Richard North, 17/12/2021  

I hadn't intended to return so quickly to the absurdity of the Covid epidemic management but, as the hours and days progress, the situation is becoming more and more surreal.

Matching the Oaf's "dead cat" strategy, Comrade Whitty, in particular, is excelling himself in ramping up the hype, to the extent that he is turning a development in the long-running saga of the Covid 19 epidemic into a first rate crisis which has all the hallmarks of a scare.

As Booker and I wrote in our definitive book, Scared to Death, the essence if a scare is a disproportionate response to a real or imagined threat and, whatever the actual threat level represented by the omicron variant, the current response is certainly disproportionate.

The essence of Whitty's case, in turning this into a full-blown crisis, rests on two main elements. Firstly, he asserts that the new variant is highly infective – much more so than previous strains, to which current levels of vaccination offer insufficient protection.

This, he then surmises could deliver a higher burden of illness in the community than previous strains (over a shorter period) which, even if generally milder than illness produced by other strains, could produce a sufficient amount at the severe end of the spectrum to overwhelm the NHS.

For the first leg of Whitty's thesis – shared, it would appear, by most of his colleagues - there is some evidential support, to the extent that no one is seriously disputing that this strain has the capability to spread faster than previous strains.

As to the possibility of a higher burden of serious disease, there are tentative indications that the bulk of symptomatic cases are little more serious than the common cold (and very similar in presentation). However, there are no data (at the time of writing) that would support a claim that we are on the threshold of a wave of serious disease of such magnitude that the NHS is at risk of being overwhelmed.

In our third week of the omicron variant epidemic, therefore, Comrade Whitty's catastrophe thesis is, so far, based on conjecture – tempered by a pessimistic "take" based on extreme projections of case rates so simplistic that they verge on child-like.

In terms of hard data, though, Whitty is only able to point to very limited evidence.

To date (16 December), he can claim 11,708 confirmed omicron case numbers, and 37,430 S-gene target failure (SGTF) cases – which are presumed omicron. Yet, from the nearly 50,000 cases, there have only been 20 hospitalised (16 confirmed/4 SGTF) and one death – who is said to be a 74-year-old unvaccinated male.

On the other hand, yesterday's figures cited as "daily cases" totalled 88,367 – up 37,509 on the same day last week which, on the face of it, is indicative of a surge. But even that provides only limited evidence of an omicron surge. Hospital numbers total 7,579, up 195 on last week, while deaths at 146 are two less than at the same time last week.

However, there are some serious drawbacks when it comes to relying on the official case data. In the first instance, from 26 October when the number of tests conducted stood at 802,547, the level stood at 1,635,922 on 15 December – more than double the rate.

By contrast, on 26 October, the reported cases stood at 40,954 while, on 15 December, the reports had reached 78,610 – less than double. Assuming there is some correlation between the number of tests conducted and positive results, one might even venture that if the sample rate doubles, so will the positives. In fact, that can't even be relied upon. Just from my own brief assessment, the percentage of positive tests can range from less than 5 percent to over 11 percent of tests administered.

Furthermore, this is by no means the full extent of the problem. Effectively adopting the WHO case definition, this allows a case to be recorded on the basis of a positive antigen test, even where the person is asymptomatic and there is no evidence of exposure to the disease.

The so-called case statistics, therefore, make no attempt to record the burden of disease and, with a wholly dysfunctional test and trace system, there is actually no baseline on which to assess any change.

Thus, where we had the Delta variant with its own specific virulence characteristics, we now have omicron, potentially exhibiting less virulence. With the cumulative defects in the system, it is not possible to predict actual disease incidence (as opposed to infection rate), much less the spread of virulence.

In short, for epidemiological purposes, the daily test results are of very little value, with the accumulated data not even of sufficient reliability to confirm that there is even a surge in progress – or even able to chart changes in the burden of illness.

And that is before you introduce the complication of local surges, resulting from areas of low vaccination density, or the effects of age distribution.

In terms of trying to assess where we stand, that leaves us with hospital admission data and the deaths attributed to Covid, in the daily record. However, as this article points out, even these data are likely to be fragile, and especially if there is a surge.

Should the infection rate go up, for instance, and the current reporting protocol is maintained – where those who have a positive sample within 28 days of death are recorded as "Covid" deaths - the system could catch a significant number people who would have died naturally, or from diseases entirely unrelated to Covid.

It is the case that, when frail, elderly people are close to death, their immune systems start breaking down and it is then possible post-mortem to record the presence of diverse pathogens, without evidence of associated illness.

As to hospital data, admissions can be skewed by policy and bed availability – and now by the willingness of clinicians to allow home administration of antivirals. And the basic figures give no indication as to the length of stay, or ICU occupancy. Again, we get no immediate clue from the data as to what precisely we are dealing with.

Looking at this in the round, therefore, one gets the sense that Whitty's insistence that there is a potential crisis in the making has less to do with Covid than it does with the internal politics of the NHS, and unrelated capacity issues.

As we see from this report, hospitals in England are already 94 percent full, with four out of five critical care beds occupied, even before the putative spread of omicron has to be taken into account. Even without a surge, therefore, the NHS is in trouble.

It was this, in effect, to which Heneghan and Jefferson were alluding, stating that it was "over-simplistic" to blame our current problems with capacity and lack of readiness on the appearance of a new variant.

To an extent, Whitty and his colleagues in the higher echelons of the NHS seem to be using omicron as a smokescreen to cover for the structural problems within the service that they have failed to address – and their more general incompetence in managing the Covid epidemic.

Time and again, over the best part of forty years, I have had direct experience of the authorities using the scare dynamic to conceal or divert attention away from other problems, or to progress undeclared agendas. And after those forty years, we seem to be back in the same territory, with much the same results.

It is so much easier to blame a virus for a problem than to admit your own incompetence and your inability to deal with the attendant problems, launching a huge booster programme to distract the masses, and keep the media occupied. And the reason the scare is so often used is quite evidently because it so often works.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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