Monday, April 06, 2020

UK: Ministers are accused of treating Doomsday scientist like demigod: Number 10 has failed to properly challenge the word of coronavirus professor Neil Ferguson whose study sent Britain into lockdown, critics say

Ministers were last night accused of treating the scientist behind the devastating study that sent Britain into lockdown like a ‘demigod’ and failing to properly challenge his work.

Professor Neil Ferguson and his team of academics at Imperial College London last month produced a shocking forecast of 250,000 UK coronavirus deaths without a draconian lockdown, persuading Boris Johnson to abandon his more limited response to the virus.

But now Professor John Ashton, a former regional director of public health for North West England, has accused No 10 of relying on a ‘little clique’ of researchers and failing to consult a wider pool of academics. ‘These guys are being regarded as demigods,’ he said.

‘Here we are talking about science but this research is being given a kind of religious status, like tablets of stone from the mountain.’

His broadside came as a senior Government adviser yesterday warned Britain has ‘painted itself into a corner’ with no clear exit strategy from the epidemic. Chief pandemic modeller Graham Medley said a prolonged lockdown risks causing more suffering than the virus itself.

‘We will have done three weeks of this lockdown, so there’s a big decision coming up,’ he said. ‘In broad terms, are we going to continue to harm children to protect vulnerable people, or not?’

A Mail on Sunday investigation yesterday revealed divisions among scientists about Ferguson’s study and criticism over some of his previous calculations.

It reveals how:

Professor Carl Heneghan and Dr Tom Jefferson at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine questioned the lockdown policy because the virus may already be more widespread than commonly thought;

They warned the draconian restrictions are ‘going to bankrupt all of us and our descendants’;

Ferguson faced mounting calls to make the computer model he uses public so it can be scrutinised by other scientists;

His modelling of the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic came under fire, with a top scientist claiming it contained a ‘myriad of errors’.

Yesterday, Prof Ferguson said Britain is unlikely to lift lockdown rules until the end of May and warned the infection rate will remain high for ‘weeks and weeks’ if people flout social-distancing rules this weekend.

He was propelled to prominence after his team claimed last month that around 510,000 people in Britain could die if no action was taken to control coronavirus and almost half that number would still perish if the Government stuck to its then limited restrictions.

His landmark paper’s accompanying press release presented what Prof Ferguson described as ‘concrete estimates’ based on a complex computer model.

But experts highlight how the model uses a string of assumptions, including that 0.9 per cent of those infected will die. This figure relies on data collected during the Chinese outbreak but US spy agencies have cast doubt on the accuracy of the regime’s statistics.

Meanwhile, Prof Heneghan and Dr Jefferson’s belief the virus may already be widespread echoes a study by another group of academics at Oxford last month.

‘What the current situation boils down to is this: is economic meltdown a price worth paying to halt or delay what is already amongst us?’ Heneghan and Jefferson said.

Research by Ferguson and his mentor Professor Roy Anderson during the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 helped persuade Tony Blair’s government to carry out a devastating cull of animals.

But Michael Thrusfield, a professor of veterinary epidemiology at Edinburgh University, last night said that their model contained errors and they ‘generated an Armageddon virus which did not accord with reality’.

Downing Street is being advised by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which includes Ferguson and other scientists and health experts.

But Prof Ashton says Ministers should consult a wider range of disciplines, including anthropologists, psychologists and social scientists, who can predict population responses.

Ferguson last night said there are ten models, including his own, informing the Government and a ‘wide variety of scientists inputting into policy’.

‘I would never try to claim any of the models I produce are an exact prediction of what will happen,’ he said. ‘But they are better than trying to make policy in a vacuum.’

His coronavirus model will be published online this week and he stands by his work during the foot and mouth crisis, he added.

The Government said last night it is receiving advice from more than 20 institutions ‘across a variety of disciplines’.


Coronavirus: UK’s virus adviser calls for way out of COVID-19 lockdown

Britain has “painted itself into a corner” with no clear exit strategy from the coronavirus epidemic and needs to reconsider herd immunity, according to a senior government adviser.

A prolonged lockdown risks causing more suffering than the virus itself, Graham Medley, the government’s chief pandemic modeller, has warned. He said that the country needed to face the trade-off between harming the young versus the old.

Professor Medley, a member of the key scientific body that is guiding the government’s response, told The Times that Britain must consider allowing people to catch the virus in the least deadly way possible rather than letting unemployment, domestic violence and mental ill health mount indefinitely.

His modelling showed that letting people return to work or reopening schools would allow the pandemic to take off again and no way had been found of easing the lockdown while controlling the virus. Only those working outside might be safe to go back to their jobs, he found.

An antibody test, which the government is hoping will prove a “game-changer”, could help but was not working and such a method had never previously been used to manage an epidemic, he said.

His warning came after 684 more people were confirmed yesterday to have died from the virus in Britain’s biggest daily rise, taking the total to 3605.

In other developments:

- Britain’s service industry is collapsing at a “harrowing” pace, according to data pointing to a recession steeper than that of the 1930s.

- Premier League clubs are to ask players to take a 30 per cent pay cut to protect jobs at football clubs.

- The deputy chief medical officer said there was no evidence that the public wearing face masks would slow the spread of the virus.

- Two nurses in their 30s died of coronavirus in the 24 hours up to last night

Boris Johnson, who will continue to self-isolate with coronavirus symptoms including a temperature, used a video message to urge people to stick to the lockdown and not abandon social-distancing rules during what is expected to be a sunny weekend.

“Particularly if you’ve got kids in the household, everybody may be getting a bit stir-crazy, and there may be just a temptation to get out there, hang out and start to break the regulations. I just urge you not to do that,” the prime minister said, adding: “Please, please stick with the guidance now.”

It is understood that work is under way to quantify health harms caused by lockdown, although this has not yet reached ministers. They have said this trade-off has not featured in government decision-making and Downing Street is giving all its attention to social distancing and building NHS capacity.

While declining to comment on Sage discussions, Professor Medley said: “It’s certainly been a concern from the outset and something that is increasingly being considered.”

Nearly a million people have applied for benefits in the past two weeks and millions more have been furloughed.

Professor Medley said: “The measures to control [the disease] cause harm. The principal one is economic, and I don’t mean to the economy generally, I mean to the incomes of people who rely on a continuous stream of money and their children, particularly the school closure aspect . . . There will also be actual harms in terms of mental health in terms of domestic violence and child abuse and in terms of food poverty.”

He added: “If we carry on with lockdown it buys us more time, we can get more thought put into it, but it doesn’t resolve anything - it’s a placeholder.”

The introduction of the lockdown on March 23 is on course to avoid a catastrophic peak, but the virus will start spreading again once it is eased, it is believed. In the absence of a vaccine, viruses only stop spreading when enough people have been infected that they can no longer pass from person to person, a concept known as herd immunity.

Although never a government goal, this was tacitly accepted as inevitable by an initial strategy designed to manage a peak in the summer, when the NHS would be better able to cope. Headlines suggesting that ministers wanted 60 per cent of people to get the disease to protect the economy led to the idea being sidelined. Latest estimates suggest that almost 70 per cent of the population need to contract the virus to ensure herd immunity.


Coronairus restrictions can damage mental health

Traumatic events, from natural disasters to war, can damage people’s mental health. The Covid-19 pandemic is no different. It has brought the fear of contagion and of loved ones falling sick. It has created huge uncertainty about every aspect of life. And with a fifth of the world under lockdown, protracted isolation is also bringing loneliness, anxiety and depression. Quarantines and “social distancing”, policy measures needed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19, are against human nature. Touch and social networks are essential for both people and non-human primates: female baboons who have more grooming partners, or friends, exhibit lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

It has been less than a month since the Italian government imposed a national quarantine, but the strain on people’s mental health is starting to show. More than 13,100 people there have died from Covid-19; at least two nurses who were working in intensive-care units where they were treating patients suffering from the disease have killed themselves. The Italian national nursing federation said that one of the nurses who committed suicide, Daniela Trezzi, had been off work ill and that Ms Trezzi was deeply worried that she had infected patients (though the local health authority said she had not tested positive). In Germany, which imposed restrictions after Italy, the finance minister of the state of Hesse, who was said to be deeply worried about the economic impact of the pandemic, killed himself on March 28th.

Awareness of the strain on people’s mental health is growing. In Britain Public Health England, a government agency, along with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, released a set of guidelines on “the mental health and well-being aspects of coronavirus” on March 29th. In the same week, 62% of Britons said that they were finding it harder to be positive about the future compared with how they felt before the outbreak, according to Ipsos MORI, a pollster. “People are struggling with the emotions as much as they are struggling with the economics,” said Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, America’s hardest-hit state, on March 21st. Four days later he set up a free hotline for those whose mental health was suffering.

Some are particularly susceptible to stress during a pandemic. Health-care workers are most exposed to the virus. The sense of camaraderie and of being part of a team that is helping people can buoy their spirits. But many doctors and nurses are being forced to isolate themselves away from their families because they may be infectious, which adds to their strains, points out Dhruv Khullar, a doctor in New York.

The lack of personal protective equipment for medics in many countries will only make that stress worse. Nicholas Christakis, now at Yale, worked as a doctor in the 1990s during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. There was a “lot of fear among health workers that if you looked after an AIDS patient you would contract the disease,” he recalls. But back then they had enough protective equipment. That made the risk of infection, which comes with the job, more bearable. Covid-19 is much easier to catch. “The current situation is like sending a fireman into a building naked,” he says.

Among the population at large, some may be especially worried. Those who have lost their jobs, who now number in the millions, may have lost not just their income, but also their identity, routine and much of their social network, says Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, head of the Wellbeing Research Centre at Oxford University.

Single people who once whiled away their days with friends, or those who live separately from their partners, suddenly find themselves spending most of their time alone. Many who exercise in teams or groups—or simply enjoy spending time outside—have to make do with a cramped living room and online classes. Mike, a 29-year-old Briton who works in finance in Brussels, is relieved that so far he is still allowed out for runs (though police move him along if he sits down to catch his breath): “Otherwise I’d just feel like Robinson Crusoe with Netflix.” Isolation will affect the mental health of even those who appear to be in less danger from the virus: 67% of Britons between the ages of 18 and 34 said they were finding it hard to remain upbeat, compared with 54% of those between the ages of 55 and 75.

If lockdowns stretch on for months, old people will suffer particularly acutely. Even before they were confined to their homes, they were more likely to feel lonely. Elderly women in Europe are more than twice as likely as men to live on their own. They rely on seeing family and friends to keep up their morale, or simply for a routine. Alfredo Rossi, an 80-year-old in Casalpusterlengo, one of the first areas of Italy to be put under lockdown in February, says that what upsets him most about the restrictions is being unable to see his grandchildren who live just 16km (ten miles) away in Piacenza across the River Po.

Domestic violence, already endemic everywhere, rises sharply when people are placed under the strains that come from confined living conditions and worries about their security, health and money, says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the head of UN Women, a UN agency. Based on early estimates, she thinks that in some countries under lockdown, domestic violence could be up by about a third.

The scale of the lockdowns is unprecedented. But research into previous traumatic events and other types of isolation offers some clues about the likely mental-health fallout. According to a rapid review of the psychological effects of quarantines, published on March 14th in the Lancet, a British medical journal, some studies suggest that the impact of quarantines can be so severe as to result in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The condition, which may include symptoms such as hyper-vigilance, flashbacks and nightmares which can last for years, became a formal psychiatric diagnosis in 1980, when veterans were still experiencing stress from the Vietnam war, which ended in 1975.

One study from 2009 looked at hospital employees in Beijing who in 2003 were exposed to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which, like Covid-19, is caused by a coronavirus. The authors found that, three years later, having been quarantined was a predictor of post-traumatic-stress symptoms. Another study, from 2013, used self-reported data to compare post-traumatic-stress symptoms in parents and children who had been quarantined because they lived in areas affected either by SARS or the H1N1outbreak in 2009, with those who had not. It found that the mean post-traumatic-stress scores were four times higher in children who had been isolated. Among the parents who had been quarantined, 28% reported symptoms serious enough to warrant a diagnosis of a trauma-related mental-health disorder. For those who had not been in isolation, the figure was 6%.

The longer a quarantine goes on, the greater the effect on people’s mental health. Another study, which also looked at the impact of SARS, found that those who were quarantined for more than ten days were significantly more likely to display symptoms of PTSD than those confined for fewer than ten days.

Cynthia Dearin, a consultant in Australia who spent four years in Iraq between 2006 and 2010 in various military camps that restricted her movement, said that whenever she returned to Iraq after a “decompression break”, she felt an “instant Baghdad depression”. Living in a war zone is very different from living through a pandemic, but she sees parallels in the loss of freedom and the sense of danger. “We also had the choice to leave the lockdown,” she reflects. “What is different now is that nobody can escape.” In Iraq many of her contemporaries turned to alcohol to numb the boredom and the fear. Increased sales of alcohol suggest that many are doing the same today. In Britain they were up by two-thirds in the week to March 21st compared with 2019, according to Nielsen, a market-research firm.

Those who have willingly isolated themselves in less traumatic circumstances may provide examples of how to ease the current crisis. In addition to the loneliness they experience, astronauts, who spend prolonged periods away from their loved ones or indeed any other human beings, suffer from disturbed sleep, heart palpitations, anxiety and mood swings. Cooped up together, they may also fall out with their fellow crew members.

Couples who suddenly find themselves in enforced proximity may sympathise. There are reports that some cities in China, such as Xi’an and Dazhou, have seen a spike in divorce proceedings since the lockdown was lifted in parts of the country in early March. Writing in the New York Times, Scott Kelly, a former astronaut who spent a year on the International Space Station, suggested that keeping a routine and writing a journal can help ease loneliness. He also encouraged people to get outside, if they could. He found that after “being confined to a small space for months, I actually started to crave nature—the colour green, the smell of fresh dirt, and the feel of warm sun on my face.”

Even under the tightest restrictions, people find ways to cope. “People are rediscovering that they live in roads full of people,” says Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University. Neighbours can be irritating, but in a crisis they can also be a comfort.

Groups have formed in many places to support local vulnerable people. According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, an expert in loneliness at Brigham Young University, studies have shown that those who feel they have “supportive people” in their social networks are less likely to react to stressful circumstances than those who do not. Simply knowing you have others on whom you can rely can reduce spikes in blood pressure and heart rate, she says.

Live in fragments no longer

Abigail, a 32-year-old charity worker in Brussels, says that her student neighbours used to get on her nerves because they played loud music. But as she spends the lockdown alone, she has got to know them. She now welcomes their music: “They bring the party.” In Belgium, Britain, Italy and the Netherlands people have started to clap and bang pans from their windows and doors to thank medics and other essential workers.

Talking to friends and family over video calls helps, too—though the clunkiness of much of the software makes them an imperfect substitute for an encounter in person. A pixelated version of spending time with a friend merely slows down the “rate of decay” of that relationship, says Professor Dunbar, but will never be able to replace the experience of seeing someone in the flesh. “You have to see the eyeballs—the whites of the eyes—and be able to physically hold on to them,” he says, in order to maintain a friendship and feel a social bond. For Claudia that moment will come when her football team, which for her is both exercise and a kind of group therapy, can meet up once more, rather than just chat virtually. “It is going to be beautiful,” she says.


Australia: Beautiful One Day, Police State The Next

To control the spread of a dangerous virus that as yet has taken 24 lives in this country, 25 million Australians have been placed under indefinite house arrest, children’s playgrounds are locked and patrolled by security guards, and the police fly drones over beaches and parks.

To control a virus that as yet has infected 5000 Australians, the response of doctors and politicians to this serious health crisis was to create also a humanitarian and an economic crisis. In the years to come Australians will quite rightly question whether there could have been a better way.

Future generations will ask why the public was so quick to accept the opinions of those experts who presented the worst-case scenarios rather than listen to other experts, no less qualified to offer a judgment, but who suggested less draconian solutions than those that came to be implemented.

Those future generations will also ponder how in 2020 it was that so many Australians could have become so completely disengaged and removed from what happens in the economy that they could advocate policies that would have shut down practically all economic activity in the country.

This is the position of the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, who said: “The government has a responsibility to deal with this health emergency. That is the first priority. Then, it needs to deal with the economic consequences of the health emergency and the appropriate response. It needs to be done in that order.”

Sadly, Albanese seems not to understand that the economic emergency Australia faces involves people’s lives in exactly the same way as does the health emergency.

Australians like to joke about how the country’s second-most populous state has become “The People’s Socialist Republic of Victoria”. But it is no laughing matter that in the space of just a few weeks Victoria became a police state, as its government made laws and then enforced those laws, in ways not very different from how the worst socialist regimes operate. The New South Wales government (‘liberal’ in name only) has been quick to follow Victoria’s lead.

Passed without scrutiny

In Victoria, the most extreme house arrest laws in the country were enacted without parliamentary authority and without any form of public or democratic scrutiny. They were simply made under an enabling act that allows the government do anything it “considers is reasonably necessary to protect public health”. Using this power, Victoria has enacted house arrest laws that are arbitrary, unpredictable, and that are changed, literally, hour by hour at the whim of politicians and bureaucrats.

On Wednesday morning the Victorian Premier declared that it was against the law for anyone to leave their home for any non-essential purpose, including couples who lived apart visiting each other. Just before 5pm that day, following a community backlash, the government announced couples would be exempt from the law.

Meanwhile, in New South Wales, police officers harass people sitting alone on park benches. In 1984, Big Brother at least allowed Winston Smith to go outside.

Jonathan Sumption, a former judge on the UK Supreme Court, gave an interview to the BBC on Monday in which he warned of the consequences of untrammelled power in the hands of politicians and the police. Everything he said applies to Australia. Of police operating in the UK in the same way as they are in Victoria and New South Wales, Sumption said: “That is what a police state is like. It’s a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes.”

It is significant that despite all the coverage it has devoted to the current crisis, the mainstream media in Australia has made no reference to the interview. It might be that the answer to Sumption’s question is too uncomfortable.

“Yes this is serious and yes it’s understandable that people cry out to the government,’’ Sumption said.

“But the real question is: Is this serious enough to warrant putting most of our population into house imprisonment, wrecking our economy for an indefinite period, destroying businesses that honest and hard-working people have taken years to build up, saddling future generations with debt, depression, stress, heart attacks, suicides and unbelievable distress…”



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the  incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of  other countries.  The only real difference, however, is how much power they have.  In America, their power is limited by democracy.  To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already  very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges.  They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did:  None.  So look to the colleges to see  what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way.  It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH,   EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS and  DISSECTING LEFTISM.   My Home Pages are here or   here or   here.  Email me (John Ray) here.  Email me (John Ray) here


No comments: