No prizes for guessing what story dominated this morning’s papers: Professor Pantsdown. A couple of weeks ago I dubbed Neil Ferguson “Dr Strangelove”, trying to capture the mesmeric effect he seems to have had on successive British Prime Ministers. But it turns out the “Strange Love Doctor” would have been more appropriate. According to the Telegraph‘s spellbinding scoop – a marmalade-dropper if ever there was one – Ferguson has been carrying on an affair with a married mother-of-two during the lockdown. Talk about breaking the social distancing rules! And the icing on the cake is that the name of his 38 year-old mistress is Antonia Staats! You couldn’t make it up, as we say on Fleet Street. The punning possibilities are endless. (Guido Fawkes: “Who could blame a boffin for wanting to massage his staats?“) Incidentally, if you can’t get past the Telegraph‘s paywall, not to worry. The story is also in the Mail, the Guardian, the Metro, the Independent, the New York Times… it’s everywhere. The BBC even has it, although in a very muted form. The latest development is that Matt Hancock says it’s now in the hands of the police. Are we about to see Imperial’s Professor of Mathematical Biology led away in handcuffs? The intellectual architect of Britain’s draconian coronavirus policy may be about to experience what it’s really like to be locked down. (He won’t, obviously, but I couldn’t resist that.)
One interesting detail: in his statement to the Telegraph, Professor Ferguson said: “I acted in the belief that I was immune, having tested positive for coronavirus, and completely isolated myself for almost two weeks after developing symptoms.” So not only does Professor Lockdown think you do develop immunity after recovering from COVID-19, but you don’t even need to take an antibody test to prove it. If only all of us who think we’ve had it were free to act in the same way.
I’m fascinated by the details about Antonia Staats. According to the Telegraph, she lives in a £1.9 million house in south London with her husband and two children and has an “open marriage”. Guido has dug up a podcast she did on March 31st (now offline), 24 hours after visiting Professor Ferguson, in which she complains that the lockdown is putting a strain on her marriage. But it’s her politics I’m really interested in. The Telegraph has her down as a “left-wing campaigner”, a reference to the fact that she campaigned against leaving the EU and is a long-standing environmental activist who supported Greta Thunberg’s climate strike. Many of the papers have included this picture of her standing outside Number 10 delivering a petition to the Prime Minister about ending fossil fuel subsidies:
Some of you may be wondering, what is the relevance of Ms Staat’s politics? The answer, obviously, is that her politics are likely to be Professor Ferguson’s politics. We know that he co-authored a paper in 2016 warning of the terrible consequences of leaving the EU, and we can see from his Twitter feed that he’s not exactly a Tory. For instance, he sent the following tweet to the Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran when she won Oxford West and Abingdon in 2017: “Great news – so happy to wake up to hear you won! Fingers crossed that last night means at least a softer Brexit.”
The reason for looking into the political affiliations of the scientists and experts who’ve been advising governments across the world during this crisis is that it may throw some light on why those governments have made such poor policy decisions. Will the vast majority of those advisers turn out to be left-of-centre, like Professor Ferguson? I’m 99% sure of it, and I think that will help us to understand what’s happened.
I don’t mean they’ve deliberately given right-of-centre governments poor advice in the hope of wrecking the economy for nefarious party-political reasons, or because they’re members of Extinction Rebellion and want to destroy capitalism. Nor do I believe in any of the conspiracy theories linking these public health panjandrums to Bill Gates and Big Pharma and some diabolical plan to vaccinate 7.8 billion people. I have little doubt they’ve acted in good faith throughout – but that’s part of the problem. The road they’ve led us down has been paved with all the usual good intentions.
The mistakes these liberal policy-makers have made are depressingly familiar to anyone who’s studied the breed: overestimating the ability of the state to solve complicated problems as well as the capacity of state-run agencies to deliver on those solutions; failing to anticipate the unintended consequences of large-scale state interventions; thinking about public policy in terms of moral absolutes rather than trade-offs; chronic fiscal incontinence, with zero inhibitions about adding to the national debt; not trusting in the common sense of ordinary people and believing the only way to get them to avoid risky behaviour is to put strict rules in place and threaten them with fines or imprisonment if they disobey them (and ignoring those rules themselves, obviously); arrogantly assuming that anyone who challenges their policy preferences is either ignorant or evil; never venturing outside their metropolitan echo chambers, being citizens of anywhere rather than somewhere… you know the rest. We’ve seen it a hundred times before.
More often than not, the “solutions” these left-leaning experts come up with make the problems they’re grappling with even worse, and so it will prove to be in this case. The evidence mounts on a daily basis that locking down whole populations in the hope of “flattening the curve” was a catastrophic error, perhaps the worst policy mistake ever committed by Western governments during peacetime. Just yesterday we learnt that the lockdowns have forced countries across the world to shut down TB treatment programmes which, over the next five years, could lead to 6.3 million additional cases of TB and 1.4 million deaths. There are so many stories like this that it’s impossible to keep track. We will soon be able to say – with something approaching certainty – that the cure has been worse than the disease.
Neil Ferguson isn’t single-handedly responsible for this world-historical blunder, but he does bear some responsibility. His apocalyptic predictions frightened the British Government into imposing a full lockdown, with other governments quickly following suit. And I’m afraid he’s absolutely typical of the breed. He suffers from the same fundamental arrogance that progressive interventionists have exhibited since at least the middle of the 18th Century – wildly over-estimating the good that governments can do, assuming there are no limits to what “science” can achieve and, at the same time, ignoring the empirical evidence that their ambitious public programmes are a complete disaster. At bottom, they believe that nature itself can be bent to man’s will.
It isn’t an attractive, 38 year-old woman in a red dress that has brought down Professor Lockdown. It’s a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat.
Okay, rant over.
Not all left-wingers support the lockdowns, of course. There are still plenty of sensible ones out there. I get quite a few supportive messages beginning, “I usually disagree with your politics, but on this occasion…” Here’s one I particularly liked from a reader in Australia:
As a man of the left, I have been as dismayed by the contemporary left’s fervent embrace of lockdown mania as by its failure to understand democratic national populism (Brexit, Trump, etc). Thanks for your sane, rational counterpoint to the remarkable hysteria and panic that has gripped the nations of the world over a reputationally-inflated bug. For lockdown reading, I suggest the real-life-based short story, ‘The Day the Dam Broke’ (in James Thurber’s collection of shorts, My Life and Hard Times) about a “frightful and perilous afternoon in March 1913 [in Columbus, Ohio] when the dam broke, or, to be more exact, when everybody in town thought that the dam broke” and “hundreds of people went streaming by our house in wild panic, screaming ‘Go east! Go east!’ … fearful of being overtaken and engulfed by the roaring waters – that is, if there had been any roaring waters”. The fleeing townsfolk included the town’s doctor, whose statements always carried conviction and gravitas. After the panic died down “people had gone rather sheepishly back to their homes and offices, minimising the distances they had run and offering various reasons for running” even though “there had never been any danger at all”. Thurber’s story is a wry study of unfounded fear, folly and foolishness. It should be required reading for all epidemiologists and politicians.
I’ve tracked down a YouTube video of Keith Olbermann, an American political commentator, reading aloud The Day the Dam Broke that you can view here.
I wrote about the shortcomings of Professor Ferguson’s computer model for my column in this week’s Spectator, but last night the editor got me to rip it up and write a new one about last night’s extraordinary news. I’ve done that, and it’s now online. Here’s an extract:
Why is it that the most zealous advocates for reining in human behaviour, whether it’s in Prohibition-era America or the midst of a public health crisis, always get caught with their pants down? I’m reminded of something the late Christopher Hitchens said: ‘Whenever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch. Sooner rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite.’
For those who find this sort of thing unenlightening and want a more meaty takedown of Professor Ferguson, a reader who’s an experienced coder – as in, worked as a senior engineer at Google for eight years – has written a review of the code underpinning the Imperial College model for this site that you can read here. Quite technical, but even a non-specialist like me can get the gist: ICL’s computer model is a great illustration of the coders’ golden rule – “garbage in, garbage out”.
In other news, an international survey by a team from the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge has found that Britons are more scared of coronavirus than anyone else in the world. Dr Sander van der Linden, who led the study, seems to think this reflects well on us. “The national stereotype is that British people are fairly reserved, but when something goes on people seem very willing to step in and do the right thing,” she told the Telegraph. The paper reports that Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, the statistician who heads up the Centre, is less sanguine about the results of the survey. He has expressed concern that we’re “over anxious” and called for a campaign to get people “to start living again”.
If you are suffering from “coronaphobia”, this is a must read Twitter thread by Dr Muge Cevik, an infectious diseases researcher at St Andrew’s University. She cites numerous research studies suggesting that a close and prolonged exposure to someone infected with the virus is necessary for transmission, making a nonsense of social-distancing rules. The most likely hotspots are not sporting arenas, shopping centres, restaurants, cafés, etc., but hospitals and care homes. “Casual, short interactions are not the main driver of the epidemic,” she says, although she stops short of saying we should ignore social distancing rules. The technical way of putting this is that the virus is a nosocomial infection. Incidentally, this is Matt Ridley’s reason for becoming a lockdown sceptic, something he revealed in a webinar that he and I participated in yesterday for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, along with Inaya Folarin Iman. You can watch that here.
And while we’re on the subject of social distancing, here’s yet another reason to move to Sweden. The Nordic country’s Public Health Authority has put up this notice on its website regarding the two-metre rule. Remember, this is the rule that’s likely to be imposed on the entire population of British office workers, not to mention everyone else, everywhere. This is a verbatim translation:
There are currently no studies that show any exact limit for what distance is safe, but considering how droplet infection spreads, a benchmark could be at least one arm’s length distance. Another reason why the Public Health Authority only provides an approximate measure is that businesses such as restaurants, shops and other public places must be able to have some flexibility for the business to function.
I came across a great new website yesterday – Evidence Not Fear. It’s like a militant version of Lockdown Sceptics. It doesn’t just collate evidence about the ineffectiveness of lockdowns, it urges its readers to take action. For instance, it includes this template you can use to write to your MP. I’ve added a permanent link on my Introduction page.
Exciting developments with Simon Dolan’s lawsuit against the Government. Philip Havers QC has joined the team. Havers, a barrister and Deputy High Court Judge who specialises in public law, human rights and public inquiries, will be helping Dolan mount a challenge against the lawfulness of the Government’s restriction of civil liberties. You can contribute to the crowdfunder here. Last time I checked it was up to £75,000, more than halfway to the £125,000 target.
In Monday’s update I gushed enthusiastically about the imminent attack backbench Conservative MPs were about to launch on the Government over its mishandling of the coronavirus crisis. This was in a House of Commons debate that afternoon. Well, bad news I’m afraid. Attacks came there none. A reader has listened to a recording of the debate so you don’t have to. Here is his summary:
Not one MP called for an end to lockdown.
Not one MP said, ‘The epidemic is over, Secretary of State.’
Not one MP said, ‘Stay social distancing for two years before a vaccine is ready? You’re having a laugh.’
Not one MP said, ‘The lockdown has been the biggest mistake in history.’
A reader has sent me a comment he posted on the BBC News website yesterday. It was below a story saying “the maths” showed back in mid-March that the UK needed to change course or a quarter of a million people would perish in a “catastrophic epidemic”. To which the reader responded: “This is of course as inaccurate as Ferguson’s modelling. The model showed it, because the model was wrong. Box’s Aphorism says, ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful.’ I think it should be updated to: ‘All models are wrong, some are useful, but some are murderously toxic.'”
Another reader has sent this comment and I’ve received at least a dozen others like it:
Lockdown Sceptics has helped me retain my sanity through this mad period – thank you. The only other short, more emotional release came from the revelations about Neil Ferguson – rather like seeing your team score a goal but then having to knuckle down for a nerve-jangling second half.
I’m a QPR supporter so I know all about nerve-jangling second halves.
Two different people sent me this cartoon from an Australian newspaper:
A reader who’s an expert in cyber security has read the 4,000-word article published by GCHQ assuring us that the new NHS virus-tracing app is going to work brilliantly. He’s not impressed:
The whole thing reads like it has been written by a maths professor. It’s trying to say “so long as we are using Elliptic Curve Integration Encryption Schemes, ephemeral symmetric 128 bit keys and Advanced Encryption Standard in Galois Counter Mode, what could possibly go wrong?” All that theory is great but as politicians, civil servants and governments never seem to learn: In theory, theory and practice are the same, but in practice they are different. It is all the real-world, people-based problems that these schemes don’t anticipate and are their eventual downfall.
You can read the rest of his assessment, which I’ve published on Lockdown Sceptics, here.
A quick round-up of interesting articles I’ve spotted, or which readers have flagged up, in the last 24 hours:
- “The inside story of the UK’s NHS coronavirus ventilator challenge” – The Government doesn’t come out of this Guardian investigation well
- “Coronavirus lockdown could lead to nearly 1.5 million extra TB deaths, modelling study finds” – The story I referred to earlier, warning that lockdowns across the world have shut down TB treatment programmes which could lead to 1.4 million deaths
- “Germans Split Over Lifting of Lockdown” – Der Spiegel reports that Germans are becoming increasingly intolerant of restrictions on their movements
- “Models versus Evidence” – Good piece in Boston Magazine about how the argument over the effectiveness of lockdowns reveals two competing approaches to acquiring scientific knowledge
- “Sweden’s ‘Gentler’ Lockdown to Limit Economic Damage, SEB says” – Who would have thunk it? Not the IMF, apparently, which last month predicted a bigger hit to Sweden’s GDP as a result of the crisis than the UK’s
- “Now is the right time to start unwinding the furlough scheme” – Len Shackleton makes the case for ending the Government’s furlough scheme in CapX
- “Scotland will not recommend NHS coronavirus tracing app until ‘confident that it works’” – More woes for the NHS app
- “British Army goes back to training – but coronavirus measures keep tanks off limits” – Now would be a good time to invade, Vladimir
- “Is this a life worth living – or merely an existence?” – Great column in the Telegraph by the peerless Allison Pearson
- “Stress from virus response will destroy 7 times more years of life than lockdowns save: Study” – Another dog-bites-man piece, this one from the Washington Examiner
- “Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?” – A useful round-up of sceptical articles from Straight Line Logic
- “Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience” – A guide to rebooting the US economy by Harvard’s Edmund J Safra Center for Ethics
- “Virgin Atlantic cuts jobs in a fight for survival” – Virgin Atlantic has shut down operations at Gatwick Airport and laid off a third of its staff
- “Why Precautionary COVID-19 Lockdowns Failed Humanity” – Good article by the Riskmonger on why governments around the world have become hamstrung by the precautionary principle
And finally, a story to brighten your day: police in Lancashire have withdrawn a fine imposed on a pair of sisters in Preston who had gone to the docks for some exercise. The sisters – members of the same household – had driven to the docks to take a walk around the basin for some exercise and fresh air, according to the Lancashire Post. An eagle-eyed local constable spotted them and promptly issued two, on-the-spot, £60 fines. Well done to Patrick Ormerod, the sisters’ solicitor, who forced the police to withdraw the fine.
Suggestions for this site’s theme tune continue to flood in: The Model by Kraftwerk (although Ferguson’s model isn’t “looking good”), School’s Out by Alice Cooper (horribly appropriate, given that it doesn’t look like secondaries will reopen until September) and From a Distance by Bette Midler.
Thanks as ever to those who made a donation yesterday to pay for the upkeep of Lockdown Sceptics. If you feel like donating, you can do so by clicking here. (Every little helps!) And if you want to flag up any stories or links I should include in tomorrow’s update, you can email me here. Incidentally, thanks to all those who’ve sent stuff in over the last few weeks. Some real gems there. Keep ’em coming.