"Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable" - Mark Twain.
While toilet rolls, pasta and flour may have been hard to come by during the Coronavirus crisis, there has never been a shortage of statistics.
The Government’s unreliable stats on personal protective equipment (counting two gloves as two items of PPE, for instance), on tests (counting tests sent out and multiple tests on the same person towards its 100,000 a day target, which has probably not once yet been achieved), and on deaths (failing, for instance, to include excess deaths) are legion.
But one set of stats was particularly dangerous. They were widely used in certain quarters to try to suggest that the Government’s policy – explicit for a while, and since then, after outcry, implicit – of ‘herd immunity’ might be on the right track.
‘Herd immunity’ refers to the state whereby enough members of a population have acquired immunity to a disease so that it cannot spread within that group – suggested to be between 60-80% for COVID-19 or about 40-50 million people in the UK.
Neither peer-reviewed nor published in any scientific journal but released via a PR agency, a study from Oxford University’s Evolutionary Ecology of Infectious Disease Group spawned a raft of headlines in March declaring that as much as half of the UK population had already been infected with the Coronavirus. It also led to some speculation that physical distancing measures introduced a few days prior could be unnecessary.
However, a new report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals that, as was strongly suspected at the time, the Oxford study was way off. Its figures were far from true — in fact, antibody tests conducted on a random sample of households suggest that fewer than 7% of people in England have been infected with the virus.
This in turn suggests that the draft Oxford survey should probably have never have been in the public domain because, had it been relied upon, the death toll in this country – while horrific enough – would have been much greater.
So why was the study released? And why did the Government delay taking any precautionary action for so long, despite substantial evidence in favour of this even from its own advisors?
In six words: to try to boost the economy.
The Roots of ‘Herd Immunity’
For circumstantial evidence to support that general hypothesis, one only needs to look at the timeline of delays – delays that experts believe cost “tens of thousands of lives”.
For much of March, the Government resolutely stuck to the ‘delay and contain’ phases of managing the crisis, despite strong warnings from its two main modelling teams that this could lead to a “catastrophic number of people being killed”.
The Prime Minister first publically floated the idea of ‘herd immunity’ on 5 March on ITV’s This Morning. When asked whether delaying the Coronavirus was about ‘flattening the curve’ of the pandemic, he said: “That’s where a lot of debate has been and one of the theories is that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures.”
But, even before this, the Prime Minister had already laid the groundwork for the idea much earlier, in a revealing post-Brexit trade speech on 3 February, in which he suggested that the UK would remain open for business during the Coronavirus because “at that moment humanity needs some Government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange”. Johnson was looking for economic advantage in the new pandemic context.
This is appears to be the ‘smoking gun’, evidencing how ‘herd immunity’ was the Government’s intention no matter what the collateral damage.
The Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance and other senior aides certainly appeared to think it was on the cards. But, after expert and public push-back and incredulity at the policy, the Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock contradicted them by claiming it was “not our goal or policy”.
As other countries – and indeed individuals and many organisations across the UK – proceeded with precaution, putting in place measures to limit public interactions, events such as the Cheltenham Festival (which 250,000 people attended over four days) and the All-England Badminton Championships (with 300 players and more than 25,000 spectators from around the world, including China, Malaysia, Denmark, Taiwan, India and Indonesia) were allowed to go ahead.
It was only on 23 March that Boris Johnson finally announced lockdown measures.
A few days later, the Oxford Study was released.
Why was the Oxford Study Released?
Using seemingly plausible assumptions, in one of three scenarios, the Oxford study estimated that, if the Coronavirus had started being transmitted 38 days before the first confirmed death, 68% of the UK population would have been infected by 19 March.
While it came with a disclaimer that it was not the final version of the paper and subject to change, it was this statistic that hit the headlines – appearing dramatically to vindicate the Government’s unofficial ‘herd immunity’ plan.
It drew almost immediate criticism from experts working in the field. Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, said that “it should not be given much credibility and should certainly not influence choice of strategies for mitigating the spread of COVID-19”.
It is difficult not to question why the study was released (by a PR agency with links to several Government departments) and whether the aim was to influence the choice of strategies.
While other statistical surveys by various organisations have pitched immunity between 5% and 26% throughout the crisis, according to the ONS report: “Of those individuals providing blood samples, 6.78% (unweighted) tested positive for antibodies to COVID-19 (95% confidence interval: 5.21% to 8.64%); this equates to around one in 15 people.”
Even now, the Government seems to be putting the battered economy ahead of the public by prematurely easing lockdown measures when many experts are saying it is too soon.
The Failed Swedish Model
To catch a glimpse of what life would have been like had the UK continued with ‘business as usual’ for longer, one can look at Sweden.
Swedish authorities placed the responsibility on individuals and businesses by issuing guidelines about how to ‘flatten the curve’ and kept the country largely open.
Despite some early praise for continuing with life as normal, Sweden briefly held the title of the highest per capita rates of the Coronavirus deaths in the world, taking over from the UK – and has seen more than four times as many deaths as its neighbours. Its authorities are now finally admitting that the strategy has been a very costly one.
More than that, reports suggest that it is still nowhere near ‘herd immunity’, with only 7.3% of people in Stockholm having developed the antibodies needed to fight the disease by late April.
For Precautionary Strategies
We don’t even yet know whether ‘herd immunity’ – whether acquired through antibodies or a vaccine – will work for COVID-19. The virus may mutate too quickly for it to develop in any meaningful sense.
We still don’t know for certain whether, having had it once, a person definitely cannot catch the virus again. Or whether there will be any lasting health implications for those that survive it, although there is growing evidence that various organs, including the brain, could be damaged.
The precautionary case is strengthened by each of these points: it is a case for suppression/elimination, and against the reckless willingness to infect most of the population.
The irony of course is that the Government’s attempts to prioritise GDP are actually very short-termist. The best way to ensure ongoing economic activity is via the kind of tough suppression/elimination methods pursued in countries such as New Zealand and Taiwan. So, even on its own terms, the Government’s policies have failed completely.
So fixated is it on economic considerations no matter what the potential human cost that it results in, that the Government is going to let betting shops re-open before it lets places of worship re-open for individual prayer.
Those who wrote at the time in praise of the Oxford study ought to now publicly to eat their words and apologise – for having risked the lives of tens of thousands of people.
But we aren’t holding our breath.