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7 November 2020

Bonfire Night

Tag(s): Politics & Economics, Business
In this momentous week I could have blogged on several different subjects. There is the extraordinary presidential election in the United States where democracy itself seems to be at risk but this is still playing out and may continue to do so for days, weeks, months, even years. Then there were the events connected with my favourite football club, Manchester United. One of our greatest, Nobby Stiles, hero of both the World Cup win in 1966 and the European Cup win in 1968, died after suffering for many years both of health and penury despite his heroic status. His colleague, also a hero of both the World Cup win and the European Cup win,  Bobby Charlton, perhaps United’s and England’s greatest ever player, also has been diagnosed with dementia. Some blame this on the heavy leather footballs of those days. But Bobby unlike his brother Jack, who recently died of dementia, was not one who headed the ball very often. He was gifted with sublime two-footedness, he could take an inswinging corner from either wing, but he rarely headed the ball. But he did score a great header to open the scoring against Benfica in the European Cup final. The current team is just a shadow of that great team of the ‘60s and had embarrassing defeats to Arsenal in the Premier League and to Istanbul in the Champion’s League when all semblance of defensive organisation disappeared. Despite these great stories the overwhelming story of the week is again the pandemic and the catastrophic decisions made by the government.

A week ago the Prime Minister, flanked by his Chief Scientific Adviser and his Chief Medical Officer, announced that he had decided that England needed to go into a second lockdown based on scientific evidence. The two scientists then presented that evidence with graphs that were difficult to read, particularly on television even though this was a presentation to the nation on television, but on subsequent analysis turned out that they were not only misleading but were inaccurate and indeed this has been subsequently confirmed. But even though this evidence was wrong the advice on which it was based stood and the government continued to go ahead with its disastrous decision to lockdown the economy, destroy jobs and livelihoods, destroy businesses and cultural experience and indeed destroy much of what this country stands for.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has reprimanded the government for these mistakes and has warned them that without transparency in the dissemination of such information the public may lose trust in the government. While I welcome this warning by the ONS as far as I’m concerned I lost trust in this government several months ago. Back in March when the pandemic became apparent I warned in these pages of overreaction. In April I became aware that the pandemic was really only a danger for the elderly and those with metabolic syndrome over a certain age. That has transpired and indeed the average age at which people die from COVID-19 is 82 years, actually older than the median of other causes of death.

In their presentation the scientists spoke repeatedly of how the pandemic had been controlled during the summer because of the nation’s efforts in following their advice. And then they sought to show how it had started to rise again in September and warned that unless new measures were taken it will continue to rise to the point where hospitals would not be able to cope.

What they failed to show is that every single coronavirus there has ever been has followed such a pattern. It was not the nation’s efforts that reduced the incidence of infections in the summer, it was seasonality. It is normal. It is then normal that the pandemic becomes endemic and new levels of infection rise but not to the same peak of the original pandemic. That is the pattern for every single coronavirus and indeed influenza there has ever been with the exception of so-called Spanish flu in 1918 to 1920 when other conditions were in force i.e. the First World War.

What matters when evaluating public health is the level of excess deaths. But here we have a problem. Because the Chief Medical Officer has been prioritising the pandemic as his single point of focus all other causes of death are being ignored. There was no assessment in their presentation of the effect their decisions to advise the government for a second lockdown would have on other causes of death be it heart disease, cancer or anything else. Indeed the fact of a lockdown causes new sources of illness both mental and physical. There is anecdotal evidence coming from undertakers that while deaths of elderly people are normal there are growing numbers of young people who are taking their own lives. I work with the Samaritans and while the statistics are not yet clear and will become clearer when the ONS reports on the year as a whole, the anecdotal evidence is that there are far higher numbers of people reporting stress, self-harm, mental illness and threats to take their own lives.

During the summer we saw on our television sets film of the masses of people who, prevented from going on their normal summer holidays overseas, instead descended on places like Devon and Cornwall in their millions. We saw pictures of very crowded beaches with no evidence of social distancing or people wearing masks nor indeed places where they could wash their hands. Given all the warnings that the scientists had given us surely we could have expected the people of Cornwall to have been placed at considerable risk. So how many deaths from COVID-19 in Cornwall resulted from this experience?  Zero.

In their presentation the scientists also referred to hospitals being overwhelmed by the number of new cases. From closer analysis what they actually showed us was that 29 hospitals do have some problems. The vast majority of hospitals in England have only a fraction of such cases. The scientists had cherry picked the worst hospitals in order to alarm us. This has been their style from day one. From day one the government has told us that their decisions are based on the science. The science is not science. It is not peer-reviewed. It is not independent. And it is not balanced with consideration of other issues. We should not be making such important decisions about our livelihoods, our social life, our businesses, our cultural interest, without considering the impact on all of this.

During this week it has emerged that the government made this terrible decision without having any consideration of its impact on the economy. There seems to have been no consultation with business or other interested parties. Indeed the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) held its conference this week virtually, of course. The Prime Minister was due to address it as is the annual custom. This Prime Minister chose at the last minute not to attend and “sent” instead his Business Secretary. This is only the second time in history that the Prime Minister has failed to address the CBI at its annual conference. I used to be on the National Council of the CBI and I’m not going to say that everything it does is in the best interest of the British people. Its main concern is the interest of its members; it is after all a membership organisation. But it does speak for a very considerable portion of British industry and for the Prime Minister to fail to address it at such a critical time is simply irresponsible.

Indeed the whole approach to this crisis has been with a lack of responsibility. Even Sage back in September when it was starting to recommend that we should be thinking about a second lockdown did advise the government that it should consider the economic consequences of such action. And yet it has not done so. Well, the economic consequences will be extremely severe and I think all the official forecasts that we have seen understate the problem because all the official forecasts talk about this simply in quarterly or at best annual projections. There is a long-term impact here and it will be very difficult to recover from that.

The Prime Minister in presenting these decisions hides behind the idea that not only is it based on science which I have demonstrated is not the case but it is also consistent with actions being taken by our European friends in countries like France and Spain. This may be true but it doesn’t mean it’s right. I don’t know about the decision-making processes in countries like France and Spain but I do know that it’s a mess. Contrast this with countries like Taiwan and South Korea where they have handled the crisis with great skill and there have been very few deaths by comparison.

The World Health Organisation’s official advice is that lockdowns don’t work. They should only be used in a situation where it is necessary to develop a track and trace system. We were promised a world-class track and trace system back in the early summer. What we have in place isn’t even third class. There is no evidence that in the second lockdown we are going to get a track and trace system that is any better. Indeed the likelihood is that it will get worse as people react negatively to lockdown and will not cooperate whereas in the first lockdown the general attitude of the people was reasonably cooperative.

Parliament on 4th November approved these new measures by an overwhelming majority despite evidence having emerged before that time that the information supplied by the scientists was misleading at best and probably inaccurate. The new measures came into effect on the 5th November. “Remember, remember the 5th November, Gunpowder, treason and plot.” Where is Guy Fawkes when you need him?

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