WITH the government now threatening the maintenance of social distancing measures for the rest of the year to minimise the ‘second wave’ of coronavirus which could be worse than the first, the question is whether this second wave is more than a spectre.
It has become abundantly clear that the limited number of scientists and public health officials advising the government are convinced that only a small proportion of the UK population will have contracted the virus and developed antibodies in this wave, and that therefore a huge number remain susceptible to contracting and spreading it.
The Telegraph’s Sarah Knapton and Patrick Sawer appear to be true believers in this Second Wave doctrine, writing uncritically that in terms of the UK lockdown ‘the impact of such extreme suppression means a second peak, far higher than the first, is now a near certainty – and that has major implications for how Britain must exit the lockdown if such a catastrophe is to be avoided’.
Referring to the dubious Imperial College modelling as ‘what we know about a second wave and how it impacts the future’, they explain: ‘Under the current suppression plan, the trajectory of the disease has changed dramatically, with the peak moving to the middle of December. Alarmingly, it appears every bit as high and deadly as the unmitigated wave the Government was so keen to avoid. Although experts believe we have now peaked in the first wave, that is actually only a very low level of what could happen if lockdown is lifted without any means to suppress a second, far more deadly wave.’
They quote Professor Neil Ferguson, lead author of the Imperial College report, asserting: ‘There is almost no herd immunity and a very large risk of a second peak if we relax current measures without something to put in their place.’
The only way out, these advisers believe, is vaccine and treatment. Here is Sir Jeremy Farrar, who sits on the government’s Sage advisory group with Neil Ferguson: ‘We must assume and prepare for the fact that this is not a discrete one-off episode. My belief is that this is now an endemic human infection. It is likely that this is here with the human race for the future. We’re going to have to find ways to deal with that. The real moving forward is we have to have new tests, we have to have drugs that treat this infection, and critically we need to have vaccines so we can prevent what we should assume are future waves.’
While vaccine trials are now beginning around the world, the truth is that finding an effective and safe vaccine (and then making enough of it) in which the public can have confidence will take many months, possibly years, if it even turns out to be possible at all.
Yet what none of these scientists and advisers are taking into account is dissenting and alternative scientific observations and analysis. (The lack of public support from senior scientists and public health experts outside the government circle has been noted elsewhere.) One such observation is the explosive fact that the reproduction rate of the virus in Germany and Switzerland dropped below 1 (indicating an epidemic in decline) before lockdown measures were imposed, and in Sweden with very little lockdown at all. This raises the question of why we have to wait till Christmas before our pubs and restaurants are allowed to open and over-seventies are allowed once again to travel freely.
There is no sign of any recognition in government circles that these crucial facts demolish their assumption that lockdown is necessary to prevent a catastrophic contagion.
Scientists outside government have explained why infections have plateaued before or without lockdown. As reported in my last post, they posit that collective immunity has indeed already been achieved or is on the way (alongside public awareness and cleanliness measures). They also question the assumption, stemming from the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, that this requires 60 per cent of the UK to develop antibodies, suggesting that other coronaviruses or the body’s innate defences against viruses and pathogens play a substantial role.
Stanford professor of medicine John Ioannidis explains in this interview (about 33 minutes in) how ‘preliminary data suggests’ it is possible that the majority of younger people may be able to clear the virus without developing detectable antibodies.
Is this why newly reported antibody testing in New York, the worst-hit region in the US, finds that 13.9 per cent of the state population had developed antibodies compared with 21.2 per cent in New York City itself, where the epidemic is now in decline?
Were infections kept down by lockdown? Since deaths plateaued on 2 April and hospitalisations on 25 March, just three days after the lockdown began on 22 March, this seems unlikely.
American epidemiologist Knut Wittkowski argues that countries which imposed their lockdowns early enough to prevent the virus spreading almost completely may well experience a second wave, or rather that a first wave which never broke will finally arrive. But countries such as the UK, Italy, Spain, France and Sweden where the spread has been sizeable and the lockdowns appear to have arrived too late, or in Sweden’s case hardly imposed at all, a large and deadly second wave seems highly unlikely.
Why couldn’t policy be based on these assumptions? If wrong, some restrictions could be reintroduced if it is thought necessary to avoid health service overload. There needs to be far greater recognition from government that this lockdown is itself catastrophic; that the lockdown itself is killing people and depriving them of necessary medical treatment; that it is disrupting young people’s education, impoverishing those unable to earn, and placing debilitating limitations on all of our freedom and ability to get on with our lives.
Given a government and its advisers in thrall to ‘Second Wave theory’ and alarmism, to its super-cautious outlook, our best hope now is to watch other countries which have felt the full force of the first wave as they lift their restrictions and be reassured by their experiences. Any chance we had of getting ahead of the game through gutsy, bold, data-led leadership has been missed, with devastating effects on our economic competitiveness as countries climb out of this crisis.