Who can you trust?

The UK government’s explanation of why it has decided to stop comparing the UK’s Coronavirus infection and death rates with China’s is deeply ironic. They say that Chinese stats can’t be trusted.*

There is a more obvious explanation; that China has been very successful in keeping its death rates down while the UK has not, that this is deeply embarrassing, and becoming more so as time goes on.

This is what that looks like in deaths per million as of April 26 (1).

. chart (5)

This is significantly worse than the previous week. The Chinese figure is unchanged (on 3.3 per million) – because the virus is under control – while the US and UK figures deteriorate (from 101 to 168 per million for the US and from 206 to 305 per million for the UK) (1). This figure means that the Chinese can now start to safely reopen their economy. It is quite clear that the UK and US cannot do so safely at this level. Denial is essential to even contemplate doing so. ** Whitewashing out the discrepancy with China, is a further aspect of playing down or ignoring their experience and any lessons that could be learned from it – could be preparing the ground to do so at an unsafe level.

The trustworthiness of UK official figures is also questionable. While the daily death rate is confined to those who have died in hospital after being tested and serves a purpose in tracking trajectory, it does not include anyone who has died anywhere else; and no one in government is keen to point out that the headline figure is not the total of people who have actually died: which is considerably larger. This may be considered a sin of omission, but it nevertheless serves a purpose in downplaying how bad things actually are; another form of denial.

Financial Times analysis (2) incorporating the Office for National Statistics figures on all deaths concluded that the official UK figure of 17 337 deaths up to Tuesday 21 April is less than half the actual figure. That looks like this.

chart (4)

 

*This is odd, because the WHO does trust them (as does the Financial Times; whose job it is to provide accurate information for the business class). A logical next step in this trajectory will be to downgrade relations with the WHO – which also serves a purpose in that it stubbornly insists on tighter conditions for easing lockdown’s than the UK government is prepared to contemplate. See previous blog.

**It is clear that the ground is being prepared to do this. Train operating companies are preparing to open up 80% of services by May 18th. Statements by Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford on behalf of the Scottish and Welsh governments on Friday on easing the lockdown to “live with” or “live alongside” the virus indicate that a reopening is being planned that is a response to commercial, not health, pressures. When Keir Starmer says that the UK risks being “left behind” in its consideration of “exit strategy” in the context of other countries beginning to ease restrictions, this applies pressure in precisely the wrong direction. The UK has the second highest daily death rate in the world right now. As of April 25, that looks like this.

chart (6)

The points he – and the rest of the Labour and trade union movement should to be making are:

1. That the only safe exit is one in which the WHO ‘s 6 conditions are met in full and

2. That the current lockdown should be tightened to include ALL non essential work; as the quickest route to an exit is through cutting off all possible routes to infection.

3. We can no more “live with” the virus than we can live with climate breakdown.

(1) https://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants/

(2) https://www.ft.com/content/67e6a4ee-3d05-43bc-ba03-e239799fa6ab

Re-opening to the virus? How the UK government’s conditions for ending the lockdown differ from the WHO.

These are the WHO’s conditions for a safe ending to lockdowns These are very clear and are aimed at eliminating the virus.

  1. Disease transmission is under control
  2. Health systems are able to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact”
  3. Hot spot risks are minimized in vulnerable places, such as nursing homes
  4. Schools, workplaces and other essential places have established preventive measures
  5. The risk of importing new cases “can be managed”
  6. Communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal

These are very clear and are aimed at eliminating the virus. In China, the point at which disease transmission was under control was when deaths were down to single figures.

As in China, at that point the Health system has to know where any new infection takes place and have the equipment and infrastructure to rapidly intervene, test, contact trace and isolate to prevent it getting out again. This virus is very infectious and spreads very quickly.

At that point, anyone coming in from an area where the virus is still in spate will need to be tested and quarantined if need be and all schools and workplaces will have to have the appropriate preventive measures in place and be fully equipped.

The last point is as crucial as the others. Communities have to know the risks, know the procedures and recognise that this is not a blip that will “disappear like a miracle” (D.Trump) but a threat that will still be lurking at least until a vaccine is produced – which is scheduled to take 18 months if all goes well. So, even when we are out of the woods, we could still meet a wolf; and have to be on our guard.

The UK government puts different conditions. They say

  1. The government must have confidence that the NHS can still provide sufficient critical care and specialist treatment across the UK.
  2. Secondly, there is a need to see a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rate to be confident the UK is beyond the peak of the outbreak.
  3. There also must be reliable data from SAGE that the infection rate has decreased to manageable levels.
  4. Testing capacity and PPE must be in hand to meet supply for future demand.
  5. There also must not be a risk of a second peak of infection that could overwhelm the NHS.

As the words are not the same, the differences must be deliberate. While some of them sound similar, the devil is in the detail.

  • Being “beyond the peak” can be any time from when death rates start to decline in a “sustained and consistent” way. It does not necessarily mean that the death or infection rate would be under control if the restrictions were lifted.
  • There is no specific mention of schools or workplaces, no mention of imported cases, no mention of having to minimise the risks in vulnerable hot spots.
  • There is an emphasis instead on making sure that the NHS is not overwhelmed. A laudable aim in itself, but when you consider that it is currently being achieved by pre-triage on the one hand and rapid removal of the elderly into hotspots like care homes on the other, you can see its limitations.
  • There is no mention of communities being fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal, which reflects the UK’s relatively lackadaisical lockdown.
  • Having infection rates at “manageable levels” does not mean the same as having them “under control.” “Under control” means on the path to elimination. Manageable means copeable with, not overwhelming.
  • Avoiding the “risk of a second peak” is not the same as eliminating the virus. Their bottom line is that the second peak should not be so great as to overwhelm the NHS. That could describe the current situation. The NHS is not being overwhelmed, but the UK has the second highest daily death rate in the world.
  • The phrase “testing capacity and PPE must be in hand to meet supply for future demand” implies that there is going to be a future demand. This is not the same as having a system ready and primed to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact”. Managing. Not eliminating.

So, we have a half way house policy here. Just as the UK “lockdown” is half a lockdown.

The danger is that there will be a return with infections at too high a level; so the rate of infection will go up again, without adequate PPE, without a testing and contact tracing system in place – with schools one of the first places to open simply to have kids taken care of during the day so the economy can “open” (in Trump’s phrase) and their mums and dads can go back to work.

This would let the genie back out of the bottle and then require restrictions to come back in to stop it running out of control. So instead of getting a grip and crushing the virus in one determined go, we end up with a reactive yo yo of restrictions going up and down; with the presumption that a vaccine will arrive like the cavalry coming over the hill. The problem with this – of course – is that it might not.

So, an apposite question for Labour (and others) to be asking is why it is that the government is not adopting the WHO guidelines without equivocation.

Lives rest on this.

Do What Works.

The per capita death rates from COVID19 are expressed here in how many deaths there have been in China, the USA and UK per million people. The figures are taken from here from 15 April.

https://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants/

The Chinese figure has been uprated from 3 to 4.5 to reflect the backdated increase in deaths in Wuhan announced yesterday. In case the figures for the USA and UK are not clear on the graph, these are; USA 101. UK 206.

While the US response is widely and rightly seen as a mess, there is a tendency in the UK to give the government far more of a benefit of the doubt than it deserves. chart (3)

It should be clear from this that China’s experience should be studied and learned from, while the UK and US are not models to be followed.

The bottom line right now is that China did not end its lockdown until deaths were in single figures. The relaxation of social distancing now being contemplated in parts of Europe and being discussed in the UK will let the genie back out of the bottle. Disaster will follow if this course is pursued. The only safe path to an exit is through a tightened lockdown.

 

UK daily death stats seriously understated.

Understatement is not a charming national characteristic in this case. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) – which does a weekly update to take into account the deaths that have taken place outside hospital – has just published the following.

Our data shows that of all deaths in England and Wales that occurred up to 3 April (registered up to 11 April), 6,235 involved COVID-19 compared with the 4,093 deaths reported on 4 April 2020 by @DHSCgovuk http://ow.ly/4kHD50zdo9L

So for the week ending 3 April the total Coronavirus deaths in the UK were half as high again as those being announced by the government. 6,235. Not 4,093. That looks like this. the daily totals announced in the press briefings are just the blue part of the circle. Bear the in mind every time a new figure is announced.

chart (1)

While including these on a daily basis would be very difficult – and attempts to do so in France have led to wild fluctuations in daily totals that make trends harder to discern – these additional deaths should be factored in; and the provisional nature of the daily figures made clear at the daily press briefings.

With many of the most vulnerable elderly people in particular pre-triaged not to take up hospital beds and reports of significant spread of infections within Care Homes – where staff are even less likely to have proper PPE than front line medics – this gap could well grow in the next week.

The rate at which the UK and US are taking an increasing share of the daily deaths can be seen here in the FT.  https://www.ft.com/coronavirus-latest.

My next post will look at these death rates per capita.

 

 

 

US and UK death rates stand out.

chart

This graph shows the totals of reported global deaths for April 10th. With the usual caveats that many places in the developing world may be under reporting – the figures for the USA and UK stand out starkly. One in three of all reported deaths in the USA. One in six in the UK.

UK daily figures only include deaths in hospital, not those at home or in Care Homes; so the actual figures will be worse; probably significantly so. The Office for National Statistics will be updating these on Tuesday, so I will do another graph to take that into account then.

Three things to note.

  • The number of deaths in China on 10 April was zero.
  • With the UK death rate projected by the IHME (1) to hit a peak on April 17th with 1 674 deaths on that day, this is not a time to be prioritising talk of “exit strategies”.
  • Those concerened with these should be studying the Chinese experience of cranking society back into life – as the only country that has began to do so an a large scale.
  1. http://www.healthdata.org/covid/updates

Death and Exits. A stronger challenge needed from Labour.

The emergency measures being taken to deal with the immediate acute coronavirus crisis- and the preparedness to take them – can be seen as a model for the emergency measures we need to take to save ourselves from climate breakdown. Making extraordinary efforts to return to the “normal” functioning of an economy and society that is destroying the conditions for its own existence is like treating a patient to recover from an acute illness just to put them on palliative care only for a chronic underlying condition that has no need to be fatal. 
The Coronavirus is an acute challenge that could – if let rip – kill millions globally. All other issues are redefined by it. The crisis will go on for months and there will be no return to “normal” afterwards. So many things previously considered impossible have become inevitable in the last three weeks and some “impossible demands” will look absurdly moderate quite soon.
  • The necessary measures to effectively suppress coronavirus cost China a 20% drop in its economy in one quarter. They were prepared to do that, did it, and we should learn from them. In doing so they averted a potential 11.5 million deaths in a few months (assuming an 80% infection rate and 1% death rate).

 

  • The confused half measures being taken in the “West” will take longer and lead to more deaths.  This graphic from the FT illustrates the impact of the different approaches used in China and the US in deaths per million.

HubeiThis was from March 31st, so the Chinese bubbles will still be the same size. The US bubbles will now be significantly larger, and be even larger than that next week, and the week after. On March 31st 1550 had died in New York. By April 7th it had risen to 5489; so the New York bubble here should be just under four times as big.

 

  • This raises a real scream of financial pain from fractions of capital who are willing to sacrifice lives to keep the system running as it is. Open or covert advocates of “herd immunity” in the UK, Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro, the Wall Street Journal, columnists in the Times and Telegraph have taken this line; sometimes with absolute swivel eyed consistency (Bolsonaro); sometimes seeming to concede one moment, only for the content of the argument to pop up again even as the label is disavowed. This account of the argument in the cabinet on this is very revealing. (1)

 

  • We in the Labour movement have to be completely unambiguous that lives come first.  Herd immunity was not “probably” wrong (2). It was wrong full stop. If allowed to “work through” the population we could have had half a million deaths – which is more than the total UK casualties in World War 2. – by the autumn. The first step to an economy designed to serve the people is not to sacrifice the people for the economy. That applies directly to any “exit strategy”.

 

  • The best time to have taken all necessary measures to eliminate the virus was when we first knew about how dangerous it was – instead of dicking about for two months – the second best time is now. That includes the government using powers to require industry to manufacture PPE, ventilators and whatever equipment is needed to effectively expel this virus out of the population – as demanded by UNITE, UNISON, the BMA and RCN last Friday. (3) This kind of emergency measure to meet urgent human need – and over riding the imperatives of profit – is a model for reorganising the economy more broadly as companies crumble under the impact of prolonged shutdown.

 

  • Labour should be demanding that that is what is done. The government approach here is for the state to subsidise business with no social quid pro quo; and that cannot be accepted. George Osborne – who snuffed out a mild economic recovery in 2010 with his austerity policy – was on Radio 4 yesterday arguing for the state to take “equity shares” in medium size businesses to stop them collapsing. This is a repeat of the 2008 Bank bail out – satirised at the time as “socialism for bankers”. State led investment should be just that; job creating, socially necessary and environmentally imperative measures that will allow our society to recover on a sustainable basis.

 

  • With the UK projected to have the worst casualties in Europe as a result of the Conservative government’s approach, the Labour leadership should not give them any blank cheques in the name of “national unity”. The privilege being allowed into the room where the decisions are taken – even as spectators – is only ever extended by the Conservatives if they want someone else to become complicit in their failures and share the flak with them.
The deeper existential crisis is that of climate change – or more broadly the human impact on the environment. This is linked with coronavirus because viruses have jumped the species barrier both from
  • human encroachment on wildlife habitats and the use of wild animals for food – ebola, COVID19
  • and the intensification of factory farming – H1N1 Swine Flu – which emerged from gigantic (and disgusting) industrial pig farms in the US.

The wholesale overuse of antibiotics in this sort of “farming” is also a clear and present cause of the rise in anti-biotic resistance that is also a significant and growing health risk for all of us.

 
  • The economic “Exit Strategy” Labour should argue for – once the virus has been eliminated -is for the state to regenerate the economy and employment through investment in the transition to sustainability that we need. The plan is already there in the Green Industrial Revolution which Keir Starmer pledged in his campaign would be “at the heart of everything we do” but didn’t mention at all in his victory speech.

 

  • The proof of the pudding on this will be whether he and the Shadow cabinet COVID19 Committee make this the core of the recovery strategy and a clear line of divide with a government that will want to go back to the free market “ideology” they claim to have abandoned in a fit of bipartisan generosity; but actually because it gave no tools to deal with the Coronavirus crisis adequately and it won’t provide the tools for an effective recovery either. Dumping dosh onto companies in the hope they will use it wisely won’t work. Stating this is basic.

 

  • We can’t afford another wasted decade like the last one. The politics of austerity treated the profit motive and private ownership as a sacred cow. Only by creating the conditions for profitable production could companies be induced to invest. It failed. They didn’t do it. Huge cash piles were not deployed or invested.

 

  • The Tories are in government and will try this again. They will fail again at great cost to those least able to bear it.

 

  • The climate crisis really is one that we are all in together and we can’t wait for dealing with it to become profitable in the short term.

 

  • We have ten years to make a significant enough dent in carbon emissions that we are not toast in the medium term. If we don’t borrow from the future, there won’t be one.

 

  • We need those wind farms, insulated homes, reforested uplands, sustainable vehicles as part of the recovery – and that won’t happen without state investment.

 

Labour’s job is to keep banging away at this and in no way to become complicit in the idea that dealing with climate change can wait until we have regenerated the economy as it was enough to have enough left over to make a transition with what we can “afford” over and above normal functioning. We have to recover by and through the transition if we want a future.

 
2. Keir Starmer. Andrew Marr Show April 5th 2020

Are we in a “hokey-cokey” lockdown?

I suspect that we are being subject to “herd immunity” by stealth.

A failure to get a grip.

  • An absence of open source public data in the UK is an indication of this.
  • Publishing data is secondary to knowing what the situation is in the first place. Any data the government publishes – and they should – is just what Donald Rumsfeld would have called the known knowns.
  • Chris Whitty said – rather airily – at the point they abandoned what limited community testing they were doing, that there could have been ten times as many cases out there that they didn’t know about. Almost with a shrug. They didn’t test comprehensively in any targeted way from the outset; so had no idea who had it, or where they were. Put simply, they didn’t, and don’t, have a grip. Laura Kuensberg on the BBC – with her usual direct line to government thinking – has just revealed (World at One, 2 April) that they expected the virus to develop more slowly – giving them up to the middle of May before it hit hard. How they could have such a view in the face of how quickly it actually did develop in China, Iran and elsewhere beggars belief.
  • Further, the only figures they count as coronavirus related deaths are those that happen in hospital after a definite diagnosis and test. People who may die of it at home are not being counted in the official stats. Its all about the numbers and, as the relatively lax UK approach is likely to lead to many more deaths than those in Italy and Spain, you can see why they’d want to keep them as low as possible. Accuracy is a secondary consideration.

 

Alternative facts – or do you trust Mike Pence more than the WHO?

  • Its important to have data to limit the degree to which malignant interpretations of them can be made. As the US death toll rises above the Chinese number – in absolute terms let alone per capita* – it becomes a political imperative for the US administration to cast doubt on the Chinese figures; and/or accuse China of not sharing information in a timely way; even though they had alerted the WHO on Dec 8th and given a full alert on what the virus is and the scale of the danger it presents on Dec 31st; giving the US (and UK) governments two months to get prepared; which both squandered. This is the “alternative facts” strategy; which has to rely on people being prepared to trust Mike Pence and US Intelligence – who have never been known to fib – more than the World Health Organisation; or hoping that broadcasting the accusation loudly and widely enough will be sufficient to bury the facts.
Preparing for a Hokey Cokey half Lockdown.
There’s a rather chilling article on the BBC site today which argues the following.
  1. That most of the people dying with coronavirus are probably dying of something else. The virus is just the final straw and they would most likely have been dead within three months anyway. So the problem isn’t the deaths themselves, its that they will all happen at once, leading to knock on effects that cause more deaths as the hospitals are overwhelmed. Therefore its about managing the virus not suppressing it. This is the logic of the government’s initial declared “herd immunity” strategy in a new form.
  2. The effects of a lockdown will lead to a significant number of deaths anyway. This isn’t quantified. Nor is it related to the actual experience of lockdown in Wuhan. Its speculation designed to make people shrug at the accelerating rate of deaths that are happening. 560 in one day yesterday on a terrifying exponential curve that could double in three days at the current rate, and again three days after that.
  3. The point at which the economy collapses to a point at which more deaths are likely from lockdown than letting it rip is quantified in the article as a 6.8% drop in economic activity (which is about the same as the 2008 crash). I suspect that this is the rule of thumb being used by the government. In China the drop in economic activity was about 20% overall for the quarter affected by the lockdown. That is putting lives ahead of economic returns in a way that the UK government looks very reluctant to do.

We can therefore assume that the UK government will try to play a kind of hokey-cokey part lockdown in an attempt to limit the damage to “the economy” while “managing” the number of excess deaths and the pressure on the Health Service. Given that this government is considerably more adept at coming up with excuses for why they haven’t done things than doing them, I can’t see this working for either.

*As China has four times the US population, a more appropriate comparison.