I attracted quite a lot of opprobrium on Twitter yesterday for raising questions on the efficiency of vaccines, and for suggesting that there is risk that there might be a third wave of coronavirus, vaccines or not. It was even suggested that I was irresponsible to say this. At one point I saw a quite steady loss of followers as a result, although I note this morning that this has been almost entirely reversed. So, what am I suggesting?
The first thing I am not suggesting is that people should stop having the vaccines. I had my own second dose of AZ on Friday. I would recommend anyone have the second dose of whatever they have been given.
Second, I am not claiming to be a virologist, an epidemiologist, or anything else of the sort. I am not. I am someone who can and does read data and thinks about it contextually. In other words, I look at the work of those who seem to have their heads screwed on with regard to this issue, and seek to interpret what that means for the economy. In that process I am advised quite often by my wife, who was a GP with numerous post-graduate medical qualifications until she was forced to retire on the grounds of ill health several years ago. She is a partner in Tax Research and has taken an active interest in this issue.
The work of Christina Pagel, Deepti Gurdasani, Stephen Reicher, Anthony Costello, John Ashton and others has a lot of influence on this thinking. None of these are lightweights in the field. They are warning that there are major flaws in the Public Health England data and that this is being dangerously politicised in ways that undermine confidence in it.
What they are also saying is that whilst the vaccine roll out has been amazing the efficiency of the vaccines is not enough to place the confidence in them that is now being seen.
They are as a result saying that the current ending of restrictions is too hasty. And they warn that further easing could be very dangerous, especially as the Indian variant does seem (and I stress, seem) to be spreading exponentially and with a higher rate of transmission than has been seen in, for example, the so-called Kent variant which was dominant over the winter.
The modelling for this possibility of lower vaccine efficiency against this variant, higher transmission rating and lockdown release is really quite scary. Take these two tweets as example:
Also worth bearing in mind that's the step 3 only chart.
So technically if they make the June changes we'd then switch maps as it were to the even worse step 3 + step 4 chart (the one at the bottom). pic.twitter.com/2HfZn5BsSV
— Catherine Finnecy (@cfinnecy) May 23, 2021
The data is from Warwick University, and is now relatively out of date in the sense that the concerns are being confirmed. The risk that there could be a major third wave is high.
I then use my judgement on this issue. I admit I suffer confirmation bias on this. I was right by the beginning of March 2020 to think the crisis was much bigger than the government was suggesting. I spent last summer in debate with a well known epidemiologist who assured me time and again that the crisis was over when I was quite sure he was wrong, and was right to think that. I now trust the critical wing of epidemiologists on independent Sage on this issue again.
I think it especially wise to do so when we know the government has lied time and again on this issue, not least when it comes to herd immunity. For once I agree with Dominic Cummings. This glaringly obviously was government policy in March 2020. The denials are flatly contradicted by the evidence. The same herd immunity policy was also evident last September when Sunak brought the herd immunity enthusiasts who signed the Great Barrington Declaration into Downing Street, and we paid a heavy price for that.
The runes read exactly the same now. The trade off is economy v lives, and the economy is winning again.
People are also desperate to think this is over. Johnson is riding high in the polls because some believe it is. The willingness to restrict freedom in the face of danger is absent yet again. And if people want to say I am irresponsible for saying that when the evidence of danger is clear, so be it.
But let’s move to what really worries me in addition to the threat to life and long term health for many, and that is the economic consequence of failing to plan for this, yet again. I made this point in one way last Friday. I now make it another way.
Right now I would really like to know what support will be available to the economy if there is a third wave of coronavirus and this summer is, in effect, cancelled, as must be considered to be a possibility. I think that an entirely reasonable ask to make.
Will furlough continue?
Will its faults be remedied?
How will businesses survive?
What changes to relaxations e.g. on tenant evictions will be made?
Will policy take the longer term into account this time?
And how will schools, universities and essential public services, including but not just the NHS, get the support they need to function?
Will there be more QE?
Will the Bank of England be forced to deliver, even when it may have reservations about doing so?
I will ask these questions undeterred. They are not being raised in the media generally, where the mood is almost universal boosterism. I see little foundation for that. And I am not going to be told it is irresponsible to go against an economic mainstream that may, yet again, be getting its thinking horribly wrong in this country, aided and abetted by a government that lies for what it thinks to be England, when actually it is lying against the interests of us all. I am worried, and I reserve the right to say so.