TeaThe question of why the government diverged from the suggestions of its scientific advisers on key pandemic policies has long been a source of debate. Why did Boris Johnson take pride in shaking hands “with everyone else” at the hospital on the same day in early March 2020 where the Scientific Advisory Group (Sage) warned against doing so? Why did the government fail to act in the autumn of 2020, when cases were on the rise and SEZ recommended a circuit-breaker lockdown? Why were primary school children sent back to mixed classes for only one day in January 2021? Could it be that the ministers did not understand science at all? The recent leak of 100,000 WhatsApp messages has shed some light on this issue.
A conversation emerging from the leak between Johnson, his chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings, and his scientific advisers provides a particularly striking example of scientific illiteracy.
After reading an article in the Financial Times, Johnson calculated a Case Fatality Ratio (CFR) of 0.04 to one in 0.04%, or the equivalent of 4%, by dividing the number of people who die from COVID-19 by the number of people who test positive. Kovid) has made a mistake. Or 0.0004 – a hundred times smaller. His subsequent calculations left him puzzled as to why Britain had already experienced more deaths than his inaccurate figures would suggest – even if everyone in the country was infected. Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance, patiently points out the difference “It looks like the FT figure is 0.04 (i.e. 4% not 0.04%)”, to which Johnson replies: “Eh? So what’s 0.04 if it’s not a percentage?” “
While it is clear that Johnson has been privately talking informally with his advisers, the fatality ratio he adds to his calculations to find the expected death toll is the wrong number. What we need instead is the infection mortality ratio – the number of deaths divided by the number of infections. Since the actual number of infections is usually much higher than the number of people who test positive (especially at the beginning of an epidemic when testing was rare), the CFR overestimates the IFR. The difference is subtle at first glance, and might be forgivable to someone inexperienced with such discussions, but this was August 2020. relevant science.
In another WhatsApp exchange, Johnson posts a The Spectator article suggested that herd immunity could provide a way out of the pandemic for the UK. England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, quickly refutes the piece, explaining that it is unclear whether infection provides the long-lasting immunity that would be needed for herd immunity.
Johnson persisted in suggesting that those over the age of 65 could be offered a choice between shielding or living with the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. To support his claim, he claims, “If you are over 65 the risk of dying from Covid is probably as high as the risk of falling down the stairs. And we don’t stop older people from using the stairs.”
His fabricated figure exemplifies Johnson’s complete misunderstanding of the level of risk posed by Covid-19 to elderly people. The five-year average death rate for people over age 65 from falling down the stairs is less than 550 a year. In England and Wales alone, more than 60,000 people over the age of 65 died of COVID-19 in 2020, despite interventions being put in place.
Again, Whitty has to step in to explain the fundamental impossibility of keeping older, more vulnerable individuals completely isolated from infectious individuals: “Most of those who would die in that situation would not have chosen to take the risk.” Despite being reminded by his scientific advisers that attempting to achieve herd immunity was not a successful strategy during the first wave of the pandemic and would likely have overwhelmed the NHS, the idea lodged in Johnson’s mind.
In September 2020, Sage suggested a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown to save lives and potentially prevent later economically damaging longer restrictions. Instead, Johnson invited three fringe scientists to speak at Downing Street – one of whom was a proponent of the widely rejected Great Barrington Declaration, which rejected Johnson’s pet policy of shielding the vulnerable to gain herd immunity. advocated. As a result, the proposed mitigations were submitted for more than a month. Despite the introduction of a tiered system, cases continued to rise until a mandatory full lockdown was imposed in England in early November.
We saw the first concrete evidence of Johnson’s scientific weaknesses in the WhatsApp messages leaked by Dominic Cummings. In the messages, Johnson noted (perhaps as his idea of a joke) that the average age at death with Covid-19 is above life expectancy and concluded: “So get Covid and live longer.” But as you age, life expectancy tends to increase. Commonly cited average figures are life expectancy “from birth” of 79 for males and 83 for females. Once you turn 80, you expect to live another nine or 10 years. People who die from COVID-19 lost an average of about a decade of life. Perhaps most worryingly, Johnson shockingly suggests a causal relationship between dying from COVID-19 and living longer. How can that possibly work?
Our former PM’s previously private scientific blunders displayed ineptitude similar to those very public missteps by his US counterpart, Donald Trump, who suggested that injecting patients with disinfectant could help treat the coronavirus Is. But it could have been a very different story.
For example, Germany went into the pandemic with a detailed national pandemic plan. Its politicians understood from the beginning the importance of increasing testing capacity and preventing cases of the disease. You only need to look at Angela Merkel – a scientifically literate leader who was able to not only understand but explain to her people the intricacies of relevant scientific principles – to see how different it could have been.