Tuesday 29 December 2020

"Underlying health conditions": the Brewer-Hitchens argument

There have been many sceptics, doubters and conspiracy theorists in the face of the Covid pandemic. Some said that the whole thing could be solved through 'herd immunity' without vaccination. That's to say the 'herd' (us) would become immune by virtue of us producing antibodies and/or the virus becoming 'weak', simply by being everywhere. Yes this would kill the 'very old' but - it was implied or stated - this wouldn't matter very much. The argument also turned on ignoring what happened with e.g. the Black Death, myxomatosis, or Dutch Elm Disease). A version of this argument suggested that the 'vulnerable' should be shielded. 

This argument developed into the 'underlying health conditions' argument. This states that as Covid mostly affects those with these conditions, then the precautions we're taking are too severe and risk many other people's lives in the process. This argument comes from e.g. Peter Hitchens and Julia Hartley-Brewer. For the argument to stick, though, we need a good picture of numbers of who has these underlying health conditions. What seems to have happened is that the argument has implied that 

a) very few people are dying from Covid anyway and that 

b) most of this few are people with these conditions.

So the argument rests on statistics. 

And to be fair, they have a remedy: shield these vulnerable people along with the 'very old' (that's Brewer - though as her stats only included the 'under 60s', she may think that the over-60s are therefore 'very old'. Not clear from her statement.)

Let's unpack that.  What are these 'underlying conditions' that correlate with death from Covid? If you go  online you'll find a wide range of these from asthma to high blood pressure, from rheumatoid conditions to obesity. This is important. The Brewer-Hitchens argument and remedy can't be put forward,  if we don't know what range of illnesses are 'netted' by the term 'underlying health conditions'. And once we're sure which conditions probably put us at risk from dying if we contract Covid, we need a sense of what numbers are we talking about. After all, Brewer and Hitchens are advocating a radically different policy from the one(s) that the government is suggesting: namely, shield these people and the 'very old'.

Responses on twitter have ended up with figures from between 20 and 50 million. Perhaps you can do the sums of people of all ages who are obese, asthmatic, suffer from cancer, high blood pressure (more than 140 diastolic), etc... It's a lot. And now add in, let's say, the over 75s as the 'very old'. 

And now let's apply the Brewer-Hitchens remedy: shield them.  I think it's fair to ask, where? how? Or why wouldn't shielding these millions not in effect be the same as some kind of lockdown? Or do they have another plan in mind? At one point in March, Robert Peston seemed to be passing on a government plan to put hundreds of thousands from these categories into army-style camps. No one took up what he claimed was an inside story so perhaps it was quickly dropped. 

In other words, we have to keep asking, what underlying conditions put Covid patients at risk? How many people are there in the population who have these conditions? How would we shield them without also in effect limiting the movement of millions more on top of that total? 

Surely, it's for them to flesh out the details, the stats and the proposals? 

Sunday 27 December 2020

Quentin Blake's 'Clown' and Covid

 What does a picture book with no words tell us about Covid? 

The story is of a toy clown who is discarded along with some other old toys. However, this 'toy' has a life, and so wakes up out of the bin (trash can). He has a scary time avoiding dangers but in the end arrives in the room of a girl struggling to keep a baby happy. The clown is able to entertain the baby, help the girl clean and tidy the room. The mother of the girl and the baby comes back and all is well.

This wonderful book - which I recommend to anyone and everyone of any age is in its own way a morality fable. Why is the clown discarded? Is he too old, or is he too much connected with someone's childhood. Originally I interpreted it (my reading) was that Quentin was saying something about the dangers of discarding our childhoods (which the clown represents). Or perhaps why neglect the arts (which the clown could represent)? 

In the light of Covid, and as an example of how interpretations can change over time, how the arts can apply in different ways in different conditions, the clown  now represents for me, the dangers of throwing away experience - old age if you like. This is precisely what was done when a group of scientists, journalists and politicians flirted with 'herd immunity' without vaccination in the first weeks of 2020. They were prepared to sacrifice the old, sick, vulnerable and high risk on the grounds that the 'rest' would be saved as - supposedly - immunity through exposure would spread through the rest of the population. This was a theory that had been shown to be either false or lethal for millions, on countless occasions through history e.g. the Black Death, Dutch Elm Disease, the rabbit disease - mixamatosis and so on. 

But back to 'Clown': I see the 'old'  Clown showing us that he is still 'useful', he shouldn't have been discarded, and that through his kindness, fun and solidarity with the other discarded toys that he has a social conscience that we can't afford to lose. Of course he also shows that kindness in what he does for the girl and the baby. 

I always loved the book. I now love it even more. I think Quentin Blake is a great artist in both senses of the word; someone who draws and paints, but also as a great creator of the arts. 

The book is now my Covid morality fable. Thank you Quentin. 

Destructive forces: in King Lear and the Odyssey

Two forces:

the one where you destroy things;

the other when things destroy you.

King Lear destroys the love

Cordelia had for him

but he is destroyed by bigger forces

coming from Goneril, Regan and Edmund.

Unlike Odysseus’s hubris

where his destruction of Polyphemus

brings on the destructive powers of Poseidon,

Lear’s destruction of love

doesn’t bring on

the destructive powers of

Goneril, Regan and Edmund.

You can say

that through facing their destructive powers

Lear comes to see that

he was wrong to have destroyed

the love he had.

The cause and effect of the Odyssey

is reversed.

And then

interwoven into that

Lear comes to see that ‘pomp’

- wealth and power -

needs to ‘take physic’

it needs to be taken down,

be made more merciful, kinder

and more egalitarian:

‘Shake the superflux’,

he says.

King Boris and the Gas Army

King Boris is informed that a new and dangerous army is on the borders and approaching.
This army uses a gas that attacks everyone. They’ve been using it in other countries on civilians.
He takes advice.
Some (plan A) tell him that every single one of the people must be given gas masks and given the means to equip their dwellings with gas proofing
Some (plan B ) tell him that the gas only kills old people and people with underlying health conditions so the best way to deal with this army is not equip everyone but to lure the army in as it attacks, yes the old and sick will die, but the gas ‘dies’ of its own accord, leaving this foreign army isolated and defenceless.

Meanwhile in the Red Lion, some people are discussing the threat. Some say that it's a hoax. There is no army. It's just a trick invented by King Boris to get control over the people. Some say that they've heard that there are different plans afoot and the best thing to do is put pressure on King Boris to equip everyone.

Meanwhile in the offices of Daily Boris, top journalists are writing articles echoing (mostly) KIng Boris's Plan B: the old, sick and disabled are a worthy and necessary sacrifice.

Back at the court, King Boris has disappeared. It turns out that he is seeing a ‘friend’.

The army arrives on the borders.Throws gas about.The first civilian deaths (mostly old and disabled and sick) occur.

Back at the Red Lion, people say that it's a hoax: they died of schizophrenia. Or asperger's. Or mixamotosis. Or watermelons.

Chaos at the court with the Plan A vs the Plan B people arguing. King Boris is still away. A message comes from him saying that he's going with Plan B. And that's it.

The army is prepared and more troops recruited.

BAck at the Red Lion, people prepare to resist being recruited for what, they say, is a hoax.

The enemy troops invade further in to the country. More and more people are being gassed.

The Daily Boris says things are going well...

Saturday 26 December 2020

How can poems speak to us out of the past about what's going on now?

This is 'Strange Meeting' by Wilfred Owen:

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand pains that vision's face
was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues
made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause
to mourn."
"None," said the other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek
from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no
wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now..."

I think this is one of the great poems of the 20 th century. A poet could see - in spite of the triumphalism and phony sorrow - that out there on the battlefield, people who could and should have been friends, were killing each other.

I feel it speaks to me today about the triumphalism and phony sorrow about Covid. In my mind, I have 'strange meetings' with the victims of Covid. They explain to me that they were the 'enemy' of a government who in February and the first part of March (before lockdown) was toying with 'herd immunity' entailing the inevitable deaths and maiming of tens of thousands of people.

No Politician Said

 No politician said:

'And now we're doing herd immunity,
now we're going to let Covid spread
however it wants to.
That way, some people will die
some people will be maimed
but the rest of us will become immune.'
They didn't say that.
Some scientists said things like
'We''re going to have to generate herd immunity'
(and this was March so they
weren't talking about vaccination then.
Some journalists told us in March
'Herd immunity will be vital to stopping
And they didn't say
'Some people will die
Some people will be maimed
What they did was
not have enough PPE for health workers
not insist we mask-distance-handwash
not put in place test-trace-isolate.
That's how they did
'herd immunity'
without saying they were doing
'herd immunity'.

I was bad...

 I was bad.

I took a wrong turning in life:
I got old.
I didn't mean to.
Perhaps someone led me astray.
Perhaps I was weak.
I just got into bad ways:
and I kept doing it:
kept on and on being old.
So I got my punishment.
Fair dos.
I was caught.
Sentenced to death.
Part of herd immunity, they said.
But I got a reprieve
thanks to doctors and nurses
who seemed to think I shouldn't swing for it.
You never forget things like that.
I'll always be grateful to those people
who saw a bit of good in me
in spite of everything.
I'm glad I've been given a second chance.
I'm trying not to be old now.
But it's hard.
I get tempted.
I look in the mirror
and see wrinkles
and start to stay to myself,
'You're old.'
But you have to stop yourself
don't you?
because being old is dangerous
when you're around people
who say your time's up,
you've got to go...

 If you want to know how fascism happens,

remember how nice people talked of 'herd immunity' as if they didn't know it would entail the deaths of thousands and when it happened how soon it is that it's been forgotten.

Thursday 24 December 2020

Covid UK in tweets (up till Lockdown Mar 2020)

 History of Covid in tweets (Dec 24 2020)

They say 'herd immunity', we say 'Black Death', let's call the whole thing off.

Thailand, South Korea, Japan. We stand or fall in comparison to those countries. We fall.

Without vaccination, herd  immunity is a myth. Scientists who talked of it as a fact were deceiving themselves or us or both. They had the Black Death as a prime example to draw on: successful herd immunity, population ravaged over hundreds of years.

From Wuhan to  Lockdown: how the UK government toyed with the idea of 'herd immunity', deliberately failed to implement track-trace-isolate, and mask-distance-handwash with the result that thousands died or got seriously ill with lifelong consequences.

Anyway, they gave us a choice: people's freedom to not mask, distance and wash, versus our deaths and lifetime damage. They went with 'freedom'.

There are campaigns and there's legislation to highlight hate crime, racism, antisemitism etc. Quite right. But what's happened here is a form of discrimination against a group, (the over-70s),  that is seen as separate from other forms of hate. We were defenceless. Literally.

The people who articulated the 'herd immunity' theory have never been called to own up to it for having endangered us:  John Edmunds, Patrick Vallance, Graham Medley, Robert Peston, Toby Young, Jeremy Warner. 

We have very public mourning for the awful random multiple deaths of major accidents and acts of terrorism. Quite right too. The Covid deaths are just numbers. No collective public mourning for tens of thousands of deaths.

How did politicians, journalists, scientists soften us up to accept 'herd immunity' without vaccination?

24 December 2020

How did politicians, journalists and scientists soften us up to accept 'herd immunity' without vaccination? 

Feb 3 Boris Johnson's Greenwich speech in which he counterposed what he called 'market segregation' and 'freedom of exchange' as alternatives in how to deal with the Coronavirus. He favoured (of course) 'freedom of exchange' over - what I think he means - state intervention in dealing with the virus.

Here are two more examples:

Daily Telegraph:

“Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the Covid-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.”
Jeremy Warner Daily Telegraph

March 3 2020

In March 12 2020

Robert Peston explained here in the Spectator why we had to go with 'herd immunity' but without him mentioning the inevitable toll of deaths and permanent damage it would inflict. 

(copy and paste the link into your browser)


Also in March 2020 we have Toby Young writing a tweet:

"The cost of the economic bailout Rishi Sunack has proposed is too high. Spending that kind of money to extend the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people with underlying health problems by one or two years is a mistake."

And in March 2020, at least three scientists came on TV to tell us that 'herd immunity' (with no mention that they meant 'with vaccination') was the right approach:

Graham Medley, Patrick Vallance and John Edmunds.

Medley said on BBC 'Newsnight; (March 13) '"We're going to have to generate herd immunity...the only way of developing that in the absence of a vaccine is for the majority of the population to become infected..."

1/ 13/03/20: Sir Patrick Vallance (UK Chief Scientific Adviser, SAGE member): "Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity"

(Today programme, March 13 2020)

"The only way to stop this epidemic is indeed to achieve herd immunity" - John Edmunds, 13th March 2020 (not referring to herd immunity through vaccination)

Wednesday 23 December 2020

I am the medical experiment

I am the politician’s dream 

I am the scientist’s calculation

I am the journalist’s headline

My eye is the collateral damage

My ear is the necessary wound

My blood clots are the inevitable consequence

My toes are the concomitant contribution

We are here to give you herd immunity

we are here to save your business

we are here to save the politicians’ skins

we are here to say nothing

We are the dead

we are the long covids

We are the there-but-for-grace-of-god-go-you

We are you.  

Epitaph by Merrit Malloy

 Someone called David Joyce posted this on Facebook and it popped up on my timeline. (As it seems to be circulating on the internet, I'm not sure of the rights in the poem) 

This poem is stunning. Just wanted to share it. It is used in the Reform Jewish liturgy, as an optional reading, before Kaddish
”Every once in a while, a poem or song is so well constructed, so clearly conveys the author's meaning and is so precisely expressive that it becomes something of an anthem. The poem below, Epitaph, was written by Merrit Malloy and as one of those poems, has become a staple of funeral and memorial services…for good reason.”

Epitaph - By Merrit Malloy
When I die
Give what’s left of me away
To children
And old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
Cry for your brother
Walking the street beside you.
And when you need me,
Put your arms
Around anyone
And give them
What you need to give to me.
I want to leave you something,
Something better
Than words
Or sounds.
Look for me
In the people I’ve known
Or loved,
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on in your eyes
And not your mind.
You can love me most
By letting
Hands touch hands,
By letting bodies touch bodies,
And by letting go
Of children
That need to be free.
Love doesn’t die,
People do.
So, when all that’s left of me
Is love,
Give me away.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

J'accuse...a government of not protecting us


(I accuse)

(in tribute to Emile Zola, who called out the government of his day for disregard of human rights)


a government of not protecting us


a government of experimenting with its population


government of putting profit before people


a government of toying with the idea of ‘herd immunity’ without vaccination

a government of knowing that herd immunity without vaccination inevitably necessitates the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people

a government of knowing how little they knew about how Covid-19 works and that how it might spread, mutate, reinfect were unknowns and therefore any idea of ‘letting it rip’ was lethal and fatal to thousands of people

a government of refusing to listen to World Health Organisation guidelines issued from February 2020

a government of dishing out contracts to friends and supporters to provide services and equipment

a government that turned away from the local public health bodies that were best placed to run services

a government that has not provided and is still not able to provide a proper test-trace-isolate system which could and would protect more of its citizens

a government that decanted thousands of old people out of hospitals into care homes without them being tested, resultng in tens and thousands of deaths

a government of failing in early March to issue strict guidelines about social distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing

a government of underfunding the NHS for ten years prior to the pandemic so that it was not sufficiently equipped to cope with the emergency


a small group of scientists of peddling the idea of ‘herd immunity’ without vaccination as a viable and ethical policy even though they knew that it necessitated the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people


journalists and commentators in major papers and news outlets peddling the idea that people over 70 were or are superfluous, unworthy of saving, who, if dead, would help the economy by not existing


journalists and commentators for helping to provide a seed-bed for what is in effect a form of creeping fascism, that a whole section of the population can be dispensed with for what is deemed to be a greater good.

(with thanks to Kevin Ovenden for suggesting that I write this)

Monday 14 December 2020

Recent print interviews on surviving Covid

 For people not used to using links, you'll see that the links below aren't live. You can't click on them. To read or listen to the interviews, you copy the link by running your cursor over it, and press 'command' and 'C' simultaneously, and then paste it into your browser and press 'return' and it should come up. Cheers






2 hours 36 minutes into this radio programme from BBC Radio 4 Today programme there's an interview with me from Martha Kearney:



Article in this  edition of NEU 'Educate'


'The Reunion' Radio 4


Pick of the Year Radio 4