LibLink: Vince Cable – Were the political ‘bad guys’ right all along?

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Vince Cable has written an article in the Independent with the clickbait headline: “When it comes to handling coronavirus, were the political ‘bad guys’ right all along?

He writes:

As the UK contemplates yet again a change in direction, with more restrictions on activity to curb Covid-19, we should reflect on what is happening elsewhere in the world. Only a few months ago, Sweden was the heart of darkness: a country which, for unaccountable reasons, had gone off the rails, embracing weird theories about the pandemic, disdaining lockdown, resulting in the slaughter of its elderly population and ostracism from the club of civilised social democratic countries in Scandinavia. Now it emerges that they may have been on to something, with a consistent – and apparently successful – approach.

The most recent (very preliminary) economic data also suggests that the United States, under a president regarded by most progressive folk as a malign, Covid-denying buffoon, has suffered less economic damage than most of the rest of the developed world. And Brazil, presided over by another malign, Covid-denying buffoon, has got away with much less damage, and less impact on its poor, than its Latin American neighbours, like Peru, Chile and Argentina who took the pandemic seriously.

So, were the Bad Guys right?

Vince outlines a league table of countries in terms of their management of the pandemic, with South Korea and Taiwan coming top with their track-and-trace systems functioning well alongside strong social discipline encouraged by a competent state. China seems to have survived and is growing its economy. Next in line are Germany, Singapore and Japan whose economies have not weathered quite as well as the first three. The UK with its fall in GDP and a high death rate, sits with a group of countries that are way down the list.

And as for the United States:

Trump understood that there is a trade-off: death rates versus economic (and re-election) damage. The Covid deaths of 200,000 Americans (under 0.1 per cent of the population, mostly poor, older people in states unlikely to vote Republican) were – for him – a price worth paying. However much we may deplore the president’s lack of moral compass, he understands these judgements.

He concludes:

I listen with despair as the British prime minister flails around for solutions, constantly changing tack with the choices the country has to face. Equally baffling are opposition spokespeople who act as if policy should be based on the premise that there must never be a single Covid-19 death. That is a recipe for lockdown forever and everywhere. As a “vulnerable” person in my mid-70s I think I would take my chances in Stockholm.

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20 Comments

  • The answer to Vince’s question is no.

    There has just been a Radio 4 Briefing Room programme on Sweden which repays listening.

    But in summary they have done much worse than other Scandavian countries.

    The best strategy is to lockdown early, stay lock downed until zero coronavirus cases and then stamp down hard on any cases that arise and then open up the economy

    We made the mistake of not locking down early enough. 5 days would have saved half the deaths.

    In practice there tends to be quite a lot of similarity despite what the government dies. It’s tough as in the UK to lockdown early enough. And as cases mount the people themselves operate their own lockdown.

    The US as other countries has had quite a lot of “helicopter money” pumped into it.

  • What worries me is that a lot of companies will go bust leaving high unemployment.Fierce competition in jobs could lower wages as the lockdown lasts.The winners will be those able to manipulate the system.If the economy shrinks this will hit public services and the NHS. Without tax rises private enterprise will increase within these services. Health Insurance for example.Cummings,Gove,Johnson et al will welcome destructive construction (destroy to rebuild)of building an economy that suits them. There are signs of this ‘ reconstruction’ of society within the Govnt. Read https://secularhumanism.org/2003/3/fascism anyone/In Free inquiry spring vol 23 no2 by Laurence W Brit

  • The political class, Vince aside, give the impression they have been sniffing a Covid derived drug that has left them empty headed and without an ounce of sense.

    No-one seems to have sussed that the current UK spike has happened as soon as the schools went back and the the low prevalence in younger kids is because there are no symptoms hence no testing. My guess, the kids are spitting, coughing out the virus everywhere they go, starting the cycle again. Kids not having to wear masks in shops etc is another sign of govn incompetence.

  • richard underhill 25th Sep '20 - 9:20am

    Our former Shadow Chancellor is much missed, particularly when Labour’s Shadow Chancellor is admittedly so ineffective. 40 messages all saying the same thing, 20 rebuttals.
    Vince was in the Labour Party before he was in the SDP and would add huge gravitas to any coalition talks we may have with Newer Labour at some stage, particularly as Paddy Ashdown is now unavailable to negotiate with Labour.
    Reporting from the USA about the demography of swing states shows “brown” states increasing their population/s, although some are vulnerable to dirty tricks. Poor public transport makes owning a car a necessity but police checks on driver and vehicle licenses creates fear among “brown” drivers even if they are citizens of the USA. Dispelling this fear would be a gradual process, as would the legalisation of former prisoners who have served their sentences as highlighted by one (black) Congresswoman who fears she is campaigning alone on this issue.

  • richard underhill 25th Sep '20 - 9:50am

    Also much missed is the voice of the USA in world affairs, particularly in favour of democracy, as we are reminded of the hanging chads and the decision of the Republican Party to take their case to the Supreme Court, who asked “Why are you here?”, but decided in favour of the prodigal son who was George W Bush. This affected UK politics as our Prime Minister kow-towed to the White House about an invasion of Iraq, condemned by Charles Kennedy as illegal
    Any government of which we form a part, or support in any way, must adhere to agreements made, as five former PMs and one former leader of the Conservatives have said.
    President Trump has condemned China for wishing to break an internatIonal agreement about Hong Kong.
    There is a lack of US official comments on Belarus, which the Foreign Secretary confirmed implicitly in the Commons yesterday, 24/9/2020.

  • Laurence Cox 25th Sep '20 - 10:10am

    The fundamental problem with people in the UK is that they are ‘bolshie’ and there is an inherent unwillingness to trust the Government. This has certainly been the case all of my lifetime, perhaps it was different during WW2. Sweden managed to get away without lockdowns because over there people tend to trust their government and so they got the social distancing without explicit rules. They still made the same mistake as we did over care homes which is why their death rate was higher.

    You only have to look at the masses crowding the beaches on the South Coast this summer or the students holding houseparties as soon as they got to university to understand that, regardless of intelligence, people place their own enjoyment ahead of the health of the public.

    When the public continue to behave in such self-destructive ways you have to question what was the point of lockdown.

  • I do not work so I cannot claim I have spoken to a large number of people, but what I have seen and heard gives me a picture of a country worried about the virus and worried about the future. They are looking for guidance. Many do not believe they are getting any clear guidance.
    I have been particularly struck by the number of people who have listened to the guidance about old people being at high risk, and the determination of so many to try to help old people in any way they can.

  • jayne Mansfield 25th Sep '20 - 8:33pm

    @ Michael 1,
    It is nice to find agreement with you Michael.

    The answer is, as you say, no.

    I think that those who hold the Swedish model up as an example, have failed to study what has been happening in depth, both in terms of infection rates, deaths and the economy compared even to other Nordic countries , Norway, Finland and Denmark.

  • The lockdowns and social distancing ideas are much weirder than anything Sweden did. At no point in history has anything this destructive on this scale ever been tried before. There is nothing liberal or progressive about any of it. Not in giving ministers control over family lives. Not in destroying jobs. Not in denying people dental and medical care. Not in letting people die alone without visits from relatives. Not in shutting down theatres, venues, clubs and pubs. Not in wrecking the educational experience of young people who borrowed large sums of money to pay for it. And certainly not in using threats to keep people at home. It’s not that the bad guys got it right. It’s that normally rational voices were demanding that we copy the CCPs police state tactics and thus stopped being good guys in any meaningful sense. Trump, by the way said things on twitter , but actually took the US down the same destructive lockdown path as Britain and most of Europe! So you don’t even get the satisfaction of doing things differently to him.

  • Peter Martin 26th Sep '20 - 8:00am

    The government did the right thing to lockdown the economy in March. There’s no doubt about that. There’ll always be a few troglodytes who consider that the control of infections is not a government responsibility. There is no such thing as public health. If we’re sick we should be free to pass on our viruses to whoever we like. The NHS came very close to being overwhelmed but it wasn’t. Preventing that was the rationale for the lockdown.

    We need to keep this mind now. We shouldn’t overreact to the apparent rise in infections. We always knew it was likely. The NHS doesn’t look to be in the same danger. But some reaction is in order. We should be prepared for rapid changes in Govt policy. We simply cannot come up with a six month plan to get us past the worst of the winter.

  • John Marriott 26th Sep '20 - 8:09am

    Michael 1 and Peter Martin are entirely right. As for Glenn…..well, I would adopt Voltaire’s philosophy in his case.

    To paraphrase ‘Margo Channing’ in the 1950 film ‘All About Eve’, fasten your seatbelts, we’re in for a bumpy (6 months)!

  • Peter Martin 26th Sep '20 - 8:11am

    Why is there so much attention given to what the Swedish Covid policy and so little attention to what’s been done in Germany? The Germans have been far more successful.

    If there is a successful vaccine developed in the next year or so then Germany will have had by far the best approach. It’s a bit late now but they are the ones we should have copied.

  • We have spent six months following this society wrecking political fad. It didn’t work. It will not suddenly work after another six months. I think it will end when Johnson is either put under pressure to change course or is ousted from number 10 by his own backbench and the current advisers are replaced. Then the recriminations will begin. The mood is changing. It will change more as the economic impact bites harder and harder over a grim winter.

  • Nonconformistradical 26th Sep '20 - 4:34pm

    Re Peter Martin 26th Sep ’20 – 8:11am

    Fair point – Germany has far lower numbers for cases/million and deaths/million than Sweden

  • James Fowler 26th Sep '20 - 4:36pm

    Well done Vince. I just wish there had been more rational voices back in March. Any policy is a balance of harms – not a phrase not heard often enough over the past six months. Comparisons with other countries are always interesting – and problematic. At heart the only question we really have to answer is what we want to do ourselves. This is something that we have ducked, preferring the impossibilist fantasy of total eradication via social segregation – a position reminiscent of the religious right and their total abstinence ‘cure’ for STDs and teenage pregnancy. Consequently we’re currently being ruled by whimsical knee jerks on an ever shifting set of justifications (a) save the NHS (b) save lives and now (c) control infections – though there’s no clear line at what level. Britain’s ship of fools sails on…

  • James Fowler
    I agree. I forgot to thank you to Vince Cable. He’s a good example of why I’m a liberal and not a socialist or conservative.

  • Well said Sir Vince. It takes someone of his formidable intellect to see through the misinformation about Sweden and realise that they have been largely successful.

    Key points that critics of Sweden overlook are:

    1. It is a middle way – they would disappoint Trump supporting libertarian types as they banned gatherings of 50+, advised to work from
    home and bars etc had to implement social distancing to stay open.

    2. The pandemic mainly affected Stockholm region and care homes. It has affected major urban centres everywhere but not necessarily spread to all areas.

    3. The main reason countries locked down was to stop health services being overwhelmed. Sweden’s health service coped fine and mortality rates were about 1/10th of what would be expected if you applied the Imperial College model.

    4. In the Oresund region the Danish side had a similar mortality rate as the Swedish side so comparisons with Denmark and Norway don’t stand up to scrutiny nor do claims that “density” and “trust” stand up to scrutiny either.

  • Thanks (belatedly) for the agreement from @jayne Mansfield and @john marriott!

    I am a militant liberal & agree with Mills.

    The issue here is that of course by passing on the virus I am doing others harm.

    And it is just a question of maths.

    Coronavirus cases were doubling every 5 days in March. And if you had got to potential herd immunity of 50% – 30m – with a 1% death rate that would have been 300k deaths, probably the same again in deaths as the NHS collapsed and massive economic damage as people coped with those deaths. That was the trajectory we were on.

    Arguably we could have taken less stringent measures as after we came out of lockdown the r rate was kept below 1 for a while.

    Hopefully we can get R back below 1.

    But remember the maths of doubling

    Humans are not good at understanding this.

    See for example

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat_and_chessboard_problem

    At the beginning I highlighted then work by the university of Bristol that indicated that the economic reduction in GDP might cause around 30k deaths. Clearly 600k deaths is far more. And people are not going to go out spending if there is a large death rate.

    On international comparisons:

    1. you have to see when the lockdown was implemented. Sadly we were slow to do so.

    2. compare like with like. Sweden with other Scandavian countries. Sweden has a death rate of 57 per 100,000. Norway 5 per 100,000. Finland 6.

    coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/mortality

    on this basis Sweden cannot be considered a success

    3. The USA has had lockdowns and remember that they are the responsibility of individual states. Some states are very rural where its more difficult for the virus to get a hold

    4. Good public health systems and test and trace systems. Scandavia has good public health. In a BBC World Service documentary, the Evidence, broadcast today, which looked at half a dozen test and trace systems, Dr Margaret Harris of the WHO described ours as “very poor”.

    Perhaps ironically the way to avoid the least economic damage and civil liberties interference is to lock down early and hard and re-open slowly followed by effective clampdown on any outbreaks. You can then run the economy at near full capacity (perhaps minus most international travel) and with few civil liberties restrictions.

  • The lockdown advocates remind me of Marvin the Martian. No level of destruction is too great as they obsessively try to achieve victory. Personally, I suspect we are where we are because too many reputations are at stake to admit they overreacted.
    So, they pile on threats, fines and unworkable social restrictions as they repeat “look at the scary chart, look at the scary chart”
    Well, I say look at the countries that didn’t follow the fad and it’s blindingly obvious that their predictions were and are miles off. They messed up. Some people believe in conspiracies. I see only obstinacy in the face of failure.

  • @Michael1

    There is a major problem with your logic. You say that Sweden cannot be considered a success due to having 57 deaths per 100k.

    However you also say that “ And if you had got to potential herd immunity of 50% – 30m – with a 1% death rate that would have been 300k deaths, probably the same again in deaths as the NHS collapsed and massive economic damage as people coped with those deaths. That was the trajectory we were on.”

    However if you apply the above parameters to Sweden they would have had around 90000 deaths which would be many times the 5880 they have actually had.

    So how do you explain why Sweden have done so much better than your model would have predicted?

    I would suggest the answer is partly that the infection fatality rate is much lower than the 1% you suggest and that the real number of cases at the peak was much higher than realised. In addition there is possibly more existing immunity in the population than realised as well.

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