The principal reason I write about anything at all is to help shape my understanding of topics of interest to me. If in so doing your own understanding of the topic in question is also shaped in some way – possibly not in the same direction as mine – then that’s a good thing. The issue of the COVID-19 pandemic and, moreover, governments’ responses to the public health threat have pretty much trumped everything this year – apart, perhaps, from Trump himself; but that’s another vexatious topic. For months I’ve been grappling in my head with COVID-19 and especially how politicians of the developed world have responded. By reading this post, you’re invited to join me in shaping your own thoughts about how the UK Government and the devolved governments of the Kingdom have handled the arrival in our midst of a killer virus.
A LONG READ
Scotland’s continued membership of the United Kingdom (UK) was a binary contemplation in the referendum of 2014: either you were in favour of Scotland’s secession from the Union, or against it. Similarly, the UK’s continued membership of the European Union was a binary decision in the referendum of 2016: either you were in favour of recovering the UK’s sovereignty, or against it. Those two referendums cleaved the nation.
The advent of COVID-19 into our lives and, moreover, how we respond as a society to the threat posed by the novel coronavirus has also created a national dilemma. The British people are cleaved once again. In essence, either you believe that the whole of our society should now be organised virtually to no other end than preventing anybody from dying with COVID-19 scribed on their Death Certificate, or you believe that there’s a cost-benefit analysis at play here: the costs of preventing but one death from COVID-19 should be weighed against the benefits of protecting us all from contracting the virus, taking into account myriad economic and social factors. Depending on which camp you’re in, it’s difficult to persuade your opposite number to change his or her mind.
Like you, no doubt, I have friends – indeed you could be one of them reading this now – who are quite convinced that everything we’re doing at the moment is, by and large, the right thing to do. In other words, it’s right to place COVID-19 above all other health, economic and social priorities; it’s right to lockdown society and impose on people the most extraordinary – some would say cruel and oppressive – personal and collective strictures; it’s right to govern society on the Machiavellian basis that the end, that is nobody must die of/with COVID-19, justifies the means, that is cruel and oppressive strictures to control behaviours – otherwise known as tyranny; a very British tyranny, of course.
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
C S Lewis
I can hear now the howls of outrage emanating from my friends in the Lockdown Camp. They’ll be screaming that COVID-19 represents an existential threat; that if we lifted the largely blanket personal and collective constraints on society now being imposed by the Government (without any meaningful democratic challenge, by the way) then there’d be coronavirus carnage; they’ll be shouting that we have no choice, there is no other way than to organise society around the Hippocratic philosophy of ‘first, do no harm’. Indeed, those who govern us with almost unfettered powers these days, bellow daily from the rooftops that almost nothing else matters other than COVID-19 deaths, data and statistics.
Should We Keep Going Like This?
The question is, after almost a year of having COVID-19 in our midst, are our political masters getting it right? Are they right to persist with the single-minded, blunderbuss approach of bludgeoning society with lockdowns, or is there some other strategy that should be pursued?
I’m an ex-military man; a military attitude never really leaves your bloodstream. If someone starts screaming, ‘Incoming!’, one’s first reaction is to take cover, pronto, no questions asked. When COVID-19 struck in early 2020, it was right for the Government to scream, ‘Incoming! Take cover!’. We had no idea what was incoming, how lethal it was, nor how best to counteract COVID-19. A blanket lockdown was the right thing to do, no questions asked. I go along with that. However, what are the implications of using lockdown as the primary, if not the only response to COVID-19, knowing what we know today?
COVID-19 and Scotland’s Public Health
Fast-forward to the approaching festive season. Today, we have a pretty good understanding of the lethality of COVID-19. Yes, COVID-19 is a nasty, killer disease; but can you name any killer disease which isn’t nasty? Notwithstanding, we’re now conditioned to believe that no other cause of death matters more than COVID-19. Hence, the National Health Service is now the Covid Health Service.
According to The Scottish Public Health Observatory, public health statistics for other non-Covid diseases and illnesses make for grim reading, to wit: declines in admissions to hospital, both as emergencies and planned, across age groups and deprivation groups; a marked decline in the number of people attending Accident & Emergency Departments; marked drops in out-of-hours consultations with GPs, which remained around a third lower than in previous years by August; lower than expected numbers of interventions for ischaemic heart disease at national referral centres in Edinburgh and in Clydebank; a fall in the coverage of Health Visitor child health reviews offered to pre-school children; a fall in the proportion of children identified as having developmental delay during child health reviews – this has resulted in around 800 fewer children than expected being identified as having a developmental delay at 27-30 months; a fall in contacts for mental health problems during the period of lockdown as well as a fall in rates of prescribing for mental health problems.
In Scotland, by September, a total of 1,500 more people than usual had died from heart disease, strokes and other causes such as overdoses and suicide generally. According to Public Health Scotland, by September, fewer than 30,000 patients were seen within 18 weeks, down from about 73,000 a year ago. In other words, our politicians’ response to COVID-19 has fomented a public health shambles.
Look At The Facts For Yourself
I had a look at the National Records of Scotland COVID-19 Dashboard for Week 46, the current data at the time of writing this post. It showed that 91% of my fellow Scots’ citizens who’ve died of/with COVID-19 (that’s 5,135 people) were above the working-age population, ie above 65 years of age. Most of those deaths – 83% of them – were people aged 75 years and over. The average age of death in Scotland is 79 years, by the way. Thus far this year, 3,885 people over 75 years old have died of/with COVID-19.
So, mostly elderly people (75-plus years-old) in Scotland who, statistically, might not reasonably expect to live much beyond 80 years of age have died of/with COVID-19 this year. The ineluctable tenor of the political message is that this is an utter disaster for the nation. Consequently, our politicians have opted to shut down society, trash the economy into the worst condition for 300 years, withdraw countless civil liberties and screw us all over for a generation and more – presumably to demonstrate to voters their caring attitude to the electorate. It’s an odd state of affairs; a strange approach to life’s priorities.
The highest proportion of all COVID-19 deaths in Scotland has occurred in people over 85 years of age. So, of the 5,135 COVID-19 deaths to the data-week ending 15 November, 2,134 of them were people who died at 85 years of age and older – bearing in mind again that the average age of death from all causes in Scotland is 79 years. Over 90% of those deaths of 85 year-olds involved people with pre-existing illnesses.
No Scottish child below 15 years of age has died of COVID-19. Of Scottish citizens in the prime education and working age range 15 – 44 years-old, just 34 of them have died – that’s 0.006% of Scotland’s population. Of those 34 poor souls, 3 of them were in otherwise good health. That means that, in Scotland, if you’re in the age range 15 to 44 years-old, and are in otherwise good health, the Scottish Government’s own data shows that you have a less than one-in-1.8 million chance of randomly contracting and dying of COVID-19. To attenuate this appalling risk to your life, Scotland’s Government has trashed the education system, wrecked our public health framework, created the worst employment prospects in decades and criminalised normal social behaviours. Like I said, it’s an odd state of affairs, a strange approach to life’s priorities.
The Withdrawal of Civil Liberties
If you take your steer from the mainstream media, especially mainstream television news, you could be forgiven for thinking that COVID-19 threatened human life as we know it (which the evidence suggests it doesn’t, by the way). On the other hand, if you pull up the raw data and interpret it for yourself, you start wondering – as I do – what is really going on here? In Scotland this year, 447 people in my age range (45 – 64 years-old) have died of/with COVID-19. Of those wretched souls, 36 of them were in otherwise good health. That means that of the 5,463,300 Scots’ citizens in my age group, in reasonable health, 36 of them have copped it with COVID-19 this year. Again, to attenuate this appalling risk to my life, Scotland’s Government has trashed the education system, wrecked our public health framework, created the worst employment prospects in decades and criminalised normal social behaviours. Like I keep saying, it’s an odd state of affairs, a strange approach to life’s priorities.
This year, I haven’t earned, nor will I earn barely a penny – nor will I pay any income tax of course – as a direct consequence of politicians deciding that because 36 of my otherwise healthy 45 – 64 year-old fellow citizens have died of/with COVID-19, I should stay at home, not go to my workplace (it would be nice if I had one), wash my hands incessantly, muzzle myself, not use public transport, stop Scottish country dancing, not visit my children living in other regions of Scotland, not visit my 89 year-old mother living in England, not march with my fellow veterans at the Cenotaph Parade, not go to the theatre, not enjoy a meal and a bottle of wine with a group of friends, not listen to live music, not go to the cinema, you name it, I can’t do it. For my own good.
Across the UK, the state has decided, on its questionable interpretation of ‘the science’ and with no credible democratic mandate, to micro-manage the lives of tens of millions of citizens, ostensibly to protect us from ourselves.
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
The British Medical Journal
Again, I can hear the Lockdown Camp screaming at me now, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, Moraymint! You’re not a medic or a professional scientist. You’ve nothing to say on this matter. Put on your muzzle and get back in your box’. In fact, I’m a physicist by university education and consider myself to be scientifically-literate if nothing else; but, OK, let’s check out a view from, say, the British medical establishment.
The British Medical Journal (more properly ‘The BMJ’) is a weekly peer-reviewed medical professional journal and one of the oldest general medical journals in the world. In an editorial published on 13 November 2020, The BMJ declared that, ‘politicians often claim to follow the science, but that is a misleading oversimplification. Science is rarely absolute. It rarely applies to every setting or every population. It doesn’t make sense slavishly to follow science or evidence. A better approach is for politicians, the publicly appointed decision makers, to be informed and guided by science when they decide policy for their public. But even that approach retains public and professional trust only if science is available for scrutiny and free of political interference, and if the system is transparent and not compromised by conflicts of interest.’ Amen to that.
Against that backdrop, The BMJ’s view is that ‘science is being suppressed for political and financial gain. COVID-19 has unleashed state corruption on a grand scale, and it is harmful to public health.’ Not exactly mincing their words down there at the British Medical Association. The article goes on to state that ‘the [COVID-19] pandemic has revealed how the medical-political complex can be manipulated in an emergency – a time when it is even more important to safeguard science.’
Let’s stick with The BMJ’s view for a moment before moving on to look at what we should be doing under the circumstances to live with COVID-19. The BMJ argues that, ‘science is a public good. It doesn’t need to be followed blindly, but it does need to be fairly considered. Importantly, suppressing science, whether by delaying publication, cherry-picking favourable research, or gagging scientists, is a danger to public health; it causes deaths by exposing people to unsafe or ineffective interventions and preventing them from benefiting from better ones. When entangled with commercial decisions it is also maladministration of taxpayers’ money.
Politicisation of science was enthusiastically deployed by some of history’s worst autocrats and dictators, and it is now regrettably a commonplace in democracies. The medical-political complex tends towards suppression of science to aggrandise and enrich those in power. And, as the powerful become more successful, richer, and further intoxicated with power, the inconvenient truths of science are suppressed. When good science is suppressed, people die.’
Now, if you happen to be a medical professional reading this blog post, awestruck by the Government’s ‘led-by-the-science’ propaganda, perhaps you should drop a line to your colleagues at the British Medical Association and tell them to wind their necks in.
It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled.
Politicians and the Scientific Method
It could be argued that politicians and others, not least in the mainstream media and especially television news’ channels, are – knowingly or not – suppressing ‘good science’, to use The BMJ’s term. That said, it’s questionable whether collectively British politicians understand science to any great extent at all. As far as UK Members of Parliament (MPs) are concerned, only about 100 of them have a Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths, Medicine (STEMM) background. In other words, some 85% of our lawmakers are, to all intents and purposes, scientifically-illiterate. Our MPs have demonstrated, painfully, that they have little or no understanding of ‘the scientific method’ which, to use the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, is ‘the method or procedure that has characterised natural science since the 17th century, comprising systematic observation, measurement and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses‘. The key words being ‘modification of hypotheses’. Or, to use a phrase attributed to the British economist John Maynard Keynes, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?’
Despite the endless political pronouncements, there is no such thing as ‘the science’. In the face of rapidly changing scientific circumstances (the actual spread of the COVID-19 virus and the evidence of its impact, epidemiology, immunology, vaccinology, serology, infection testing etc), human behaviour and economic impacts, the facts about how best to live with COVID-19 are changing all the time. However, from the outset, the UK Government and its devolved Governments have adopted and stuck resolutely to the policy that if the only tool in your box is a hammer (lockdown), everything (‘the science’) looks like a nail.
Returning to the question I posed earlier: after almost a year of having COVID-19 in our midst, are our political masters getting it right? Are they right to persist with the single-minded, blunderbuss approach of bludgeoning society with lockdowns, or is there some other strategy that should now be pursued?
The Great Barrington Declaration
Let’s take just one example of an alternative scientific response to handling the COVID-19 pandemic known as ‘The Great Barrington Declaration’. Funnily enough, this is not a topic given much airtime by the BBC or other mainstream news channels, so perhaps you’ve never heard of it. In October 2020 the American Institute for Economic Research convened a meeting of epidemiologists, economists and journalists to discuss government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The result was the The Great Barrington Declaration – you can read it for yourself here – signed at the Institute’s headquarters on 4 October 2020 and released to the public the following day. The Declaration advocates an alternative, risk-based approach to the COVID-19 pandemic involving ‘focused protection’ of those most at risk, and seeking to avoid or minimise the societal harm of lockdowns. The authors say that keeping lockdown policies in place until a vaccine is available would cause ‘irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed’. The health harms cited include lower childhood vaccination rates and worsening care for heart disease, cancer patients and other killer diseases (exactly as is happening now). The authors also point out that the risk from coronavirus is hundreds of times greater for the old and infirm, with children more at risk from contracting seasonal flu than COVID-19 (an inconvenient truth).
Within days of its publication, some 6,300 medical practitioners and public health scientists from the UK, the US and other nations had signed The Great Barrington Declaration.
On Spectator TV, the British journalist Andrew Neil grilled one of the authors of The Great Barrington Declaration, Dr Jay Battacharya, to sense-check the hypothesis. This interview is, may I suggest, worth 12 minutes of your time:
However, this kind of alternative scientific view, a different hypothesis, has turned out to be about as welcome as a turd in a swimming pool as far as the British and, indeed, many other western political establishments are concerned. Our politicians’ unspoken response to The Great Barrington Declaration has been to hell with ‘the scientific method’; we’re not too familiar with that anyway, and we’ve no intention of modifying our hypothesis in the name of ‘good science’, or just because the facts have changed; we’re on a roll with lockdowns.
The Danger of Lockdowns
In relation to the societal harm of lockdowns, a UK Government report of July 2020 noted that whilst, ‘direct COVID-19 deaths account for the majority of all excess deaths, when morbidity is taken into account, estimates for the health impacts from a lockdown and lockdown-induced recession are greater in terms of Quality-Adjusted Life Years than the direct COVID-19 deaths’. Read that again. It says that the overall risk to the nation’s health in the long-term comes not from COVID-19 itself, but from the wider impacts on health and well-being associated with lockdowns. The report states that, ‘much of the health impact, particularly in terms of morbidity, will be felt long after the pandemic is assumed to last’. For ‘long after’, read a generation and more.
A Self-Inflicted Crisis
You see, The Great Barrington science doesn’t fit with the political zeitgeist; of politicians parading before us as omnipotent Public Health Warriors, ordering us this way and that to demonstrate how clever, compassionate and powerful they are, telling us how they’re being ‘led by the science’ to make political decisions involving cratering the economy, smashing society to smithereens and crushing our freedoms. In Scotland, all this is being done partly in the name of saving the lives of another 3 healthy people of prime educational and working age (15 – 44 years), in the wider context of a disease which overwhelmingly threatens people above the working age, and which primarily kills people older than Scotland’s normal life expectancy. These are brutal facts, but they’re facts nonetheless; however, they play virtually no part in the Government’s decision-making processes regarding the economy and society at large. It’s scary really.
At times, I’m left speechless at the latest pronouncements from our megalomaniacal politicians. I keep wondering just how all this is going to end, especially since the UK national debt is now larger than the economy itself, still climbing, and wholly unprecedented in peacetime. It’s as if our politicians have had a collective leave of their senses. I find it alarming not being able to understand why, when and how the Governments of the countries of the UK intend to right the upturned ship of state. At the moment, there’s no end in sight to the politically-induced national hysteria. Betting the farm on a vaccine is not a credible strategy for leading the nation back to normality given the socio-economic destruction being wrought upon us every day.
Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.
I maintain that, when all’s said and done, our politicians have proved themselves to be inept in the face of a national crisis. The crisis in which we now find ourselves is not a public health crisis, per se; it’s a self-inflicted political crisis and, therefore, a looming socio-economic catastrophe. Our politicians appear to be incapable of understanding the complex interplay between science, the economy and the normal functioning of society, and of learning from their mistakes. The unchecked, unbalanced Governments of the UK are constantly doubling-down on their errors and making matters worse with each passing day. But hang on: there are vaccines in the wings.
A Vaccine – We’re All Saved! Aren’t We?
Well, not necessarily.
On 18 November, the New Scientist declared that ‘we can’t be certain that the coronavirus vaccines will stop the pandemic’. The article made a number of key points including saying, ‘things may look good, but we’re still a long, long way from a vaccine that will get us back to life as normal. That is in no small part due to the huge challenge of manufacturing, distributing and administering one, plus the reluctance of a significant minority of people to get vaccinated. However, it is also down to trial constraints, which leave a number of questions around safety and effectiveness. If you thought those were the things the trials could give us all the answers to, think again’.
The New Scientist goes on to state, ‘we simply don’t know yet how long protection from any vaccine will last. Time isn’t something that the vaccine developers have control over. Will COVID-19 vaccines save lives? Current trials aren’t designed to tell us. Unless urgent changes are made to the way the trials are designed and evaluated, we could end up with approved vaccines that reduce the risk of a mild infection but do not decrease the risk of hospitalisation, intensive care unit use or death’.
You see, our politicians and their mainstream media colleagues don’t really do science, so they take things like companies announcing the discovery of a COVID-19 vaccine at face-value. The BBC and most of the other mainstream news’ channels jump on the ‘A Vaccine Will Save Us All!’ bandwagon and, before you know it, the majority of your fellow citizens have been duped again. What’s happening all around us at the moment is worthy of a Kafka novel. Largely isolated protagonists like me are facing a bizarre, surrealistic predicament manufactured by the incomprehensible behaviours of an unhinged, socio-bureaucratic government running riot through society. Or am I missing something here?
The 90% Economy
Recovering from this unholy socio-economic mess will be an epic in itself. The UK economy will have shrunk by at least 10% as a result of politicians’ mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the worst economic slump in 300 years. A 10% reduction in the size of the economy doesn’t sound like much in the great scheme things. However, The Economist published an editorial recently entitled, ‘The 90% Economy’. It started by saying, ‘life after lockdowns will be hard in ways that are difficult to imagine today. In many things, 90% is just fine; in an economy it is miserable … a 90% economy threatens great suffering. The anger it creates may end up feeding protectionism, xenophobia and government interference on a scale not seen in decades. If that is an outcome you would reject, it’s time to start arguing for something better’. Too right it is, but you can only do this if you’re sceptical about how the Government is handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Astonishingly, opinion polls keep telling us that most people are content with the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. I do wonder what they’re smoking. I know, however, that they probably listen to and watch the BBC, but they probably don’t read The Economist, or The BMJ, or the New Scientist or interrogate the data published by the National Records of Scotland or the Office of National Statistics and decide for themselves what’s really going on, or at least question Government policy.
No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require to have their strong wine diluted be a very large admixture of insipid common sense.
Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury
The Old Days
I remember the old days of living in a free society. In those days, we made our own decisions over what risks we were willing to run and what precautions we were willing to take according to our own circumstances to protect our own health. The reality is that every time we step outside our homes, the risks we face multiply.
A free society assumes that its citizens are competent to assess those risks, balance them against the avoidance costs, and to manage their decisions in a generally responsible way. It’s called common sense and it’s an essential prerequisite for self-government and liberty. Specifically as far as, say, COVID-19 is concerned, the choices made by an octogenarian with emphysema might be very different from a healthy person of prime educational or working age. Indeed, it’s almost inconceivable that they’d make the same choices. So, Dear First Minister Nicola Sturgeon: only a fool would claim the omnipotence to make an informed judgement for every person, in every circumstance, in every community in Scotland until a solution to the COVID-19 pandemic descends from heaven, eg like a vaccine, but I assume you’ll be unaware of the New Scientist’s observations above.
The Great Barrington Declaration was, in effect, a call to have politicians lead us forward to the old days, themselves led by what The BMJ calls ‘good science’. Right now our politicians wouldn’t recognise ‘good science’ or, moreover, ‘the scientific method’ if it ran over them in a Challenger main battle tank. Hence, it’s lockdown after lockdown until kingdom come, and I’m arguing here that you and I need to be extremely concerned about our politicians’ national suicidal approach to government: a very British tyranny.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In the second of these two blog posts, I’ll set out what I would be saying and doing if I was the Prime Minister faced with leading the UK out of the extraordinary hole into which our political class has dug us.
The welfare of humanity is always the alibi of tyrants.
If you want to develop an eclectic understanding of how we might recover from the worst economic decline in 300 years, recapture our civil liberties and reconfigure our way of life back to normal (not to an absurd ‘new normal’), then you could do worse than to check out these sources of information:
Spikedonline: The making of Britain’s COVID catastrophe
Lockdown Sceptics: If Lockdown was a drug, would we use it?
Lockdown Truth: Helping people organise themselves to fight the ‘new normal’
Our World in Data: Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19)
Evidence Not Fear: Referenced and sourced COVID-19 information
Scientific American: A sustainable alternative to blanket lockdowns
The Spectator: It’s time for an alternative to lockdown
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