Is Britain really seeing the beginnings of a ‘second wave’ of coronavirus? Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at the University of Oxford, has his doubts. A rare voice of reason throughout the madness of the last six months, Professor Heneghan has done the analysis which appears to be beyond the ken of government scientists and found that, once you adjust for the increase in testing and for date of test, cases in England decreased during July rather than increased. This is despite all the additional public activity and lifting of restrictions. ‘The increase in the number of cases detected is likely due to the increase in testing,’ he writes on the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) site.
He adds: ‘It is essential to adjust for the number of tests being done. Leicester and Oldham have seen significant increases in testing in a short time. Leicester, for example, in the first two weeks of July, did more tests than anywhere else in England: 15,122 tests completed in the two weeks up to 13 July. The potential for false-positives (those people without the disease who test positive) to drive the increase in community (pillar two) cases is substantial, particularly because the accuracy of the test and the detection of viable viruses within a community setting is unclear. Standardising cases per tests done, and aligning the counts in different datasets to provide the same numbers, will allow a better understanding of whether cases are going up or down. Inaccuracies in the data and poor interpretation will often lead to errors in decisions about imposing restrictions, particularly if these decisions are done in haste and the interpretation does not account for fluctuations in the rates of testing.’
We keep being told coronavirus policy is being led by the science and the data. But when glaring errors like this are made – and this is far from the first, with the official UK death reporting having been exposed last month, also by Professor Heneghan and his team, to be highly inflated owing to counting all deaths of people who have at some point had Covid-19 as Covid-19 deaths – this claim must be thrown into serious doubt.
Even more worrying is that the scientists on whose advice millions are being restricted and billions are being spent keeping the economy on life support are not picking these problems up for themselves. The trend for these errors all to be on the pessimistic side suggests they are the result of confirmation bias (i.e. favouring information that confirms your previously existing beliefs or biases), and means the government urgently needs to expand and diversify its scientific advice base. Professor Heneghan and Professor Sunetra Gupta, also of Oxford, who has published high-quality modelling suggesting the UK is well on the way to collective immunity, would make an excellent starting point.
The failure to engage with the full range of emerging evidence and scientific opinion on the virus goes right to the highest levels, with World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus claiming on Friday: ‘Most of the world’s people remain susceptible to this virus, even in areas that have experienced severe outbreaks.’
This was despite his acknowledgement that ‘many scientific questions have been resolved; many remain to be answered’.
Quite why he feels confident in asserting that most people remain susceptible even in heavily affected countries, when the evidence has been mounting since at least April that a large proportion of the population have pre-existing resistance to the virus, is a mystery.
Nonetheless, this ‘science’ backs up the WHO emergency committee’s anticipation of a ‘lengthy duration of this Covid-19 pandemic, noting the importance of sustained community, national, regional, and global response efforts.’
With England chief medical officer Chris Whitty stating last week that ‘we have probably reached the limit of what we can do’ in terms of easing restrictions, this ‘science’ is now in danger of holding us all captive indefinitely.
When will the government start listening to the scientific advice of figures like Raj Bhopal, emeritus professor of public health at Edinburgh University, who has argued for a switch in strategy in the journal Public Health in Practice: ‘Herd immunity provokes hostility and controversy as it is usually interpreted as allowing the pandemic to unfold without interventions. The concept needs revisiting. If safe and effective vaccines and life-saving preventive and therapeutic medications are not found, lengthy lockdowns prove impossible and the pandemic does not disappear spontaneously, population immunity is the only long-term solution.’
He told the Daily Telegraph: ‘The bottom line is that older people have got a lot to gain from lockdowns and a lot to lose from the infection. Young people have a lot to lose from lockdowns and not much to lose from the infection. Our efforts should be directed towards protecting people who are at high risk.’
This has worked for Sweden (though more could have been done there to protect the vulnerable and lower the death toll, as they have acknowledged), where there was no lockdown, deaths and cases have almost disappeared, life is returning to normal and there is no requirement to use masks. Sweden has had a lower death toll per million than lockdown countries like the UK and Spain and even has lower excess deaths this year than neighbouring Finland.
Why is our government not listening to these scientists and learning these lessons, instead of looking ahead to an indefinite future of miserable social distancing and ruinous intermittent lockdowns?
There may of course be flare-ups, spikes, local outbreaks, even new waves, especially in areas which have not yet been heavily affected. But since when did we sacrifice our economy, freedom and wider health to avoid non-catastrophic outbreaks of respiratory illness? If the health services can cope and the vulnerable are protected as much as they wish to be, why should we not carry on as normal? It’s all very well talking about a ‘new normal’, but life has to be affordable and worth living. Boris Johnson appears to have forgotten that, and we’re all suffering as a result.