Richard North, 19/12/2021  

There was a time when the British "Bobby" was a tourist attraction, with American visitors marvelling at our laid-back policing and the fact that guns were not routinely carried. But here we are yesterday, in December 2021, witnessing a scene outside Downing Street (pictured), a mere week before Christmas.

I would like to see this precise scene be used as the official Christmas card for the next prime minister – whoever he or she might be – in time for next December, as a reminder of how far we have drifted from any idea of normality. It just about beats scenes of machete-wielding thugs in our high streets (and public parks), but only just.

For this Christmas, though, we have an embattled prime minister holed up in Downing Street, behind his screen of uniformed thugs that our policemen have become. And in his ghastly, over-decorated garret, even now he must be considering whether to impose even more Covid-related restrictions to further mess up the festivities, even more than he has done so.

I've already made my views clear on what I consider to be the omicron panic and the latest analysis by SAGE hasn't changed my mind.

The situation at the moment is that, according to official figures, 9,330,590 virus tests conducted over the last seven days yielded 513,574 positive results, with 6,056 patients admitted to hospital and the deaths of 787 people recorded, those who had had a positive test result within the last 28 days.

What cannot be emphasised enough is the fragility of this information. We have no idea of the precise selection criteria which causes tests to be applied for and submitted, much less how those criteria have changed over the period of the epidemic.

We do know that, over the period of the week, testing numbers have increased by 19 percent, and that the increase in positive tests has been 44.4 percent. The government does not call these positive results "cases", and we have no means of knowing how many of those tested were symptomatic and nor, of those exhibiting signs of illness, do we have any reliable (or any) data on the severity – other than the vague proxy of hospital admissions.

We do know that hospital admissions have risen by 8.1 percent – just one fifth of the increase in positive results – but we have no means of knowing whether admission criteria have remained the same, over term, and we have no immediately accessible information on how many of those admitted require critical care, and mechanical ventilation.

Of the deaths recorded, the figures show a 4.9 percent decline over the last seven days – but even that figure is meaningless. These are people who have died after a positive result in the last 28 days. We have no means of telling whether they actually died from Covid-19, or even admitted for that reason. We already know that some of them will have been admitted for treatment odf other conditions, and died from other causes.

Thus does the Financial Times report that of the most recent 169 coronavirus-positive patients in hospital, 111 were not being treated primarily for Covid. They only incidentally tested positive after admission for other conditions, suggesting the figures could overstate the level of additional pressure on the NHS.

As to omicron cases, we are told that a further 10,000 were confirmed in the UK yesterday, with London – where mayor Sadiq Khan has declared a "major incident" - reporting a "huge surge". From that, we can assume that the bulk of cases can be attributed to London (which SAGE confirms), which has the lowest rate of vaccination in the country.

However, with only 26,000 cases so far reported (the bulk of them in the capital), SAGE asserting that, in England "it is almost certain that there are now hundreds of thousands of new omicron infections per day". It also asserts that the doubling time in England is currently around two days.

One does not have to be an expert here to recognise that such assertions are highly speculative. Given that the distribution of omicron throughout England is far from uniform, and that there are significant regional variations in demography and vaccination status, it cannot by any means be assumed that there are now "hundreds of thousands of new omicron infections per day".

Furthermore, while the doubling time in England may average around two days, there is no evidence that uniform rates of increase are being experienced throughout the country. It is most unlikely that this is the case or ever will be. From past experience, we know that the disease ripples through the country, flaring up in some areas and dying back in others.

Neither is it possible that such a rate, wherever experienced, could be sustained. On a national level, were that to be the case, by the end of the first week in January, every man, woman and child in the entire UK would be infected.

And yet, these entirely speculative assertions – unsupported by any evidence – underpin the entire case made by SAGE that "hospitalisations in UK will reach high levels in about two weeks even if transmission is reduced soon". That is even without factoring in the severity data.

Nevertheless, from the incredibly fragile base so far adduced, SAGE states that: "There are likely to be between 1,000 and 2,000 hospital admissions per day in England by the end of the year". This isn't even modelling, in any sense that we know it. This is what is known in the business as a WAG (wild-arsed guess). Their "modelling", though, "indicates a peak of at least 3,000 hospital admissions per day in England".

What is staggering about all this is, for the entire period of this extended epidemic, the "managers" have blundered through the process of trying to control the disease, armed with limited and fragile data which are plainly inadequate for the purpose.

As a result, when it comes to assessing the impact and the possible trajectory of the omicron variant, the likes of SAGE are left to make unfounded guessed, dresses up in the thinnest veneer of science. They might just as well sacrifice a chicken and peer at the entrails.

Now, on the table from these high priests of guesswork is the suggestion of an immediate two-week circuit-breaker (aka lockdown). But there is no indication as yet as to whether Johnson is going to listen to the advice.

While we wait, the media are feeding off the Mail on Sunday report that the recently ennobled David Frost is set to resign, a "dramatic move" triggered by his growing "disillusionment" with the direction of Tory policy and, in particular, the Covid restrictions and "net zero".

The media seem to be treating the resignation as one of a series of accumulating "events" which they project will lead to the demise of Johnson, rather like Green Shield stamps (before most readers' time) where, once you have filled in the book, you can trade it in for a new prime minister.

Politics, of course, doesn't work that way. Johnson quite obviously is gambling on bringing home a Covid success, throwing everything into the pot in a make-or-break attempt to master the dreaded omicrons. With that, he is banking on a success wiping out all his sins, restoring his standing with his supporters.

Nevertheless, there will be very stiff resistance to another lockdown – whatever name it is given. The natives are restless and, if Johnson imposes one, he will be hugely unpopular with his supporters. He will need to manipulate or "spin" the data to give an immediate impression of success. If it doesn't succeed, he is unlikely to survive.

Eventually, though, even if he succeeds with Covid (or is able to give an impression of success), one or other or the outstanding political crises could bring him down. If not, there are plenty of issues waiting in the wings.

The singular difference at the moment is that Johnson knows he is in trouble. He is relying on a "Falklands effect" - a victory over the omicrons - to restore his fortunes. It is a last, desperate gamble, where he has become trapped in a Messiah complex, casting himself as the saviour of the nation.

His immediate problem, though, is that the ramshackle data on Covid give him no real idea of what is going on, in a situation where good, timely intelligence will be essential if he is going to make an impact on the fast-moving and complex epidemiology.

Like as not, with every indication that SAGE is vastly exaggerating the threat, Johnson could still succeed, by dint of the scale of illness predicted simply not materialising. The original "lucky" Johnson might have been able to claim the credit for this. The "Teflon-free" version, however, might be condemned for crying wolf. The man has everything to play for, and everything to lose.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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