Sunday 1 November 2020

SAGE keeping back the tide


In March I supported lockdown and I was rather dismissive of lockdown sceptics. I thought Covid was probably the worst pandemic for one hundred years. Shutting everything down for a few weeks seemed a reasonable response. I still think Covid is probably the worst pandemic for one hundred years. The number of people who die after catching it is somewhere between 0.5% and 1%. This is not trivial. 0.5% of the British population is over 300,000 people. But I have changed my mind about lockdown. Locking down the whole population for a few weeks is one thing, locking them down for months and perhaps years is something else.

If you get locked down now how are you going to get released from your prison in a month? If cases continue to rise, this will be taken as evidence that lockdown needs to continue or become even stricter. If cases begin to fall a little, this will be evidence that lockdown is working and that it would be folly to ease restrictions. Just a few more weeks you will be told. It is the mentality of First World War battle tactics. Just one more push and we will be through.

But this is winter. Colds and flu get worse in winter. What got you out of lockdown last March? It was warm weather in May. So, if you get locked down in November you can expect to continue to be locked down until May 2021. You will then get the summer off only to potentially have the same problem a year from now.

How long will Covid last? Unless there is a vaccine or a treatment that cuts the death rate to next to nothing, then history tells us Covid will last for a number of years.

For instance, Russian flu, which may in fact have been a Coronavirus, lasted from October 1889 to December 1890 with recurrences until 1895. What stopped it was neither lockdowns nor handwashing. It eventually was caught by enough people that it mutated into something milder and became either ordinary flu or the common cold.

Throughout human history this has been our method of stopping pandemics. It was what we did in 1918, 1957 and 1968. We accepted that there was a new nasty disease, but there was no cure and there wasn’t in the end that much we could do to stop it infecting us. We got on with our lives and a small percentage of us died.

We have made progress in the decades since. Much of the economy can be carried out online. It is this that has enabled the Government to contemplate a policy of locking people down.

Medicine has become ever more powerful and the cult of the NHS has become Britain’s substitute for Christian acceptance of the inevitability of death with a sure and certain hope that death is not terminal. We expect medicine to be able to cure everything and medics are used to be treated like little gods telling us what to do. Medicine has become authoritarian. We cannot smoke in pubs. We drink too much. We must lower the sugar in fizzy drinks. Our sins must become ever more expensive.

And for what? If we do all that we are told we end up in a care home aged ninety and those same medics infect us with Covid by sending home from hospital Covid sufferers in order to protect the NHS.

The SAGE committee is the equivalent of King Canute trying to stop the tide coming in. It is mere hubris and arrogance to suppose that we can control nature. If they had read more literature rather than fiddling with their ever more inaccurate computer models, they would realise what follows after hubris. You get nemesis. Or rather the British population gets it.

I am quite certain that Covid is an unpleasant and sometimes deadly disease. To suppose otherwise is to succumb to conspiracy theories that are quite mad. But I am also quite certain that locking down the British people for months if not years will kill far more than it saves and will merely delay the point at which Covid ceases to kill because it will only delay the spread of the disease in the British population.

For each of us even for the oldest members of society the chances of dying from Covid are small in comparison with other causes of death.  For young people and children, the chances of dying approach zero.  

There are lots of things that can kill us. We can get cancer, we can get heart disease, we can have a road accident, or we can fall over in the bath. People poorly understand risk. We are scared of things that are unlikely to kill us such as plane crashes and terrorist attacks, but don’t worry at all about being overweight. Covid is in the news like a plane crash, so we all worry about it, but you are much more likely to die of a heart attack than a respiratory disease.

The odds of someone who is ninety dying if he catches Covid are high, but the odds of this same person dying from a heart attack or cancer are even higher. Someone who is ninety accepts that his risk of dying from any cause are high in any particular year. What matters to that person most is quality of life, not necessarily more years?

The folly of lockdown is this. It will wreck the British economy which will mean that all of us will have to work longer and retire later. Public spending eventually will have to be cut the Treasury will have to raise more money in taxes. Each of us will be able to afford fewer holidays and more of us will be unemployed and poor.

Lockdown will mean that a few less people will die from Covid, but more will die from something else. They will die because they didn’t go to the doctor, didn’t have their check-up or found that their treatment for heart disease or cancer was cancelled. People will die because they drank more in lockdown, didn’t exercise, got depression or simply gave up because they were stuck in a care home with no one to visit them.

We are only concerned at the moment with one type of death. Death from Covid. The number of deaths is rising, but many if not most of the people dying from Covid would soon die of something else. An elderly person with cancer and a poor heart may be killed by Covid, but keeping that person locked up is no more saving their life than it is saving someone waiting to be hanged.

What should we have done? We should have done what we have always done before. We should have kept working in March. We should have reflected that Covid can only be brought into our house from outside. So, every time you go outside wash your hands excessively. We should have done everything we could to prevent Covid reaching our old people, while treating them like human beings who have the right to company and a normal pleasant life.

Covid deaths would have increased if we had done this, but other lives would have been saved. In the long run lockdown will kill more than it saves, because the economic damage from lockdown will in the decades to come mean that we can spend less on healthcare and because recession costs lives. It does so invisibly, but inevitably and no one will notice.

Lockdown will not work, because most people correctly have concluded that they are at minimal risk from dying. The chances of anyone under sixty-five dying from Covid are less than the chances each of us face from dying from a heart attack or cancer. It is for this reason that ordinary people are voting with their feet. They are quietly meeting their friends and their lovers, buying booze in supermarkets and having parties in each other’s houses. Short of imposing a curfew and having the army patrolling the streets there is not one thing Governments can do to stop this. For this reason, Covid will continue to spread in our large cities. Having sex and meeting friends is a human instinct. Trying to stop it is once again like Canute and his tide.

History will judge the SAGE committee poorly. They will not be thought of as very sage, not so much because their ability to predict resembles a loser on the racetrack, but because they think they control things that they cannot. Canute was making a point about his lack of power to turn back the tide. Our scientists think they really can. They think they can stop death itself.