The truth is still in lockdown
The first cross-party report says we didn't lockdown early enough. The truth is, lockdowns don't work.
We now move, work, socialise, worship and meet around the UK with relative freedom.* Sadly, truth remains in strict lockdown.
Information is infectious and its transmissibility must be suppressed if it is deemed inconvenient, even if truthful. If it escapes, it can travel faster on social media than an airborne virus and must be captured, quarantined and sanitised to prevent onward infection. Most recently, in a long list of examples, a speech made by MP David Davis about vaccine passports was temporarily suspended from Youtube. Many videos and articles from reputable sources have been labelled misinformation if they run counter to WHO or governmental policy. Social media giants, governments and public health authorities are petrified of outbreaks of misinformation and even, sometimes, the truth.
So it was no surprise that the first cross-party report into the management of the epidemic in the UK, Coronavirus: lessons learned to date was unwilling to tackle certain truths.
One of the main inferences is that lockdown should have been implemented earlier. The truth is that lockdowns don’t work and cause great harm.
The report’s conclusions are assumptions. Opinions are not backed up with evidence. There is an unwillingness to interrogate the modelling that provides the foundations for the conclusions. The only thing that matters in this report is Covid and deaths by Covid. It is almost as if there are no other societal losses to put in the balance. There is no quantifiable cost benefit analysis of lockdown.
I spoke to Professor Simon Wood, Chair of Computational Studies at the School of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh about the report. Wood authored a peer-reviewed paper published in Biometrics, which found that Covid-19 levels were probably falling before each of the three lockdowns. A separate paper, with colleague Ernst Wit, came to the same conclusion for the first two lockdowns, by the alternative approach of re-doing Imperial College’s major modelling study of the epidemic.
In summary he told me,
“The whole report is written within the framework that the only thing that counts is avoiding deaths from Covid, and that full lockdowns were essential. Evidence for the latter seems to be entirely absent. The closest we seem to get to actual evidence on lockdown efficacy is Neil Ferguson's opinion in paragraph 77. The extent to which the committee is really able to weigh scientific evidence, as opposed to opinion, is questionable if paragraph 94 is any guide. This is such a gross misrepresentation of what the cited paper said, that it could have appeared on Twitter, rather than a parliamentary report.”
I asked him what he thought about the reliance on modelling throughout the epidemic. There are multiple flaws (expanded on in more detail in my book A State of Fear, and it’s appendix, “Lockdowns Don’t Work” and in many articles and papers online, some listed here) but one key flaw is that the Infection Fatality Rate in the initial modelling was 0.9%. By autumn 2020, a peer-reviewed paper by the WHO had put the IFR at 0.23%, and in the UK it is currently (albeit post-vaccination) at 0.096%. Wood generously told me it was,
“difficult to get the IFR right at the outset. We did the analysis thinking Imperial were very on the high side, but it in fact it wouldn’t have been assessed as less than 0.6% at the outset.” He went on: “The main error is to put too much emphasis on modelling not on measuring. Often models are being used for prediction purposes they were not designed or validated for.”
I put it to Wood that, in circular and fallacious reasoning, the modelling is being used to measure the success of lockdown by deaths ‘saved’ against those predicted by the unsubstantiated and flawed simulated forecasts of the modelling. He agreed: “the post hoc justification for the measures using modelling often looks like bending the model to the conclusion you want to achieve.”
There is a growing body of evidence that light interventions and voluntary behaviour changes - ie not lockdowns - are sufficient to reduce the R. Real world examples support this, namely Sweden, South Dakota and Florida. Conversely, as economist Professor David Paton reported, early and strict lockdowns did not always work. Czechia’s did not stop subsequent surges of the virus and further lockdowns. Czechia currently has the sixth highest death rate per million in the world. Peru, another country which enforced very strict and early lockdown, has the worst death rate in the world.
The report’s authors state we should learn lessons internationally, but fail to explain what they think happened in Sweden, for instance. In science it's generally a good idea to have a control treatment and, to a limited extent, Sweden provided that. Surely it deserves some discussion if weighing up the evidence on what should have happened. It seems the report’s accusation of “British exceptionalism” only travels in one direction.
When data proves that lockdowns cannot be credited with controlling the virus, why does the argument persist? Why is truth still locked down?
Ironically, the authors accuse the government of groupthink, but they might still be under its sway themselves. It will be hard for the enactors and supporters of the lockdown to admit it was a brutal, ineffective and harmful policy. Far easier to asset the main problem is that it wasn’t imposed early and hard enough.
The harms of lockdown only get passing mentions. I can’t weight this article with the full burden of harms, but in brief: In the first year of lockdown the government borrowed £229 billion, the highest figure since records began in 1946. The pain of broken tax pledges, fiscal drag, inflation, and unemployment won’t be felt in full for months and years to come. The NHS waiting list is now 5.74 million and 7.5 million fewer people were referred for routine hospital care between January 2020 and July 2021.
These problems should not appear unexpected - they were foretold by the UK’s most eminent disaster and recovery planners.
In this 145 page report, the word “children” is mentioned a mere three times, but the impact of the lockdown on them is not mentioned at all. On World Mental Health Day, the ONS released data on children’s mental health and the impact of restrictions. A quarter of 11 to 16 year olds with a probable mental disorder in 2021 said Covid restrictions had made their lives much worse. And the number of young people aged 0 to 18 years old referred to mental health services between April and June 2021 increased by 93% from the same period in 2020, and 41% on 2019 in England.
Another word that is only mentioned three times is “obesity” alongside the other pre-existing health conditions which are known to be associated with poor outcomes for Covid-19. This really is the elephant in the room. The truth is, Covid-19 death rates are ten times higher in countries where more than half the adult population is overweight. In that sense, perhaps our pandemic preparedness should have started many years earlier with better health and dietary advice. Not only does lockdown not tackle the underlying chronic co-morbidities which lead to severe Covid-19 illness and deaths, but lockdown caused British people to gain weight, cease normal exercise and drink more alcohol.
The UK had multiple pandemic plans, including for SARS/MERS outbreaks. The authors of this report claim that we didn’t abandon the plans earlier in the crisis because of “groupthink”. This is a bizarre subversion - crisis management plans are not supposed to be abandoned during a crisis. If the government were guilty of groupthink, it was in following other countries in implementing an experimental policy. As Professor Ferguson put it,
“It’s a communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought. And then Italy did it. And we realised we could.”
The report does not mention Exercise Alice, a pandemic simulation exercise for MERS that has only been released after persistent Freedom of Information requests. It’s not clear that the authors are aware of it.
We will need a more wide-ranging inquiry that establishes whether lockdowns work, if they are sensible, proportionate and moral. Essentially, we must be truthful about what the costs are. We need to balance the losses.
Truth is infectious. Eventually it will peek around the doorframe, dare to stroll outside, evade quarantine and someone will catch a glimpse. Then another. Soon, everyone will be queueing up to greet our old friend Truth with hail-fellow-well-met and a hearty slap on the back. Then we must clutch Truth to us and never again lock it down.
* Although mandatory vaccine passports are a concerning development in Scotland and Wales.
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