boris johnson
To say that I am now desperately concerned for the health, wellbeing and future of my country and its people, not because of Covid-19, but rather because of the vastly disproportionate actions taken by the Government apparently to deal with the virus, is a massive understatement. As a Christian, I believe it to be my duty to pray for and seek the good of those who have authority over us, and I have both done this and will continue to do this regularly. However, I also believe it is my duty, in whatever limited capacity I have, to do what I can to seek to hold that authority to account, especially when it takes decisions which are harmful and wrong, and which it then seeks to justify by using language and statements that obfuscate, rather than clarify the truth, as I believe has happened over the last two months.

As I watched the Prime Minister address the nation on 10th May, I did so with a mixture of horror, exasperation and utter astonishment at some of the frankly outrageous things being said. And whilst the majority of his speech was given over to how the Government intends to take the country forward in terms of lifting the lockdown, I am far more interested in asking questions about why we find ourselves in this situation to begin with. To be clear, questions about what happens next and when they happen are of interest, but they are dwarfed by the vastly more important question of why we are in a situation in which:
  • Millions of people have been unable to go about their lawful business for almost two months
  • Millions of healthy people have, for the first time in the history of this country, been quarantined in their houses
  • The social, economic, psychological and legal fabric of this country is being torn to shreds
Mr Johnson of course claimed that this was the only reasonable course of action that could be taken. But is this actually true? This is a far more important question than many of the details we hear on a daily basis, partly because we need to know whether the measures imposed on this country for nearly two months were either essential and right, or the most monumentally stupid error a Government in this country has ever made (there really is no third option), and partly because knowing this is key to getting ourselves out of this hole.

What I want to do is hold up two of the most important statements Mr Johnson made in his speech up to scrutiny. The first was this:
"Because you understand that as things stand, and as the experience of every other country has shown, it's the only way to defeat the coronavirus โ€” the most vicious threat this country has faced in my lifetime."
There are three important reasons why this statement is misleading:

Firstly, as I understand it, Mr Johnson was born in 1964, which was four years before the H3N2 pandemic (so-called Hong Kong flu) in 1968. This is estimated to have killed around 1 million people worldwide, and around 80,000 in the UK (when the population of the country was around 12 million less than it currently is). By contrast, so far the number of recorded deaths from Covid-19 around the world stands (as at 14th May) at 301,000, and the number of recorded deaths in the UK around 33,600. I emphasise the word recorded since it has become quite clear that, contrary to standard medical practice, deaths are being attributed to Covid-19 whether it was or wasn't the primary cause of death, suggesting that the numbers of deaths from the illness have been overstated. Nevertheless, at the time of writing, and with the caveat that deaths are still occurring in the UK, albeit that the daily rate has been falling since April 8th (see here for a chart showing actual dates of deaths), the statement that the current epidemic is the most vicious threat we've ever faced during his lifetime does not stand up to scrutiny. But here's the crucial question: During that epidemic of 1968, when Mr Johnson was four-years-old, was the economy shut down and civil liberties trampled on, as they have been in 2020? Did anyone back then even suggest that they should be?

Secondly, it is manifestly not the case, as he claimed, that it is the experience of every other country that putting the country under the kind of lockdown conditions imposed upon British citizens is the only way to defeat the coronavirus. To the contrary, a number of countries have used far more relaxed measures โ€” for instance, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Sweden โ€” and the data simply does not bear out his implication that taking such action has been hugely detrimental to those countries in terms of deaths from Covid-19. The chart below compares the daily death rate for the UK and Sweden, per million population, with the date of the UK lockdown clearly marked. Can Mr Johnson show from this chart any correlation between the lockdown that was imposed on Britain and the lockdown that wasn't imposed on Sweden, and death rates (more on Sweden below)?
slane stats covid
Thirdly, whereas the epidemiological model the Government based its policy upon assumed an Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) of 0.9%, the actual figures from study after study have shown that it is actually far lower. For example, teams at Stanford University, the University of South California, and the University of Bonn have all put the IFR of Covid-19 at somewhere between 0.1% and 0.3%. Although Covid-19 is not influenza, its IFR fatality rate is on a par with a severe seasonal flu outbreak, and therefore not, as he stated, the most vicious threat this country has faced in his lifetime. Should he retort that this was not known at the time that the UK was put into lockdown โ€” hindsight is a perfect science and all that โ€” there are two responses to this: firstly, even by the time the UK was put into lockdown, there were already serious doubts about some of the more apocalyptic scenarios that had first been mooted, and so would it not have been wise to seek more definitive data before taking one of the most monumental decisions any Government has ever taken in this country? And secondly, even if the IFR was not known then, it is much more widely known now, as is the fact that for the overwhelming majority of people, the illness is not harmful. As Dr John Lee points out here:
"The majority of cases are asymptomatic. The most common symptoms are not fever, cough, headache and respiratory symptoms; they are no symptoms at all. The typical case does not suffer respiratory fibrosis; the disease leaves no mark. Somewhere around 99.9 per cent of those who catch the disease recover. Of those unlucky enough to die, over 90 per cent have pre-existing conditions and were anyway approaching the end of their lives."
In which case, why has he chosen not to relay this information to the public, but instead has continued to instil panic among people, including in his address to the nation on 10th May?

The second part of his speech which I wish to hold up to scrutiny is this:
"It is a fact that by adopting those measures we prevented this country from being engulfed by what could have been a catastrophe in which the reasonable worst case scenario was half a million fatalities."
I must say I was absolutely astonished to hear him repeating this figure, and I would imagine that some of his more switched-on colleagues may well also have felt their jaws dropping a little. The reason for this is that the model that predicted the figure he quoted has now been so thoroughly debunked and discredited, that it beggars belief that he decided to use this figure in his address to the nation. How has it been discredited?

Firstly, it is well known that the team behind this figure โ€” Neil Ferguson's team at Imperial College โ€” has a track record of over-estimating deaths in epidemics. And we're not just talking about small over-estimations. For instance:
  • In 2002, they estimated 50,000 deaths from Mad Cow Disease. The actual number was under 200.
  • In 2005 they predicted 200 million global deaths from H5N1 bird flu, whereas the actual numbers are reckoned to be 455 worldwide.
  • In 2009, the team told the UK Government that 65,000 could die from swine flu in the UK, and millions worldwide. To date, 457 deaths in the UK have been attributed to this virus and around 18,500 worldwide.
One of the biggest questions that will need answering at any future inquiry into the handling of Covid-19 is this: Why did the Government choose to take such monumental decisions on the advice of a team with such a woefully inaccurate record?

Secondly, when a team from Uppsala University in Stockholm applied the Imperial College model to Sweden back in April, it predicted that by 10th May โ€” the day of Mr Johnson's speech โ€” Sweden would have suffered the following numbers of deaths, according to different applied interventions:
  • Approximately 78,000 deaths for a "do nothing" policy
  • Approximately 45,000 deaths for the policy that Sweden actually imposed
  • Approximately 18,500 deaths for a lockdown policy similar to that imposed in the UK
slane stats covid
Yet by 10th May, Sweden had recorded 3,225 deaths. These are enormous differences. To put it into context, when the team at Uppsala applied the Imperial College model, it over-estimated Sweden's deaths under its current scenario by nearly FOURTEEN times (1,395%). Not only that, but it even predicted the number of deaths on the basis of a full UK-style lockdown as being nearly SIX times (573%) the number of deaths the country has actually seen โ€” when it hadn't even been under a UK-style lockdown.

I cannot stress too highly the importance of this. The Imperial College model is shown by its application to Sweden โ€” which is rather like a control in a giant experiment โ€” to have over-predicted its deaths by a factor of FOURTEEN. Of course we do not know what would have happened if Sweden had adopted a do-nothing policy, but what we can say with absolute confidence is that the model is fundamentally and monumentally wrong. And yet Mr Johnson chose to tell the nation that lockdown was responsible for the UK avoiding half-a-million deaths โ€” the number predicted by this demonstrably and woefully wrong model. Misleading would be a polite term to describe this, and Mr Johnson ought to be held to account for such statements.

Thirdly, the actual code behind the model (or rather a derivative) has recently been reviewed by software engineers, and they have been horrified by what they have seen (see here and here). But most startling, given that he repeated the half-a-million claim in his address, is that some of his Party's own MPs have read these critiques of the Imperial College code and have also been horrified. For instance, here's what David Davis MP had to say about it on 6th May:
"Everybody who is concerned about the Imperial College model must read this immediately. If true, it is scandalous."
Steve Baker MP, then followed up on the same day with his own reaction:
"@DavidDavisMP is right. As a software engineer, I am appalled. Read this now."
And on 9th May, Mr Baker again Tweeted:
"Today, I read the Imperial College COVID-19 code - I then read this for a second time with growing horror: Software critical to the safety and prosperity of tens of millions of people has been hacked out, badly. It is a scandal."
It is indeed a scandal of gargantuan proportions that the Government took such vast measures, affecting the lives of millions in this and future generations on the basis of a 13-year-old flu pandemic model, produced by a team with a track record of massively overestimating deaths from epidemics, which is apparently riddled with bugs. Was the code checked by independent experts before the measures were imposed? We need answers, and we also need answers as to why Mr Johnson continued to repeat its thoroughly discredited predictions to millions of people across the nation.

Why is it so important that we get answers to these questions, rather than simply focusing on the day-to-day issues? Because if it is never admitted that a huge mistake has been made in the first place, then it is very difficult to see how we can return to normal, especially as vast swathes of the population are living in fear of a virus which, as Dr Lee stated, is lethal to surprisingly few, but whom the Government has spooked into believing it will kill them and up to half-a-million people. If we do not return to something like normal fast (although it is maybe too late already), we face all sorts of social and economic disasters including a huge increase in:
  • Unemployment
  • Poverty
  • Illnesses
  • Mental health issues
  • Shortened life expectancy
  • Suicides
These effects are well documented consequences of economic depressions, and already the warning signs are there with a contraction of the economy of 5.8% during March, and undoubtedly much worse to come in April and May as the full effects of the lockdown are manifest. I would also point out that any claims to have protected the NHS appear to ring somewhat hollow, since the combined sum of money paid out in furlough so far (approximately ยฃ10bn) and the accumulated daily loss to the economy to date (approximately ยฃ124.8bn) is almost exactly the same sum of money as the entire yearly NHS budget of ยฃ133bn. And according the British Medical Journal, in a piece entitled, "Staggering number of extra deaths in community is not explained by covid-19โ€ณ, only 1/3 of excess deaths seen in the community in England and Wales can be explained by the virus. Could it be that many of those deaths have occurred not because of Covid-19, but as a result of the panic engendered by the Government, which led to many operations and treatments being cancelled, as well as people staying at home for serious conditions, rather than going to hospital? It needs investigating.

The biggest issue we face, however, is the long-term psychological scars on our society, whereby the panic and fear created by the Government have meant that for many the idea of returning to something like normality is almost impossible. Many have been simply frozen with fear, not by the virus, as such, but by the panic created by the Government and media around the virus, and it seems that this is not going to go away anytime soon. They won't send their children to school for fear of the virus, even though the number of school age children to have died from the virus is tiny. By contrast, I understand that the population of Sweden is still largely functioning.

Given all this, it really is time to admit that this has been a dreadful mistake. Time to admit that the lockdown was based on acceptance of an extremely faulty model. Time to admit that the virus is nowhere near as fatal to most people as it was first thought. Time to admit that the right course of action would have been to concentrate resources on protecting the vulnerable (which unbelievably was not done in care homes), not on quarantining the healthy. Time for the Government to fess up, stop the panic, and lift the lockdown without further delay, before the social and psychological damage done to people, to communities and to the nation as a whole becomes irreparable for years, perhaps decades to come.