Saturday, 23 May 2020

Fergus's coronavirus conundrum

Fergus Walsh

I've been chuckling about this all day so I had to share it with you.

Fergus Walsh, the BBC's medical correspondent, has written about how he was 'gobsmacked' to repeatedly test positive for the coronavirus antibody (meaning, obviously, that he has had the virus).

Imperial College London are testing these finger-prick home antibody tests for accuracy and ease of use. One of the team there calculated that my repeated positive tests made it incredibly unlikely that I was continually producing a false result. In other words, it seems I have definitely had coronavirus.

 In retrospect, this should not have come as such a shock.

I've not had any symptoms in recent months. I'm rarely ill, but I did have a bout of pneumonia in early January. I was off sick for about 10 days and had a cough and a high temperature. I couldn't shake it off. My GP in Windsor diagnosed a bacterial infection and gave me antibiotics. These helped a bit, but in late January I needed another course of antibiotics. These seem to have done the trick. Was it really Covid-19? 

Given that he had the two main symptoms and has tested positive, it does rather sound like it, doesn't it? 

I don't think so. 


The first confirmed case of coronavirus in the UK was in late January when two people from China fell ill in York. It wasn't until a month later that the first cases of domestic transmission occurred. Note that although I'd been reporting on the outbreak in China by mid-January, the farthest afield I'd been in recent months was Christmas in Brussels.

But it has since been established that the coronavirus was spreading in Europe in December, if not earlier. We have a confirmed case in France was who treated on 27 December. This is accepted by the WHO (who said it was 'not surprising') and was widely reported earlier this month, including by the BBC.

So I don't think I missed a story here - the first coronavirus case in the UK was not me. But after that I've had no symptoms at all. Not a cough, not a high temperature, smell and taste normal, and no aches and pains, headaches, diarrhoea, conjunctivitis, skin rash or any of the other possible warning signs listed by the World Health Organization.

So, apart from that time when he was really ill for ten days with the classic symptoms of coronavirus, he hasn't any coronavirus symptoms. What a lucky escape!

Fergus goes on to say that 'having a positive test did not change my mindset' and that he still assumes 'that everybody I meet has coronavirus, and that I have it.'

And he welcomes the government's roll out of extensive antibody testing because...

It will also give us the first really accurate picture of how many people have had coronavirus without knowing it, so-called asymptomatic cases - people, it seems, like me.


I don't know what's more funny. The fact that the BBC's medical correspondent didn't realise - even with hindsight - that he was personally involved in the biggest health story of his lifetime. Or that a journalist is so trusting of claims from authorities that nothing - not personal experience, not repeated diagnostic testing, not even the fact that the claims have been made obsolete by subsequent evidence - will stop him believing them.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Prohibition and the pandemic

Governments around the world have been gold-plating their lockdowns with prohibition. I've written about it for Spiked...

Here are some fun statistics for you. Last month, a quarter of the world’s population lived under alcohol prohibition. More than a fifth lived in a country where the sale of cigarettes was illegal and an even greater proportion still live in countries where the sale of e-cigarette fluid is prohibited.

These startling figures are mostly due to the vast population of India, where an existing ban on vape juice was accompanied by full prohibition of alcohol and cigarettes when it went into lockdown on 24 March. After 40 days and 40 long nights, the ban was rescinded in much of the country two weeks ago, but ‘emergency’ alcohol prohibition remains in place in South Africa, the Philippines, Greenland, Panama, Zimbabwe, most of Argentina, and parts of Thailand and Mexico. Peru, Malaysia and Mexico have all banned brewing, with the latter suffering from a severe beer drought. Drinkers in Delhi, the Indian capital, now face a 70 per cent tax on alcohol, supposedly to discourage long queues at liquor stores.

This is the future nanny statists want. When asked to justify these sweeping prohibitions, politicians mutter something about relieving pressure on the health service – the catch-all excuse for draconian laws in this foul year of 2020 – but it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that overzealous officials have used the lockdown to introduce the kind of heavy-handed paternalism that has only now become politically possible. 

Do read it all.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Nanny state pressure groups on the make

Last month I wrote about the plight of 'public health' groups being overshadowed by a genuine public health problem...

If you’ve spent your career believing that drinking, smoking and obesity are the real epidemics, a potentially fatal virus forcing billions of people into hiding could make you question your priorities. But if the nanny state lobby was disoriented at first, it has quickly learnt to adapt.

And so it has. With the Prime Minister reputed to be in the mood to fight the war on obesity with renewed vigour, the anti-smoking and anti-drinking lobbies sniff an opportunity.

Let's start with the temperance lobby. Its de facto leader in Britain, Ian Gilmore, has written a short editorial for the BMJ in which he promotes his 'Commission on Alcohol Harm', a rigged consultation that will no doubt be confused with a Royal Commission or a Select Committee when it publishes its predictable conclusions later this year.

To get the media interested, he starts the editorial with an outlandish claim... 
As the UK and most other countries went into lockdown, the need to save lives from covid-19 rightly took priority over longer term health concerns. Many people reacted to the closure of pubs and restaurants by stocking up to drink at home in isolation, and alcohol, along with household items and storecupboard food, disappeared from supermarket shelves. In the week to 21 March, alcohol sales were up 67%. In comparison, overall supermarket sales increased by only 43%. Now, as signs emerge of some control over new cases of covid-19, it is increasingly clear that if we don’t prepare for emerging from the pandemic, we will see the toll of increased alcohol harm for a generation.

You what? One week of stockpiling to compensate for a period of self-isolation when the pubs are shut does not remotely imply that there will be a 'toll of increased alcohol harm for a generation'. This is gibberish, for which he provides no evidence in the rest of the editorial.

Nevertheless, the BBC and Sky both fell for it. Here's the Beeb...

Tackling harmful drinking during the lockdown will be "an integral part of the nation's recovery", an editorial in the BMJ says.
With supermarket sales of alcohol having risen, it warns cases of alcoholic liver disease could increase too.

But have alcohol sales risen overall? It doesn't look like it. And, as I argued last week, temperance doctrine dictates that a dramatic decline in alcohol advertising and availability should lead to a substantial improvement in alcohol-related health outcomes. Surely temperance doctrine couldn't be wrong?!

And the writers fear drinking could be fuelling a rise in calls to domestic violence charities.

It's the lockdown, rather than the drinking, that is the problem there.

Sales of alcohol in supermarkets and corner shops jumped by 22% in March.

Because people were stockpiling! They were also stockpiling toilet paper, but they weren't using more of it.

Sales of alcohol in off-licences rose by 31% in the same month - but this accounts for just 1% of alcohol sales.

I don't know what this is supposed to mean. Suggestions in the comments please.

And with the lockdown starting on 23 March, figures for the whole of April are likely to be much higher.

Er, why? The stockpiling had eased off by April, had it not?

"It is increasingly clear that if we don't prepare for emerging from the pandemic, we will see the toll of increased alcohol harm for a generation," the editorial says.

This is a stupid opinion which goes unchallenged by the BBC.

Nanny state lobbyists are in the fortunate position of having their every word turned into a news story by the credulous media. Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) get the same privileged treatment, especially from the Guardian.

Earlier this month, ASH made some wild extrapolations from a survey to claim that...

More than 300,000 UK smokers may have quit owing to Covid-19 fears

Today, they are singing a rather different tune. Based on another survey they commissioned, they have fashioned a new narrative...

Millions in UK smoking more amid coronavirus crisis, study suggests

Whilst these two claims are not mutually incompatible, the change of emphasis can be explained by ASH's desire to squeeze more money out of the taxpayer. The article contains some of the most blatant grifting I have ever seen from them.

News of the survey came as the campaign group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) accused the government of taking an unreasonably long time to make a decision over the release of £350,000 in funding it was asked to apply for by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) for a “quit smoking for coronavirus” campaign, while a unique “window of opportunity” to encourage smokers amidst the pandemic closes.

A unique window of opportunity to shore up their finances, more like. Does the Department of Health normally approach private organisations and actively encourage them to apply for funding? Or does it only do it with their close chums?

“Quit for Covid is being run on a shoestring, and without adequate funding can only have a limited impact,” said Deborah Arnott, the chief executive of Ash – which receives a £140,000 annual government grant along with funding from large charities.

“The Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England are supportive and even asked us to apply for funding from the government’s charity scheme when it opened in April. We were told there would be a decision within a week, so the project could start in May and run till October.

“Since then there has been radio silence and we understand the decision now rests with No 10. There is a window of opportunity to provide the support and encouragement smokers need to Quit for Covid, but it is closing fast.”

Oh dear, what a shame.

Taking Liberties has more details on Quit for Covid. It looks like just the kind of ineffective lame duck that the Department of Health would lavish money on.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Prohibition webinars

You can never have too many webinars, can you? So here's one my colleague Kristian and I did yesterday for Oxford University's Conservative Association.

Don't forget the Forest webinar tonight and the big prohibition event on Thursday.

Speaking of prohibition, if you smoke menthol cigarettes you have until midnight to stock up for the rest of your life, Helmut Schmidt style.

Monday, 18 May 2020

The failings of Public Health England and the WHO

Having spent years saying Public Health England should be closed down and the WHO should be defunded, it's pleasing to see so many people coming round to my point of view. All it took was for these organisations to get a bit of scrutiny.

There's a damning article in the Economist this week about PHE... 

The pandemic has exposed flaws in Public Health England

After the pandemic, the government is likely to rethink the executive agency’s role

Let's hope so.

While the failure to raise [Covid testing] capacity spreads well beyond PHE, there is concern across the health system—in the NHS, government and local authorities—that PHE has failed to rise to the challenge. 

It's difficult to keep up with all of PHE's shortcomings this year, but they include failing to work with the private sector to ramp up testing capacity, advising people against wearing face masks, assuring the public that it is 'very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected' and failing to use local public health teams in contact tracing. It has now emerged that PHE knew about an outbreak of the virus at a Nike conference in February and did not tell the public.

Still, menthol cigarettes are being banned this week, so at least PHE's fat cats have got one thing to celebrate.

Before the pandemic, PHE was well regarded. 

By other people in the 'public health' racket, perhaps.

A review by the international association of public-health bodies concluded that it rivalled any in the world. 

It might be time to revise that now.

Created as part of controversial reforms to the health system in 2013, it emerged from 129 organisations, including those responsible for health protection (watching for infectious diseases) and for health promotion (campaigning against smoking). The inspiration was America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. In Britain the model seems unlikely to survive the crisis.


The fragmented system that has resulted has its own problems, particularly in data collection. The health department has brought in Dido Harding, the head of an NHS regulator, to sort things out, and to link the testing programme with contact tracing, which is still run by PHE. The Office for National Statistics is leading serological studies to see how widespread covid-19 is in the British population. It is an all-hands-on-deck-situation for the government. Yet effective organisations tend to accumulate responsibilities. Instead, some in the NHS joke that PHE is enjoying a period of “self-isolation”.

One of the problems, as Matthew Syed argued in the Sunday Times yesterday, is that PHE had been preparing for an influenza outbreak, not a coronavirus outbreak, despite two near-misses in the recent past - SARS and MERS - being coronaviruses.

Once country that did not make that mistake is Taiwan, whose response to the epidemic has been exemplary. Alas, the WHO is not likely to learn many lessons from Taiwan because it barely acknowledges its existence. The reason is China. The video below has become an infamous reminder of the WHO's attitude towards Taiwan, and the Economist, in a different article, looks at how China keeps the Taiwanese out of the room. Worth a read.

Boris Johnson's war on obesity

Boris Johnson is reputed to be launching a war on obesity, both his and other people's, when this is all over. The Times covered this gossip on its front page last week, perhaps feeling vindicated for publishing so many anti-sugar editorials over the years.

More cynically, this looks like an attempt to shift the blame for the government's handling of COVID-19: "Don't blame us, blame the fatties." This doesn't stack up as an excuse, however, as I wrote in an article for the Spectator.

Leaving aside the total failure of every anti-obesity policy to date, let us consider the government’s political motivation for finding a scapegoat for Britain’s relatively high Covid death rate. How convenient it would be if people believed that South Korea handled the crisis better because of its low rate of obesity and not because of its contact tracing capability and widespread use of face masks.


If Britain had fewer obese people it would have more old people. If it had more old people, it would have more deaths from Covid-19. Italy’s relatively low rate of obesity may have contributed to it having an unusually large elderly population, but this did not prevent it from having an unusually high death rate from Covid-19. Quite the reverse. 

This is the lesson from health economics that refuses to be learned. We all have to die from something. If you avoid a ‘lifestyle-related’ disease, you will die from something else at a later date. Blame the obese if you must, but don’t fool yourself into believing that you would benefit personally if, by some miracle, Boris Johnson’s forthcoming interventions succeed.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Prohibition produces the usual results in South Africa

The BBC has made a short video about South Africa's lockdown ban on alcohol and tobacco. Aside from making the dubious claim that the prohibition was based on logic and reason, it gives an accurate picture of what's been happening. It is the usual story of crime, corruption, tax loss and financial ruin.

A hundred years after the the 'noble [sic] experiment' began in the USA, it seems that every generation has to learn this lesson for itself.

Speaking of which, menthol cigarettes are being banned in the EU and UK on Wednesday for no good reason. I'll be talking about this in a webinar for Forest on Tuesday to which you are warmly invited.

I'll also be chairing 'Prohibition and the Pandemic' on Thursday for the IEA. This will be an online panel discussion with some very distinguished guests talking about prohibition past and present. You can see the line up and register for it here.