Today’s FT leads with Andrew Bailey’s corroboration of the OBR’s forecast that the UK’s GDP will decline by 35% in Q2 compared to the start of the year. “I don’t think there is anything implausible about a second quarter number of that nature,” he said yesterday. But the Governor of the Bank of England was even more pessimistic than the OBR, questioning whether the economy would return to its pre-lockdown output by the end of the year. The BoE is planning to publish its own forecast in early May and is looking at real-time indicators showing big falls in output for many sectors, soaring universal credit claims and higher-than-expected use of the Government’s furlough scheme in the private sector.
Several of the papers have covered Professor Anthony Costello’s claim, when giving evidence to the House of Commons Health Select Committee yesterday, that the COVID-19 death toll could be as high as 40,000 – and that is just in the first wave of infections. In an interview in the Telegraph, he said that if the Government is still pursuing a “herd immunity” strategy (if only!) it won’t be able to achieve that without eight to 10 more waves of infections, which will mean tens of thousands more deaths. He based this, in part, on a recent serological study carried out in the Netherlands which suggested that only 3% of the Dutch people had acquired immunity by the end of the first week of April.
However, that Dutch study shouldn’t be treated as a reliable guide to the level of immunity in the UK. The serological study carried out by Hendrik Streeck, director of Institut für Virologie at Bonn University, is a better guide. He tested a representative sample of 1,000 people in the north-western town of Gangelt, found that 15% of the town had been infected by the virus, with 14% of them testing positive for antibodies. By looking at the number of fatalities in the town, Streek estimated that the infection fatality rate is 0.37%, about ten times lower than the original WHO estimate. You can read a summary of his findings by Ross Clark in the Spectator here.
In addition, a paper was published recently by John P.A. Ioannidis and others that showed the number of people infected in Santa Clara County in California is between 50 and 85 times greater than the number of confirmed cases. The authors recommend that policy makers use this data to calibrate epidemic and mortality predictions, estimating that the infection fatality rate is between 0.12 and 0.2. If we apply that to the number of confirmed cases in the UK – 108,692 as of 9am yesterday – that suggests between 5,434,600 and 9,238,820 people have been infected, or between 8% and 14% of the population. Around 14% is consistent with the findings of the rate of infection on naval ships, as Caswell Bligh, a commentator on this site, pointed out yesterday. Ninety-four per ent of USS Theodore Roosevelt crew-members were tested for COVID-19, with 655 positive and 3,919 negative results, which is 14.3%. According to the BBC, a Dutch navy submarine, MS Dolfijn, has returned to its Den Helder base two weeks early because of a coronavirus outbreak on board. Eight of the 58 crew tested positive, which is 13.7%. A similar percentage of the passengers on the Diamond Princess were infected.
Does this mean we’re still a long way from herd immunity, albeit not as far as Professor Costello thinks? Not necessarily. Caswell Bligh believes that a majority of people have a kind of natural immunity to COVID-19, which would explain why there are so many studies showing a majority of those infected remain asymptomatic. There’s also some evidence that some of those who experience a mild bout of the disease don’t develop antibodies in sufficient quantities for them to test positive on a serological test. One study found that of 175 recovered Covid patients with mild symptoms, 10 were found not to have developed antibodies that could be detected later. Bligh speculates that populations exposed to the virus might end up with two tiers of immunity – about 15% with the strong kind, testing positive for antibodies, and between 50% and 60% with the weak kind, in which they’ve either been asymptomatic or had mild symptoms and then flushed the virus out of their systems. If this hypothesis is true, it would explain why some people who’ve had the virus have been reinfected – they’re the people with the weaker form of immunity. Bligh, a computer scientist, has modelled a population with two tier immunity, using official figures where possible, and the model converges on stable herd immunity when ~15% of the population have full immunity, i.e. test positive for antibodies, and ~50% have the lower form of immunity. (You can read the comment in full here.) One of the attractive things about Bligh’s hypothesis is that it would explain the findings of Israeli scientists Professor Isaac Ben-Israel, who has crunched the data and concluded that the rise and fall of infections is pretty much the same in every country, regardless of whether they’ve imposed lockdowns or how severe those restrictions are, with the epidemic burning itself out after eight weeks.
More grist to the sceptics’ mill was provided yesterday by Professor Johan Giesecke, one of the world’s leading epidemiologists and an advisor to the Swedish Government. He was interviewed by Freddie Sayers, the editor of UnHerd, and among his claims are:
- UK policy on lockdown and other European countries are not evidence-based
- The correct policy is to protect the old and the frail only
- This will eventually lead to herd immunity as a “by-product”
- The initial UK response, before the “180 degree U-turn”, was better
- The Imperial College paper was “not very good” and he has never seen an unpublished paper have so much policy impact
- The paper was very much too pessimistic
- Any such models are a dubious basis for public policy anyway
- The flattening of the curve is due to the most vulnerable dying first as much as the lockdown
- The results will eventually be similar for all countries
- Covid-19 is a “mild disease” and similar to the flu, and it was the novelty of the disease that scared people.
- The actual fatality rate of Covid-19 is the region of 0.1%
- At least 50% of the population of both the UK and Sweden will be shown to have already had the disease when mass antibody testing becomes available
If you’re persuaded by the analysis of Professor Giesecke and others, please sign this petition, started by Robert Kok, a reader of this website, calling for the lockdown to be ended. Once he has enough signatures, it will be published on the UK Government’s petition website. If you’re still not convinced, Richard Smith, an Australian writer and academic living in Paris who teaches law at the Sorbonne, has written a good blog post this morning arguing that Australia should adopt the Swedish approach.
I’ve written a comment piece for the Telegraph today, marvelling at how supine the response of the British people has been to being placed under virtual house arrest. According to popular mythology, the Germans are pinched and hidebound rule-followers, whereas the British are Rabelaisian freedom lovers, but if you look at the public support for the lockdown in the two countries that turns out not to be true. According to an opinion poll published earlier this week, only six per cent of British people think the current restrictions are “too severe”, while 44 per cent think they’re “not severe enough”. By contrast, 44% of Germans are opposed to more severe measures, while 32 per cent think the existing ones should be scaled back. As if to underline how much more spirited the German people are than us, hundreds of Berliners took to the streets earlier this week to protest about their freedoms being taken away.
In the article, I point out how disappointing the reaction of my journalistic colleagues has been to the unprecedented curtailment of our liberties. With a few honourable exceptions, most have become zealous lockdown enthusiasts, only criticising the Government for not having placed the British people under house arrest sooner. With supreme irony, the National Union of Journalists has launched a campaign to persuade the Government to bail out newspapers, all of which have suffered steep falls in revenue since the lockdown was imposed. Among the NUJ’s suggestions is a “windfall tax” on tech giants. I’ve got a better idea, comrades. Why not encourage your members to scrutinise the Government’s management of the coronavirus crisis more carefully and question the policy of locking down the country with no end in sight? Incidentally, if you feel like subsidising Lockdown Sceptics, click here. Constantly updating this site, moderating your comments and writing this daily update is proving very time-consuming!