A large rise in coronavirus ‘cases’ over the past week, especially in the north of England, has led to calls for new nationwide restrictions. The Times reported: ‘Surging coronavirus infection rates have put Britain on the brink of tougher lockdown measures, overshadowing Boris Johnson’s attempt yesterday to focus on life after the pandemic’ and that the Government’s scientific advisers have called for ‘urgent and drastic action’ after cases doubled in 11 days to 14,542 and deaths doubled to 76 in the same period. The report said that hospital admissions in England have ‘jumped by a quarter in one day’ and that ministers are worried about the ability of the health service to cope over winter in infection hotspots.
It reiterated further scary statistics of rates in Manchester doubling in a week to more than 500 cases per 100,000 people, with Liverpool and Newcastle ‘close behind with rates increasing by more than 50 per cent in seven days’.
Yet Manchester has been in local lockdown since July 31 and Newcastle since September 18. And, as Labour leader Keir Starmer put to Boris Johnson at PMQs on Wednesday, 19 out of the 20 places with local restrictions have seen cases surge, often much more than places without additional restrictions.
The answer to this, according to lockdown zealots, is harsher restrictions, obviously. Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told the BBC’s Newsnight that the Government’s ‘light touch’ measures were ‘delaying the inevitable’. ‘We will at some point put very stringent measures in place because we will have to when hospitals start to really fill up,’ he said. ‘Frankly, the better strategy is to put them in place now.’
Sir Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust and another Sage member, joined in the doomsday projections to urge tougher action now. ‘A fudge will neither deliver an open economy nor save lives,’ he wrote on Twitter.
These calls for nationwide action, which were among many others, are curious, seeing that the second ripple appears already to have peaked in London and the south and is slowing in the Midlands. The biggest worry is the north-west, which currently has nine times as many Covid patients as the south-east, and where patient numbers have doubled in two weeks to 996 on Tuesday. That is about a third of the peak there of 2,980 on April 13, with no sign yet of slowing down.
The Times reported: ‘Its hospitals are not in immediate danger but ministers believe that cases must be brought down to avoid them struggling with large numbers of elderly Covid patients at the height of winter.’
However, as Nick Triggle points out on the BBC website, only about 3 per cent of hospital beds nationwide are occupied by Covid patients, and with the woeful lack of other healthcare being provided by the NHS, there is no shortage of room. He writes: ‘None of this is exceptional at this time of year – especially the closer we get to winter. Admissions for respiratory illnesses can double from late summer to the peak in December and January.’
Triggle also points out that hospital Covid cases in Spain and France have slowed in recent weeks.
Unfortunately, he repeats the claim that this drop-off is a result of additional restrictions, which is easily disproved. Data for Spain from the Carlos III Health Institute show cases by date of symptom onset peaking before the end of August, well ahead of any new restrictions. Given that areas with local lockdowns in England have, conversely, seen surges, the evidence for the efficacy of lockdowns in controlling Covid-19 outbreaks is entirely mythical.
This is a point borne out by science journalist John Tierney in a detailed analysis of the effect of lockdowns across the world in City Journal.
‘While the economic and social costs have been enormous, it’s not clear that the lockdowns have brought significant health benefits beyond what was achieved by people’s voluntary social distancing and other actions. Some researchers have credited lockdowns with slowing the pandemic, but they’ve relied on mathematical models with assumptions about people’s behaviour and the virus’s tendency to spread – the kinds of models and assumptions that previously produced wild overestimates of how many people would die during the pandemic. Other researchers have sought more direct evidence, looking at mortality patterns. They have detected little impact.
‘After analysing 23 countries and 25 US states with widely varying policies, Andrew Atkeson of UCLA and fellow economists found that the mortality trend was similar everywhere once the disease took hold: the number of daily deaths rose rapidly for 20 to 30 days, and then fell rapidly.’
Tierney concludes: ‘The lockdowns may have been justified in the spring, when so little was known about the virus and the ways to contain it. But now that we know more, there’s no ethical justification for continuing this failed experiment.’
Yet ministers are once again faced with calls from their ‘scientific advisers’ to impose illiberal and ruinous restrictions on the nation so as not to ‘jeopardise the NHS’s ability to cope’ and to ‘avoid them struggling with large numbers of elderly Covid patients at the height of winter’. Isn’t this what the Nightingale hospitals are for? Why are they being mothballed? It would certainly be far cheaper and proportionate to expand the winter health service capacity than force tens of thousands of businesses to close – with many going bankrupt as a consequence – and once again imprison the entire population in their homes.
The truth is this. The health service is always stretched in the winter. Hospitalisations and deaths from respiratory illness caused by various endemic viruses always increase from September onwards towards a winter peak. A new university year always causes a spike in viral infections amongst students. There is nothing unusual about any of this. The fact that the second ripple in the south of England appears already to have peaked without additional restrictions suggests the same will shortly be true in the north.
Widespread immunity and resistance will prevent Covid-19 pulling off a repeat of the spring. It’s time we stopped panicking every time something normal happens just because we’re watching it closely.