Coronavirus

Not so SAGE: Boris must not give in to misguided calls for a circuit-breaker lockdown

BY Alex Starling | tweet alexstarling77   /  14 October 2020

The UK is on the verge of a collective – and utterly avoidable – nervous breakdown. But for some reason our national leadership seems intent on making the wrong call, time and time again. We now have the added madness of the Leader of the Opposition demanding another lockdown almost at the same time as the World Health Organisation’s Dr David Nabarro has finally admitted that “too many restrictions damage people’s livelihoods”. Where will the madness end?

We can only hope that this serves to stir the political animus inside the formerly buoyant Boris Johnson and he remembers that he won a mandate to lead the country, not placate scheming opposition party leaders.  Lockdowns are a gigantic nonsense – a huge pile of unscientific hogwash – and introducing more of them would be an abject failure of leadership.

Let’s wind back to the start. Everyone was scared of the feared rampant virus back in February and March. We modulated our behaviour, we washed our hands, we travelled less. But despite the fact that by mid-March the spread of the virus outside of hospitals and care homes was dramatically slowing, there came the screeching hand-brake U-turn, and we followed the lead of localised “lockdowns” in China and northern Italy, despite many sceptical calls questioning the rationale.

The purpose of this was to “save the NHS”, which rapidly turned into a wish to suppress an otherwise endemic SARS-CoV-2 virus and then – unbelievably – an intention to eradicate coronavirus entirely. Given that coronaviruses have been around for centuries and in normal years cause the common cold, this is a rather speculative project, to say the least.

Our government presided over an absolutely catastrophic initial response, as recently highlighted by Amnesty: the key lessons we surely learned from the debacle of March, April and May was that we utterly failed those that needed the most help.

But we have to compare apples with apples – it is simply incorrect to make the casual causal (sic) assumption that everyone who passes away with Covid-19 has passed away because of it, especially if we are using overly sensitive PCR testing with too high a cycle rate. As per the ONS data, in England & Wales we have c. 1,000 deaths from “respiratory disease” per week every summer (in fact we ran comfortably below average this summer).  This is highly seasonal, rising to c. 2,500 per week almost every winter.

This has happened since time immemorial.  We can “flatten this curve” by moving closer to the equator, but all that does is spread the deaths more evenly across the year. As the famous – and perhaps forgotten – news report from The Onion stated in 1997: “World Death Rate Holding Steady At 100 Percent.”

The coronavirus crisis is not a laughing matter, of course.  It is absolutely right that we should look to eliminate every possible avoidable death, but it should be screamingly obvious that attempting a nationwide “war on death” – seeking to permanently eliminate deaths from respiratory disease – is not possible.  In a civilised society, it is absolutely imperative that we prioritise care for all those who are suffering, vulnerable and at risk. We must not condemn cancer patients to death for their own safety.

Yet this is what another crackdown – circuit-breaker or otherwise – risks doing. A brilliant but challenging report by Sky’s Ed Conway yesterday suggests we have seriously fallen short in protecting those without Covid who need society’s help the most.

We desperately need an outbreak of cold rationality to break this vicious cycle of societal self-harm, warm our hearts, cast out the fear and reawaken our humanity. This does not need to be a tribal debate. Mistakes were made at the start of this outbreak, and there was a huge number of excessive deaths, both from Covid-19 and from a lack of medical care.

Other countries made the same mistakes (yes, including Sweden). But that does not invalidate their subsequent actions and successes. And those denying that Sweden is back to an acceptable normal – yes, which includes the young being free to socialise in large groups – need to stop kidding themselves. It might not resemble the “old normal”, at least not yet, but it is a pretty good approximation, with no masks, public transport working normally and an economy not completely hamstrung by the constant, looming threat of yet more restrictive measures.

We cannot correct our initial and subsequent mistakes now by repeating the prescription of the same placebo that we applied during the great lockdown from March and onwards. It’s not only those who opposed the first lockdown who are now saying this. Take it from (initially pro-lockdown) Professor Hendrik Streeck, director of Germany’s Institute of Virology at Bonn University: “It is time to stop all this alarmism… It is no good looking at just case numbers any more”.

These theories of devastating second waves and worst case scenarios – perhaps understandably initially treated with respect – need to be seen in context of a worldwide lack of evidence for runaway death toll. (The only second waves happening in Wuhan can be seen at the giant pool parties that are being organised, perhaps to mock the West?)

The most compelling hypothesis is that a degree of “community immunity” exists in most of the country – most certainly the South East, most likely due to T-Cell cross-immunity providing some degree of innate resistance. This hypothesis has some high-profile detractors, of course, but to this author it is still the only one that really convincingly explains all observed facts. And given their various track records to date, I feel more comfortable backing Professor Sunetra Gupta from Oxford University, who has been studying this subject matter all her life, versus the opinions of a PPE graduate from the same alma mater, even if he happens to be the Health Secretary.

It is time to ditch the non-scientific hogwash coming from SAGE. We are about to find out how far off-beam the controversial 21 September “not-a-prediction” from Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance actually is (hint: they were nowhere near the mark).

The country does not need a traffic light system that has a “medium” lowest setting. We do not need to concentrate social mixing by imposing a 10pm curfew.  We especially do not need to make criminals of those that have more than 6 people in a social setting. Instead, we most certainly should be re-introducing basic healthcare, compassion for the vulnerable, the elderly, and those that are at risk.

But let’s make it scientific, considered and not predicated on a top-down or an authoritarian view of the world. Taking away the choices of those who had been hoping to enjoy their last years, months – or even weeks – with family, friends and loved ones is an insane principle that should be swiftly, and irreversibly, revoked.

Wake up, Boris. It is not too late to reverse the madness and pursue a better path. Doubling, tripling and quadrupling down on past mistakes is only going to make things worse.

Dr Alex Starling is an advisor to and non-executive director of various early-stage technology companies.


     Email

     linkedin      Email