Lots of journalists are chasing me for a ‘chat’ at the moment. I learned from my time in academia that this is not an efficient use of time, so I thought I’d put up a list of soundbites instead that they can use if they want.
Just to make clear, scepticism about Covid-19 is only scepticism about the horror stories that are supposedly just around the corner. Clearly the Covid-19 virus (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2) is real, it’s nasty, and it kills people, and you don’t want to get it. The question is, is it really a once-in-a-century mass killer, or just another another bad winter virus like influenza? I’m not saying that it definitely, 100% guaranteed, isn’t World War 3, but it looks pretty unlikely that it is, and I want better evidence to justify such an enormously damaging governmental response.
Anyway, here are the soundbites/bullet points.
1. ‘Better safe than sorry’ applies to the economy as much as health. In fact more so, as the economic damage is certain, whereas the health scare is hypothetical, and low-probability.
2. The onus of proof is very much on those who would impose such a drastic and damaging lockdown upon British society. It is not upon those who are not convinced by the necessity for it.
3. We have no way of checking Ferguson’s models for reliability, and the track record of his past predictions and models seems to be poor.
4. The data Ferguson is using to justify his figures (as described in his paper) is extremely flimsy. There is, as yet, no quality data on Covid-19 which entitles us to make any good predictions, let alone recommending one of the most economically-damaging courses any Western government has ever undertaken outside of wartime.
5. Ferguson’s mathematical-computational model is a black box, which, despite promises, he has not released the code for, or at least the details of what it is doing. Why has the government not demanded he make it available for public release, and then let loose a swarm of experts all over it? ‘Open Science’ is becoming standard practice in UK research, why is Ferguson not participating? [HD: Ferguson has now released a completely rewritten version of his model. There is no sign yet that the government has assigned a team of experts to look at it.]
6. Most of those who say Covid-19 is an extreme threat also claim that it is relatively infectious. However, it has been around at least since mid-November in China (and probably earlier). Large numbers of Chinese tourists, and many others who would have caught the virus elsewhere, have been coming into Britain since mid-November (note that Britain still has not closed its borders), and we know that it has been spreading around Britain over winter.Yet it has taken until April before deaths from it were even visible in the ONS stats. This suggests that either it is not as infectious as feared, or it is relatively infectious, but many of the people who have caught it have been asymptomatic, in which case the fatality rate is lower than these people claim.
7. Bear in mind that over 600 000 people die every year in the UK. Italy has similar figures. Over 57 million people die around the world every year. The total number of Covid-19 cases still remains a tiny proportion of these deaths.
8. If the situation is so uniquely horrendous that the British people must remain under house arrest for an indefinite period then why have the borders remained open all this time? Why haven’t we at least shut off travel for visitors from China and Italy?
9. How is that a virus can be a once-in-a-century mass killer, yet be almost totally incapable of killing children? Why is it that the vast majority of the deaths are in vulnerable elderly people, the sort of people who normally die in flu epidemics?
10. Why was Neil Ferguson so supremely confident of the success of the lockdown in saving hundreds of thousands of lives a mere three days into it, when the view he expressed in his paper was that it may well last up to 18 months? On what basis is he so confident so soon?
11. When is the government going to run the models with the latest numbers?
This one’s not exactly a soundbite, but it’s important:
12. Ferguson told the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee that he has revised his estimate of R0, that is, the average transmission rate of Covid-19, up to 3.0, which is relatively high. However, as far as I am aware he has not said anything about how this affects his estimates of the fatality rate. But in this situation, where neither figure is known with any reliability, a revision of one almost certainly requires a revision of the other. A virus with a higher transmission rate would result in a much larger spread amongst the population in the same time as a virus with a lower transmission rate, but that means that we are dividing the deaths by a higher figure, resulting in a lower fatality rate.
Select Committee transcript here.
Feel free to discuss in the comments. Corrections, suggestions for better wording, or other points that could be added (although I don’t want it to get too long), are welcome, as is dissent and disagreement.
P.S. I am ignoring the latest Chinese figures because I agree they are untrustworthy. My views are not in any way dependent on what the Chinese are saying.