Such is the quality of decision-making in the process generating our lockdown narrative. An early maintained but exaggerated belief in the lethality of the virus reinforced by modelling that was almost data-free, then amplified by further modelling with no proven predictive value. All summed up by recommendations from a committee based on qualitative data that hasn’t even been peer-reviewed.
According to Office for National Statistics, this year comes only eighth in terms of deaths in past 27 years.
The spread of viruses like Covid-19 is not new. What’s new is our response.
The whole Covid drama has really been a crisis of awareness of what viruses normally do, rather than a crisis caused by an abnormally lethal new bug.
Modelling is not science, for the simple reason that a prediction made by a scientist (using a model or not) is just opinion.
To be classified as science, a prediction or theory needs to be able to be tested, and potentially falsified.
A problem with the current approach: a wilful determination to ignore the quality of the information being used to set Covid policy.
Most Covid research was not peer- reviewed.
In medical science there is a well-known classification of data quality known as ‘the hierarchy of evidence’: a seven-level system gives an idea of how much weight can be placed on any given study or recommendation.
Virtually all evidence pertaining to Covid-19 policy is found in the lowest levels (much less compelling Levels 5 and 6): descriptive-only studies looking for a pattern, without using controls.
Level 7 is at the bottom of the hierarchy (the opinion of authorities or reports of expert committees) because ‘authorities’ often fail to change their minds in the face of new evidence.
Committees often issue compromise recommendations that are scientifically non-valid.
The advice of Sage (or any committee of scientists) is the least reliable form of evidence there is.
COVID-19 started registering with most of the British public around late February and early March. Many were concerned but not particularly afraid. Only weeks later people were terrified to leave their homes or go near other human beings. How did such a dramatic shift in public perception happen so quickly?
In early March 2020, The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) produced a document for the UK Government highlighting methods for rolling out new social distancing rules. There seemed to be some doubt as to whether the public would comply with the upcoming measures so SAGE outlined a methodology based on known psychological behavioural modification techniques.
SAGE, SPI-B and applied psychology
SAGE is an advisory group to the UK government responsible for making sure decision makers have access to scientific advice. We are told that the advice provided by SAGE does not represent official government policy.
SAGE also relies on expert sub-groups for COVID-19 specific advice. These sub-groups include:
NERVTAG: New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group
SPI-M: Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling
SPI-B: Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours
The identity of individual committee members themselves were initially kept secret, purportedly due to national security. Some names were eventually released, largely due to efforts by UK businessman Simon Dolan and his legal challenge campaign. Nevertheless, two members remain anonymous.
Psychological techniques for behavioural change
The document itself, titled Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures, was drafted by SPI-B, the behavioural science sub-group for SAGE.
SPI-B highlighted nine broad ways of achieving behavioural change in the public:
In the document, SPI-B focused on the methods most relevant to their stated goals and set out ten options that were evaluated on six criteria.
The six criteria, under the acronym APEASE, were:
Government persuasion through fear
A key part of SPI-B’s behavioural change strategy that seems to have been adopted was to ‘persuade through fear.’ The Persuasion section of the document states:
A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened.
Clearly, the psychologists felt that, as of late March, the public was still not afraid of COVID-19. It therefore suggested that the government increase the level of fear:
The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.
Appendix B of the document lists ten options that can be used to increase social distancing in the public. Option 2 advises:
Use media to increase sense of personal threat.
In hindsight, this explains the tone of government sponsored social media and physical billboard advertising campaigns that started appearing around April.
SPI-B recommendations to increase personal threat and use hard-hitting emotional messaging are on display with eerie imagery coupled with taglines such as:
“Anyone can get it. Anyone can spread it.“
“Don’t put your friends and family in danger.“
“Stay home for your family. Don’t put their lives in danger.“
“If you go out, you can spread it. People will die.“
The article compared hysterical BBC news headline from the first week of April 2020 with those from 2018, when mortality rates were peaking due to a bad flu season. It found no references to flu or excess mortality on the BBC home page during the 2018 peak. InProportion2 asked, “Do the headlines reflect the gravity of the situations in an equivalent way – or is additional fear being stirred up in 2020?“
Persuasion through shame and approval: Covidiots and heroes
SPI-B psychologists knew that fear on its own would not persuade everyone. Messaging needed to be tailored to take into account different ‘motivational levers.’
Some people will be more persuaded by appeals to play by the rules, some by duty to the community, and some to personal risk.
It therefore suggested using both social approval and disapproval, with compulsion (legislation) as a backup:
Option 6: Use and promote social approval for desired behaviours
Option 7: Consider enacting legislation to compel required behaviours
Option 8: Consider use of social disapproval for failure to comply
We can see the obvious approval-disapproval dialectic with the ‘Heroes and Covidiots’ narrative that soon began to surface in the news. The term ‘Covidiot’ appeared around March with The Economist’s 1843 Magazinedescribing covidiots in this way:
Even in a pandemic, many of us are prone to judge others and find them wanting: the term “covidiot” describes any and every person behaving stupidly or irresponsibly as the epidemic spreads. Sometime in early March the word was born, and, almost as fast as the virus spread, so did instances of covidiotic behaviour.
Although it’s not clear how the term came about, it was quickly adopted in UK mainstream and social media. At the same time, we began seeing praise for heroes who ‘did the right thing’ by complying with the government measures.
The METRO article below shows all three options in play:
Social approval: “These local heroes have been doing amazing things…”
Social disapproval:“Lake District closed…because covidiots won’t stay away…”
Compulsion: “Matt Hancock threatens to close beaches…”
An incentivised media
These psychological techniques would have been impossible to deploy on the public without a compliant media. How did the government convince the media to go along with the plan?
…the government is spending more than usual, judging by their bookings. The publishers also pointed out that the lack of activity from other advertisers in the current market means the government campaigns will have an outweighed share of voice compared with normal times.
During that period, the British public started seeing coverage across media outlets with the unified “In this together” messaging. O’Reilly pointed out that the campaign was worth £35 million over a three month period.
Last week, the government and newspaper industry launched a three-month advertising partnership dubbed “All in, all together.” The campaign — worth approximately £35 million ($44 million) for the full course, according to sources — kicked off on Apr. 17, with all the U.K.’s national and regional daily news brands running near-identical cover wraps and homepage takeovers, which carried the copy, “Stay at home for the NHS, your family, your neighbours, your nation the world and life itself.”
So, we ask again: how did the government convince the media to go along with the plan? The answer is simple and obvious: with lots of money.
Psychological techniques to change behaviour
We can see that the UK Government has a public document outlining psychological techniques to change the behaviour of the population. We see a unified mass-media campaign that falls in line with these techniques. We then see a dramatic shift in public perception and behaviour.
What else can we call this but ‘brainwashing’?
Despite the open nature of what has transpired, it seems to have gained little coverage in the media. This is of no surprise since it was clearly complicit in spreading fear in the public.
In early March 2020, The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) produced a document for the UK Government highlighting recommendations for increasing adherence to social distancing measures. There seemed to be some doubt as to whether the public would comply with the upcoming measures so SAGE developed a methodology based on criteria called ‘APEASE’.
The document itself was drafted by SPI-B, the behavioural science sub-group for SAGE. More information about SPI-B can be found in this document.
In the document, behavioural change options were set in a grid and evaluated based on the six criteria. See Appendix B in the linked document.
SPI-B’s APEASE criteria are:
Persuasion through fear
It seems that a big part of SPI-B’s behavioural change strategy was to ‘persuade through fear.’ The Persuasion section of the document states:
The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging. To be effective this must also empower people by making clear the actions they can take to reduce the threat.
Appendix B of the document lists ten options that can be used to increase social distancing in the public. Option 2 advises: “Use media to increase sense of personal threat.“
Psychological techniques to change behaviour
In this document, the UK Government has openly admitted to using psychological techniques to change the behaviour of the British population. Despite the open nature of this admission, it seems to have gained little coverage in the media.
This is of no surprise since the British media was clearly complicit in spreading fear in the public.
The failure to take into account the impact of extreme measures that have become the norm inmany places in the Covid-19 pandemic has been stunning. The destruction of lives and livelihoods in the name of survival will haunt us for decades.
Today’s fear is fueled by four main forces: 1. Mathematical disease modelling – a flexible and highly adaptable tool for prediction, mixing calculations with speculations, often based on codes that are kept secret and assumptions that are difficult to scrutinize from the outside. 2. Neoliberal policies –systematic disinvestments in public health and medical care that have created fragile systems unable to cope with the crisis. 3. Nervous media reporting – an endless stream of information, obsessed with absolute numbers, exploiting the lack of trust in the healthcare infrastructure and magnifying the fear of collapsing systems. 4. Authoritarian longings – a deep desire for sovereign rule, which derives pleasure from destruction and tries to push the world to the edge of collapse so that it can be rebuilt from the scratch.
In June 2020, The Office for National Statistics released their Gross domestic product (GDP) report for April 2020. They calculated that GDP fell by 10.4% in the three months to April. This was directly caused by the UK government’s policy of lockdown.
School children under the age of 15 are more likely to be hit by lightning than die from coronavirus, new figures suggest, amid mounting pressure for the government to get more to get pupils back into classrooms as quickly as possible.
Scientists from the universities of Cambridge and Oxford have called for “rational debate” based on the “tiny” risk to children and have suggested that if no vaccine is found in the future then it may be better for younger people to continue with their lives, while shielding the more vulnerable.
It comes as the government was accused of “losing the plot” after Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, scrapped the Government’s target of getting all primary school pupils back in the classroom before the summer holidays
The scientific establishment in this country has had a bad war. Its mistakes have probably made the Covid-19 epidemic, as well as the economic downturn, worse. Britain entered the pandemic late, with lots of warning, so we should have done better than other countries. Instead we are one of the worst affected in Europe and one of the last to begin to recover.
Britain’s lockdown nightmare may be far from over, but an attempt to rewrite the history of the country’s greatest political blunder has already begun. With the UK now past the peak, the lack of evidence that lockdown served any useful purpose is glaring. And crucially, thanks to a growing abundance of raw data – from deaths and hospital admissions, to Covid-related 111 calls and mobile tracking intelligence –we now have the power to piece together what Britain’s lockdown achieved (or didn’t) in hideous technicolour.
Getting at the truth will be an uphill struggle, however: Downing Street has shown no appetite whatsoever for sifting through the evidence, even though it could inform (or, let’s face it, rip apart) its uniquely odd approach to easing lockdown. We must also beware the shape-shifting, scientific architects of the stay-at-home order; as criticism grows, are they attempting to dress their reconstructed reality in the language of scientific pedantry?
One of the key things about science – obvious to its practitioners, but often obscure to outsiders – is that it is fuelled by doubt, not certainty. When the ‘facts’ change (as they often do), and when original assumptions are qualified or overturned, then any scientist worth their salt re-examines and, if necessary, alters their conclusions. The presence of cross-reactive helper cells in maybe half the population means that ideas about a possible second wave must be rewritten. This finding must make a second wave less likely, probably much less likely. And the fact that there has been no ‘second wave’ (as opposed to isolated outbreaks) anywhere where lockdown has been released also fits this hypothesis. It may well also explain why the first wave didn’t infect much higher proportions of the population.
THERE IS a growing body of evidence which, if it is ever proved true and it may well be when our present nightmare is over, would leave the Government’s policy over the past 20 months in discredited tatters.
Trying to predict the future is the oldest delusion known to Man. It has never worked, save exceptionally by a fluke. This time we were told “Follow the science”.
There was genuine fear at the beginning but the COVID-19 response is now political.
Nothing at the beginning of the epidemic justified the subsequent reaction.
The community suffered from ascertainment bias: hospitals saw the worst form of the virus so they thought we were dealing with a big problem.
Lockdown means people will be getting nastier versions of the virus.
We implemented a policy of enormous magnitude without considering the implications. This goes against the most fundamental principle of medicine.
A significant number of the excess deaths are not victims of COVID-19 but of the lockdown. More than half of the deaths may be found due to other causes.
The response of the authorities and media has made it impossible to understand what was going on.
Our huge and emotional overreaction has caused more harm.
Years of life lost is a more important metric than the number of deaths.
Most people working in the NHS wouldn’t speak out about these things.
There were two types of journalism during the epidemic: investigative journalism and illustrative journalism (propaganda). Most of the mainstream media were engaged in propaganda and ended up frightening the people and the government. They need to take their share of the responsibility of the damage caused.
COVID-19 is nowhere near as bad as previous epidemics.
The medical establishment should have been speaking out since the beginning of the lockdown. The evidence was pretty clear, pretty quickly.
Vaccine is a red herring because it’s unlikely we’re going to have one. The Common Cold Research Institute spent 43 years trying to make a vaccine for the common cold and didn’t manage it.
Track and Trace is extremely worrying and not thought-through with its implications for a Big Brother society. None of it makes sense.
Social distancing is nonsense. Vulnerable people should be given information and allowed to make their own decisions.
The NHS is there to protect us. That’s what we pay our taxes for.
Young people are being thrown in the scrapheap for a disease that isn’t going to affect them.
As you get older, your immune system starts to ‘forget’ diseases you’ve already had. That’s why older people are more susceptible to getting sick.
We can say with absolute certainty that there is no overwhelming risk. It’s wrong to say the opposite.
Many doctors are smart but don’t have a huge amount of time to question things. Most doctors get their information in the same way most people do and unfortunately that information has been very biased. The science has moved on but the narrative has not.
The media was responsible for amplifying the fear about something they didn’t know about.
Models are useful scientifically when you have an understanding of something but they’re very bad at predicting outcomes. The government should have known this because we’ve have many examples of models and resulting policies being spectacularly wrong.
Politicians have forgotten that leadership is not about telling people what they want to hear. Where is the criticism of the narrative?
There is no evidence that lockdown has had any effect except in modelling. The evidence show that the lockdown plays out in similar way.
In all of this, I could be wrong. Instituting the widest expansion of the state since 9/11, while suspending the boundaries of political power, quarantining healthy people and enacting a controlled demolition of our economy, might turn out to have been the ‘safest’ response to the pandemic. But my instincts, as well as a growing number of epidemiologists, virologists, economists, historians and journalists, tell me otherwise.
There was no exponential growth in Covid-19 infections the UK. From the first days of the outbreak growth rates were in decline.
The following chart produced by financial strategist Alistair Haimes should put the above question to rest (compare it with the above chart).
The left hand side starts in March 2020 when the UK had had its first 300 infections and then stops at 10 April when Europe as a whole had reached a growth rate of zero or less. The chart is analogous to the above chart of interest rates. If you cannot distinguish the different colours and European countries don’t worry too much (UK is dark blue) as they all show the same overall pattern. The trends are all downwards, from start to finish.
So as you read, in coming weeks, furious news stories about technical incompetence, citizen non-compliance, threats of stricter enforcement and blame in all directions, as if everything was hanging on the latest government policy, remember the humility of scientists instead of the solipsism of the political class. Yes, the Government action plan will most likely be ineffective, but politicians were never in charge of this anyway. It’s bigger than they are — the best they could ever hope to do is tinker around the edges. Coronavirus is nobody’s ‘fault’.
That is the story of what may eventually be known as one of the biggest medical and economic blunders of all time. The collective failure of every Western nation, except one, to question groupthink will surely be studied by economists, doctors, and psychologists for decades to come.
The virus is now known to have an infection fatality rate for most people under 65 that is no more dangerous than driving 13 to 101 miles per day.
Even by conservative estimates, the odds of COVID-19 death are roughly in line with existing baseline odds of dying in any given year.
The virus that bears a survival rate of 99.99% if you are a healthy individual under 50 years old.
The observation that the greatest reduction in COVID-19 cases was achieved under the combined [social distancing] intervention is not surprising. However, the assessment of the additional benefit of each intervention, when implemented in combination, offers valuable insight. Since each approach individually will result in considerable societal disruption, it is important to understand the extent of intervention needed to reduce transmission and disease burden.
The effectiveness and societal impact of quarantine and social distancing will depend on the credibility of public health authorities, political leaders, and institutions. It is important that policy makers maintain the public’s trust through use of evidence-based interventions and fully transparent, fact-based communication.
We spoke to Sunetra Gupta, Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford and head of the team that released a study in March which speculated that as much as 50% of the population may already have been infected and the true Infection Fatality Rate could be as low as 0.1%.
In her first major interview since the Oxford study was published, she goes further by arguing that Covid-19 has already passed through the population and is now on its way out. She said:
On antibodies: • Many of the antibody tests are “extremely unreliable” • They do not indicate the true level of exposure or level of immunity • “Different countries have had different lockdown policies, and yet what we’ve observed is almost a uniform pattern of behaviour” • “Much of the driving force was due to the build-up of immunity”
• “Infection Fatality Rate is less than 1 in 1000 and probably closer to 1 in 10,000.” • That would be somewhere between 0.1% and 0.01%
On lockdown policy: • Referring to the Imperial model: “Should we act on a possible worst case scenario, given the costs of lockdown? It seems to me that given that the costs of lockdown are mounting that case is becoming more and more fragile” • Recommends “a more rapid exit from lockdown based more on certain heuristics, like who is dying and what is happening to the death rates”
On the UK Government response: • “We might have done better by doing nothing at all, or at least by doing something different, which would have been to pay attention to protecting the vulnerable”
On the R rate: • It is “principally dependent on how many people are immune” and we don’t have that information. • Deaths are the only reliable measure.
On New York: • “When you have pockets of vulnerable people it might rip through those pockets in a way that it wouldn’t if the vulnerable people were more scattered within the general population.”
On social distancing: • “Remaining in a state of lockdown is extremely dangerous” • “We used to live in a state approximating lockdown 100 years ago, and that was what created the conditions for the Spanish Flu to come in and kill 50m people.”
On next steps: • “It is very dangerous to talk about lockdown without recognising the enormous costs that it has on other vulnerable sectors in the population” • It is a “strong possibility” that if we return to full normal tomorrow — pubs, nightclubs, festivals — we would be fine.
On the politics of Covid: • “There is a sort of libertarian argument for the release of lockdown, and I think it is unfortunate that those of us who feel we should think differently about lockdown” • “The truth is that lockdown is a luxury, and it’s a luxury that the middle classes are enjoying and higher income countries are enjoying at the expense of the poor, the vulnerable and less developed countries.”
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