Criminal Stupidity?

Figure 1: Is this the way to judge the threat? No it isn’t.

I do apologise. This is wildly off-topic. And I know you’ve all had enough of Covid-19. I did manage to resist the lure of Covid stats for seven months, though, so cut me some slack.

First some basics.

How many people in the UK have died of Covid-19?

No one knows. We only know how many people have died within a month of having a positive test for Covid.

How many people in the UK have been infected by Covid-19?

No one knows. We only know how many people have been tested positive at some time based on limited testing.

What is the mortality rate for Covid-19?

No one knows – for the above reasons. Mortality rate is the ratio of deaths caused by a disease to the number who have had the disease. We do not know either the numerator or the denominator.

All four nations of the UK have recently announced renewed semi-lockdown measures. The reasoning – in as far as there is any – appears to be the graph that heads this post, together with the associated narrative that “the epidemic is doubling roughly every seven days” (chief scientific adviser Patrick Valance).

Well, that graph does look bad, doesn’t it? It plots the number of new “cases” (i.e., positive test results) per day against the date – from here.

But from here the number of tests being carried out per day over the same period is,

Figure 2

So, given Figure 2, does Figure 1 mean anything? No it doesn’t. I don’t know what sort of scientists the Government have advising them but I suspect Dominic Cummings’ team of wacky physicists have been kept away from it. Pity, because anyone numerate would immediately want to see the infection rate as a percentage of the daily number of tests. It’s this,

Figure 3

Ah, that’s not looking quite the same, is it?

Still, I suppose one could argue that it’s the total number of people getting ill and possibly dying that matters, not mere percentages, and that is surely related to Figure 1 not Figure 3 – eh?

Ok, let’s look at the daily deaths stats then (bearing in mind, of course, that this is the number of people dying with – not necessdarily of – Covid-19),

Figure 4

Ah…hmmm….that looks rather more like Figure 3 than Figure 1, doesn’t it?

But, wait a minute, deaths aren’t the only measure. What about measures of illness not necessarily resulting in death? OK, here are the stats on the number of people in hospital for Covid-19,

Figure 5

Ah, so that too looks far, far more like Figure 3 than Figure 1.

OK, so I’m oversimplifying this (though apparently it’s still too complicated for Government or their “scientific” advisors). There is an upturn during September in Figures 3, 4 and 5, albeit at present still tiny compared to the stats in April. But what does this portend?

Again I contend that no one actually knows. But the issue is whether the tiny upturn in Figures 3, 4 and 5 is a valid motivation for the measures being forced upon us. I’ll resist the temptation to delve further into issues of Parliamentary due process or whether there are more sinister motives behind this “protection racket”.

One final bit of information you may wish to be aware of is the extent to which deaths with Covid-19 are associated with also having a pre-existing medical condition. Public Health England stats give us this, for data to 9th September 2020,

Age RangePre-Existing ConditionNo Pre-Existing Condition
0 – 19 yrs164
20 – 3918135
40 – 592,037268
60 – 7910,692575
Table 1

Some caution is required when interpreting that Table because not all forms of “pre-existing condition” would be likely to contribute to death. Nevertheless, it is salutary that the number of deaths of people of pre-retirement age without any pre-existing condition is so small, a few hundred. (The total number of deaths in the UK per year is roughly 600,000).

It does not help when the likes of Richard Dawkins throw around expressions like “right-wing idiots” of anyone who challenges the wisdom of Government policy. Not only do the above stats raise obvious questions, but Government policy now appears devoid of any rationale. In the early stages, “flaten the peak, protect the NHS” was a coherent argument (whether you agreed with it or not). But it is baffling what the Government is trying to achieve now.

The constant imposition of semi-lockdowns only ensures that infection rates are likely to increase as soon as such conditions are relaxed, because Government actions have prevented the development of herd immunity – the natural process by which epidemics are terminated.

I am not an epidemiologist and I claim no authority in such matters. But I remain mystified that a policy has been pursued which frustrates the development of the process which usually confers protection. Which brings me back to Figure 1 which heads this post. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Permitting infections to proceed is the only way natural herd immunity can arise.

I have made no attempt to address the harmful effects of lockdown actions. But neither has the Government, it seems. I discussed this in my April post, The Morality of Lockdown.

Quite possibly I have missed something, speaking as I am outside my sphere of competence. But I think the accusation of naivety can more rightly be levelled against the Dawkins types than against those they label “idiots”.

Come to your own conclusion, you probably have already.

21 thoughts on “Criminal Stupidity?

  1. AJ

    The strategy for Covid19 appears to be to try to suppress infections until a vacine is available. If an effective vacine never becomes available this will have been a terrible waste, simply delaying the inevitable at a terrific cost.

    There is no discussion at all of the overall strategy, the risks associated with i, alternatives or any contigency or fallback plan.

    Early on the strategy of reducing social contacts to supress transmisison made sense because it reduced the rate of serious illness to a level that could be handled by the health service and gave time during which therapy and an understanding of susceptibilities and vulnerabilities was developed. In any case I believe not controlling the initial exponential growth in infections and deaths would have led to panic with a similar perhaps worse effect.

    Since then policy and communication of the policy have been incoherent, almost aimless and have an air of tokenism and hypocrisy. Did anyone think closing pubs at 10.00 pm would have any significant positive effect for example? As measures become divorced from any obvious relevance and when there is special treatment to favoured people compliance and effectiveness naturally dropped.

    There is no discussion of alternative policies such as letting or even encouraging groups without vulnerabilities become infected. There is over centralisation, gross incompetence, and a resistance to outside or pragmatic solutions as opposed to naive, utopian, home grown solutions as evidenced by the track and trace fiasco.

    We have ended up in a bad place with many of the costs of seeking to control infections without any benefits, with a long way to go and no apparent strategy or apprasial of alternatives and effectiveness to decide when and if direction is changed.

    If no vacine becomes available or if a vacine is developed but has relatively low efficacy, or if immunity is lost after a short time period this is all going to look rather short sighted and wasteful. We don’t know what will happen but the risks and benefits of different strategies should have been discussed instead of which we seem to have fallen into a policy by default and without any analysis of why or when we migh change strategy.

  2. Les Hodgett

    If you will allow me to say so – very good!
    I would like to see published, more general graphs: for instance showing virus deaths on the same graph as cancer, heart, dementia, flu, pneumonia etc. Then I would like to see a graph showing total deaths by country and worldwide with the virus deaths shown.
    Of course a major problem is that the virus deaths – even though they cannot even be relied on – would not show on such graphs – almost insignificant. I would also like to see a comparison with other illnesses which usually kill weakened folk – in other words have the incidence of other causes of death declined at the time as virus deaths because the virus got them instead?

  3. Christopher Lampdown

    Thank you WC for this splendid concise and pithy counterblast to the never-ending alarmist mainstream propaganda.
    At the risk of extending your compact critique with additional arguments, it is perhaps worth reminding those who read your blog that the limited & haphazard testing used to generate the official figure of “cases” is meaningless because the available tests are all but meaningless.
    An antibody test with a very high specificity for SARS-CoV-2 (>99.5%) is an indicator of recent infection only. However, such a test does not reveal whether the test subject exhibited any clinical symptom of Covid19 and such a test cannot indicate whether the test subject was likely to have communicated the disease to any one else. Moreover, a significant cohort of persons infected with SARS-CoV-2 never develop detectable concentrations of antibody, so the absence of antibodies in any test subject proves nothing. Furthermore, in the event that antibodies for SARS-CoV-2 are initially detectable, it seems likely that, after 6 – 8 weeks, their concentration drops below detectable concentrations.
    There exists another test that is yet more problematic than antibody testing by several orders of magnitude, but nonetheless widely used! I refer to the PCR test. Of course, most readers will be aware that the PCR test is not a diagnostic test and hence it ought not to be used for diagnostic purposes. There is no other communicable disease in the history of medicine for which PCR testing has ever been authorised as a diagnostic tool. The chap who won the Nobel prize for inventing the Polymerase Chain Reaction specifically stated that it was never to be used for diagnostic purposes. Because the PCR test amplifies even tiny traces of genetic material, sufficient iteration is likely to cause the test subject to test positive simply on account of amplifying homologous fragments from other viruses of the Coronavirus family. I hardly need to add that the PCR test also fails to satisfy any of the Koch Postulates.
    In conclusion, the specific tests that are being used for mass testing of the population are meaningless because these tests do not give us useful information.

    1. William Collins Post author

      Another thing I didn’t mention is false positives. I have seen a wide range of specificities quoted, from 95% to 99.9%. If your figure of 99.5% is right then about 1,500 of the current 7,000 “cases” per day are false positives. The increase in hospital admissions suggests some proportion of the “cases” are real, not all false positives. But it is inevitable that it will look like the absolute number of daily cases will continue to climb so long as the number of daily tests continues to increase, because the lower bound of the former will be a fixed proportion of the latter. I do hope the Gov’s “scientific” advisors are not so dim as to fail to apprecaite that.

      1. Christopher Lampdown

        Regarding antibody testing for SARS-CoV-2, I too have heard a range of specificities quoted for different immunoassays. In my assumption that a specificity of 99.5% is widely achievable, I concede that I am giving considerable benefit of the doubt to serology services. It is reasonable to assume that immunoassays with high specificity are selling out faster than manufacturers can produce them, meaning that many serology labs will only be able to source immunoassays of lower specificity.

        Regarding PCR testing for SARS-CoV-2, this is such a transparently flawed & broken technique in the context of diagnostic services that it is safe to assume that nearly all the positive results generated by this method are false positives.

        However one looks at this, it seems likely that false positives must be making a significant contribution to the gargantuan gap between positive test results for SARS-CoV-2 and hospital admissions/ deaths from Covid19.

  4. Nick Langford

    A further caveat on the “pre-existing health conditions” figure is that these were diagnosed conditions. There may have been deaths among those with undiagnosed conditions. Do these conditions, for example, include obesity? Not long before the pandemic, I lost over 4 stone; I was technically obese, though that was never diagnosed medically. I have to say, I am very glad I was not still obese when I got the virus.

    Outside the figures for deaths and hospitalisation, there is a large but unknown number of people with so-called Long Covid. This describes the very long-term after-effects of the illness. Speaking personally, although I had the virus at the end of March and have been back at work for months, I am still not 100% and experience fatigue and irregularities in breathing. My wife is much worse, with periods of severe fatigue, breathlessness and irregular heart rythms. She is fortunate in that she works from home; she wouldn’t be able to work in an office.

    My point is that this is just another level of the pandemic for which there is no official record or statistic. The known unknowns are many more than the known knowns; never mind the unknown unknowns.

    1. William Collins Post author

      Yes, I’m aware of the ME-like effects which seem to be common. I meant to mention it. This may be the real threat of the virus, rather than deaths.

      1. Christopher Lampdown

        The so-called “long Covid” or ME-like symptoms are actually relatively common sequelae arising from both communicable and non-communicable disease. Typically, the media has zero interest in talking about convalescence after a period of ill-health, so we tend not to hear about the pervasiveness of fatigue from mainstream sources. Of course, Covid19 is an exception to typical media behaviour, since the mainstream media apparently wish to talk about nothing else except the “terrifying pandemic” known as Covid19.

      2. Nick Langford

        I think it will prove to be – and it is particularly difficult for those who already have ME! “Long Covid” may be why the Prime Minister is struggling – most people would have taken months off to recover from a near-death experience like that. With the lack of data there is also a lack of understanding, and an assumption that if you didn’t die, you must be ok, which is often far from the case.

        1. William Collins Post author

          Yes, the thought had crossed my mind re Boris. He’ll get no sympathy, of course. The loneliness of command, and all that.

  5. Michael McVeigh

    Yes, they would have been better following what Sweden did – sensible but without the force of law. Summer would have been a better time to allow some herd immunity building whilst there were relatively high natural doses of vitamin D (the bodies main defence against respiratory illnesses).

    Toby Young has a great blog issued every day –

  6. Michael Darby

    Herd immunity presumably means simply the survival of the fittest. How many will survive? Nobody knows. The number of deaths due to influenza each year, despite the widespread use of vaccines, might give a clue. I seem to remember seeing a figure which is somewhat greater than that which we are currently seeing for Covid-19.

    1. Robert Flett

      Herd immunity is a process leading to a point in the ongoing transmission of an antibody-generating disease where sufficient numbers of people have immunity to stop the ongoing spread of the disease. It’s got nothing to do with any notion of “survival of the fittest”.

      1. Michael Darby

        Looks like the same thing to me. Simply put, those with the antibodies survive to be fit and healthy, those without don’t, and so we end up with a smaller but more disease-resistant ‘herd’.
        Even so, the point I was making is that annual deaths from influenza, despite the use of vaccines, appear to be somewhat greater than those from the coronavirus.

  7. Groan

    Put simply governments are pursuing two policy objectives . A. Containing demand on health services. B. Supporting the belief that one can be totally “safe”.

  8. Groan

    Speaking as someone having worked in the system and with public health I think the key graph is figure 5. The first lock down was quite explicit and honest in its strapline. The whole point is to “protect the NHS”. Most clearly in the public realm is that one obvious casualty of this policy objective was older people in care homes, discharged too quickly. Once again the major policy concern in the “system” is to contain pressures on the Hospitals and community services. Though it is no longer so honestly stated the key policy objective is to “protect the NHS” . A lesson that will not be learned, because the NHS is so sacrosanct , is that it performs poorly on clinical outcomes generally and is notoriously poor at responding to demand. There are other “socialised” health systems that perform far better on both. Germany being the largest of the high performers. Anyone with an elderly relative or sick spouse will know that GPs, who normally only see people by appointment and in environments they control, hid en masse. Certainly in this country the policy response is driven by the evaluation of the NHS and the figures on deaths. On the latter I have sympathy with elected governments because we now live in societies absolutely convinced we don’t die. Lock down allowed me time to research my family tree. Two things struck me a. About a third of the many children were dead before they got to 10 and only 20% of those surviving into adulthood reached 65. I was born in 1959 and this pattern becomes totally different in my generation.
    So though, somewhat brutally, even some of the higher estimates of deaths would barely cause a ripple in a growing population of 66 millions, therecis a psychological shock in realising we are not as in control of death as we collectively imagine we are. Encapsulated in all the debates about “excess deaths” as if there is some normal number.

  9. DM

    Brilliant! This is the key to using data to back up arguments,make it as simple as possible. I work with data/graphs etc every day and have done a bit of statistical analysis etc I do find some of the posts challenging to say the least. But this one I got it instantly and didn’t feel like I was still at school scared to put my hand up in maths lesson because I didn’t understand! Brilliant work WC keep it up. With data we can do anything


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