Never Mind Squeezing the Brakes – Boris’s Lockdown Strategy is a Car Crash

Boris: “Voting Conservative will increase your chances of owning a BMW M3. But don’t lend it to me because I’ll write it off.”

I wrote a piece for the Telegraph yesterday trying to capture the madness of the last few days.

I’ve lost count of the number of U-turns the Government has done. First we were told that masks were unnecessary. Now they’re mandatory in indoor public spaces. Primary schools were supposed to re-open weeks before the summer holidays. Then they weren’t. You are absolutely, positively allowed to go to Spain on your summer holidays – oh no, wait a minute, you’re not. It’s hardly surprising that even members of the Cabinet are being caught out by last-minute policy shifts.

But in the last 48 hours the Government’s handling of the ongoing crisis has reached a new pitch of incoherence. August 1st was supposed to be the day that another raft of restrictions were lifted, with bowling alleys, skating rinks and casinos all allowed to re-open. Live sporting events were due to resume and weddings of up to 30 people would be permitted. It was time to turbo-boost the economy.

But on Friday Boris announced he was going to “squeeze the brake pedal” in response to a “surge” in infections across England, which meant none of these things would happen. Worse, a local lockdown was imposed in Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire, thanks to a fresh “outbreak” in the northwest. Matt Hancock helpfully unveiled this hodgepodge of new restrictions at 9.16pm on Twitter, less than three hours before they came into force.

So what’s the message coming out of Downing Street? That the crisis is far from over and we need to be super-vigilant if we’re to avoid a second wave? Apparently not, because the government has stuck to its plan to launch Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, with diners in over 72,000 cafes, pubs and restaurants getting 50% off for the month of August.

In addition, the ‘shielding guidance’, whereby the elderly and the vulnerable were advised to take extra steps to protect themselves, was ‘paused’ on Saturday. That’s encouraging. Virus almost gone, then? Er, no. Less than 24 hours later we learned that Boris is considering extending the ‘shielding’ policy to everyone over 50.

So the Prime Minister has simultaneously slammed on the brakes, executed a U-turn and pressed the accelerator. No wonder the government appears to be drifting.

I summarised the evidence that infections have not increased, either in England as a whole or in the North West that readers of this site will be familiar with. Unfortunately, most of that didn’t make it into the piece – too much detail? – so here’s what I wrote.

The Office for National Statistics published its latest infection survey data on Friday, supposedly showing an increase in the number of infected people across England from 0.05 percent of the population to 0.09% if you compare the period June 29th to July 12th with the period July 13th to July 26th. But if you drill down into the data, you discover this is based on just a handful of people.

In the penultimate two-week period, 31,542 people were given a nose and throat swab, of whom 19 tested positive, whereas in the more recent period 28,325 people were tested, of whom 24 were positive. So the alarming “surge” in infections across the whole country amounted to a grand total of five more people testing positive. Never in the field of public policy has so much been owed by so many to so few.

Okay, there was also an uptick in the number of cases in the community over the course of July as revealed by Pillar 2 testing. But according to Carl Heneghan, the Oxford Professor of Evidence-Based Medicine, that’s entirely due to the fact that the number of people being tested has ramped up significantly in the past four weeks.

On July 1st, 43,161 Pillar 2 tests were done compared to 78,522 on July 31st, an increase of 82%. If you look at the number of people per 100,000 testing positive as opposed to the raw data, there’s no increase.

What about the alarming “outbreak” in the northwest that prompted Matt Hancock to place four-and-a-half million people under virtual house arrest on Thursday evening? That, too, is a figment of the government’s imagination, says Prof Heneghan.

In an interview in The Telegraph yesterday, he said the apparent increase in cases in Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire disappears if you control for: (a) the date the tests were taken rather than when the results came through; and (b) the increase in Pillar 2 testing.

My conclusion – and this will surprise no one – is that Boris doesn’t know what he’s doing.

It seems the Prime Minister was too busy conjugating Greek and Latin verbs at Eton to pay any attention in maths. When I think of his handling of the coronavirus crisis I picture a child behind the wheel of a racing car. He’s overwhelmed by the data constantly popping up on his dashboard, has no idea what any of it means, so just randomly presses different levers and pedals, spins the wheel as fast as he can, and hopes for the best.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: For digital subscribers to the Telegraph, the comments below my piece make for entertaining reading. Here’s one of the highest-rated:

In company with many I was prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately the virus has exposed what many of us suspected. The overeducated career politicians with no business or life experience are just as ineffectual, as the overpaid, over promoted seat polishers in the civil service, NHS and PHE.

How Accurate is the Government’s PCR Test?

A reader has posed some good questions about the accuracy of the PCR test the Government is using, and wonders whether the new, much-ballyhooed 90-minute test will be any more reliable.

In your blog of August 2nd you quote ONS data which show there were 19 and 24 positive test results for two concurrent 14-day periods within sample populations of roughly 30,000 each. What surprises me about these results is how can the number of samples testing positive be so low. I am not implying that there should be more positive samples from genuinely infected donors. Rather, I refer to the number of false positives among uninfected donors one would expect from such a test

I saw this quote in an article in yesterday’s Daily Mail reporting two 90 minute turnaround tests soon to be deployed:

“The Government has never disclosed how accurate its current [slow turnaround] tests are, but studies have indicated they give the correct diagnosis about 80% of the time”

The test used to determine presence of virus is the RT-PCR test. I have looked long and hard but unsuccessfully for a Government statement on how accurate their tests are. Do you or any of your readers have knowledge of the accuracy of these tests? I have seen others quote 30% for false negatives among those genuinely infected and 1-5% for false positives among those genuinely uninfected. Incidentally, to find just 20 (false) positives in a sample of 30,000 would require a specificity of 99.93%. The RT-PCR is nowhere near that accurate and indicates the numbers quoted by ONS are just noise and as such meaningless.

It would be reprehensible if such inaccurate data were used to justify further lockdowns where positive test numbers are low.

By 4 August 2020