Passing the buck on Coronavirus

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Opposition parties are right to challenge government mismanagement of the coronavirus epidemic. Competence is crucial to saving lives, maintaining wider public health, and not unnecessarily constraining personal liberty. So far, the UK government has got it spectacularly wrong on all these counts.

The twin major government failures in managing the pandemic have been

  1. Insufficient PPE in March. As a result, many thousands of people died. Care homes have since achieved zero infection with full PPE.
  2. Insufficient tests in September. As a result, thousands of uninfected people are now subject to 14 days avoidable quarantine, losing their liberty and their work.

Germany shows how to do it far better, limiting mortality to 115 deaths per million population compared to the UK rate of 627. People arriving in Germany from UK and EU take a test and are not quarantined if negative. All very sensible and effective.

Not only government ministers, but also their medical and scientific advisors, share responsibility for this UK failure. Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty gave a presentation (text here), on the current level of threat. But this fell short of being the ‘best science’ by lack of any peer review, scrutiny, or questions.

Vallance claimed that the increase in infection is not due to greater testing, but to increased positive test outcomes (quote ‘Could that increase be due to increased testing? The answer is no.’). He’s wrong. The current huge increase in infections must be partly due to increased testing. Vallance should have attributed increased infections between these two causes.

Having long dismissed international Covid comparisons because they show the UK in a very bad light, Vallance then presented current infection data from France and Spain, whilst ignoring the German outcome which requires their scientific explanation. This matters, because it determines best policy recommendations.

They claimed that the virus has not changed its impact. But the French data shows differently. The 7-day moving average shows a peak daily infection rate of 4,537 on 1 April, followed by peak mortality of 975 on 8 April. The second wave has recorded a peak of 13,448 new infections on 8 October, with a peak mortality of 71, also on 8 October. The mortality/infection rate was therefore 21.5% in April, but is 0.5% in October, or 0.6% if lagged by 7 days. There is a huge difference in impact between the two waves, which again needs scientific explanation. Maybe a huge increase in testing has multiplied the infection data; a claim Vallance earlier denied. Current infections are largely amongst younger people with mild symptoms, one report saying that 75% of new infections were totally un-symptomatic. This all matters for nuanced policy implementation. Much is at stake.

For policy, Whitty only offered population constraint. The buck was firmly shifted onto the population, away from government. Citizens returning from overseas, university students, people in contact with positive cases, are all subject to 14 days’ quarantine rather than being tested. The majority of them are uninfected, but subject to house arrest, Again, Germany does it better with tests.

Both scientists and government ministers share responsibility for this failure. Both should be held to account.

* Geoff Crocker is a professional economist writing on technology at and on basic income at His recent book ‘Basic Income and Sovereign Money – the alternative to economic crisis and austerity policy’ was recommended by Martin Wolf in the FT 2020 summer reading list.

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  • Geoff Crocker is right of course. The problem is of course that there is a difference between what scientists say and what is science. Science requires evidence and the testing of theories. The politicisation of science is very worrying.

  • Peter Martin 10th Oct '20 - 10:21am

    “Insufficient tests in September.” ??

    The UK had just about twice as many tests as France and also significantly more than Germany. The problem has been in the quality of the system. There’s no point having a test if the results aren’t issued promptly or aren’t reliable. Or if the data from the tests isn’t acted upon in a sensible way. Or is simply just lost!

    It would help if there was some appreciation of the limitations of 20 year old spreadsheets!

    The Govt has made various promises that they were going to do a certain number of tests and that’s been all that has mattered. The follow up to make proper use of the results of those tests has just not been there. It’s been one cock-up after another!

    The best that can be said of the Govts bumbling approach is that if there isn’t a vaccine available next year then at least us Brits will have developed more herd immunity than the Germans.

  • There are over sixty million people living in the UK. The notion of contact tracing, enforced compliance and control is quite ludicrous. The lockdowns and measures do now, did not work over the previous wasted months not work and never will work, no matter how much doubling down is involved. They are based on the fundamental fallacy that sentient beings with emotions and complex social lives behave like computer models and that governments can control the microscopic world by issuing decrees, when they can’t even control their own party members . Japan has set a far better model than Germany because its government , being far cleverer than their panic stricken western counter parts, understood very early on that the whole enterprise was a was a pointless political fad inspired by copying the deeply untrustworthy police state of communist China. The sooner we stop indulging the society wrecking pretence, the better.

  • Tom Harney is probably right about the politicisation of science. Vallance and Whitty seem to prioritise supporting the government line. To admit that increased testing contributes to the increased data about infections would be to water down the message that people need to take it seriously and curb their behaviour; likewise to admit that current increased infections are mainly among younger people who do not suffer seriously from it. The problem lies fundamentally with government not willing early enough to have the scientific information put in the public domain, nor to publish a strategy for dealing with both the current situation and the flexibility needed for any future change in the evidence.

  • David Evershed 10th Oct '20 - 11:54am

    Geoff Crocker to note.

    Tests in April were far fewer and mostly of people in hospital with coronavirus symptoms. Tests now are mostly of people who self select and make their own way to a testing station. That’s why there was a higher proportion or people testing positive in April.

    Note that current level of daily hospital admissions with coronavirus are about the same as they were in March, just before lockdown, and increasing. NHS treatment has improved since March so a lower proportion of hospitalised people are now dying, but this might result in hospitals becoming more full in the second wave than in the first wave.

  • Whatever the weaknesses of tackling this pandemic, it requires a high level of trust and cooperation between government and the public. This in turn requires better communication that we have received so far. Hand washing, social distancing, self isolation and complying with regulations all depend upon a common view of the what is best and that we are all on the same side.

  • I think testing and contact tracing is too difficult for Covid and the systems are not designed with this type of epidemic in mind. They are probably designed more for SARS or Ebola which are much more lethal than Covid -19 but harder to actually pass on, thereby making testing tracing and isolating more feasible.

  • I think testing should be for people who come into contact with people who are particularly vulnerable e.g care workers.

    Japan is an interesting case, the possibility that there is pre existing immunity due to something similar having spread there in the past is certainly a possible explanation.

  • Marco
    Something like 86% of people who tested positive in the UK are asymptomatic and most of the rest have only mild symptoms. This suggest that most people’s immune systems are perfectly capable of dealing with the virus. In fact the medical advice is basically if you get it stay at home because you will get over it. Japan simply reacted more sanely. We are not carrying on with these ridiculous and destructive impositions to save lives. I suspect, we are doing it because, as with the disastrous interventions in the Middle East, it has become a bad habit of governments that can’t be seen to back down or admit to being wrong. I also suspect, that until we challenge this, the pointless destruction will carry on until Johnson and Hancock have some sort of vaccine they can spin as a victory.
    The only different thing about densely populated aging Japan is that their leaders are not as vainglorious or as stupid as ours and they have a healthy scepticism in regards to China. It is just not anywhere close to being the “big one” the press have been gloating towards since I was a tot and it is time to admit it.

  • Glenn

    There is a difference between pre-existing immunity and “most peoples immune systems being able to cope”. There are people who are not immune and who are vulnerable to the virus hence why Covid-19 is a significant public health challenge.

    It is possible that there is more pre-existing immunity than realised in the UK and elsewhere which if correct would mean herd immunity would be reached sooner than expected.

    In the meantime however I support focused protection for those most vulnerable to Covid.

  • Marco
    We’re not focused on protecting the most vulnerable. We’re acting like this is the Black Death and shutting society down as if it is an equal threat to everyone. It simply is not.
    As I said, I think the only real differences between us and Japan are leadership and the way deaths are recorded. They’re just not panicking and have better leadership.

  • Glenn

    I am advocating moving to a system where the focus is on protecting the vulnerable with relative normality for those least at risk (I.e the principles of the Great Barrington declaration). You may have noticed on previous discussions I don’t support lockdowns for everyone.

    However we should be wary of drawing too many conclusions from counties where infections have been very low as COVID might just not have spread there yet but could do at some point (Norway and New Zealand are other possible places where they haven’t yet had their first wave.

  • The WHO said in early March that the most important things to do were Test, Test and Test. Here we are 7 moths later and we still aren’t getting that right.

  • Nonconformistradical 11th Oct '20 - 5:01pm

    “Norway and New Zealand are other possible places where they haven’t yet had their first wave.”
    On what data do you base this?

  • Innocent Bystander 11th Oct '20 - 6:21pm

    What is going on?
    Utter nonsense is now the new lingua franca. Cases were supposed to rise after lockdown.
    Lockdown was never sold as somehow destroying all copies of the virus out there.
    The mission was “flatten the curve”. Remember? It wasn’t to stop everyone getting the virus. Just to stop them getting it all at once and overwhelming the intensive care bed capacity.
    ” Save the NHS! Flatten the peak!” – that was the justification for the lockdown. No other. Absolutely not to eradicate the virus. So the virus is still here. What did we expect? Where did we think it would go while we were under that ridiculous house arrest?
    Back to China?
    What could be the justification for more lockdowns? Protecting the NHS from running out of beds? We are miles and miles away from that.
    So will lockdown for a week stop infections?
    Course not – they’ll just get infected next week. The virus will patiently wait for them to come out again.
    The whole strategy has been just barking mad from the start and this situation has no conceivable end.
    What would count as “the end” anyway?
    We are been driven into chaos by an utterly leaderless and uncontrolled committee of reckless boffins.

  • NCFR

    The data it is based on is the apparently very low
    mortality rates and confirmed cases in those countries.

    It is also based on a policy analysis which is that in New Zealand they closed their borders to try to keep the virus out. This approach is highly isolationist and does not acknowledge the need for the international community to respond collectively but is also unsustainable due to the economic and social impact. When they open up to international travel they could then have their first wave.

    In Norway I note that neighbouring Sweden had the lightest restrictions in Western Europe however many of the regions of Sweden that border Norway had similarly low mortality rates which might suggest that Covid did not take hold in rural and Northern Scandinavia but could do at some point.

  • Marco
    I based my argument on a densely populated island with aging population where if the virus was as deadly as suggested you would expect it to have a devastating impact.
    The point to me is that lockdowns are a wild untried experiment based on alarmist modelling and instead of giving up on them as the destructive failure they so obviously are , we keep trying to find reasons why countries that didn’t follow the CCP inspired fad are exceptional. We’re the ones that did the weird crazed thing, not Japan or other countries that avoided lockdowns. The point being that if you did not know about tides and relied on modelling then you might conclude that when they ebbed the sea was disappearing. Our representatives simply got it completely wrong and overreacted based on flawed models.

  • Turns out Japan had a travel ban as well

    So that explains that

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Oct '20 - 8:29am

    Marco – ref. 11th Oct ’20 – 7:38pm

    I do not see how you claim New Zealand, Norway have not had a first wave. If you look at daily death counts for the 2 countries they peaked in April (albeit at much lower levels than many other countries) and have trickled along at 1-3 since. In terms of new cases Norway looks to be in a 2nd wave, New Zealand is less clear. But both countries have low populations – a bit over 5 million – so maybe not easily comparable to countries with mich higher populations and/or population densities. –

    “In Norway I note that neighbouring Sweden had the lightest restrictions in Western Europe however many of the regions of Sweden that border Norway had similarly low mortality rates which might suggest that Covid did not take hold in rural and Northern Scandinavia but could do at some point.”

    But might not take hold to any great extent. – less contact between people in rural areas. Not sure this is particularly different from UK or France.

  • NCFR

    I would argue that rather than a second wave it is an extension of the first wave. Arguably lockdowns only push cases into the future so the earlier and harder the lockdown the more the uptick later on down the line.

    In terms of rural areas, there are still close contact settings in villages and small towns eg shops cafes and public transport and an older population with more care homes etc so I would have thought the virus would have some potential to spread in these areas.


    The virus is real and poses a threat to the most clinically vulnerable people in society. The government in recent weeks do not seem to have updated their guidance for shielding groups which is very strange given the large number of statements about rising cases.

  • Marco
    I never said the virus isn’t real, but it is plainly a long way from being as deadly as the models suggested. Thousands of vulnerable people were not removed from hospitals to care homes for their protection. It was plainly done to deprioritise their care because it was thought hospitals would be overwhelmed by an influx of otherwise healthy patients needing extra bed space. The same with Nightingale hospitals. They were not built just in case. They got the models wrong and we need to stop being so compliant.
    Interestingly, Amnesty International are looking at the care home scandal, the scaling back of treatment and what appears to be the overuse of DNAR. The only explanation for this that isn’t a bizarre conspiracy is that our government looked at the models overestimated the threat and increased hospital capacity in an atmosphere of high panic.
    Anyway, I’m not going to argue with you . But, I suspect we’re going to be stuck with this for months if not years or until parliament grows a spine or the Tories decide enough is enough and remove Johnson. It is not going to end well.

  • My point really isn’t about the care(Amnesty International, however, do think there is a bigger issue than PPE) it’s about the obvious panic involved in clearing hospital space and turning the NHS into the National Covid Service. The last few months have been a real eye opener for me about the misuse of power, the weakness parliament, and the willingness of people to be bossed about by Big Daddy state. I just wish I was brave enough leave, because I don’t like the country anymore and I don’t really respect the people, either.

  • Geoff Crocker- is it really plausible that the care home setting would not have an impact on the spread, surely they are exactly the kind of close contact settings where Covid would spread with many different vulnerable people close together and care workers going from one home to another.

    Glenn – It is possible to change minds and convince people the thing is to be patient and keep challenging peoples assumptions and don’t be pigeonholed into taking a view at one end of the spectrum so they can’t say “these people just want to let Covid rip” and similar nonsense.

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  • Charles Smith 13th Oct '20 - 11:28am

    British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will on Monday impose a tiered system of further restrictions on parts of England as the COVID-19 outbreak accelerates, though anger is rising at the cost of the stringent curtailment of freedoms.

    Johnson will hold a meeting of the government’s emergency COBRA committee and then address Parliament, offering lawmakers a vote later in the week on the measures. He will then hold a news conference alongside England’s chief medical officer and his finance minister.

    Johnson’s three-tiered local lockdowns will include shutting bars, gyms, casinos and bookmakers in some areas placed into the “very high” alert level, probably across the north of England, British media reported.

  • James Fowler 16th Oct '20 - 10:32pm

    It’s good to see that challenges are, at last, being made to some of the hysterical claims about the dangers posed by the virus. In the meantime I continue to wonder, what is this extraordinary and horrible episode really all about?

  • James Fowler 17th Oct '20 - 9:49am

    All good questions. I think the variance in mortality rates is probably due to the accuracy of data collection. There’s a paper suggesting that infection rates were perhaps as much as 30-50x under reported back in the spring. This seems plausible to me.

    More generally, data has been abysmally skewed and badly contextualised throughout. Recall that as many as 500,000 deaths were predicted in March, and that just a month ago 50,000 new infections per day were threatened for this point in mid-October. What was the actual total of infections yesterday? 15,650.

    But I have the feeling that for the people who are driving lockdown, the numbers are not actually that important. Their basic moral position is even one death is too many, and that this should be prevented at any cost. Therefore, the selective use of wildly exaggerated information and the presentation of the worst case scenario as the most likely, even to the point of mendacity, is justified by a greater good. The end is the eradication of the virus. The way is by enforcing forms of confinement. If that means terrorising the population dishonestly, so be it. At the heart of this policy is an emperor with no clothes. In the end, like BSE and Y2K, it will eventually discredit those people propagating it.

  • Peter Martin 27th Oct '20 - 4:53am

    @ Geoff,

    The newer thread won’t accept comments any longer.

    “Peter Martin is apparently also an expert on how teams are constructed at Oxford University….”

    Not really. But I can look up facts on the net. Such as that Prof Gupta is based at Oxford Uni’s Dept of Zoology. The head of the vaccine team is Prof Adrian Hill. Professor Hill is Director of the Jenner Institute, which focuses on designing and developing vaccines.

    So different skills. Different depts.


    Before you go too deeply into any explanation of immunity thresholds, maybe you’d like to count the number of ‘ifs’ ‘woulds’ ‘coulds’ and ‘assumes’ you’ve used. Sure, if you set up the initial parameters to be what you’d like them to be you can get any answer you’d like that to be, too.

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