also, out went education, cultural activities, most jury trials, and elections, and in came yet more mass surveillance.
In Britain, this was done in large part through the Coronavirus Act, a law introduced to Parliament on 19 March last year, and becoming law on 25 March without a vote. One of the most draconian laws ever passed was rushed onto the statute books with none of the scrutiny that was given to the 5p charge for plastic shopping bags. Let’s pause to consider what that means. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes: Article 9 (freedom from arbitrary detention); Article 10 (Everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing); 13 (the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country); 18 (freedom of religion); 20 (freedom of peaceful assembly and association); 23 (the right to work); 26 (the right to education); and 27 (the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community). All of these have been infringed to some degree by the Coronavirus Act and measures taken under the Public Health Act. The current prohibition on travel resembles the cold war’s Iron Curtain in that the entire population is forbidden to leave the country except a few who are on business the government approves of. Meanwhile, for no obvious reason, the Coronavirus Act included an extension of the time limit for retention of fingerprints and DNA profiles. The police can now detain anyone who they believe is “potentially infectious”, a power which has been 100% wrongly applied.
Regular readers will recall that I have suggested that border controls (such as testing on arrival and quarantine) would have been a cheap and easy way to keep the virus out of the UK if implemented early in 2020 and combined with effective test and tracing. It would indeed have been an infringement of freedom, but I justified it at the time on the grounds of public health, and its effectiveness or otherwise would quickly have become obvious. It worked for New Zealand. It is one of the many measures which would almost certainly have been more effective than doing nothing until late March and then imposing a stay-at-home lockdown. The disease was widely seeded in the UK during that January – March period, entirely by inbound travellers; stopping most of them and quarantining those who were admitted, could have been almost 100% effective.
It was disturbing to see so clear a demonstration of just how easy it is for a government to take away or restrict rights which were supposed to be “inalienable” (the twelfth word of the UN Declaration). It doesn’t matter, at this stage, whether or not you think that some good objective was achieved by these measures which justified using them; it’s the fact that nothing stood in their way. Lockdown measures were easily bulldozed through a supine Parliament in less than a week. The damage is done: it is now firmly established by this precedent, that we have these rights only as long as our governments say so, and that they can be switched on or off like a light. This itself is a modification of the whole concept of human rights. It has often been pointed out that when someone is deprived of their rights, it undermines the rights of all of us, as it means they are not rights but privileges. The same applies if our rights can be withdrawn. The Human Rights Act 1998 restates the European Convention on Human Rights, and many of the rights in the Universal Declaration (in slightly different words), making them part of UK domestic law. In some sections of that Act, suspensions are allowed on public health grounds if the government can show them to be necessary and proportionate. I don’t know if that means the government should make their case on the “necessary and proportionate” test before restricting our rights, or whether they only have to do so if challenged after the fact. It hardly matters as, so far, they have done neither.
As mentioned, the ECHR and the Human Rights Act do allow derogations or exceptions to be made to some of these rights, on public health grounds. However, they are weak in terms of checks and balances. Given that I acknowledge that even the “inalienable” rights might need to be restricted in public health emergencies, what are the possible justifications?
The Government’s own document “UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011” actually makes a list in section 3.3, which says:
“In addition, pandemic preparedness and response will continue to be:
• Evidence based
• Based on best practice in the absence of evidence
• Based on ethical principles
• Based on established practice and systems, as far as is possible
• Across the whole of society
• Coordinated at local, national and international levels”
This all seems perfectly sensible to me. So here are my suggestions for the criteria which should have to be met before such emergency powers can be introduced:
• As the existing laws already say, the emergency must be “a threat to the life of the nation” (ECHR) and the measures must be necessary and proportionate. Both of these should be demonstrated in advance to a non-political body such as the Supreme Court, or in cases of great urgency, within three days of introduction. Legal definitions of the scale of threat, and tests of “necessary” and “proportionate”, should be set in law, and the kind of evidence which can be relied on should be specified. The emergency should, of course, be a deadly one and possibly an existential threat to society. A major war is the most obvious such emergency. Other non-pandemic examples could include a nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl; or a natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami. Of course, you can’t predict how severe an epidemic will be, but as the initial uncertainties decline quickly over time, it should be possible to review the scale of the emergency frequently. The outbreak of SARS in 2002 proved not to be a threat in the West, but that became clear quite early on.
• Emergency powers introduced for public health reasons should be evidence-based and demonstrably effective. This is the standard we demand of medicines; why not of non-medicinal public health measures? A supposition does not count. Modelling is insufficient. Previous experience with an unequivocally positive outcome (“best practice”) should be necessary.
• All other, less drastic, options should have been exhausted. This would include (in this case) border testing and quarantine to keep the infection out, coupled with a TTI system and the protection of the old and vulnerable. More drastic and compulsory emergency measures really should be the only option left.
• There must be a solid cost-benefit analysis with a firm counterfactual. Deaths from one cause should not be elevated above deaths from all other causes; the more visible victims should not be privileged over the less visible ones. Assessments should consider life expectancy as well as life itself. The reviewing body should guard carefully against threat inflation (the main objection to over-reliance on models).
• A measure should not be acceptable under any circumstances if its primary intended effect is to transfer the burden of death, on a large scale, from one group to another.
• There should be either a firm time limit on emergency powers, and firm checks against mission creep and moving goalposts.
Most of these tests can be argued on the facts, not on models, suppositions, assumptions and hand-waving arguments. There is always time to hold this discussion.
How would the lockdown response to Covid have measured up to these criteria? The threat was deadly, but national stay-at-home orders had not been used before and were experimental – not evidence-based or best practice. Now, of course, there is plenty of evidence, and we actually have a very good idea of how (in)effective they are. Less drastic alternatives were not used first, and there was no prior cost-benefit analysis. It was a side effect of the measure, to transfer deadly risk from one group (primarily, the old) to another. The need for frequent review is all the more important given that the harm (and death toll) caused by lockdowns is, to a large extent, proportional to their duration, and the first lockdown was expected to be only a few weeks. Mission creep means that we are still locked down almost a year later, without a wholesale independent review.
Those who believe lockdowns were effective in saving lives may simply argue that lesser rights are just not as important, and must always give way when needed to save lives. This hangs entirely on the presumption that lockdowns do actually save lives, and indeed, more lives than are lost because of lockdowns. It leads to playing down the human cost of lockdowns and also undervalues our rights and freedoms which, over the years, many have died to establish and defend. Usually, such people are honoured and their sacrifice held up as a noble thing. It’s also a slippery slope issue; we’ve allowed these rights to be infringed or removed without any real pushback, and the current government is now eager to rewrite the Human Rights Act and water it down permanently.
It’s important to point out that people are free to choose to restrict themselves, and the government can encourage and enable that, including with financial support and measures to enable home working. Indeed, before the first stay-at-home order, millions had already switched to home working and taken distancing precautions, voluntarily. Was legal compulsion really needed?
Human Rights law should be constitutional in nature; it should not be up to the government of the day to change or remove them. They flow from our very humanity and are not a gift from generous rulers. Any student of history knows that rights have had to be fought for in the face of stern resistance from the ruling classes in all countries; they should not be held cheap. Rights and freedoms are not a luxury which we should dispense with whenever something bad happens. Authoritarian governments are always a bad thing.
I remember feeling bitterly disappointed that a Labour Home Secretary (David Blunkett) could talk dismissively of “airy-fairy civil liberties” when to my mind, a Home Secretary’s highest duty should be to defend them. You expect this from Tories like Patel; posturing as “tough” by attacking our freedoms is their main schtick. But a Labour minister! I was so disillusioned. And I still am; the Labour party seems to criticise the government only by accusing it of not taking away enough of our rights, early enough. All parties have bought into the rhetoric of safety-through-lockdown and are now fully invested; don’t expect an open minded re-appraisal of the outcomes. None have proved able to consider the balance between saving life (in the narrow sense of minimising deaths) and the joyous living of it.
Brexit, now in a more or less complete form, is having its inevitable consequences, and they are as bad as they were so frequently predicted to be. Fishermen, farmers and manufacturers are in big trouble, and coming to realise how badly Johnson’s trade reduction agreement has shafted this country. People trying to do business between GB and Northern Ireland are also finding it hard. Those not immediately impacted can also begin to see how Brexit is making Britain poorer, weaker and less influential.
A well prepared blame deflection exercise is doing what it can to divert the anger. Firstly, they blame the EU for “punishing” Britain over Brexit. Next, they seek to confuse the effects of Brexit with those of Covid. Then, they blame businesses and the public for failing to get with the program and prepare for all the new hassles. Then, they blame remainers for holding them back from doing Brexit properly. Then they fall back on simple lies and denial. Finally, they accept that there are a few “road bumps” but that it’s all worth it for sovereignty. This garbage will work with the core Brexit supporters, those who will never accept that they were wrong about anything, and is being pushed hard by the right-wing billionaire-owned press.
The Brexiter position, internally conflicted in so many ways, wrapped itself in the flag (do you notice how many starched flags stand behind the PM every time he makes a TV appearance?) and simultaneously claimed that Britain is a great country and a great power, but also subjugated by foreigners. They harked back to lost days of empire while portraying Britain as the victim of the scheming French and Germans, hog tied by Brussels red tape. It’s the same line used by Donald Trump with his slogan “Make America Great Again”, claiming both that America was great in the past, and also that it isn’t great any more, and therefore that it needed Trump to restore it to greatness. Never was it explained exactly how, when, and in what ways, America ceased to be great. There was no coherent story of that kind. The discovery they made was that you don’t need one; also that you can lie without consequences.
This is important and worth looking at harder. For years, well-informed warnings that Brexit would be damaging were dismissed as Project Fear. Those who have knowledge and experience (previously called “experts”, but this word has become devalued) gave concrete and specific details of the ways in which leaving the institutions which had removed trade barriers (the single market and customs union) would reduce trade. This was not political opinion, it was spelling out how things are. However, they were mostly treated as just having one shade of opinion, on an equal basis with the Brexiter politicians, and the media would seek to balance them by allowing them to talk over each other. Hence fact was reduced to the level of opinion.
Now, as the pigeons come home to roost, and the warnings of well-informed people are proving correct. It is important to realise that these warnings are not “coming true”: they always were true. I am not expressing an opinion when I predict that the sun will rise tomorrow, and when the sun does rise, my prediction will not “become fact”. It always was factual. The media have a responsibility here; the warnings of well informed people were reported and treated as opinion rather than fact. It was a mistake on a par with Trump and his “alternative facts”.
Something similar happened with climate change. For far too long, this was treated as a contentious opinion. The requirement for balance in the neutral broadcasters meant that every factually based explanation of the changes to our climate was balanced by falsehoods from climate denialists. The BBC, at least, has now moved on from this and finally presents climate information as fact, but it was very slow to make that decision.
As a member of the EU, Britain was doing very well. The UK was at the forefront of EU policy and got its way most of the time. The single market itself was a policy promoted most of all by Britain. Sadly, this was never communicated effectively to the public, who were fed a daily diet of lies and nonsense about banana regulations. Britain’s relationship with the rest of the EU was often portrayed as adversarial, or at best transactional, rather than collaborative. This failure to show how Britain benefited from, and led, the EU, set the scene for the Brexiters and their victimhood posture. No British government ever treated the EU with sufficient seriousness. The European Parliament was treated as a sideshow. Nobody – no commissioner, no leading MEP – was made a Cabinet minister, with a brief to keep Westminster dialled in to the heart of the EU. European political posts, like seats in the House of Lords, were seen as end-of-career jobs for has-beens. European elections had a low turnout and were treated as protest votes. The press never gave much space to EU issues and politics, other than to rail against them.
Along came David Cameron with his referendum offer, made only to keep the right of his party in line and to deflect the threat of UKIP in the 2015 election. He didn’t expect to have to deliver on it; a classic example of the danger, and dishonesty, of setting a policy in the belief that you will never have to implement it. Because it was not serious, it was not thought through; the question asked only about departure rather than destination. Cameron arrogantly assumed he could win it anyway, but had left it too late to do so with positive messages. His was a government which had set itself immigration targets and consistently failed to hit them, and that made immigration the home turf of the Leavers.
The remain campaign was often negative, and had lacklustre leadership compared to the Leave campaigns. It was obvious that the leavers just wanted it more; the remainers were less passionate, not quite sure why they needed to vote at all on a question which had been settled in the 1970s. Too many people treated the referendum as a consequence-free protest vote. Legally and constitutionally, it was an advisory referendum, but given the political impossibility of not acting on the outcome, it should have been established as a binding referendum with a supermajority requirement. Reducing the question to a simplistic binary covered up the many, mutually exclusive forms of Brexit, and lumped their supporters together as if they all wanted the same thing. This is how a proposition which has never enjoyed majority support came to be enacted; the sad story of many British elections.
Since that day, opposition to Brexit has been fractured and fragmented. Still largely leaderless, with no effective Parliamentary opposition, it was unable to stop the right running away with the result and extending it to cover not just the EU, but the single market and customs union as well. Labour, bogged down as ever with internal conflicts, failed to oppose the referendum in the first place; failed to see the danger it posed; failed to ensure that a meaningful question was asked; and failed to campaign effectively. It then failed to identify the danger of Brexit’s relentless mission creep. They failed to see it as a right-wing assault and as a further, near-irreversible step in the wrong direction.
How can we recover from here? In short, we can’t – not from right here and right now. It will take time, and the end of Covid, for the effects of Brexit to become obvious and undeniable. We will then be in very bad shape, and the right’s excuses and blame-shifting will be wearing thin. As people move on from their leaver/remainer identities, it will start to become acceptable to talk of rejoining as a long term goal, albeit with a recognition that in the long term, the EU will also have moved on and will be a different body in a different world.
It will soon be obvious what a mistake it was to leave the single market, and a campaign to get us back into that, via membership of EFTA, will need to be the first step. It will mean the Labour party have to develop a backbone and oppose the Government; it will mean grasping the nettle of freedom of movement. But it will take more than that.
Turning around the oil tanker of state will need huge reform. Reform of the electoral system which gives the right such massive advantages and puts the largest minority in absolute control. Reform of the London-centric model of government, with real home rule for Scotland if they are not to split off altogether. Reform of the pathetically weak British constitution. Reform of many institutions of power which, like the House of Lords and the Privy Council, date back to medieval times and are profoundly undemocratic. Reform of the press and the power of the billionaires who own most of it. Reform of the power of big money, and turning off the wealth pumps (of which I’ve written so many times). Reform of an economy which can only measure money values and fails to value the natural world, or to account for its increasingly rapid destruction. Reform of the great public services and local government. These things will have to go hand in hand, as without them, the narrowly parochial views of the populist nationalists will retain their power to do harm.
Building an electoral base for all this will not be quick or easy. However, so many groups have been ruined by Brexit – fishermen, artists and performers, students, farmers, manufacturers – the appeal of EFTA membership can be explained without it looking like a wholesale reversal of Brexit. This explanation will revolve around the appropriate use of sovereignty – the freedom of action which should be used as a tool to obtain a desirable outcome. Sovereignty is something which is exercised continually to benefit the country, not spent like money until it’s all gone. Joining EFTA would be a sovereign act which delivered a benefit; our sovereignty would not be reduced by using it in this way. The Brexiters would portray it as giving up sovereignty, rather than exercising it. The people will understand the difference if it is explained clearly.
Four years ago, I said (in common with many others) that Donald Trump would be the worst President ever, and it gives me no pleasure that we have been proved right. It was an easy prediction. What is odd is that, in the last week, many others who previously supported him and publicly kissed his ass have belatedly come to the same realisation. Trump has spent four years in power making the divisions in US society ever deeper, and encouraging his supporters to regard his opponents, not just as people and neighbours who disagree over politics, but as an alien tribe whose co-existence is intolerable. Many white conservatives in the US now regard themselves as victims of the “elite”, the “deep state”, the “liberals” or whatever other vaguely defined group is portrayed as their oppressors. Since the election in November, Trump has stepped this up with his campaign to overturn the result, based on claims of electoral fraud. It is notable that the only undeniable attempt to do something fraudulent in the election occurred when Trump called the governor of Georgia and demanded that he “find” another 11,000 votes.
Finally, he summoned and inflamed the passions of a mob who then invaded and smashed up the Capitol building, chanting “Stop the steal”. Trump had been building up to that for two months, telling his supporters that they were robbed and should “take back their country”. All the while, sycophants in the Republican party and overseas (like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove) stood by. Eventually Trump egged on his crowd to the point of violence, and NOW his acolytes say “he’s gone too far”. Well, rats, sinking ship, you know. But, rats. Meanwhile, Trump, although he is no longer in charge of his own Twitter account, still has the nuclear launch codes.
Incoming President Biden will have a daunting in-tray to deal with. The fact that millions of Americans still don’t believe he actually won the election is not going to help.
His big problems on day one include the US relationships with China, Russia and Iran; economic decline; bloated government; foreign wars; climate change and so on. But, perhaps the most urgent is the Covid epidemic which still rages across the US and the UK. Like our government, he has given no indication of having a plan, or even of having looked very far ahead. The Johnson government in Britain has been caught on the hop at every turn, reacting late to predictable events, U-turning, and imposing the evidence-free lockdown policy multiple times. One thing they absolutely refuse to consider is looking at what other countries are doing and why their outcomes are better. Taiwan, for example, with a higher population density, has had only seven Covid deaths and no lockdowns, but they have a very effective tracing system.
I’ve posted before about the lack of evidence for the effectiveness of lockdowns. I have done my own analysis of the numbers available, and find that the data is compatible with two hypotheses. One, is that the lockdowns have had no positive effect large enough to show in the numbers. The other is that lockdown has a small beneficial effect; I don’t have sufficient information to quantify “small”. What I can do is rule out the idea that lockdowns are highly effective in stamping down on outbreaks. So, why do we keep doing them? I suspect the main problem is, much of the fatal transmission of Covid infection occurs within hospitals and care homes, but you can’t close them. So “lockdown” is a misnomer; closing hairdressers and schools instead is relatively ineffective, but “something must be done, this is something, therefore this must be done”.
The available data suggest that a peak in Covid infections may have occurred in early January. If it should prove so, that’s great, but it does mean that the government will claim credit for the success of the latest lockdown, relying on the media who have lost their capacity for critical thought. However, the trouble is, I am having difficulty reconciling the numbers. Overall deaths (from all causes) are running about the average level for the time of year, which means about 1500 – 1600 deaths per day in the UK, but we keep hearing on the news that “1325 Covid deaths were recorded in the last 24 hours” or some such number. Even though these headline totals get corrected downward when tabulated by date of death, it doesn’t fit with the average daily total of deaths from cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimers and the other big causes of death, which must be continuing unless something very odd is happening. Overcrowded hospitals and exhausted staff cancelling treatment for other conditions suggest that these other deaths should, if anything, be higher rather than lower than normal. But, there are no published daily totals of cancer deaths, for example, so how are we supposed to interpret the Covid numbers? Statistics obtained based on PCR coronavirus tests were in line with other (symptom based) data series in the first wave of Covid, in 2020; now, they aren’t, but I haven’t been able to stack up the numbers and find out what’s going on. Until these various data streams are all available, and can be related to their history in previous years, it’s not possible to be sure what’s happening. I’m reminded of a line from a film in which the evil overlord snarls at a henchman, “I don’t give you enough information to think!”
Still, the government and the opposition continue to share the presumption that lockdowns work. As I said, maybe they do, but certainly not all that well. Still our politicians shy away from doing a proper cost/benefit analysis of this policy, or examining the alternatives. Keir Starmer firmly supports lockdowns and is failing to challenge this disastrously incompetent government. Even if he finds his backbone and starts to land a few blows on Johnson, that alone doesn’t give anyone a good reason to vote Labour. He needs to articulate an alternative vision.
Given a government which can’t see six inches in front of its nose, it should be easy to win a vision contest. Johnson cannot explain why we need a lockdown, what a successful lockdown looks like, still less when (or under what conditions) it will end, and how things will be afterwards. We could re-organise our country to make it more resilient against epidemics, by simple measures like smaller class sizes in schools, and having buildings with windows which actually open. The world of work has largely changed itself by moving to working-at-home and remote meetings; the rest appear to be waiting for the magic wand of vaccination to make the bug go away.
Labour could usefully do some long term thinking here. We are never going back to the old normal, and nor should we; much of it was rotten. Leaders should now be spelling out how the new normal should look. If the vaccines work, Covid will become a low-level endemic disease, and we will live with it just as we live with all the other communicable illnesses. We will need to restructure the economy to make it less fragile; with shorter supply chains, and more local capability (a shortcoming brutally exposed by the fact that we couldn’t even manufacture simple masks and gowns in the UK). Retail businesses were already in decline when Covid struck, and we need to think out how the move online should work (hint: taxing technology businesses and not allowing Amazon to monopolise absolutely everything would be a start). Coming on top of Brexit, we need a new concept of how Britain is going to earn its keep in the world – what are we good at? Our weak constitution has taken a hammering from the right, and needs to be codified and beefed up. We need to turn off the wealth pumps and allow a more equitable and natural economic distribution to result. We need to acknowledge the damage done by the fantasy of perpetual economic growth and stop the externalisation of costs from destroying the natural world. I’ve been writing about these topics for many years.
There’s enough here to keep a left of centre party busy for a long time. Perhaps, just perhaps, one day they will realise this and put together an attractive vision which can be clearly communicated to voters who already know our current systems are unsustainable. The problem with saying we should consume less oil, plastic and meat, is that the right will imply you are suggesting a return to a Dark Age lifestyle without all the bread and circuses we are used to: a world of material insecurity and discomfort. Just as it’s not enough for Starmer to criticise a bad government, it’s not enough for Green-inclined people to warn of mass extinctions, soil erosion, climate change etc. We (I include myself) have to show that there is, not just another way, but a better way. A friend who overcame alcoholism once told me that what terrifies an alcoholic about giving up, even when they know the harm it’s doing to them, is the fear that there isn’t a life worth living without the booze. Something similar applies to the modern world; we have to see that a less destructive, more sustainable way of life exists which would be worth living, without perpetual growth, excessive consumption and the rest of it. Once we see that possibility, we could be led to it.
The only laws worth anything are those which always apply, and cannot be suspended at the first whiff of gunpowder. The only rights and freedoms you really have are those which cannot be withdrawn because someone is on strike, or there’s a bug going round.
What we are seeing now is a government which is prone to panic measures, in particular, the hugely destructive policy of national lockdown. The sequence of events is, first, the government is given dramatic and frightening advice by people with a record of overstatement. A combination of groupthink and arrogance means that a wider base of advice is not sought. The government then panics, believing that the sky is falling and that they will be blamed. Labouring under the delusion of control, they take draconian powers and wield them clumsily, over-riding civil rights which should be far more robustly defended.
Closing places of worship is a removal of the right to practice religion, for example. Arguing that in court would not take very long. But, if you also have to argue that it is disproportionate, you come up against the moving yardstick; disproportionate to what? In this case, disproportionate to the perceived threat of the epidemic – not to the actual threat, which a court would not consider itself competent to assess. If the government’s perception is irrationally high, because they have panicked, then they are all the more justified in using such powers. In short, if they believe they are correct, that makes them correct. It is a circular argument. By this logic, shroud-waving projections of 4,000 deaths per day became the justification for periodic tyranny, which cannot be challenged at the time.
The government has chosen to take these powers, not through declaring a state of emergency under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, but through the Public Health Act and a special Coronavirus Act, a long bill which was rushed through Parliament in less than a week.
This is important, since emergency laws introduced in special situations, have a habit of becoming permanent. Somehow there is always time to write these laws, but not enough to consider them properly. Much of the US Patriot Act, passed in just six weeks following 9/11, remains in force today, despite being sold as temporary, and trampling over most of the Bill of Rights. In this case, it was obvious that the law was a pre-existing wish list of intrusive executive powers, and 9/11 provided the occasion to force it through.
Britain’s Emergency Powers Act 1920 was invoked 12 times in the last century (five of them by Edward Heath). In each case, it was not because of some kind of armed conflict, a deadly disease, or a huge natural disaster, but to break strikes by important workers such as dockers, electricians, miners and seamen. We do not remember these events today as emergencies; they were political and industrial disputes. In effect, the definition of an emergency was stretched to include any threat to the power and wealth of the ruling class. Heath also invoked the word emergency to justify the disastrous use of internment in northern Ireland, which enormously boosted IRA recruitment and levels of nationalist fervour for a generation.
This sad history does not supply much support for the whole concept of emergency powers. The nation became tired of the government declaring an emergency just so they could win an argument with a trade union by force, rather than by conceding that perhaps the unions had a point. Older readers may recall that Heath held the 1974 election on the question “who governs Britain” – and lost. Subsequent governments have shied away from declaring emergencies. Mrs Thatcher used extraordinary tactics (police brutality, intrusive surveillance etc) to break the miners’ strike without declaring an emergency.
There are, therefore, good reasons to regard emergency powers with suspicion, as being open to abuse, and as a backdoor to tyranny. Indeed, Victor Orban moved quickly to take emergency powers in Hungary, without time limit, because of Covid. Tyrants have also been known to manufacture emergencies to order, such as the Reichstag fire.
Allowing a government to take such powers whenever it is frightened by overblown predictions, for example, is a recipe for periodic totalitarianism. Any civilised, democratic nation should have very firm constitutional protections for the most basic rights. Such a nation’s courts and Parliament should be the first lines of defence against encroachment of these rights, and should be skeptical about claims of emergencies.
Multiple newspapers report that Boris Johnson was bounced into the November “lockdown” – very much a light version of the March lockdown – by his advisers and colleagues, and by a leak from his meeting with Gove and Hancock to consider the move in the light of that notorious 4,000 deaths/day model. He is said to be angry over this, now that he has committed to measures that he would probably have opposed had he still been an awkward backbencher. It has exposed his weakness; that he is easily driven and controlled by others.
I have done my own bit of modelling (based on the logistic curve) of the second wave death rate. If the curve is symmetrical, there will be an eventual second-wave total of almost exactly 20,000 deaths, and we are already past the peak, which was most likely on 15th November at 408 per day. That is one tenth – just one tenth – of the shroud-waving figure of 4,000. All this is based on the definition of Covid deaths which includes anyone who died within 28 days of a positive PCR test, a definition which itself inflates the figures. While the first wave had a longer tail (a better model would use the Gompertz function but the logistic function is simpler), the figures will not be radically different. Ferguson’s 4,000 per day projection, and Prof Edmunds’ “tens of thousands” total are looking like disastrously overblown scare tactics, and Johnson, being unable to count his own children and get the same answer twice, believed them.
In this light, we have to ask, what makes an emergency? How many deaths, and in what time frame? Climate change doesn’t seem to qualify as it is slow to take effect. The UK suffers 78,000 deaths annually from smoking, a total far higher than Covid, and yet the right to smoke is preserved as an important freedom, albeit one that is discouraged through tax. We accept 26,000 killed or seriously injured on the roads, but don’t suspend the right to drive motor vehicles; their usefulness outweighs the cost. We make these sort of calculations all the time; it’s really not difficult. What is it about Covid that is uniquely terrible?
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that dramatic and immediate Covid deaths outweigh, in political calculations, the long term effects of missed treatments for other illnesses (a million missed mammograms probably means 8,000 additional undiagnosed breast cancers); the diseases of poverty that will follow the mass unemployment; the interrupted educations and derailed careers; the depression and suicides, and so on. This is not a moral choice, nor an objectively necessary one; it’s a political choice.
The arguments all come down to human lives. The “overloaded NHS” argument is only another way of talking about deaths. But, if the average Covid victim is 82, to what extent have their lives been saved (assuming they have been) by lockdowns, and to what extent have they been very slightly prolonged? Above all, is it really better for one 40 year old to die of cancer than two 80 year olds to die of pneumonia? That is the logic of lockdown.
Nobody has explained the ethical framework in which such a choice can be made, nor why it is for the Prime Minister to make it. They fill in by scaring us with the 4,000-a-day scenario. It is profoundly dishonest.
Back in March, the first lockdown was widely supported; this time round, people can see that it isn’t the only choice available. Yet, just like the rushed Coronavirus Act, Johnson and Parliament have been bounced into a draconian measure with insufficient information and inadequate deliberation. The time taken to pass laws in the normal way means that we seldom blunder into big policy mistakes without reflection. It certainly doesn’t prevent terrible policy disasters from happening; but at least they are fully considered disasters, not knee-jerks. Any list of policy disasters will include many that were rushed into without a hard enough look at the pros and cons. But there is a special category of policies in which no such balance is even attempted; they are the at-any-cost policies, of which Brexit is an obvious example, or the procurement of a new nuclear missile system. A true believer in these policies will proudly tell you that “whatever it takes” is the right answer to the question of “what will it cost”. There is a religious aspect to such thinking; only a higher principle can justify a policy which does not need to be justified in the normal, material terms.
Now, it appears that a new money-no-object policy has emerged. The government-commanded lockdown policy to address Covid-19 has become an article of faith. We are not supposed to ask whether it actually works; nor how “works” might be defined or measured; how many lives it will cost; whose lives they are; and whether it will (like Brexit) bankrupt the country. It is rapidly becoming an evidence-free policy in which assumptions replace facts. Serious arguments about measurable things are not listened to. Comparisons with other countries, or with this country in previous epidemics, are not made, at least not by those proposing the lockdown.
In a year’s time, we may be looking at a situation in which many are dead from Covid; but many more are dying from missed treatment of other illnesses and from the diseases of poverty; and the country has been massively impoverished by the twin policies of Brexit and repeated lockdowns, neither of which could be justified in rational terms, and which have failed even in the limited terms of their own supporters. Both policies, followed on an at-any-cost basis, may drive the country to ruin. Too late, we will realise that no project is an exception; no policy should ever be excused the discipline of proper analysis and justification, with a breadth of opinion being heard. Never is an emergency so urgent that a law should be passed unread. Perfectly predictable fiascos are a characteristic of our system, driven by our particularly adversarial form of politics, the partisan press, the weakness of our checks and balances, the concentration of power, and the lack of well-informed debate.
We’ve seen many of the defects in our constitution revealed in recent years; this may prove to be the most deadly. And yet, when all of that has happened, I’m sure there will still be millions of people prepared to vote Conservative yet again.
The policy of lockdown – imposing drastic restrictions on a blanket basis, on the majority who are healthy as well as the sick, on the majority who are not at risk as well as the vulnerable – has been justified by those who say that it’s not practical to protect only the vulnerable. Well, that is changing. Three vaccines have now been tested and shown to work; we can protect the vulnerable. And once the elderly and their carers have been vaccinated, the only argument for blanket restrictions on everyone else will have gone. It will be time to let people choose for themselves how to behave.
The risks of Covid vary a lot, with age, state of health, gender and life situation. The impact of social and economic restrictions also differs widely. The truth is that the right level of risk varies greatly between individuals, and is never zero. People must regain the right to judge the balance for themselves and behave as they see fit, not according to a one-size-fits-all policy dictated from above.
In my last post, I commented on the apparent focus on the daily national total of positive PCR swab tests which is misleadingly described as “daily new cases”. It appears that public policy is being driven by this number, given its prominence on government web sites, in the press, and in remarks by ministers.
In practice, a positive PCR test has become the definition of a “case” – a misuse of terminology which creates a circular argument: we use the test to prove the prevalence of a disease for which the same test is the only definitive indication. Without an independent confirmation of a diagnosis, in a scenario of mass testing, it would be perfectly possible that you could have an entire “epidemic” consisting only of false positive results with no actual illness at all. I’m saying that just as an illustration; it’s not what we are seeing in reality. There are certainly many people falling ill and some of them are dying. Covid-19 is real. I’m just pointing out the weakness of a circular argument, and there is undoubtedly some degree of circularity in the reliance being placed on positive PCR tests.
At present, the public evidence relating to Covid is unable to distinguish between several hypotheses. The official narrative is that we are presently seeing a second wave of infections, greater than the first (as shown by the “new cases” graph), which will inevitably be followed by “tens of thousands” more deaths, according to a statement by Prof. John Edmunds, a member of SAGE, on 20th October. Although he was vague about dates, this prediction should offer a test of the “second wave” theory. This hypothesis is compatible with the evidence so far, but it would be falsified if the second wave fizzles out and the body count is not in the tens of thousands. The opposing hypothesis is that the majority of “new cases” are either false positives (no infection at all) or “cold positives”, people who have traces of viral RNA in their swab, but who either have no viable virus in them, or who are not susceptible to it, so are not producing and exhaling new virus particles. Linked to the positive test figures are the death figures; the recent rise in deaths attributed to Covid has been much smaller than in March, and is not exponential. Some of these deaths may be misattributed; the cause of death is, in most cases, a complex mixture of pre-existing conditions, old age, and Covid.
It would be very helpful if a few simple measures were taken right away. Firstly, all positive tests should be immediately followed by a second test, which would identify almost all of the random false positives, which probably run at a few thousand per day. Secondly, there should be follow up of the true positives to determine which of them develop symptoms (hot positives) and which are cold positives. Thirdly, a sample of Covid-attributed deaths should be examined post-mortem to confirm attribution, and not just by doing a PCR test – tissue culture is the more definitive method. Those who essentially died of pre-existing conditions, and were just finished off by Covid, should be identified as such. Culturing is too slow and difficult to use on a large scale, but a small sample would soon tell us what proportion of Covid deaths are correctly attributed.
These steps would have the twin benefits of correctly measuring the scale of the epidemic, and of answering the denialists who claim the whole thing is a hoax, or that there is only an epidemic of testing, not of disease.
Knowing these things, we can then attempt to make rational decisions on public policy. There was general consent and compliance with the March lockdown, in the face of over a thousand deaths per day. Now, people are less willing to go along with such restrictions. We urgently need a study of the effectiveness of restrictive measures. The public evidence, at present, is that positive tests and deaths both peaked in mid-April, 3 weeks or so after the stay-at-home lockdown began, and declined to almost zero by mid-August. This evidence is compatible with two opposing hypotheses: one, that the lockdown worked immediately and should be credited with almost eradicating the disease; the other, that the disease followed the normal epidemic pattern (the Gompertz curve) and would have declined anyway, with or without a lockdown.
How can we distinguish between the two? While we can’t run a side-by-side trial as we do with drugs, we have valid comparators in other countries which did not impose the same set of restrictions; and also in Britain during past respiratory virus epidemics (named outbreaks such as “Hong Kong flu” in 1968, SARS in 2003, and H1N1 “swine flu” in 2009; or recent examples of normal seasonal flu) in which there was no public policy response.
The median age at death from Covid is over 80 in almost every developed country. The death toll in any country, correlates very closely with the demographic age structure in that country. Also, the large majority of the dead had one or more co-morbidities, mainly overweight/obesity; hypertension; diabetes; heart disease, and cancer. The death toll by country is also strongly correlated with the pre-existing prevalence of these conditions.
Mathematical modelling has suffered a severe blow to its reputation as a result of the Ferguson/Imperial College model which hugely overestimated the likely death toll in the UK and US. However, if properly used, it is still a powerful technique. A well-validated model of this, and of past, respiratory virus epidemics accounting for the correlations with demographics and prevalence of significant co-morbidities, should be able to distinguish whether the public policy response in this case has had a significant effect.
Politicians, having committed to the lockdown type of response, will be very unwilling to acknowledge that it was a wasted effort, should that be the case. However, it is extremely important that the facts are determined. We can’t go on as we are, experimenting with policies of immense human and financial cost, without knowing whether they are effective (or how effective they are). It is not good enough to impose lockdowns and arbitrary rules which are assumed to work because “it stands to reason”. The bottom line is that we do not really know whether the sacrifice of thousands of businesses and millions of jobs; the reduction in normal levels of care for other illnesses; the interruption of education; the psychological stress; and the loss of individual liberties, have been worth it.
Any new vaccine or treatment for Covid will be required to prove its effectiveness through a controlled trial before it is used. The same standard, for some reason, does not apply to public policy measures. The benefits and costs are unknown, and there is no (or at least, no public) effort being made to measure them with any accuracy. This might be because to do so, in an open-minded way, is to acknowledge the possibility that the huge sacrifices people have made, may not have been justified. If I had to bet on it, I would expect a rigorous study to find that the lockdown policies had some, limited beneficial effect on the rate of spread of the virus, but that policies with a less disastrous impact could have done the same and would have been preferable, such as much earlier restrictions on entering the country; an effective test, trace and isolate (TTI) system; and protecting care homes. One thing we can be sure of is that the virus reached Britain in the bodies of travellers from places such as China and northern Italy. Letting them in, completely unrestricted, throughout the spring, was a disastrous policy error by a distracted and incompetent government. It left them looking at over a thousand deaths per day; feeling that “something must be done”; and with the sledgehammer of lockdown being the only policy tool left at that point.
This is not the first pandemic. This is not the first, nor even the second, pandemic of a new respiratory coronavirus in this century. It is, though, the first one in which so many countries have restricted their entire populations, rather than focusing on targeted measures applied to those who are actually ill or vulnerable. When the dust settles, I think the way in which lockdown policies spread worldwide, will be one of the most interesting subjects to be studied. There are many who now regard the spread of such policies as the real pandemic; as yet, I’m not one of them, because as I’ve said, the evidence is not yet available to determine this. It is, though, a possibility, and if it should prove to be the case, we must acknowledge it in time to avoid repeating our mistakes in future epidemics. The countries which have responded best to Covid are those which relied more on TTI policies than on blanket restrictions.
Science works by examining all possible explanations and discarding those which do not fit the facts. Testable predictions are made from the remaining ones. We then gather more data, either by doing experiments, or relying on wait-and-see, to find out which predictions are correct, allowing us to discard the incorrect hypotheses. Here are a couple of hypotheses and predictions to take away.
First, the government scenario, maintained by SAGE. They start from the assumption (not rigorously validated) that, because this virus is novel, 100% of the population is initially susceptible to it. They also assume (which is not only unvalidated but flies in the face of all immunology) that seroprevalence surveys which detect antibodies, give an accurate idea of how many people have been infected so far. On this basis, they believe less than 10% of the population (6.7m) have yet been in contact with the virus, and over 90% remain susceptible. From a model based on these assumptions, they predict, and have advised ministers, that there will inevitably be a large number of additional deaths (see Prof Edmunds’ “tens of thousands” remark) and that conditions exist for another rapid, national spread as we saw last Spring. With this in mind, further lockdown-style policies might be expected to help suppress the spread of disease, and ultimately our only real hope is a vaccine.
Secondly, another hypothetical scenario (published by Kirkham and Yeadon) in which we assume that something like 30% of the population already had some resistance to the novel virus on the basis of previous contact with other endemic coronaviruses. This comes from recent studies in which some people were found to have a T-cell response to SARS-CoV2 before the epidemic reached their country. Further, assume that (based on an IFR of about 0.2% as discussed in the previous post), since we’ve had about 43,000 deaths, we’ve probably had something of the order of 20m infections, almost one third of the population. From these assumptions, most people are not susceptible and you would predict that the conditions do not exist for another national outbreak like the one last Spring, and that we will see only smaller, regional outbreaks which grow more slowly. In short, that the situation is approaching endemic equilibrium. On this basis, further national lockdowns are not going to help, and the epidemic will probably be visibly over before vaccines are ready for mass distribution.
These are very different models and reality may lie anywhere in between them. We will know before too long. Eventually the death rate will make it very clear where the reality lies, if we are open to the evidence.
Politicians are notorious for not being open-minded. Once they’ve taken a position, they have to show strength by “sticking to their guns”. On the other hand, people on the further reaches of the internet are notorious for being so open-minded that their brains fall right out, and they blame 5G or Bill Gates. I’m trying to steer a rational course between the two and “be guided by the science”. Nature will tell us the right answers if we ask the right questions.
There is, at last, starting to be some sort of debate over Covid-19 restrictions and whether they are providing any actual benefit; and indeed, how any such benefit might be measured. This discussion is held against the background of a second wave of disease.
The graph of “daily new cases” shows a peak in the 7 day average of 4999 on April 14th, then a fall to 545 on July 8th, and today (6th October) a rise to 10,735.
The graph of daily deaths shows a 7 day average peak of 943 on April 14th falling to just 7 on August 21st, then rising to 53 currently:
It is striking that these graphs, which were almost perfectly correlated during the early peak and into July, are now so very far out of step. Largely, it is because the reported tally of “cases” is no longer actual cases but has morphed into something else.
Early on, testing was done on those who had symptoms of Covid, essentially to confirm the diagnosis. As you would expect, the positive test rate was high – over 50% in early April. So the description of these numbers as “cases” was correct back then, in the sense of “people who are ill with this particular disease”. Now, the test is being used much more widely, mostly on people who have no symptoms of any illness. However, those who test positive are still being counted as “cases” while in fact many are either false positives (neither infected nor ill), or asymptomatic (infected but not ill). People who are not ill, whether or not they are infected, are not cases, by the conventional medical definition.
The Coronavirus PCR swab test, like any such test, will have a certain rate of false positive results when in large scale use. This is hard to measure (as there is no better test to compare it to) and may vary, but studies linked from a government website (Mayers and Baker) suggest a range from 0.8% to 4%. Let’s suppose this PCR test is particularly good and has only a 0.4% false positive rate. Yesterday, 261,366 tests were carried out, so on this favourable assumption, we would expect about 1,045 false positive results.
On July 8th, 107,000 tests were carried out and there were 545 positive results. We can put an upper limit on the false positive rate by assuming that none were true positives, so the false positive rate was no more than 0.5%. This doesn’t conflict with the assumption made above, so we aren’t in completely the wrong ball park. It’s always worth doing rough checks like this on assumptions.
So, for example, in the Covid hot spot of Coventry, estimated to have 103 “cases” per 100,000 population, if we carried out 100,000 tests at random, we should expect to get 100 true positives (allowing for 3 false negatives) and 400 false positives. The signal is swamped by the noise by a factor of 4. This is one reason why crude estimates of Case Fatality Rates, obtained by dividing the number of deaths by the number of “cases”, start out much too high and fall over time, as the denominator gets continuously larger. As the testing net is cast ever wider, we move from measuring something like the Case Fatality Rate (CFR), to something closer to the Infection Fatality Rate (IFR), but without recognising the change. Yet the difference is large and very important.
This does not mean that the PCR swab test is a waste of time. It is still useful to confirm a clinical diagnosis. Negative results are fairly reliable and can be useful for the individual. Mass screening can identify local hot-spots. It’s also useful for quarantining travellers, and for protecting hospital staff and care home workers. However we should not fixate on the national positive-test count as if it were an important outcome. It’s also worth noting that there is no firm relationship between a positive test and infectivity. Some of those who test positive are infectious, but certainly not all, and we have no data on that proportion.
Still, we hear of the daily “case” count and the even less accurately measurable R-parameter in the press and in political discussion, as if they were critical outcome measures which could be targeted by policy. Nobody talks about the expected false positive rate, as if it were an unacceptable fringe opinion – but it’s not a matter of opinion, it’s primary school level arithmetic.
The IFR is not itself a number which can be targeted for reduction; it is what it is. But, it’s a useful measure of how big a problem the disease is for our country.
In January, we heard breathless stories from Wuhan of a large but unknown number of deaths, apartment block doors being welded closed, crematoria running 24 hours, and people lying where they fell dead in the street. As the disease spread, the initial estimates of fatality rates proved to be too high, and the numbers came steadily down over time. All this is perfectly normal in epidemics. We now have better founded, more sober estimates. The American CDC publishes their current best estimate of the IFR broken down by age group, as follows:
0 – 19 years 0.003%
20 – 49 years 0.02%
50 – 69 years 0.5%
The CDC don’t give this figure, but the overall IFR is maybe 0.2%. Figures such as the IFR and CFR are not carved in stone. They decrease over time. This is partly because the most susceptible people may have died in the first outbreak; partly because of improved treatment which lowers the death rate; and changes in the virus itself. Mostly, though, because of better data for both sides of the ratio. The death count, at the moment, includes everyone who dies within 1 month of a positive test, whatever the actual cause of death. Some of these will be reclassified eventually. But mostly, the denominator gets bigger as more people are tested. If the overall IFR is around 0.2% now, it will probably end up lower – something in the area of 0.1%, perhaps – once everything is over. That’s a reasonable, order-of-magnitude estimate, based on the best available data right now. I’ll stick my neck out a bit further and suggest that the overall CFR will settle in the region of 1% as another order-of-magnitude estimate, but again, look at the breakdown and there’s a huge bias towards the elderly. Not broken out in the above figures, is the fact that co-morbidities, especially cardiovascular ones, have a major effect. I have to gloss over that for now.
The IFR for young people under 20 is simply too small to measure – 0.003% is as close to zero as makes no difference on a national level. Death rates in the under 50s are so low that it is misleading to describe Covid-19 as a deadly disease for this age group. A death rate of 2 in 10,000 is just background noise. Even including all the under-70s, it is hardly a major threat to life. For these age groups – the entire school and working age population – Covid-19 is just another of the many diseases which are out there and which may be very unpleasant if you catch them, but will not kill you.
Covid is only a serious, deadly threat to the over 70s. More than half of the deaths are of those over 80. Now, I’m not saying they don’t matter. If it’s you, or your granny, that dies, of course that’s tragic. But we all go eventually. When an 80-something dies, are we distraught because they didn’t make it to 90? Or do we say they had a good innings? I can remember a time when some people referred to pneumonia as “the old man’s friend”. We all want to live happily to a ripe old age and then die in our sleep. Failing that, though, let us die of something which isn’t too slow or painful; preferably not dementia or cancer. But die we will. Public policy is hard-hearted and measures health benefits in terms of quality adjusted expected life-years. By that measure, Covid isn’t all that bad, as epidemics go.
There is another factor which the mainstream media overlook. The death tally from Covid includes all those who die after testing positive, but this ignores the fact that most of these deaths only brought forward something that would have happened anyway. To assess the actual loss of life-years, we have to look at the excess death rate, above the average for the time of year. On that basis, we currently have a lower death rate than usual. The peak of excess deaths in April and May is now being balanced out by a below-normal death rate. This is nothing surprising; it’s a mathematical inevitability, whenever there is a peak in excess deaths from any cause. The burden of Covid on society right now, by that measure, has actually gone negative.
So if you see lurid headlines of the “daily new case” count reaching high numbers, ask yourself:
Are they actually cases, in the sense of people who are ill?
How many are false positives?
How much does this number actually matter for public policy?
How many people are dying of Covid right now?
What are my chances of dying of Covid?
Are more people dying (of all causes) than usual for the time of year?
Is this a useful number to focus on?
This is one of those times when a clear approach to interpreting statistics is even more important than usual. In the next post, I’ll comment more on the public policy implications.
The rise of right-wing ideology, and the political ascendancy of its followers, is founded on a basic set of lies. The greatest triumph of the right has been to convince most people to believe these lies. This includes themselves; most right-wingers not only spread these lies, but have internalised them as articles of faith, and are not open to argument about them. Evidence, outcomes, and rationality make no difference.
The first of these lies is that the system (meaning, the combined effects of government policy; taxation; public spending; and the rules governing the private sector) redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor. A picture is painted of a state which takes money from the rich, who have earned it and deserve to keep it, and gives it to the poor, who have not.
The second, and closely related, lie, is that our massively unequal distribution of wealth and income is natural, and results from the rightful operation of competition, meritocracy, and free markets.
Like all the best lies, they are partially true.
The system redistributes wealth alright, but from the poor to the rich. It does indeed take wealth from those who have earned it (by making stuff, growing stuff, building stuff, digging stuff up, or by inventing, teaching, healing, or otherwise serving) and concentrates it in the pockets of those who did not earn it, in the form of interest, rents, dividends, excessive pay, corporate welfare, capital gains and inheritances. Overwhelmingly, the rewards of owning exceed those of working.
Most of the mechanisms which allocate wealth and income in our society serve to concentrate them in the hands of a few, pushing wealth uphill against the force of economic gravity. It is exclusively due to such mechanisms of upward redistribution that multi-billionaires exist.
Let me briefly list a few such mechanisms:
Privatisation: Infrastructure built up over decades or even centuries of patient investment by tax- and bill-payers, were sold off as private monopolies at knock-down prices. Assets formerly managed for the benefit of all, became the means for private owners to levy what amounts to a tax on a captive market. Vital services have become toll-booths for extracting wealth and concentrating it. Land, centuries ago, was largely a common resource. Enclosures and clearances allowed it to be appropriated into private estates, where much of it remains. That the enclosures happened long ago does not make them OK.
Monetary policy is run primarily to support banks, stock markets, and big corporations. Monetary inflation is a hidden tax on the majority, one which accounts and audits fail to reveal. Quantitative easing serves to inflate financial asset values, creating wealth for the rich, while disadvantaging the non-financial productive economy.
Corporate pay: it has become normal for hired managers to demand, and receive, enormous pay and bonuses. Jeff Fairburn of Persimmon was in line for a £110m payout on the back of the government’s “help to buy” scheme, a classic example of corporate welfare disguised as “help” for first time housebuyers. Thousands of buyers will spend the next two or three decades paying for his looting through their mortgages.
Corporate welfare: in the US, the four big airlines, hit by Covid-19, asked for a $50bn bailout – slightly more than the $45bn they spent in the last 5 years on share buyback schemes, boosting their share prices on the back of cheap debt, which is good for shareholders and even better for the managers’ stock options. Bailouts for big business – corporate welfare – shields shareholders and managers from the risks which they are supposed to bear. Losses are socialised, profits privatised.
The banking industry: endlessly inventive when it comes to devising ways to concentrate wealth. High Frequency Trading is an example; vast amounts have been spent enabling banks to “front-run” slower investors by milliseconds, and so to skim a small percentage of each trade. Nothing useful is created, but wealth is concentrated. Banks are always ready to make loans secured on existing assets, especially property; less so when it comes to supporting productive, non-financial industry. Above all, the power of banking flows from the ability to create money by making loans. Our money supply is effectively rented from commercial banks, to the great advantage of their owners and senior managers.
Tax havens: the most obvious of the ways in which the wealthy avoid paying tax. As billionaire tax cheat Leona Helmsley said, “only the little people pay taxes”.
Payments just for already being rich: there have, down the years, been many ways in which the rich were rewarded just for being rich. In 1833, at the abolition of slavery, compensation was paid, not to the slaves, but to the slave owners. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy pays landowners according to how much land they own – whether or not they do any farming themselves. Generous tax relief on donations mean public money adds a direct subsidy to the philanthropic priorities of the rich. To him that hath, more shall be given.
Racism, sexism, the class system: forms of bias abound in our society, which limit opportunity to the wealthy and well connected. Private education allows the rich to buy lifelong advantage for their children, which entrenches inequality at the expense of society as a whole. Prejudice is economically inefficient; every time someone gets a job in preference to a more capable candidate with the wrong religion, gender, ethnicity, or old school tie, there is a loss in productivity.
Winner takes all: the rules of the private sector concentrate the rewards of success into the hands of owners. The leaders and founders of a successful team claim all the credit, and all the rewards, for the team’s successes. CEOs are paid hundreds of times more than median workers, and there is a corporate culture which defines profit and shareholder value as the only legitimate purpose of a corporation. Hence they squeeze pay to the point at which workers are reliant on benefits – in effect, a subsidy to the employers.
Ever-increasing opportunities to extract economic rents: in financial services, intellectual property, occupational licensing, state-granted monopoly rights, and land use planning. These are not market outcomes; they are public policy decisions. If doctors, lawyers and finance industry professionals were treated the same way as textile or car workers, costs for such services would be slashed. Public policy facilitates and encourages the extraction of rents.
Exploiting workers and trashing the environment – through globalisation. If we no longer have dark Satanic mills in England, it’s because we buy manufactured goods from countries which do have them. Outsourcing and offshoring cuts the share of the economic pie going to workers, to the benefit of a few owners and managers.
Crony capitalism and the power of the rich: corruption, cronyism and nepotism are on the rise in Western countries, with favoured companies getting lucrative public contracts without competition. The power of the billionaire-owned press is so great that it undermines the very principles of democracy; the main reason the right wants to destroy the BBC is that the main alternatives would then be right-leaning, billionaire-owned channels and media, as in the USA.
These, and more, are examples of the wealth pumps which provide such vast rewards for the few at the top of the heap, at the expense of the rest. This is why the distribution of income and wealth is so unequal, and getting more so all the time.
Recently, there has been a confected row about the songs “Rule Britannia” and “Land of Hope and Glory”. The row is part of the ongoing culture wars, an attempt to paint the BBC as unpatriotic and too “woke” to act as the voice of the nation. These songs do indeed celebrate imperialism, yet since hardly anyone knows more than two lines of either song, one can understand that many see them as just old-fashioned patriotic ditties. Jerusalem, the other Proms favourite, may not be so imperialist, but the only possible answer to the question “And did those feet in ancient times, walk upon England’s mountains green?” is “No, and don’t start a sentence with a preposition”.
But there is another hymn, one which I used to sing in school assemblies, whose innocent-sounding title is “All things bright and beautiful”. It includes the verse, “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate; He made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate”. This song is designed to indoctrinate children to believe that their social and economic class is God-given and righteous.
The rich man in his castle; the landowner; the aristocrat; the oligarch; the Old Etonian; the inheritor of a family fortune; we are trained to believe that they are not the holders of unreasonable privilege, but the chosen ones of God. Money flows from us to them by divine decree. Even if we lose faith in this simple idea as we grow up, the basic concept has been planted in the young mind.
A simplistic ideal of a true meritocracy is that each person’s income should be in proportion to the value of their contribution, with that value being discovered in a free market. It’s very obvious that the system does not work this way for most people, and nowhere is it more obvious than for the ultra-wealthy. The success of the right has been to disguise the operation of wealth pumps as the action of free markets and meritocracy.
We should not, indeed cannot, correct this situation just by taxing the rich, because it fails to tackle the root of the problem. We need to turn off the wealth pumps which push all that money into their pockets. If we do so, the distribution of wealth will flatten out naturally, with hardly any need for the sledgehammer of punitive taxation. A society without billionaires would be a far better one, and more stable. It would need only a very minimal welfare state and would have healthy public finances. The private sector would benefit from a large base of consumers who could afford to spend. Really, what’s not to like?
There is plenty here to form the philosophical and political basis of a progressive government. Much of the work could be done on day one; some aspects are within government control as a matter of policy. Others, like financial system reform and ending the monopolies, would take longer, while equalising opportunity and ending bias is a generational struggle. However I believe that a well thought-through program of government would be able to show results and benefits at every step, and build popular support. To take office, though, the party which aims to do this must first challenge the lies which the right have spread so successfully over so many years.
It’s not all that hard to identify the part of someone’s income which is not earned by productive effort. The right has succeeded in blurring the line; whenever you challenge someone’s bloated income, the counter-example thrown back is of the brilliant inventor, top sportsman, writer of best-sellers, or star entertainer whose income is visibly connected to their skill, talent, effort, and unique creations. The implication is that everyone else who is also highly paid, must be similarly productive and deserving. Nobody seriously tries to justify the extraction of huge economic rents; they just disguise the rent as the well-deserved and objective outcome of market forces, and offer the failed argument that the wealth will trickle down. Progressive politics must relentlessly give the lie to this kind of deception and show people what it costs them.
This will work with the grain of psychology; there is overwhelming and instinctive support for the concept of rewards being proportional to contribution – that people should get what they deserve. This, not equality of outcome, is what most people feel to be “justice”.