ALLISTER Heath, editor of the Sunday Telegraph, had a brilliant op-ed in the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday, praising Sweden and excoriating the British political class for its abysmal failures in responding to Covid-19:
‘Anders Tegnell, Stockholm’s epidemiologist-king, has pulled off a remarkable triple whammy: far fewer deaths per capita than Britain, a maintenance of basic freedoms and opportunities, including schooling, and, most strikingly, a recession less than half as severe as our own. Our arrogant quangocrats and state “experts” should hang their heads in shame.’
He isn’t wrong. There is one point on which he perhaps can be faulted – though I’m not sure it’s really his fault so much as the poor state of the public debate. He argues that Sweden opted to eschew herd immunity in favour of a third, better option. Here is what he says: ‘Politicians can react in one of three ways to a pandemic. They can do nothing, and allow the disease to rip until herd immunity is reached. Quite rightly, no government has pursued this policy, out of fear of mass deaths and total social and economic collapse. The second approach involves imposing proportionate restrictions to facilitate social distancing, banning certain sorts of gatherings while encouraging and informing the public. The Swedes pursued a version of this centrist strategy: there was a fair bit of compulsion, but also a focus on retaining normal life and keeping schools open. The virus was taken very seriously, but there was no formal lockdown. Tegnell is one of the few genuine heroes of this crisis: he identified the correct trade-offs.’
This appears to misunderstand why Sweden’s strategy of mitigation rather than suppression was successful. Such a strategy is not an alternative to herd immunity but a version of it. As per the ‘flatten the curve’ or ‘squash the sombrero’ approach that was initially widely adopted but then got lost somewhere in favour of the insane ‘wait for a vaccine’ approach, social distancing measures only buy time by spreading out the damage – they don’t reduce the final number of deaths. Actually, they might save some lives if they prevent the health system from overloading or if they reduce the size of the overshoot over the herd immunity threshold. But either way, the aim is still to reach a measure of population immunity that brings the epidemic to an end and allows life to go back to normal without fear of a second deluge.
What would it have looked like if we let the virus rip – how bad would it have been? We may think we will never know, but what if we already do? Consider that the epidemic in many badly hit countries including England peaked and went into decline well before lockdown or even much social distancing began. This was evident from mid-April once it was clear that daily deaths in the UK had peaked on April 8, 16 days after lockdown and too soon to be the consequence of it, as Professor Carl Heneghan, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter and Professor Simon Wood pointed out at the start of June. It is estimated from clinical data that deaths from Covid-19 occur on average around 23 days after infection, which puts peak infection around March 16, when mobility data suggest social distancing had begun but was not yet fully adopted. Professor Heneghan notes that this chimes with when 111 calls and GP consultations for respiratory illness peaked.
This topping out of the epidemic in England prior to lockdown or much social distancing is presumably because by mid-March sufficient population immunity had developed to bring the epidemic under control. What this means is that in England we effectively did ‘allow the disease to rip until herd immunity is reached’, and that the lockdown and most of the other measures were too late to make any difference.
What is strange and maddening is how little purchase basic points like these seem to have on the public discussion, even among specialists, as demonstrated again this week by Professor David Goldsmith in a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine that entirely fails to allow for pre-existing immunity in the population or other factors that lower the herd immunity threshold.
Where in the public debate is the fact, pointed out by Professor Michael Levitt as early as February, that most of the epidemic curves are the same shape regardless of government interventions and never exhibit true exponential growth? The fact that antibody rates even in heavily affected regions are below 20 per cent, even when there has been no lockdown? The discovery of T-cell cross-immunity from common colds in a large proportion of the population? The lack of spread via children and in schools? The fact that raw case data is an extremely poor measure of the size and progress of the epidemic? The outsize influence of false positives when prevalence is low? The dubious definitions of Covid-19 deaths inflating the death tolls? The fact that the peak of deaths occurs far too soon to be caused by lockdown?
All of these are facts that have been known for months, and which new evidence only reinforces. Yet they seem to have very little impact on the public conversation, appearing perhaps in a news report and an op-ed or two, but then disappearing beneath the froth and foam of yet more second wave scaremongering and unproven assumptions about governments ‘getting the epidemic under control’, as though it is all their doing.
Heath is right. The reaction of our politicians and ‘experts’ is ‘one of the greatest public policy blunders in modern history.’ He lays out the charge sheet:
‘Millions will lose their jobs when furlough ends; tens of thousands of small businesses are failing; schooling is in chaos, with A-level grades all over the place; vast numbers are likely to die from untreated or undetected illnesses; and we have seen the first exodus of foreigners in years, with the labour market survey suggesting a decline in non-UK born adults.’
And for what? To try to ‘defeat’ a virus that had likely already done its thing before we even really thought to do much about it. Sweden certainly did better than us. There may have been a better way still. As it is, we have the worst of all worlds, with no end in sight to all the social distancing and quarantine restrictions with their socially debilitating and economically disastrous consequences.