Let’s Hear it for the Disruptors

29 December 2020  /  Updated 7 March 2021

“What we need, is more disrupters, more grumpy people to challenge the Government”, Alex Thomas, the Programme Director, Institute of Government, told Jeremy Hunt’s Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committee recently. Save your breath Alex. The problem is not a shortage of grumpy disrupters. The problem is the disrupters are not being heard – they are not being allowed to challenge Jeremy Hunt’s committee let alone the government.

When Covid struck the UK in February there was a knowledge and information vacuum, and the global response was based on ‘follow the leader’; the leader was China and the course of lockdown was set. Ten months on there is a daily tsunami of robust Covid data and research papers from around the world for the Government to study and learn from, but they appear to have neither the bandwidth nor the inclination to do so. However, outside of Government there is an army of scientists, clinicians and statisticians in universities, companies, loose affiliations or on their own, who want to be part of the war effort and are working around the clock to see if there are answers in this vast new source of intelligence. If the Government and PHE are the Dunkirk mole then these volunteers are the flotilla of little boats.

From the outset initiatives and ideas from those outside the Government’s circle of trust have received a cool response. Their findings, if acknowledged at all, have been greeted with suspicion. Earlier this week Robert Peston tweeted his “shock” when the ONS downgraded its estimate of coronavirus in England to show that infections were falling when the last lockdown started. That the numbers were falling was not however a surprise to the one million people (including me) who log in and report daily on Professor Tim Spector’s ZOE/King’s College Covid App or the professor’s Twitter followers. For months now the ZOE App has been accurately charting, in near real time, the passage of infection through the country. The Government declined requests to support this incredible app, developed at zero cost to the taxpayer, in favour of its own failed app, leaving Spector to go cap in hand to his app users for funding. For months, despite the app’s proven accuracy, the Government have favoured, in this fast-moving crisis, the findings of time-lagged ONS data, Imperial College’s data from the REACT-1 study and the cripplingly expensive community testing of dubious accuracy.

As we came out of the first-wave lockdown, Dr Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Officer, declared that only 7% of the UK would have a degree of immunity and that the other 93% were still at risk. This falsehood did not just scare the bejesus out of everyone, it was critical in shaping Government policy. Months ago, grumpy disrupter, or perhaps more accurately, exasperated disrupter, Dr Mike Yeadon, former Chief Scientific Advisor at Pfizer (and to make things more interesting, a former colleague of Vallance), told us that this was simply not true and that it was always the case that a significant proportion of the population would have innate T-cell immunity. Would anyone on SAGE or in Government listen? Yeadon was reduced to inviting Vallance to challenge him in court but still they stuck to their line. It is only in the past few weeks that Public Health England have accepted T-cell immunity as fact – a hugely significant volte face that passed with almost no press comment.

But it is not just the Government that seems to be embracing tyrannical group think, as Professor Sunetra Gupta, the Oxford Professor of Epidemiology, found when she had the temerity to stray from the path of intellectual conformity. Professor Gupta, you may recall, was one of the co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration that advocates focusing on the protection of those most at risk and minimizing the devastating lockdowns. Gupta and her colleagues also believe there is clear evidence that T-cell immunity is playing a role in the development of this pandemic. Far from being welcomed as a useful contribution to the debate, SAGE cast doubts on the Great Barrington strategy as though its lockdown policy was actually working. The Lancet (“The best science for better lives”) editor Richard Horton condemned her views on Twitter as “dangerous” and academic peers treated the authors as “traitors”. Did Horton really believe this kind of unprofessional response was going to encourage a climate for grown-up discussions about potential strategies? The Guardian attack dogs then set out to discredit Gupta and her colleagues. Why? What on earth are they afraid of? Was it this press reaction that prevented Jeremy Hunt inviting Gupta, surely a highly qualified disrupter, to appear before his committee?

In frustration I started badgering my local MP. An old friend, he expressed sympathy for my wife having to share a roof with a Covid obsessive and labelled me an “armchair observer”. It is true that I am not an immunologist or an epidemiologist or a statistician but nor, as far as I am aware, are many MPs.

When the pandemic started, I tuned in religiously to the daily Government briefings, I stuck to the lockdown rules and I logged on to Worldometer and FT Coronavirus websites. But I lost heart as the Government and SAGE released increasingly implausible forecasts and the daily briefings became an utterly pointless exercise in ritual humiliation of the hapless Matt Hancock. Why were the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and Sky’s Beth Rigby obsessing about tactical failings over PPE and contact tracing without challenging the overarching strategy? Hugh Grant, in the days when he was writing for Horse and Hound, would have provided more insight. The Government were being allowed to implement policy without showing their workings. They produced neither analysis of the impact of their interventions nor of the appalling human and economic consequences of lockdown’s collateral damage. I started looking elsewhere.

Freddie Sayer’s fascinating interview with Johan Giesecke (from 1995-2005 the State Epidemiologist for Sweden) on Unherd (“pushing back against the herd mentality” NB not herd immunity) was my first off-piste experience and it gave me a taste for fresh powder. The Spectator’s James Delingpole introduced me to Dr Mike Yeadon in his Delingpod, and Toby Young created an outlet for alternative views in the form of this blog. On talkRADIO, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Mike Graham and Dan Wooton gave doubters, including the irrepressible Peter Hitchens, a platform on the airwaves. As a centrist Remainer, these were unexpected bedfellows. My friend, super intelligent and early obsessive, Brian, shared data, video clips and articles. I learnt about SOAs, FPRs and ASMRs; I swotted up on Gompertz curves and “dry tinder”; and… I ventured on to Twitter.

I struck early gold with David Paton (@cricketwyvern). Professor of Industrial Economics at the University of Nottingham, Paton was the first person to re-state deaths by the date they occurred rather than when they were reported – this made a huge difference to the shape of the curves and our understanding of the path of the virus. It was Paton’s analysis that clearly showed that placing Liverpool, Nottingham, Manchester and other northern towns in tiers in October/November was not responsible for the fall in hospital cases and deaths. I check his numbers every day. I also keep an eye on Pandemics Data Analytics (@PanData19) who provides global in-depth data and graphic analysis, and Dr Clare Craig (@clarecraigpath) of this parish.

But most of my Twitter time goes to Ivor Cummins (@FatEmperor) and Joel Smalley (@RealJoelSmalley). Smalley is a data scientist specialising in multivariate time-series and stochastic analysis; whatever that is, he is brilliant at turning complicated data into clear and intelligible information and it is often his data that Cummins uses. If you do only one thing after reading this article, look at this slide on Smalley’s pinned tweet, which overlays Government interventions against Covid deaths.

If lockdown works, wouldn’t you expect to see, a few weeks after its imposition, a downward trend in the death trajectory and then, when lockdown ends, wouldn’t you expect deaths to increase? At least a bit? What about schools closing, the opening of shops or the introduction of face masks, the marches, the beaches, schools re-opening, Universities returning – surely they would make an impact? They don’t. There is no discernible impact. Not here in the UK. Not anywhere where Covid is endemic.

Ivor Cummins is an Irish dietician with the gift of the gab which may not sound promising. His Twitter handle lacks gravitas and his early videos are too long. But he is the one that pulls the disrupter case together best. The evidence he presents is that this is a seasonal virus, that globally there is no correlation between lockdown and deaths and that in those areas hit hardest by the first wave there is evidence of a meaningful level of immunity. Most importantly of all, he makes the case for shielding the vulnerable rather than shutting the country down which is neither saving lives nor the Health Service.

The Government has made no attempt to demonstrate that the lockdowns are working and there is mounting evidence that they do not. There are clearly questions to be asked. It is too easy for the Government to brush aside Yeadon, Cummins, Unherd, Lockdown Sceptics and a few right-wing Tory MPs (whose very support de-legitimises the case for some), all of whom have been pushed to the margins. Surprisingly, the mainstream media do still matter and it is the mainstream media that needs to be questioning the Government. So why aren’t they? Why are these questions not being posed by those we normally rely on to hold the Government to account? The BBC, Sky, ITV, the Times, the Independent, the Sun, the Economist, not even the Mail with real conviction – none of them – none of the mainstream media has stepped up. Nor for that matter has the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committee. Not even the Guardian or the New Statesman or the Daily Mirror – and therein lies the biggest Covid conundrum of all. When it is widely agreed that lockdown hits society’s poorest and most disadvantaged the hardest and that the economic aftermath will hit them hardest too, shouldn’t the Labour party and its media supporters be seriously questioning whether lockdowns are the right path? All Keir Starmer has done is to demand deeper, longer lockdowns that will further cripple our battered economy, destroy our small businesses and deliver them gift wrapped to Amazon. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.

I decided to enter the fray and try to ask those who should be asking the questions to ask the questions. I trawled my address book for contacts and intermediaries. For the first time I added my post nominal (DL) to my email signature to help get some traction. There were small successes. A Tory peer asked permission (declined) of the Tory Whip to circulate Professor Mike Yeadon’s briefing doc on the pseudo epidemic and Smalley’s slides to his colleagues in the upper house. A crossbencher spoke against lockdowns in a debate. But without a Nobel prize to my name the newspaper editorial teams would not engage because they were “swamped by Covid fake news”. My pal at the Economist said their in-house Covid team had all the data (why had they never used it?) and it was “all eyes on the vaccine now”. David Shukman, the BBC Science Editor, was courteous and sent me SAGE’s dismissal of the Great Barrington Declaration which presupposes the SAGE/Government policy is actually working. David Kumar Gregory, the BBC Midlands Science Correspondent was rude, patronising and dismissive. In a slightly sinister development, our Twitter and email exchange was monitored by @mariannaspring who leads the BBC team covering disinformation on social media. It is still the BBC I look to in times of crisis and it is at times like this that I expect the big beasts – Marr, Maitlis, Sackur, Robinson – to step up. I am still waiting.

And surely there is a Panorama story here? A Panorama programme that follows the traditional ‘on the one hand, on the other’ format. Or maybe, given that this is the greatest national crisis that most of us have faced in our lifetimes, we deserve six Panorama programmes that stop with a global Covid overview and then look at what we can learn from the US/Latin America, China/Japan/Asia, Europe, Sweden and the Nordic countries and finally the UK. The grumpy disrupters should be invited to contribute to inform the debate and help identify the best way to turn the tide on this Covid war. It is time to stop shelling the flotilla of boats in the harbour and accept their help.

This article is my last throw of the dice. It has taken two days. Writing doesn’t come easily but I think it has turned out OK. Too many metaphors maybe, but there comes a point when you have to stop making changes. Then the phone rings. It’s my friend Nick, a banker.

“Did you look at Smalley’s graphs?” I asked.

“I had a quick look.”

“And what did you think?”

“They are very convincing but… you can prove almost anything with numbers.”

Really? Well then please will the Government share the data that shows the lockdowns are working?

The author is a dairy farmer and former sales director in the food sector.