There has been nothing slapdash about the Government’s presentation this week of the case for keeping us all locked down in an ever-more depressing loop of lockdown extensions.
The Prime Minister’s announcement cancelling Christmas last year seemed hasty and ill-prepared. By contrast, the move this week to cancel Easter and keep the economy shut down was better planned, with dossiers and scary graphs based on dubious modelling.
To justify keeping us in cold storage for another four months, the PM leaned on his reliable allies in Sage.
The more Sage gets wrong, the more Mr Johnson clings to its view of the pandemic.
Few politicians have any understanding of science, so they become captives of their most cautious adviser, and fail to question the validity of their data and advice.
Take the PM’s confident assertion on Monday: ‘As the modelling released by Sage today shows, we cannot escape the fact that lifting lockdown will result in more cases, more hospitalisations and, sadly, more deaths.’
Mr Johnson’s use of the word ‘fact’ is revealing in that context, as it suggests a fundamental ignorance of the uses and limitations of modelling.
You do not deduce ‘facts’ from modelling, but ranges of possibilities, which by their very nature fluctuate wildly according to the assumptions used and the data submitted.
Hence the highly contentious figure of 500,000 deaths that was posited by an Imperial College scientist at the beginning of the epidemic, which to be fair was not a prediction, but an extrapolation of a worst-case scenario.
That, of course, did not stop the figure being seized upon by the media and used by the Government to justify the first lockdown.
Now, based on similarly faulty methodology, we are asked to believe Sage and its modellers’ claim that 91,000 more people will die if lockdown is lifted ‘too early’.
In a worst-case scenario, the additional death toll could reach almost 150,000.
These figures are not facts. They are hypothetical and based on models which have, in the past, repeatedly been found wanting.
Besides, this is not how modelling is supposed to be applied to political decision-making that affects the economic future of this country.
If you allowed your life to be governed by worst-case scenarios, you would never drive a car or get on an aeroplane. Risk is there to be mitigated, not eliminated.
Moreover, this approach ignores the key fact that evidence from around the world, reported in the journal the Lancet at the end of last year, shows there is very little correlation between legal restrictions and the rate of infection.
There are numerous ways in which the modelling can be faulty. For a start, it assumes that in lockdown, everyone is obeying the rules, when in fact common sense, and your own eyes, tell you that many are discreetly ignoring them.
This is particularly so in rules — or laws! — banning family contact, which many people regard as disproportionate and cruel.
The initial justification for lockdown, you may remember, was to protect the NHS. Well, the NHS did not fall over, though it was mightily tested and subject to its annual seasonal overload.
Now, despite the superb progress being made with vaccination, Mr Johnson and Sage have alighted on a new justification to keep the country locked down — vaccine refuseniks.
Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser, suggests the Government is working on the assumption that 20 per cent of the population will decline the offer of a vaccine.
Indeed, although uptake is currently running at over 90 per cent, as the vaccine is rolled out to younger groups this figure will likely decrease.
If you add into the mix the children who will not be vaccinated, Vallance suggests, and an 80 per cent vaccine efficacy, then ‘you’ve got roughly 50 per cent [protected]across the whole population’.
Sir Patrick adds: ‘So it tells you that even at quite high levels of coverage and protection, you’ve still got a large number of people unprotected.’
But this logic is faulty. For a start, children are almost entirely unaffected by the virus. And anyway, why should the country be held hostage because one-fifth of the population decline to protect themselves?
It could turn out to be a hugely inflammatory approach — those who have had the vaccine may feel resentment towards refuseniks blamed for perpetuating the lockdown.
In any event, there is good reason to believe that the R rate will stay low because we are moving towards summer, when seasonal viruses fade away of their own accord.
The flu-like symptoms experienced by many people who have had the Oxford jab may actually suggest that many have a pre-existing degree of immunity, either from a mild case of Covid, or from exposure to a previous coronavirus.
But, ultimately, having the vaccine must be a matter of personal choice. If people will not be jabbed, that is their right, and the Government’s job should be to explain to them the consequences.
As for children, when they return to school next month, it will be reported that ‘cases’ are ‘soaring’ again. But that will be because there is to be a vast expansion of testing in the classroom as well as at home by their parents.
It is infuriating to see ‘case’ numbers being reported as rising when the key determinant, the number of tests, is never given.
And many of these test results will be false positives. Even assuming a very low level of 1 per cent false-positive results, a million tests per day would mean 10,000 apparent ‘cases’ per day (roughly the current rate), even if the virus had completely disappeared!
Additional testing will inevitably suggest a surging infection rate, but the numbers are meaningless unless taken with the essential details about the accuracy of the tests — details which are never referred to.
I sense that Mr Johnson now recognises the troubling truth that Covid has become endemic in our population, and that it will continue to evolve new variants.
Regrettably, we may unintentionally have encouraged more serious variants with lockdowns instead of allowing milder variants to circulate and ultimately prevail.
The science behind fighting Covid is difficult, and politicians need all the help they can get to interpret it correctly. Sadly, Mr Johnson has repeatedly retreated to his comfort redoubt of a handful of key advisers who seem wilfully blind to the fact that their recommendations are tearing apart the fabric of our society.
He needs to draw upon a wider circle of medical and scientific advisers, particularly those who can speak to the long-term consequences of lockdown. Instead, we seem to have reached a peak of risk aversion in a country which once prided itself on its sense of proportion.
Worst of all, the continuing actions are hugely counterproductive. If you damage the economy, you damage the healthcare system, as you impoverish the population by destroying jobs and businesses.
The economy is vital to healthcare. Countries that grow poorer develop worse health outcomes, and you don’t need a computer model to work that out.