Richard North, 10/01/2022  

I don't know whether it was because of Sunday, when other cabinet ministers were spending more time with their families, but the government's duty noise-maker seems to have been education secretary Nadhim Zahawi.

He was wheeled into place to "play down" the Sunday Times report that Johnson was poised to discontinue free lateral flow tests. But since the old adage applies, that nothing is true in politics until it is denies, all the hapless Zahawi managed to do was confirm the Times story.

The Guardian, which reported the intervention after a Sky television appearance by Zahawi, noted that ending the free-for-all on LFTs "would lead to fewer infections in the community being identified", without perhaps realising that this is precisely the reason why they must be abandoned.

Only once we have been liberated from the treadmill of daily Covid reports can any sense of normality return. This, therefore, seems a vital first step in releasing us from statistical tyranny, where the last daily figures (6 January) still had a colossal 1,820,674 Covid tests being administered, bringing the seven-day total to 11,676,544.

With that, we certainly seem to be over the worst as far as the daily case reports go, down from the latest daily peak of 212,814 on 30 December, to 14,475,192 – the third drop in as many days, as figures begin to stabilise after the Christmas break.

This is leading to some of the more astute pundits to break ranks, with the Guardian also reporting that "leading statistician", prof David Spiegelhalter, had "poured cold water" on the idea of a big rise in intensive care admissions and deaths from the omicron wave.

His view is that Johnson's move in resisting lockdown measures over Christmas was "a gamble", but he thinks that "he may have got away with it", while hedging his own bet by observing: "we're going to have to see in the next few weeks".

Spiegelhalter gets more room in the Sunday Telegraph, which had a buoyant piece headed: "Covid cases approach their peak in all parts of England, data show", noting that this development came "as the number of people on mechanical ventilators reaches lowest level since October".

But, in an industry wedded to prestige, it needs the likes of Spiegelhalter to explain the significance of figures that virtually anyone with a pulse could work out for themselves.

First to get an outing, though, is prof Paul Hunter, described as "a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia and an adviser to the WHO", thus establishing his prestigious credentials. Weeks after even the local street sweeper could see the light dawning, Hunter is at last able to say: "I think it's beginning to look quite hopeful".

Contributing his "no shit Sherlock" insight to the commonweal, he tells us: "The worst case scenarios that were being talked about before Christmas by the SAGE modellers aren't coming to pass, fortunately".

He then adds, "I think the [number of hospitalisations and deaths] are going to be falling a long way below the worst case scenarios that were being talked about before Christmas", concluding that, "In England we peaked at around 3,800 - 4,000 hospitalisations a day, on average, a year ago, but we will probably peak around 2,000 this winter".

Prof Kevin Fenton, described as "Public Health England's regional director for London", then gets an outing, after telling Sky News that the capital's omicron wave peaked in London over the new year period. But he warns that ONS data suggest that nearly ten percent of London's denizens are still infected with the virus, so the "critical phase" of the pandemic is not yet over.

Only now do we come to Spiegelhalter, now promoted from a mere "leading" to an "eminent", who concurs with Hunter in thinking that "it is possible" hospital admissions will stay below 3,000 a day.

Yet, he can't resist covering that backs of the Covid Mafia, referring to the "overzealous models from December", when "little was known" about omicron. These wild predictions, were "not due to faulty science or pessimistic experts" – oh no!. They were because the variant is less deadly and vaccine-evading than was feared when the models were made.

At this point, though, we can slip over to another part of the Telegraph which carries the headline, "New dodgy data row as UKHSA warned over 'implausible' Covid statistics". With the sub-heading telling us: "Public trust 'at risk' after officials took days to justify controversial figures quoted by Sajid Javid over the spread of omicron variant".

This refers to the UK Health Security Agency, which has been warned by the Office for Statistics Regulation warned that Javid's claim that there were 200,000 omicron infections a day by mid-December "caused confusion" after officials failed to justify the figure for a further three days.

Here, to do him justice, Spiegelhalter at the time did warn about over-egging the figures, cautioning that the exponential growth being claimed at the time could not "go on for ever".

The Mail though, is less than charitable, with the headline: "Gloomsters' scientists admit they were wrong about 75,000 Omicron deaths", adding: "Scientists who warned Britain could face 75,000 Omicron deaths unless more restrictions were imposed, now say winter Covid deaths will be 'substantially' lower than originally feared".

With panic mode gripping the Covid Mafia in mid-December, it could have been so different has, as the Telegraph is belatedly saying, "It's time to heed the experts who provided the earliest data on omicron and are astonished at the UK's reaction".

In mid-December, it will be recalled, Carl Heneghan – a professor of evidence-based medicine at the University of Oxford – and Tom Jefferson, a senior associate tutor at the University of Oxford, were complaining that none of the South African data seemed to be getting through to those in charge of the UK's response.

Now we have "legitimate questions" being asked about why Britain was so dismissive of the evidence from South Africa, in particular by Angelique Coetzee, chairman of the South African Medical Association and the first doctor to raise the alarm over omicron.

Coetzee was among those who reported that omicron caused "very, very mild" symptoms compared with delta, and she hypothesised that it "could potentially be of great help to us" by replacing the more dangerous delta variant and helping the population to reach herd immunity at minimal cost to life. She says she was "astonished" at the panicked response to it in the UK. "I don't understand why it’s happening", she says. "It doesn't make any sense to me. The fear that has been spread in Britain – why is that being done?"

However, all's well that ends well, or so it seems. Today's Times is recycling much of the weekend press and comment, with the headline: " We'll avoid Covid crisis, say upbeat NHS chiefs".

Calling in aid the egregious Chris Hopson - who wants a million more staff to make the health and care system work – Spiegelhalter, and a galaxy of Covid stars, it now appears that the epidemic was indeed "over by Christmas" - last Christmas.

All we need is for the rest of the Covid Mafia to catch up, and admit it - not that "4,000 deaths" Ferguson ever will. But even without him, we can turn to focusing on the cost of living crisis, which is set to become the major concern for 2022. If we're going to stay miserable, we might as well have something different to be miserable about.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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