The Coronavirus inquiry. I’m an outlier – but I believe that following public opinion was a problem.

15 Mar

Coronavirus has disappeared from the headlines recently. The lifting of restrictions, the horrifying news from Ukraine, and our instinctive desire to quickly forget the dreadful means there is now a collective effort to never mention the dreaded C-word again.

But March 26th will mark the unhappy second anniversary of Britain entering lockdown: the biggest state-mandated change to our lives since the Second World War. With the terms of the Government’s inquiry into its handling of the pandemic announced last week, this is an opportunity to ask the fundamental question: was it all worth it?

The inquiry hopes to do this. The proposed terms of reference suggest that it shall assess all aspects of the government’s response: preparedness, the efficacy of interventions, the management of hospitals and care homes, the provision of essential equipment, and economic support. Under Baroness Hallett, the Chairwoman – a former High Court judge – it is hoped the inquiry will “reflect the importance of understanding the experiences of those most affected by the pandemic” and identify where the government got it wrong.

Like all inquiries, this will be a welcome opportunity for acts of confession and self-justification on the parts of ministers. That at least one Cabinet member has been keeping a diary for the last two years is unsurprising. This is a chance for ministers to show public contrition for any shortcomings, whilst aiming to guarantee that the eventual narrative presents them in the best possible light. Plus, Anthony Seldon and Tim Shipman must work from something.

The direct relationship between the size of an inquiry’s remit and the time it takes to conclude means it will be a while before we see Hallett’s final report. Moreover, inquiries tend largely to confirm lessons we have already learnt, providing only slaps on the wrist for politicians who have long since left office. By 2016, for example, we didn’t really need Lord Chilcot to tell us that invading the Middle East on a spurious pre-text was poor form, and that Tony Blair might have a slight messiah complex.

Nevertheless, we can get on with lesson-learning whilst the Baroness finishes dotting her Is and crossing her Ts. A report in the Lancet last week suggested the UK had a lower death toll than Italy, Portugal, and Spain – with no significant differences from those of France and Germany.

By looking at age-standardised avoidable mortality rates, the UK emerged as having the 29th worst mortality rate in Western Europe – largely, commentary suggested, due to our successful vaccine rollout. With cases currently hitting their highest numbers since early February alongside no drastic spike in hospitalisations, we really do appear to have triumphed over Covid.

140 million jabs and no restrictions is an achievement, even if returning to normality took longer than the “three weeks to flatten the curve” we were first promised. But if the vaccine rollout showed the British state at its best, the pandemic has also shown it at its worst. Billions chucked after a largely useless test-and-trace system, arrogant officials who genuinely believed Britain had a world-leading pandemic preparedness plan, and a health service as creaking as it is beloved: all hampered the fight. That tackling the virus was so expensive reflects the British state’s habitual cluelessness.

But surely that’s ancient history – who quibbles about timescales and costs when the pubs are open again? Nevertheless, there are real questions to ask about the fundamental problems of the government’s pandemic response. As a recovering student who spent his last year at university railing against restrictions, I almost respect those in Number 10 who dabbled in cakes and champers: they stuck two fingers up at rules so obviously grotesque even their very authors deemed them unreasonable. Saying such a thing makes me an outlier – but the trouble of following public opinion has been a problem of these last two years.

Think back to that mad, miserable March. The accepted narrative of events follows a government that began by nonchalantly dismissing the approaching threat being bounced by sensible scientists like Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty, and Saint Ferguson of Lockdown into following the rest of the civilised world (basically European countries with skiing resorts, and those bits of America that like Hillary) into necessary restrictions. Ferguson famously claimed that locking down a weak earlier would have saved 20,000 lives. The allegation that nasty Tories pursued chimeric ‘herd immunity’ at the expense of innocent lives was potent.

The reality was rather different. Rather than rejecting ‘the science’ for political ends, the government studiously followed scientific advice. The crucial point was that that advice changed. Vallance, Whitty et al was began March claiming they wanted to squash the sombrero, that cancelling mass events and mandating face masks was pointless. They may have initially believed the virus was more like the flu, but, even so, the government hardly ignored them. Ferguson was the outlier in calling for restrictions.

What changed? Remember, officials initially openly scoffed at the concept of lockdown. They believed such an authoritarian measure was unworkable in as freedom-loving country such as Britain. Their minds were changed by a force that has done more to shape the government’s handling of this pandemic than any other: the almost-sadomasochistic partiality for restrictions on the part of the British public.

Professor Ferguson’s infamous model certainly had an impact on ministers, primarily because it showed the NHS being overwhelmed. A new Tory government, driven by Vote Leave’s obsession with polls and the health service, could never be seen to let our national religion buckle. As horrific scenes poured onto our television screens from Lombardy night after night, and as country after country entered a lockdown hitherto thought only possible under the CCP, the public mood changed.

Already by March 26th, travel by tube, rail, or bus was down by more than 80 per cent. Outcry at allowing events like the Cheltenham festival and St Patrick’s Day celebrations helped convince the government that Something Must Be DoneTM. We were bounced into lockdown.

And as the weeks drew on, and the public remained overwhelmingly in favour of being paid to sit at home and watch Netflix, removing restrictions became even harder. Not until jabs could be put in arms, providing levels of reassurance acceptable to even the most zealous mask-wearer, could the government finally turn the corner: it had to win against public opinion as much as the virus. We remained stuck under restrictions for so long not only because of the SAGE’s caution, but because the public’s instincts were usually more draconian than the government’s.

We have known since Public Heath England first reported on it in July 2020 that the measures imposed that March may have caused more deaths in the long-term than they saved. From domestic abuse and mental illness, to missed cancer screenings and two years of disrupted learning, the consequences of our national experiment in authoritarianism will still be being counted far beyond the end of even the most leisurely of inquiry timescales.

And as we have all chosen to conveniently forget just how popular the war in Iraq initially was, I suspect that, in years to come, as hospital backlogs and educational problems stack up and mountains of debt must be paid off by continuous tax rises, the British people will similarly choose to forget just how enthusiastic we were for lockdown. March 2020 was the cruellest month – and one day, in the not-too-distant future, none of us will be able to say why.

Emily Carver: The decision to mandate masks in classrooms is utterly indefensible

5 Jan

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

To his credit, the Prime Minister has stuck to his guns and refused to follow the devolved administrations and bring in tougher rules.

This is a rational decision. We know that Omicron has proven to be milder than previous variants, and despite a surge in the number of people in hospital “with Covid”, the speedy roll-out of booster jabs has kept the number of patients on ventilators low. Indeed, the latest data shows that the number of people in ICU has in fact fallen in recent weeks and it not tracking the rise seen last winter. While pressure on the NHS is severe, it is manageable.

Even Professor Neil Ferguson, who predicted last month that there could be 5,000 Omicron deaths a day (over three times the peak last January) has admitted that this wave is “substantially less severe” than previous ones, and that he is now “cautiously optimistic” Omicron cases are plateauing among 18 to 50-year-olds in London, the age group that has been driving the recent wave.

Yet, despite the fact we are so very far from worst case scenarios (and Ferguson’s best-case scenario), the Government has decided that it is proportionate to demand children wear masks throughout the entire school day. It is now once again “recommended” for all secondary school pupils in England to wear masks eight hours a day, with only a short break for lunch.

Politicians have argued that mask-wearing is a small price to pay to keep schools open. The opposition has also parroted this line. But they’re not paying the price. It is not office workers or MPs who are being forced to don a sweaty, germ-ridden mask all day.

And where is the evidence that mask-wearing will slow down the spread of the virus, keep schools open, or indeed save lives? Surely there must be an extremely high bar to justify a “recommendation” that will impact children’s learning and quality of life?

According to the Health Secretary, the guidance is based on two assessments. First, the evidence that Omicron, though milder, is highly infectious. And second, that an “observational” study of 123 schools undertaken by the Department of Education supports the use of face masks in schools – a study which is yet to be published.

One of the major criticisms from those sceptical of the Government’s approach is that it has failed to communicate or publish cost-benefit analyses for its ever-changing patchwork of Covid rules and regulations. You would have thought that, when seeking to intervene in children’s lives, the costs should be even more meticulously assessed?

Anyone who has ever worn a face mask will know they inhibit basic social interaction. This may not be as important in some professions, but in schools it is essential. Only in November, Sir Jonathan Van-Tam defended the Government’s decision not to mandate masks in schools. He said they can be “quite inhibitory to the natural expressions of learning in children, involving speech and facial expressions. It’s difficult for children in schools with face masks”. This will be worse for those with special educational needs, or for the growing number of children already suffering with their mental health. Has his view changed?

It seems the Government is more interested in being seen “to do something”, even if that means children are scapegoated. Indeed, in a meeting of the Education Select Committee meeting, children’s minister Will Quince admitted that there was “very limited evidence as to the efficacy of masks in educational settings”, but that mask mandates would be used as a “precautionary measure” nonetheless.

Considering this, it’s hard not to see this weakly-evidenced intervention as anything more than a political decision used to appease those who would rather keep schools closed. Certainly, if the decision were left up to the teachers’ unions and some councils, schools would remain shut to most pupils, and teaching would continue online-only.

We’ve heard in recent days from the NASUWT that remote learning is “the only sensible and credible option at this time to minimise the risks to those working in schools and to safeguard public health”. The leadership of the NEU has warned its members that it is not safe for them to return to school until mid-January at the earliest and has even provided template letters for their members to refuse to go back to work.

Then there’s the added problem of the Government’s own increasingly unworkable Covid self-isolation rules – rules which are wreaking havoc on our public services.

Not only are head teachers fearing up to a quarter of staff will be off work in January, but one in ten NHS workers are out of action, rail services have abandoned popular routes, and councils have scaled back rubbish collections. Economists have predicted that the impact of one million people now estimated to be self-isolating could knock several percentage points off GDP, amounting to billions of pounds.

If the Government is serious about children’s education, maintaining a functioning economy and finally learning to live with a virus that is clearly going nowhere, it must rethink these rules. It is clearly unsustainable for working people who are asymptomatic, or who are suffering only mild symptoms, to isolate for seven whole days. And if keeping schools open is the priority, sending teachers and children home for an arbitrary period if they test positive for a virus is no longer defensible. Especially when for most the symptoms are now akin to the common cold.

Considering Omicron is less severe than some feared, and the impact of staff absences is so high, the argument for shortening the isolation period has significantly strengthened.  While it looks like the Government is continuing with its painful policy of encouraging the continuous testing of asymptomatic adult and children, it must at least reconsider its arbitrary isolation rules – reduce the number of days or better yet move to a test and release system to hasten teachers and children back into the classroom.

It’s time for the Government to weigh up the benefits and costs of its Covid policies – and leave children alone.

Daniel Hannan: Don’t write off Johnson just yet

22 Dec

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Here is a thought that, in the current climate, might seem almost recklessly counter-intuitive. Boris Johnson is doing a good job – better, in the circumstances, than his rivals would be doing. I don’t just mean that he is less bad than Keir Starmer or Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May. I mean that he is playing an almost impossible hand as well as could realistically be hoped.

I advance that proposition as a fiscal conservative and a lockdown sceptic. ConHome readers will be familiar with my frequent screeds against this government’s prodigality and illiberalism. But it is not enough to argue that the PM is spending too much or that the lockdowns have been too harsh. You have to show me someone who, given the present national mood, would be doing better.

Let’s deal, in order, with the three main charges against Johnson: that his administration is at best careless and at worst sleazy; that he was too ready to close the country down; and that, more generally, he has been absorbed by the Blob that he was supposed to extirpate.

Is Johnson really being undone by cheese and wine? No. What newspapers call “sleaze” is almost always a symptom rather than a cause of a government’s unpopularity. Just as the original “Tory sleaze” scandals in 1993 reflected rage over the ERM fiasco, and just as the 2009 MPs’ expenses revelations followed the financial crisis, so the current furores about parliamentary standards and illicit gatherings in Downing Street and flat redecorations are a chiefly a sign that the benefit of the doubt has been lost.

Six months ago, Johnson could painlessly have replaced the parliamentary standards commissioner on grounds that she seemed to have a penchant for going after Eurosceptics and that, in any case, the processes themselves were flawed.

Likewise, he could have advanced a perfectly credible defence of the (alleged) get-togethers in Downing Street. He might have pointed out, for example, that a glass of wine after a day in a shared office is hardly a party. He could have brandished the image of himself conducting a quiz at his computer as clear evidence that he was following the rules (how bizarre, and yet how telling, that it should be seen as somehow dodgy). He could have argued that, if sleaze means using public office for private gain, then using private money to do up a state-owned flat is ezaels – the precise opposite of sleaze.

If this were really about alleged corruption, the PM would have little to worry about. Voters sense that he is the least venal of men. His manner, his car, his suits – all tell the same story, namely that this is a bloke with no interest in owning valuable things. Yes, voters might see him as shambolic, light on detail, reluctant to moralise. But these attributes were priced in before the 2019 election.

In his short book on Winston Churchill, Johnson lists that great man’s various cock-ups – Gallipoli, the Gold Standard, backing Edward VIII during the abdication crisis – and notes that none of them ruled him out of contention. Why? Because, however chaotic or over-exuberant he could appear, no one ever accused him of lining his pockets. As for the subject, so for his biographer.

If not sleaze, then, what? The obvious answer, for many, is the lockdown. A man who used to write wonderful Telegraph columns about liberty, and whose editorial line at The Spectator was solidly anti-nanny state, has confined us in our homes, closed businesses and seen a massive commensurate increase in spending.

All true, alas. But – and I write as someone who spoke and voted against Plan B in Parliament last week – who would have done better? Even with the Plan B restrictions, Britain is more open than almost any other country. Why? Because Johnson ignored the doom-mongers and unbolted on July 19.

It is worth recalling how much criticism he got at the time. It was “dangerous” and “unethical” according to 122 scientists who signed an anti-Johnson letter in The Lancet, “reckless” according to Starmer, who feebly tried to get #JohnsonVariant trending. Yet infections, hospitalisations and fatalities fell – to the almost literal disbelief of commentators who, for a while, reported the opposite.

Nor was it just commentators who expected the worst. Modellers at Warwick University forecast at least 1,000 deaths a day (in the event, the highest daily toll was 188). SAGE told us that daily hospital admissions would be between 2,000 and 7,000 (the highest daily total was 1,086). Neil Ferguson predicted 100,000 infections a day (they peaked at 56,688).

Now tell me, my fellow lockdown-sceptics, how many other politicians would have resisted that pressure? How many would have done the same on Monday, in the face of an almost hysterical media campaign for a new lockdown?

Again and again, Johnson emerges as a level-headed optimist. Those leaked Cummings WhatsApp messages, intended to put him in a bad light, in fact show him doing precisely what he should be doing, namely taking a stand for liberty and demanding overwhelming evidence before he shifts his ground.

What, though, of the third complaint, the one that I suspect most animates ConHome readers, namely that Johnson has squandered an 80-seat majority and that, all in all, we might as well have had Starmer?

Oh, come off it. Would Starmer have delivered Brexit? Would he have signed free trade agreements with 70 countries? Would he be privatising Channel 4 and appointing a non-socialist to run the BBC? Would he keep our statues standing or stiffen criminal sentences?

Would he be legislating to stop travellers trespassing on private land? Or to return failed asylum seekers without endless vexatious appeals? Would he have opted out of the EU’s vaccine procurement programme? Would he be creating freeports? Would he beef up our defences or pursue AUKUS – a deal he has actually condemned as warmongering?

Let’s put the question another way. Who is enjoying the PM’s discomfort? Labour and the Lib Dems, obviously. But also the European Commission, Emmanuel Macron, Rejoiners, woke academics – everyone, in short, who wants to see Brexit Britain fail.

As a free-market conservative, I am in despair about a lot things right now. The debt level, the retreat into protectionism, the demand for the smack of firm government. But these things are consequences of the pandemic. If you want to blame someone, blame whoever caused the original Wuhan outbreak. The idea that Johnson, of all people, is getting an authoritarian kick out of our misery is too silly for words. We are pretty much the freest country in Europe. Merry Christmas!

Sarah Ingham: Under Johnson, the Marie Antoinette of our times, a Labour government is no longer unimaginable

10 Dec

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

For someone who aspired to being world king, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has turned out to be more like France’s Louis XV, who predicted ‘Après moi, le deluge’.

“After me, the flood” has nothing to do with the Government’s obsession with carbon net zero. Let’s hope this fixation reached its zenith at last month’s preening eco-fest, COP26, also known as Davos on the Clyde. Instead, the failures of the reign of King Louis (1710-1774) paved the way for the French Revolution of 1789. Whether the monarch was anticipating or was indifferent to the chaos which would follow him is usually only of academic concern.

Close to the second anniversary of the 2019 election victory which delivered a landslide majority of 80, the Prime Minister’s own seeming indifference to the plight of the people of this country is only rivalled by that of Louis’ granddaughter-in-law, Marie Antoinette, to her subjects. Let them eat cake? Let their children, like 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, die alone. Let their frail elderly be unvisited in care homes. Let their weddings be postponed. Let their churches, temples, synagogues and mosques be closed.

Patterson, Peppa Pig, parties at No 10 and Plan B. During the past few weeks, Johnson has not so much crashed the car into a ditch as sent it over a cliff where it somersaults to the ground before exploding into a fireball. Never mind unforced, his errors appear so wilful, it has to be asked whether he is up to the job of being PM – or indeed even wants it.

“There is no Plan B” – you wish. On Wednesday, more Covid-related restrictions on daily life were unveiled. The timing was reminiscent of the United States’ 1998 bombing of a factory in Sudan, assumed to be Bill Clinton’s very own diversionary tactic to distract from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

The Conservatives are supposed to be the party of business, enterprise and wise stewardship of the economy. The Institute of Economic Affairs suggests the latest Covid measures will cost Britain £4 billion a month. And the Government clearly views the hospitality sector as below the salt, despite contributing almost £60 billion in gross value added to the British economy in 2019. Hammering it in the run-up to Christmas for the second successive year could be the final straw for many weakened businesses. Let them go bust.

There should be no Plan B. Omicron might well be a live vaccine, bestowing natural immunity following a mild cold-like infection. Instead of viewing the variant as a possible blessing, we’re back to more masks, tests, vaccines passports and Working From Home. As ConservativeHome revealed earlier this week, WFH has turned out to be less than optimal for the Foreign Office or for desperate Afghans.

The Government’s response to Covid has been flawed from the get-go: disproportionate, panicked and heedless of collateral damage. It would have been better off consulting Mystic Meg than Professor Neil Ferguson and his ilk. SAGE should have been sacked long ago. Its advice has not only crashed the British economy but failed to prevent 146,000 Covid-related deaths.

The massive structural flaws within the state apparatus which the pandemic has revealed would have been a toxic inheritance for any leader. Post-Brexit Britain can no longer use Brussels as an excuse for mismanagement and burdensome red tape. The country needs a leader with the vision and drive to implement wholesale reform, not least of the Civil Service. We need another Thatcher to solve problems like the NHS: instead we get Johnson who ineffectively throws money at them, raising the tax burden to its highest and most unConservative level since the Second World War. Let them be poorer.

Anyone who has been out on the campaign trail with Johnson will testify to his charisma and the feel-good he conjures up among voters on the rainiest of days. However, his 2019 victory was not down to his celebrity or distinctive cartoon-like silhouette which fascinates small children or to his jokes.

Getting Brexit done was about more than Britain leaving the EU. By opting for Leave in 2016, voters signalled their demand for wholesale change within this country, only to be ignored and insulted by the Remainer political establishment – that includes you, Keir Starmer – who wanted to cling to the status quo. The Red Wall turned blue two years ago because Boris seemed to be on its voters’ side: instead of despising them, he got them.

Those voters are now asking where is Plan A. And whether it includes indulging the eco-loons of Insulate Britain, putting out the welcome mat for illegal migrants, ripping out gas boilers and imposing £1.4 trillion in costs to get the country to net zero. Where are Conservative principles in all this? Governing by focus group is not governing at all.

Blowing up voters’ goodwill, no Jeremy Corbyn to bash, Brexit done … MPs are surely weighing up whether Johnson is an asset or a liability. Next week’s result in North Shropshire should tell them.

The parties at No10 are the ultimate in toxic do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do hypocrisy. This is a different order of magnitude from Barnard Castle and the handsy Hancock trysts. Voters are not going to forget or forgive. For many, it’s too close to dancing on graves.

Johnson’s always shaky moral authority is ebbing away. There is already a suspicion that the PM and his wife stretched the rules (or was it the guidance?) last Christmas Day. Should they have stuck two fingers up at voters by going along to the knees-ups at the No10 frat house, it’s game over.

A three-week lockdown has turned into 21 months of state inference in our daily lives, with our hard-fought freedoms trashed by sub-prime officials and ministers. Liberty is the core Conservative value. It would be poetic justice if the Prime Minister were brought down by the statist rules he introduced.

The hubris, self-indulgence and lack of seriousness in Downing Street is typified by a melodrama over a makeover, involving the Electoral Commission in choices about wallpaper.

Thanks to the current chaotic regime, a Labour government is no longer unimaginable. Does Johnson care, or is he actually wanting to spend more time with his new family and with making Netflix documentaries? Après moi, le deluge.

Ryan Bourne: Why The Great Barrington Declaration’s time is coming soon

25 Aug

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Aside from death and disease, one spirit-crushing aspect of this pandemic has been the regularity of false lights at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The Delta variant is just the latest in a series of fresh hurdles we’ve faced in returning to “normality.”

News that vaccines, though apparently still highly effective against death and hospitalisation, may now be far less so against symptomatic infection from the variant adds another layer of uncertainty about what’s coming next.

UK Covid-19 cases have been around 30 times higher at times this August than this time last year. That’s not surprising given a transmissible variant and more “normal” behaviour now.

But it raises questions: what if vaccine efficacy against severe disease wanes over the coming months, with prevalence still high? Will widespread booster jabs or Delta-adjusted shots be needed? What happens when schools re-open in September?

Given there have been more twists in this saga already than a Chubby Checker dance class, I’m not going to predict how it will play out. But recent months have at least shown the contours of how we might ultimately “learn to live with Covid-19.” And re-reading The Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) recently, I was struck that although it had aged badly against events following its publication, it might provide wisdom in regards future policy.

The essential policy recommendation of the GBD, remember, was for normality for the non-vulnerable, but more “focused protection” for those at the highest death risk from Covid-19.

Published on October 4 2020, just as the more transmissible Alpha, English, or B.1.1.7 variant was taking off, its timing could hardly have been worse. Vaccines were just around the corner. Lives saved via “suppressing” the virus then were much higher in number and more certain than any lockdown efforts before.

Outside of care homes, where failures to protect the frail were shocking, “focused protection” of the type that the GBD envisaged wasn’t particularly viable anyway. There were 12.5 million people over 65 alone in 2020—almost 19 per cent of the whole population—and many more with other conditions.

Any government protective efforts to isolate these individuals would have been difficult to scale, and so unlikely to reduce risks much beyond precautions the vulnerable were taking.

Indeed, net risks to them would surely have increased: everyone else living normal lives would have increased the virus’s prevalence, and so people’s exposure to it, including in hospitals where many of the most vulnerable people find themselves.

So, while the GBD was right in highlighting the dreadful costs of the most draconian lockdowns and the inadequacies of nursing home protections, it underestimated suppression’s benefits and the difficulties of focused protection. If we’d followed its recommendations for winter, we’d have seen more disease and death than we experienced as the vaccination program was rolled out.

And yet…when the context changes, we should change our minds. Now, with high efficacy vaccines available to all adults, the GBD begins looking a much more sensible roadmap for policymakers.

For starters, it’s now clear that Zero Covid is a pipedream. Even if the virus could have been eliminated in isolated countries such as New Zealand, extinguishing it globally is impossible, necessitating closed borders indefinitely. Attempting to suppress it entirely now would be futile. The only thing guaranteed from strenuous efforts at elimination would be severe GDP downturns and lost living time again.

No, it’s now reasonably clear instead that the “end” here, as the GBD predicted, will be an endemic virus with localised herd immunity from vaccines and infection recoveries. Some theorise, in fact, that while our vaccines are very effective in protecting the inner body, they are much less so in protecting the nasal passage, meaning we could see symptomatic cases for lots of vaccinated people over time.

Everyone will see immunity top-ups through exposures or booster shots. The fact that many vaccinated people can be infected and transmit the virus severely undermines the case for narrow government-mandated “vaccine passports.”

The value of the vaccines then is that they appear to reduce the relative risks of severe disease or death to levels associated with colds or flu. We do not ordinarily invoke population-wide restrictions for such risks. So while people and businesses should of course be free to take further precautions if they wish, given their or their customers’ and workers’ wants and needs, a world of universal vaccine availability should not be one contemplating society-wide restrictions.

True, not everyone has been vaccinated yet (including children). And there are those who seemingly cannot be protected, perhaps because of compromised immune systems. Governments should allow parents, ultimately, to decide whether their children obtain the vaccines.

But for adults offered them who say “no thanks,” we face a question: what burdens, in the form of coercive mandates, should everyone bear to realise health benefits accruing overwhelmingly to those unwilling to protect themselves? The default answer should surely be “none.” In economics speak, the unvaccinated are now the “least cost avoiders” of the harm of the virus.

The still vulnerable–including the 500,000+ people (in England) who are immunocompromised or immunosuppressed—have a better claim to be protected. But the fact that the vaccine slashes risks broadly makes genuine “focused protection” of them now more viable.

These groups should be identified and allowed periodic antibody tests, as well as being prioritised for booster shots. Governments should provide them with a decent supply of N-95 masks, ensure they have access to regular at-home testing for guests, and consider monoclonal treatments. All these measures would be far less costly to society than stay-at-home orders, forced business closures, or reintroduced mask mandates for all.

Now you might say, “it’s easy to favour focused protection now!” Boris Johnson doesn’t want to row back to lockdowns; even Neil Ferguson and SAGE member John Edmunds think suppression won’t be necessary. But people will call for everything again if cases rise again significantly in Autumn.

Having lived through the past 18 months, it will be difficult for politicians and much of the public to make the psychological shift to treating Covid-19 diagnoses as an ordinary part of life, rather than a contribution to a national crisis.

But it seems clear we will need to make that shift. For though there might be other twists to come, Covid-19 appears likely to become endemic, with most of us exposed to it, and our vaccine technologies make this disease far less serious than it was before.

Rather than refighting the lockdown wars of 2020, these new circumstances require clear new public health principles. Whatever you thought of the GBD approach last year, the case for it now is far stronger.

Ferguson got it wrong, but the buck stops with Johnson

31 Jul

“I wish I were as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything,”  Lord Melbourne once remarked.

More recently, Professor Neil Ferguson has attracted criticism for sounding unduly sure of himself. On 18th July he said it was “almost inevitable” that Covid-19 cases would soon reach 100,000 a day, instead of which the numbers began quite markedly to fall.

Nate Silver and Professor Philip Tetlock are among those who have since criticised Ferguson, not for being wrong, but for being “consistently over-confident” in his predictions.

In 2005, Ferguson predicted that “around 200 million people” would probably die of bird flu. In the event, 74 people died

We of course want to know how far the pandemic will spread, or what will happen to the economy, or which horse will win the 3.15 at Market Rasen.

But as soon as we suppose that this craving for certainty about the future can be satisfied, we deceive ourselves, and fall an easy prey to pundits pretending to impossible knowledge.

There is, one assumes, no pundit who predicted with complete success the results of the elections and referendums held in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019.

But there were certainly many pundits who forecast those results and got them wrong, often by following what other pundits and pollsters said, so a conventional wisdom developed which proved as unwarranted as some of Professor Ferguson’s assertions.

When Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, was asked on 17th May whether Covid restrictions were going to be lifted on 21st June, he rightly replied: “We can’t impose certainty in this situation.”

Many people suffer from the delusion that if only one draws up the right plan, and sticks to it through thick and thin, all will be well.

Politics becomes a question of upholding the one true ideology, and policies derived from that ideology. Morality in politics means being faithful to your ideology, in the confident belief that one day the promised land will come into view.

Your opponents are immoral, for they have no ideology, and no policies derived from that ideology. They are opportunists “who think that decency, honesty and integrity aren’t important”, as Sir Keir Starmer recently wrote in The Guardian.

Perhaps, on second thoughts, it is unfair to ascribe anything as definite as an ideology to the present-day Labour Party, but it certainly possesses, as intensely as it did under leaders as different as Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn, a conviction of its moral superiority.

This self-righteousness leads it to despise rather than understand the Conservative Party, which follows the pragmatic tradition of winning and retaining power by determining more quickly and surely that its competitors what at any given moment the nation wants, and how to provide it.

The Conservatives sack any leader who has become an electoral liability, Theresa May being the most recent example, and do not allow ideological commitment to obstruct doing what in practice is required.

It would certainly be difficult to draw an account of the Government’s handling of the pandemic in terms of ideology. Vast extensions of public spending and state power were made almost overnight.

The more dangerous charges are unpreparedness and incompetence, as ministers and their advisers proceeded by trial and error to try to work out the the best way forward.

Ministers spoke of following the science, but it soon became clear that the scientists were capable of disagreeing with each other.

Leadership involved, even more than usual, the strength to put up with uncertainty, and to make decisions on the basis of inadequate information.

The buck stops with the Prime Minister, and The Times reports today that his “support has collapsed in Conservative heartlands in the southeast and east of England”.

His touch has seemed a bit less certain as he and his colleagues work out when and how to repeal the measures brought in to contain the pandemic.

The end of a campaign can be less satisfying than the beginning, when the nation came together to meet the threat.

But Conservatives will draw comfort from the thought that the Government’s performance will not be judged against some imaginary standard of perfection. It will be judged by comparison with how well people think Labour would have done.

Heads they win, tails win lose. Ministers are now under double pressure – from both pro and anti-lockdown campaigners.

8 Jul

As is often the case in British politics, the country is deeply divided – this time around whether the Government should remove England’s Coronavirus restrictions on July 19. For some, this is the right call; they want normality back, and may even feel that the delay to “Freedom Day”, as it is called, was a mistake. Others fear that losing restrictions will lead to a spike in cases.

They are under no illusions that this is likely to happen. Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, has told parliament: “It’s important that we’re straight with the British people: cases of COVID-19 are rising and they will continue to rise significantly. We can reasonably expect that by the 19th of July, the number of daily cases will be far higher than today”. The number expected is 100,000 per day by August.

Professor Neil Ferguson, who has played a large part in the Government’s Coronavirus modelling, has estimated that the figure could be higher than that – with around 200,000 daily cases, leading to 200 deaths per day. The last January peak saw the UK register almost 70,000 cases and 1,325 deaths in a day, so it is no wonder that people have concerns about July 19.

The media has decided to frame the date as the “Big Bang reopening” – and others have made dire forecasts about what lies ahead, with over 100 scientists saying that the Government’s strategy – to tolerate high levels of Covid infection – is “unethical and illogical”. Keir Starmer has warned that we’re in for a “summer of chaos” and that “lifting all protections at once is reckless”.

But the Government also has the voice of business to contend with. It was interesting to note that SAGE reportedly wanted to keep face masks, but ministers decided to ditch them after analyses suggested compulsory masks could lead to the events and hospitality industries losing more than £4 billion in lost revenues

Other concerns have been raised, too; some companies are struggling with self-isolation rules, which mean people have to stay in for 10 days if they’ve come into contact with someone who has Covid. This rule will be phased out on August 16, when those who are double jabbed or under 18 won’t have to self-isolate, but it’s currently causing huge disruption for shops, bars and other businesses.

Overall the Government is trying very hard to balance the concerns of those on both sides of the lockdown debate, which are noisily battling for ministers to change course. Boris Johnson was right in his Monday press conference to talk about the balance of risks, as there will never be a perfect time to reopen, nor way to please everyone.

What’s been helpful at this time is Javid’s appointment as Health Secretary, as he is refreshingly frank about the reality of reopening. He has said that no date for lifting restrictions would come with “zero risk” and “we have to learn to live with” Covid-19. The next few weeks are going to be testing for the Government as anti- and pro-lockdown groups call to have their demands met. But more of this firm and realistic approach will help reopenings go ahead.

Bella Wallersteiner: I attended the Freedom March yesterday. I’m no anti-vaxxer, or conspiracy theorist. I just want a return of common sense.

30 May

Bella Wallersteiner works as Senior Parliamentary Assistant for a Conservative MP.

Over the bank holiday weekend, I attended a Freedom March in central London with thousands of others. I am not a Covid denier. I am not anti-vaccine. I am not a conspiracy theorist. I want a return of common sense and fundamental freedoms. The British people are growing increasingly angry; unless there is a dramatic change to the UK’s Covid situation, restrictions must end, as planned, on June 21.

The Coronavirus Act which received Royal Assent on March 25 2020 gave the Government sweeping emergency powers to combat Covid-19. The Act gave the Government full authority to suspend civil liberties: public gatherings have been stopped, freedom of travel curtailed, individuals suspected of either having the disease or being in close proximity to someone who may be carrying the virus have been forced to stay at home. Never before in peace-time has there been such an egregious infringement on our basic human rights, culminating in multiple nationwide and regional lockdowns.

In times of national emergency draconian measures are sometimes necessary. However, we now know a great deal more about the virus and how it behaves than we did in the spring of 2020. There is a strong argument that the Government needed to take decisive preventative action to stop the virus from spreading and hospitalising the elderly, the vulnerable and those with underlying health conditions. The disastrous decision to release hospital patients into care homes illustrates why the Government became more cautious in its’ approach and subsequently adopted stricter measures. But we now need to reassert our rights, take back control and find a way back to normality.

More than 38 million people in the UK have received at least one dose of a Coronavirus vaccine. The vaccine rollout is being delivered at an impressive speed with four million doses a week being administered. This week, people in their 20s are expected to have their first jabs, while the over-50s complete their vaccination cycle with their second jab.

Hospitalisations are falling in every age group over 55, with the most up-to-date data showing the most significant reductions in those aged between 65 to 74 as the protection from second doses takes effect. The same data shows a small increase in case rates in all age groups, reinforcing hopes that the link between infections, hospitalisation and deaths has been broken.

The current localised response to the uptick in infections, linked to the Indian variant, is the right one: speed up the roll-out of vaccines to the over-18s, coupled with surge testing, in the affected areas. Given the compliance of the population thus far we will soon see the Coronavirus hotspots such as Bedford and Bolton return to much lower levels of viral transmission.

The Government must not deviate from its course because there is a new variant of Coronavirus; the clue is in the name ‘novel Coronovirus’ and there will always be threatening mutations as this is what viruses do to ensure human to human transmission.

The fact that the Indian variant is now the dominant strain is irrelevant as we will have many more variants in the years to come and the Government should ignore Neil Ferguson’s gloomy prognostations which have already caused the UK to lockdown three times. ‘Professor Lockdown’ has warned that a full re-opening of society on June 21 now “hangs in the balance” and this downbeat view is supported by Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), who says the prospect of opening up “looks a little bit risky”.

You would be forgiven for thinking that our vaccine does not work against the Indian variant. However, data from Public Health England shows the vaccine is doing its job.

Of 5,599 people in England found to have the Indian variant, only 177 had received both vaccine doses.

Across the country, 60 per cent of cases are among the unvaccinated. The majority of the remainder have only had only had a single dose, with just three per cent of cases, and two per cent of A&E cases, involving those who have received both doses.

This should inspire confidence in Britain’s vaccine rollout and allow the restoration of all liberties on June 21.

The Government insists that it is still being “guided by the science”, but there has been a failure to consider alternative of scientific opinions. Instead worst case scenarios, such as Ferguson’s modelling, are still being used to justify some of these most draconian restrictions.

It is time that the Government stood up to the pessimists on SAGE. They have kept the nation fearful and divided by far exceeding their remit. They do not consider the consequences of their actions nor do they have a grasp of how most people live. Every day of restrictions creates more of a dependency culture, the Government should not continue to ride roughshod over our long-held freedoms while pretending to defend them.

The Indian variant may have scientists worried, but the Prime Minister should stick to his  Rabelaisian libertarian instincts which are to return us to a pre-Covid ‘Merrie England’ of craft beer drunk in country pubs, village cricket and festivals for the young.

The dates and the data are in synergy and the Prime Minister’s roadmap should not be hijacked by ‘doomsters and gloomsters’ who would have us permanently muzzled and grounded. Not following through with the final stage of our unlocking on June 21 would be an epic betrayal of the British public who have sacrificed so much to get us to this moment of national liberation.

People won’t be silenced and that every week the numbers marching for freedom continue to grow: the media continues to peddle the lie that protestors are on the lunatic fringe of David Icke and QAnon followers – but the truth is that the overwhelming majority are hard-working, rational, moderates who just want their freedom back and to get on with their lives. These are the natural conservatives and we ignore them at our peril.

David Davis: The Covid public inquiry should open in October, be held in two stages – and prepare for the unexpected

26 Mar

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

While the dedicated staff of our NHS and public services have managed superbly under extreme pressure, it is clear that mistakes have been made during the Coronavirus crisis.

No, let me rephrase that piece of Blairite prose. We have made mistakes. The whole British ruling class. Government, advisers (scientific and otherwise), Whitehall, the lot. And not just this Government, the previous one, and the ones before that.

So it is essential that lessons are learnt. Not just by this Government, but by future governments as well.

So we must establish a public inquiry on the handling of the pandemic.

Needless to say, the architects of our strategy throughout the crisis are nervous about the implications for them, and unsurprisingly they are saying “Yes, but not yet.” Not before the next election, or not before they retire, or move on to their next job.

Unfortunately, that will not do. The principal aim of the public inquiry is not recrimination about the past, it is preparation for the future. Pandemics come out of an apparently clear blue sky, or seem to. They are a peculiar class of threat, one whose eventual arrival is certain, but whose timing is entirely unpredictable.

The sloppy thinkers in Whitehall tend to imagine that if it is going to happen in the next 20 years, the most likely time is in about ten, so we have time to prepare for the next one. They are wrong. There is an approximately equal chance of a new pandemic in every year. There are “wet-market” style interfaces between wildlife and urban populations in Asia, Africa, and South America, and as the urban populations expand there are new opportunities for zoonotic pathogens jumping species all the time.

As public health services expand, depending too much on antibiotics, the risk of new drug resistant bacteria continues. It is probably only a limited time before we have a really virulent strain of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, for example. We do not know whether the next threat will be bacterial, viral or fungal. We do not know whether it will be transmitted by air, by touch, or in our food. All we know is that there will be another pandemic at some entirely unspecified time in the future.

So we need to get a move on with the inquiry, and start as soon as possible. Of course the inquiry must be thorough, and must thoroughly review what went right and what went wrong in the Government’s handling of the pandemic. The public will expect it, and the Opposition will demand it. But the most important thing is that we learn the lessons and develop the template for the next crisis as soon as possible.

What is different from other inquiries is that there is a vast amount of data to design this rapid template for pandemic management, and most of it comes from abroad. Although we have had a spectacular success with our vaccination programme, and a lesser but important success with the RECOVERY programme (that delivered dexamethasone as a valuable therapy), the majority of the most successful strategies were in other countries, most obviously in East Asia.

There is a vast amount of data to evaluate all the national strategies and operational arrangements. There are reasonably accurate data on mortality, infection, recovery and excess other deaths on a daily basis for virtually every country in the world. Similarly there are accurate economic impact assessments available. Along with the genetic mutation data this allows us to track very accurately how the disease travelled, grew, was suppressed and was treated, and assess the effectiveness of dozens of different preventive and therapeutic approaches.

This argues for a two-stage inquiry. The first stage, which could start in October, should report on what the best template is within one year, giving us the best possible chance of dealing with another pandemic whenever it appears. The second stage can (and will) take years, and should review what we did right and what we did wrong.

While such inquiries are normally run by judges, the first stage of the inquiry might be better led by a leading scientist, possibly a past President of the Royal Society or some similarly recognised intellect. What it should not be is chaired by anybody who was an adviser to the Government in the crisis.

So this week the Health Secretary – Matt Hancock – announced that his Department will be setting out plans for a new UK Health Security Agency. The Agency will plan for, prevent and respond to external health threats, such as pandemics.

This is a welcome development to better protect the UK, our population, and communities from future external health hazards.

However, the Government has chosen Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, to head up the Agency. I am not at all sure that this is wise. This is not a reflection on Harries, who may be brilliant. However the Prime Minister himself accepts that there were a number of missteps in the crisis.

These missteps taken by the Government were often based on questionable advice provided by the very same medical advisers who are now being handed the job of looking at what went wrong.

These public inquiries must be led in an unfettered way by an independent actor who is not consciously or unconsciously committed to the strategies that have failed in the past.

In due course the inquiry will review the errors that have plagued some of our Covid strategy. Before the current Government gets too nervous it should realise that many of the errors are rooted in the past, long before the current Prime Minister came to power, and often before the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government government took over in 2010.

So the advisory arrangements – SAGE et al – date back to the Blair years. They were first activated for the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009. They frankly do not work very well. The idea of dumping all scientific advice into one committee is a bit bizarre, the sort of thing that liberal arts dominated Whitehall might do. It can often become dominated by a single strong character with a speciality that is beyond many of the members, as happened with Neil Ferguson and his poorly constructed and opaque mathematical model at the beginning of the crisis.

Similarly the Whitehall structures that are supposed to cope with crises are pretty poor too. The best demonstrator of this was the Operation Cygnus pandemic preparation exercise that was run a few years ago. This so-called command post-exercise was positively harmful, because it persuaded Whitehall that it was ready for a pandemic when all it rehearsed were the coping mechanisms – how many body bags you need, and should you have a mass mortuary in Hyde Park – rather than what you would actually do to minimise deaths. This is a generic problem, not just applicable to pandemics. Their “worst case” Brexit preparation was pretty poor too.

Some of the deep-rooted problems come a little later. The Public Health England structures were largely a product of the Lansley reforms, and they too were visibly not fit for purpose. It was their poor leadership that meant that we failed to hit the target of 10,000 test a day before the end of March, while Germany comfortably hit 15,000 a day in mid March. That incompetence denied the Government the strategies that worked so well for Germany in the first wave.

Then of course there were many decisions made on the fly during 2020. Obviously many of these were wrong, notwithstanding Matt Hancock’s cheerfully optimistic gloss earlier this week. But the public, and frankly anybody with any sense, knows that any government was making decisions based as much on guesswork as on hard data, and the public are very tolerant of that.

The primary area where an inquiry’s criticism is likely to fall is poor strategic management in, for example, the upper levels of NHS management. While their staff were doing a brilliant job, I am not too sure that the decisions on, for example, the deployment of the Nightingales and the private sector hospitals were entirely sensible.

These are the sort of things that will be unpicked over a few years by the second stage of the inquiry. The data will be complex and sometimes hard to establish, so it will take a significant time to resolve. Since it may be commenting on the decisions of individuals it is right that it takes its time. But that is all the more reason to start soon.

So my message to Boris Johnson is do not fear this inquiry: grasp this nettle soon, get the actionable insights quickly, reform and prepare accordingly, and then allow the commission to take its time doing a detailed inquiry over several years. History will judge you well for doing the right thing on this.