The Great Panic Deconstructed

In The Mail on Sunday, this week, Peter Hitchens again writes about what he calls the “Great Panic”. He complains that those that challenge him “choose to abuse me, often with lies, personal smears and swearwords.” He goes further: “Your childish, intolerant reaction has strengthened me in my conviction that mine is the better case. If your policy is so good, why can you not defend it like civilised adults? Do you really think that I regret needless deaths any less than you? Can you not accept that I also have good motives?”

Well, I can and will accept that he has good motives. In fact, I’ll even allow he has the very best motives. I do believe that he cares deeply about liberty in this country. So, I hope, do I. Yet I also worry about something else, which is the problematic relationship that people have to science. They fail to grasp the fundamental nature of science which is “peer review”. Instead, they fall into some bad version of science that owes more to religion in that it demands faith in institutions rather than the evidence. I also distrust words and know how rhetoric can often make bad arguments seem compelling.

The country faces a crisis and only science can save us. The science currently says that social distancing is the way to stop the coronavirus and the best way to do that is to have a period of lockdown. Mr Hitchens believes that is wrong. He has a powerful voice and many of his readers will accept his argument in the face of that scientific advice. If he is right, he has a duty to make the strongest case possible. If he can’t do that and his arguments aren’t sound, then even if he has the best motives, he is putting people’s lives in danger.

On that basis, I thought I’d try to do a paragraph by paragraph treatment of his piece. I’m no epidemiologist but hope I’m expert enough in the nuances of language to shine a little light on this article.

Bold italic is Mr Hitchens’ original article.

Plain text are my replies.

***

As I watched the Prime Minister order mass house arrest on Monday night, I felt revulsion, anger and grief – as anyone brought up when this was a free and well-governed country would. I also felt terribly alone.

This is typical of Mr. Hitchens’ style. We’re not beginning with an argument about the topic to be argued but the writer’s feelings about the current argument. “House arrest” is deliberately emotive, as is the recourse to nostalgic patriotism with “a free and well-governed country”. The “man alone” is also a common trope is this kind of writing. It’s a call-to-arms.

You could not have known, from anything broadcast that night or printed the following day, that anyone was unhappy with these events. But they were.

Overstatement. Where has he been looking? There have been many questions and arguments across the media and social media. Scientists, in particular, have been divided on the nature of the government response, though the vast majority of epidemiologists believe it’s not been strong enough. Far fewer have argued the opposite making them very much outliers.

So, above all things this week, I would like to thank all the kind, perplexed people who have got in touch with me by so many means, to say they share my doubts about the Government’s handling of Covid-19.

Very populist. This sounds a bit like Donald Trump’s “a lot of people are thinking” arguments. In this case, there might be a lot of people equally perplexed but that doesn’t mean they’re right.

There are, in fact, many of us. If you feel this way, you are nothing like as solitary as you think.

Okay, let’s not labour the point… It is, however, a callback to the “man alone” trope. He’s suddenly not alone.

Next, I would like to thank all those who disagree with me, who choose to abuse me, often with lies, personal smears and swearwords. Your childish, intolerant reaction has strengthened me in my conviction that mine is the better case. If your policy is so good, why can you not defend it like civilised adults? Do you really think that I regret needless deaths any less than you? Can you not accept that I also have good motives?

Oh, right, we are going to labour the point. Again, nothing here about the topic at hand. Yes, the world is full of abusive types on both sides of the argument. I’ll try not to be one.

I now suspect this dark season might get still worse before we see the clear, calm light of reason again. The greater the mistake we have made, the less willing we are to admit it or correct it. This is why I greatly fear worse developments in the coming few days.

Setting it up as though only he is speaking Truth. That’s yet to be determined.

When I predicted roadblocks in my column two weeks ago, which I did, I did so out of an instinct that we were entering on the craziest period of our lives since the death of Princess Diana. And now there are such roadblocks, officious, embarrassing blots on our national reputation.

Just to point out: at this point in the UK, we don’t have widespread roadblocks. In fact, Prime Minister Johnson has explicitly ruled out closing down London. Police have largely been carrying out roadside checks (calling them “roadblocks” is to argue semantics) to ensure people have legitimate reasons to travel but that has really been about underlining the government’s message. A few stricter roadblocks have been used to prevent people from accessing popular tourist destinations. Not sure why Princess Diana is in there. A nod to his readership, perhaps. So much of this argument thus far is rooted in token language. The only thing missing is a bulldog.

But even I would not have dared to predict the mass house arrest under which we are all now confined.

Again, it’s not “mass house arrest”. This is emotive language, not reason. As is so often with this kind of argument, the devil is in the detail.

I have found the origin of this bizarre Napoleonic decree – a few clauses in the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, which I confess I had not even heard of. It just goes to show how careful you have to be with the wording of the laws you pass.

Nice use of “Napoleonic”, to suggest that the current state of affairs is terribly European! But, notice, we’re still not discussing if COVID-19 warrants these extraordinary measures.

If the TV this weekend is full of pictures of people sunning themselves in city parks or escaping to the high hills, there will be plenty of zealots and politicians ready to call for yet more restrictions, subjecting all of us to collective punishment.

Hate to labour the point but Hitchens claims to want rational argument but, thus far, this is all about rhetoric that appeals to feelings: “zealots” and “collective punishment” don’t add to the argument. Nobody is being punished. People are being protected. To be quite blunt about it: the government don’t want many of us die. That should be a virtue!

Perhaps we will emulate the French or Italian states, which have returned to their despotic origins and reduced their populations to a sort of cowering serfdom, barely able to step into the street.

Europe again and it’s clear what that “return to their despotic origins” is all about. “Cowering serfdom” doesn’t address the situation in those two countries. Again, is COVID-19 such a threat that these measures are sensible?

I wonder whether there might also be restrictions on what can be said and published. I can see no necessary bar to this in the law involved.

Speculation with a threatening edge. I understand where he’s coming from. We have to be cautious about the powers any government claims, especially at extraordinary times, but these always have to be measured by the threat. Parliament did just that last week, ensuring that the emergency powers are reviewed every six months (the government had asked for two years).

Section 45 C (3) (c) of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 (appropriately enough) is the bit that does it. Once the Health Secretary believes there is a threat to public health, he has – or claims to have – limitless powers to do what he likes, ‘imposing or enabling the imposition of restrictions or requirements on or in relation to persons, things or premises in the event of, or in response to, a threat to public health’.

Nice use of parenthesis and a good spot by Mr. Hitchens. But simply because a law was written in the same year as Orwell’s dystopia was set does not make it a bad law.

The former Supreme Court Judge Lord Sumption doubts that the Act can be used in this way and warns: ‘There is a difference between law and official instructions. It is the difference between a democracy and a police state. Liberty and the rule of law are surely worth something, even in the face of a pandemic.’

This is a good point – though noticeably, we’re still not addressing the argument. It’s been noticeable how Johnson has tried his best to make his instructions requests rather than diktat.

Lord Sumption is generally a liberal hero, and he was invited to deliver last year’s BBC Reith Lectures. But the Human Rights crowd have all melted away in the face of this outrage. So his warning was buried on Page 54 of The Times on Thursday, and Parliament, already supine, has slunk away after its craven acceptance of new attacks on liberty on Monday.

Of course, “generally” because Sumption was involved that Brexit business… But, again, this is all coded. We have “the Human Rights crowd” without quite explaining what that means. Look at the language: “buried”, “supine”, “craven” and the sudden appearance of our old friend “liberty”.

If it ever meets again, it will be as a poor, neutralised thing. One day it may come to be called the Dummy Parliament. Where is the Supreme Court when you really need it, come to that?

Getting a bit tedious now but Mr. Hitchens is successful because he so clearly knows what his readers like. Still, we’ve not come to the argument about the virus. This is playing to the galleries. If you agree with this, you would have agreed with it before you read a word of this article.

Here’s another the opposite point of view: Parliament through this crisis has been as good a parliament as I’ve ever seen. Social distancing inside the chamber has meant the debates have been more adult, less catcalling, with the opposition asking good questions of ministers. MPs have been taking this with the seriousness required. I have no complaints with our parliament.

So do not be surprised by anything. After last week, can we rule anything out? This new Stasi society has a horrifying level of support. Humberside police are already advertising a ‘portal’ for citizens to inform on their neighbours for breaking the ‘social distancing’ rules.

“Stasi” is more of the same. Yes, Humberside Police have initiated such a scheme but it’s to take the strain off its non-emergency 101 number since – believe it or not – people have been informing the police about crime since the very beginning. “Ringing the police” is not always the evidence of people living in a fascist state.

If you think they won’t get any takers, think again. Northamptonshire police have revealed that their control room has had ‘dozens and dozens’ of calls about people ignoring the order.

See the previous paragraph. Even if Mr. Hitchens wants to labour the point, I’d prefer to leave it there.

They said: ‘We are getting calls from people who say, “I think my neighbour is going out on a second run – I want you to come and arrest them.” ’

Okay, I can’t leave it there. As reported in The Indy, the comment was made by Nick Adderley, from Northamptonshire Police. Hitchens quotes the above bit correctly but ignores the next. “We wouldn’t want to discourage people from making us aware, but we have to set expectations. If people think we will be descending on these houses with blue lights, then we won’t.”

Most people will, by now, have viewed the online film of Metropolitan police officers bellowing officiously at sunbathers on Shepherd’s Bush Green in London, energetically stamping out the foul crime of lying on the grass (would they have paid so much attention, two weeks ago, to a gaggle of louts making an unpleasant noise, or to marijuana smokers?).

Emotively written. No argument. We saw the video. Was it heavy-handed policing? Given the context of people crowding into Richmond Park days earlier, I think not. You might disagree.

Others will have seen the films, taken by Derbyshire police drones, of lonely walkers on the remote, empty hills, publicly pillorying them for not obeying the regulations. It is genuinely hard to see what damage these walkers have done.

Again, emotive, but this is to miss the logic of the situation. We’ve seen countless examples over the past weeks of people trying to get away from the virus by heading into the countryside, where they produce congestion. By Hitchens’ argument, the rules should be relaxed for certain people (maybe Mail readers who like to ramble) but not others.

But as a former resident of the USSR, I can tell you that this sort of endless meddling by petty authority in the details of life, reinforced by narks, is normal in unfree societies – such as we have now become for an indefinite period. It is, by the way, also a seedbed for corruption.

Heavy-handed, to say the least. It’s easy to forget that this is all preface to what’s to come. The only two questions we need to ask are: do the government measures help to stop the spread of the virus and if we don’t contain the virus would it be a problem for our country?

Meanwhile, our economy is still crippled, and the overpraised Chancellor Rishi Sunak, like some beaming Dr Feelgood with a case full of dodgy stimulants, seeks to soothe the pain by huge injections of funny money.

Good stuff, if you like this sort of thing, but remember that Hitchens himself said he wanted the “clear, calm light of reason”. He is right that our economy is crippled. Sunak was praised for the calmness he’s shown through this, not because of the amount of money he’s spending. There is a legitimate debate to be had about that, though it might be worth comparing the current crisis to World War 2, whose debts were only paid in 2006. Global pandemics are once-in-a-century events and scientists are saying that this is The One.

He will get this back from us as soon as we are allowed out again. Just you wait till you get the bill, in increased taxes, inflation and devastated savings.

All true but emotively written, turning on that use of “you”. It’s an appeal to the reader’s self-interest.

It ought not to be so. In fact, several powerful pieces of evidence have come to light, suggesting that the Great Panic is foolish and wrong.

Nice use of capitals to reduce this whole complex issue into a memorably “phrase”. Neat use of “suggesting”. At least he has the awareness to recognise that his argument hasn’t yet been proven.

I shall come to these, to underline the fact that it is not I, alone, who have these doubts. I do not claim to be an expert. But I refer to those who definitely are experts, who doubt the wisdom of what we are doing.

Okay. We’re finally at the meat of the argument and despite the cynicism I’ve displayed thus far, I am ready to be convinced.

It is sad that far too little of this is being reported as prominently as it should be by our supposedly diverse and free media, especially the BBC, which has largely closed its mind and its airwaves to dissent. It is quite funny that a statue of George Orwell stands by the entrance to the BBC, bearing the inscription: ‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

Okay, we’re not quite there yet. We’re back arguing about the argument. Orwell is always good for these moments. George’s second mention, you might have noticed. I like Orwell myself but I do sometimes worry about the number of times he’s cited in support of really bad arguments. He’s becoming a new icon. I’m sure he’d have hated that.

Obviously, they should take it down, as nobody inside the building appears to believe that.

Sigh. Having a crack at the BBC. Nothing to do with the argument. Everything to do with the posture.

Crucially, those who began by claiming that we faced half a million deaths from the coronavirus in this country have now greatly lowered their estimate. Professor Neil Ferguson was one of those largely responsible for the original panic. He has twice revised his terrifying prophecy, first to fewer than 20,000 and then on Friday to 5,700.

There’s an interesting piece at the National Review that covers this in more detail (https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/coronavirus-pandemic-neil-ferguson-did-not-walk-back-covid-19-predictions/). Briefly, Ferguson didn’t “revise” his “prophecy”. As he has said: “this is not the case. Indeed, if anything, our latest estimates suggest that the virus is slightly more transmissible than we previously thought. Our lethality estimates remain unchanged.”

He says intensive care units will probably cope. And he conceded a point made by critics of the panic policy – that two-thirds of people who die from coronavirus in the next nine months would most likely have died this year from other causes.

This is to mix up the science, the messaging, and, indeed, the arguments. It’s also a huge distraction.

How do we stop this virus from spreading?

Will the virus overwhelm our NHS?

Do we have the ventilators?

These are the kinds of questions we should be asking. Hitchens is merely highlighting the problematic nature of data modelling as if the entire government response was based on one model. It isn’t. It’s also based on evidence of other countries, as well as other expert advice. It’s not inconceivable that Ferguson might be wrong but countless government experts will also be wrong, and only Peter Hitchens and a couple of outlier scientists right. This would be a good point to deploy Occam’s Razor. Which do you think most likely?

He tried to claim that the shutdown of the country had led to this violent backtrack, claiming that it was ‘social distancing strategies’ which had brought about his amazing climbdown. How could he possibly know either that this had happened, or that it would happen, or that there was any connection between the two?

Look, there are plenty of epidemiologists who have questions for Ferguson (and his unreleased code) but the point of his modelling (which he claims hasn’t changed) was that different policies would produce different outcomes. He presented evidence to parliament at a point where a policy had been chosen, where more data was available, and, therefore, the accuracy of the model could be ascertained. Hitchens isn’t addressing the science but one bit of science and the messaging around that.

It is very hard to see by what means he could know any of these things. Could he have softened his stance because of the publication early last week of a rival view, from distinguished scientists at Oxford University, led by Sunetra Gupta, Professor of theoretical epidemiology? It suggests that fewer than one in a thousand of those infected with Covid-19 become ill enough to need hospital treatment.

This Oxford study made big headlines in the middle of last week when it also predicted that half the population of the UK might already have been infected with the coronavirus. Within 24 hours, experts were asking difficult questions about the quality of the modelling. Devi Sridhar, Professor & Chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University, tweeted: “I think this paper is clearly flawed. Problem with rapid, theoretical epidemiology with multiple assumptions over taking the data we already have from other countries. Only has gotten the press it has bc the label ‘Oxford’ is attached.”

Like Mr. Hitchens, I’m not an epidemiologist. I try not, however, to pick and choose the experts whose research justifies my political prejudices. I read many and it’s clear where the majority of experts stand on this crisis.

The vast majority develop very mild symptoms or none at all. Millions may already have had it.

This is the “selfish flu” argument I wrote about last week. To mischaracterise this virus as mild is to ignore the significant percentage of cases that require treatment in ICU, needing ventilators and expert care, both of which are limited.

This report is being unfairly sneered at by Government toadies, but we shall see. It seems unlikely that Oxford University would have bungled their work.

Let me remind you of the words at the top of this article. “I would like to thank all those who disagree with me, who choose to abuse me, often with lies, personal smears and swearwords.” The epidemiologists who back the government’s argument are not “toadies”. That’s just to insult them. Also, putting faith in Oxford’s research isn’t considering the science but merely relying on the prestige of the institution. As Professor Sridhar said: “Only has gotten the press it has bc the label ‘Oxford’ is attached.”

And it is obvious that a few days of raggedly enforced house arrest could not have made so much real difference. Even those who believe in these shutdowns think they take two weeks to have any effect.

This is where Hitchens is correct, partly. A few days of social distancing won’t have made much of a difference. They will, however, have made some difference. Yet it also takes approximately two weeks for somebody to die from the coronavirus. The first week might indeed be mild, whilst the infection is restricted to the upper respiratory tract. It’s when it moves down onto the lungs that the serious complications begin. The result of all those people ignoring social distancing measures a week ago won’t be noticed until, perhaps, next week. I needn’t add that the curve in the UK is still climbing.

It is fascinating, looking at all the different countries which have adopted different methods of dealing with the virus, to see just how little of a pattern there is.

Really? What we do know is that those countries that acted quickly, tested thoroughly, and employed sometimes strict forms of social distancing seem to have emerged the best. In fact, some experts are now wondering if face masks have made a difference. It is also to oversimplify. Nobody knows what the best treatment is for COVID-19. We have examples that *seem* to work but this isn’t settled science. Mr. Hitchens takes that ambiguity to argue that all the science is wrong. Again, not how science works.

It is very hard to link outcome clearly with policy. Even Hong Kong and Singapore, similar city states which had a similar outcome, adopted different policies. We might do well not to assume that things work, just because we favour them.

A question for the future. We’ll have copious data on the other side of this and we can be sure that some consensus will emerge that quite firmly links outcome with policy. Now is not be the right time for that.

It is more likely that the panic-mongers, having got their way by spreading alarm and frightening the Prime Minister, are now trying to get us to forget how ludicrous their original claims were. But first let me issue another warning. If the Government do decide to release us from mass arrest, they will say, as Prof Ferguson is doing, that this is because their repressive economy-wrecking measures worked.

Back to the emotive argument, though it’s noticeable how it’s the economy that seems more important. This argument has started to galvanise the right in America behind the Steve Hilton argument, picked up by President Trump, that the cure is worse than the disease.

It’s also the trickiest bit of the argument: that if the lockdown ends, politicians will say their methods worked. Hitchens is, of course, betting that the road not taken was the right one to take but that can never be demonstrated from where we are now. Not only would it not allow the government to claim a victory, but this logic also wouldn’t admit the possibility that Hitchens was wrong. This begins to sound like contrarianism simply for the sake of it.

We must demand proof, after a thorough independent inquiry, that this is true. For, if it is not, as I very much suspect, then we are in endless danger.

We can be sure there’ll be an independent inquiry. Now isn’t the time for that.

Any government, using the same pretext, can repeatedly put us through this misery, impoverishment and confinement. In the end, like the peoples of other despotisms, we will be grateful to be allowed out at all.

Irrelevant to the matter at hand, whilst another overstatement of the government’s response. This is really getting quite repetitive now. Wonder how many people read this article to the end?

As things stand, the Johnson Government is like a doctor, confronted with a patient suffering from pneumonia. ‘This is serious,’ says the doctor. ‘I have never seen anything like this. Unless I act radically, you will die terribly.’

This sounds silly but let’s see where it goes…

He then proposes to treat the pneumonia by amputating the patient’s left leg, saying this method has been used successfully in China. The trusting patient agrees. The patient eventually recovers from pneumonia, as he would have done anyway. The doctor proclaims that his treatment, though undoubtedly painful and radical, was a great success. But the patient now has only one leg, and a very large hospital bill which he cannot afford to pay.

No, that is just silly. The problem with analogies is that you can be seduced by the wit of the analogy rather than thing being analogised. The converse of Hitchens’s argument is to say: “we’re faced with a dangerous situation we’ve never seen before, let’s ignore what others did to reduce the danger.”

Put it another way: we have a highly transmittable virus that causes severe respiratory illness in about 20% of the people who catch it. It is primarily transmitted through water droplets, either airborne or lying on surfaces that can be touched by the uninfected and transferred to their mouth, nose or eyes, where the virus invades the system. So, there is causation. Your daily habits do have a bearing on if you’ll catch the virus. Social distancing affects how/if you catch the bug. This is no pneumonia / amputation situation where there is clearly no link. It’s a silly argument at best; a horribly deceitful one at worst.

When I argue against this folly, I am accused of not caring about the deaths of the old. I am old. It is false. I care as much about the deaths of others as anybody. But as a result of taking my stand, I have received private support from people inside the NHS seriously disturbed by what is going on.

Sudden switch to the first person: always take care. This is the “look guvnor, I’ve got one of these myself. Gave my old ma! I wouldn’t put her at risk, would I?”

Perhaps there are some inside the NHS who share Mr Hitchens views but we require more evidence than this hearsay given the very great number of NHS workers, named, interviewed, videoed, saying the exact opposite.

Now, if you want a scientist who does not support Government policy, the most impressive of these is Prof Sucharit Bhakdi. If you desire experts, he is one.

Okay. Ignore the consensus view because I’ve found one in Germany who disagrees. Just to say, before we get into this, that’s not how science works. Indeed, science is predicated on ‘peer review’ for precisely this reason. Scientific opinion is the verdict of a community, not an individual. Even Einstein had to have his maths validated by a century of his peers.

He is an infectious medicine specialist, one of the most highly cited medical research scientists in Germany. He was head of the Institute for Medical Microbiology at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, one of Germany’s most distinguished seats of learning.

Good credentials but wasn’t this the same argument used to defend the Oxford study? Apparently, once you’re inside Oxford University (or the University of Mainz), your research shouldn’t be questioned…

In a recent interview he had many uncomplimentary things to say about the shutdown policy being pursued by so many countries (there is a link on my blog to the interview, and a transcription).

No link in the article.

But perhaps the most powerful was his reply to the suggestion that the closedown of society would save lives. He argued the contrary, saying this policy was ‘grotesque, absurd and very dangerous’.

I eventually found it, though. It’s a brief (900 word) interview, taken and transcribed from German TV. It’s technically vague and merely making the point that we have insufficient data to explain all the deaths. This is the same lack-of-good-data argument mischaracterised by Hitchens in last week’s article.

[The article breaks down into perfunctory sentences from this point. I’ll deal with a few at a time.]

He warned: ‘Our elderly citizens have every right to make efforts not to belong to the 2,200 [in Germany] who daily embark on their last journey. Social contacts and social events, theatre and music, travel and holiday recreation, sports and hobbies all help to prolong their stay on Earth. The life expectancy of millions is being shortened.’

He also gave this warning: ‘The horrifying impact on the world economy threatens the existence of countless people.

Again, this is about data. How do we know that Person X who died from cononavirus wouldn’t have died anyway?

‘The consequences for medical care are profound. Already services to patients who are in need are reduced, operations cancelled, practices empty, hospital personnel dwindling.

 ‘All this will impact profoundly on our whole society.

‘I can only say that all these measures are leading to self-destruction and collective suicide because of nothing but a spook.’

This is plainly true. Old people who are still healthy, thanks to regular exercise and busy social lives, will suffer hugely from being trapped in their homes.

Well, that’s partly true in the same way as saying people being stopped exercising will be less healthy as a result of this lockdown. It’s also about odds. The chances of dying from boredom in the home are not zero but the odds of dying from this virus if you’re over the age of 70 are pretty high. Secondly, the coronavirus has a disproportionate demand for specialist equipment than, say, breaking an ankle by falling over whilst performing ballroom dancing at the local community centre.

Again and again it’s worth emphasising the point that Hitchens doesn’t want to address: that this is about reducing the burden on a service that is incapable of dealing with so many people requiring ventilators at the same time. If we don’t reduce that burden, we condemn people young and old to horrible deaths, gasping for breath in hospital corridors, tents, or at home.

But there is another major problem with the Government case. Do the figures show what they claim to show?

Many people will die with coronavirus. But this does not mean that they died of it.

Just to repeat: more arguing about how we’re talking about the problem rather than the problem at hand. You could argue they’re one and the same but they’re not. There might be a case for arguing for better data collection later but, for the moment, it’s incidental to the real pressures on the NHS and the message the government is trying to get out.  

This is already a major problem in judging death totals from such countries as Italy. Yet new rules in the UK mean deaths which may well be mainly from other causes are recorded as corona deaths.

Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t the opposite currently the case? Deaths outside of hospitals where coronavirus hasn’t been confirmed, are currently being recorded as pneumonia. This might be describing the same phenomena from the opposite view.

John Lee, a recently retired professor of pathology and a former NHS consultant pathologist, writes in The Spectator this weekend that by making Covid-19 a notifiable disease, the authorities may have distorted the figures.

‘In the current climate, anyone with a positive test for Covid-19 will certainly be known to clinical staff looking after them: if any of these patients dies, staff will have to record the Covid-19 designation on the death certificate – contrary to usual practice for most infections of this kind.

‘There is a big difference between Covid-19 causing death, and Covid-19 being found in someone who died of other causes.

Making Covid-19 notifiable might give the appearance of it causing increasing numbers of deaths, whether this is true or not. It might appear far more of a killer than flu, simply because of the way deaths are recorded.’

This, of course, explains why such an overwhelming number of Covid deaths, here and abroad, involve so-called ‘underlying conditions’, in fact serious, often fatal, diseases.

Professor Lee is undoubtedly right but this is also about the framing. The Mail on Sunday is not intended for experts who know how to balance arguments. We also have to be careful not to be pulled into the weeds. Hitchens is a fighter who knows he can’t win in a jabbing contest so he gets his opponent in a wrestling match. Don’t argue the thing you think you’re arguing. Let’s argue about something else. It is pure gaslighting. “If my argument isn’t clear,” he seems to say, “let’s muddy the waters so you’ll be attracted to my rhetoric instead.”

This piece has moved from a broad argument about liberty, through some muddled (and questionable science), and now trying to question the way deaths are recorded citing a retired professor. None of that addresses the key point: how do we stop the NHS from being overburdened by people with viral pneumonia?  

Take this into account whenever you hear official figures of coronavirus deaths.

Dr Lee adds, equally crucially: ‘We risk being convinced that we have averted something that was never really going to be as severe as we feared.’

That is the heart of it. It was never going to be as bad as the panic-mongers said.

And that, at the heart of it, is what you must decide. Does the evidence of your own experience/eyes/life outweigh the evidence presented here? We either believe our hospitals are already overstretched and in the coming weeks they’ll be stretched even more or we think it’s business as usual. We’ll know soon enough if the temporary hospitals being built across the country were necessary. If they and the temporary morgues stand empty, then, fair enough, Mr Hitchens will be proved right.

If not, I hope he recognises and admits his error. This is a big brave call he’s made. It might equally prove foolish.

The hysterical measures taken may well not have done any good. Yet our freedom is still bruised and broken, and our economy limping and deeply damaged.

Look at the words chosen. “Freedom” is so compelling that sometimes it makes you ignore common sense.

If we do not learn the right lessons from this grim episode, then we will, for certain, have to go through it all again.

Including more articles like this, I suppose…

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Why Dunciad.com?

It’s a cool domain name and it was available. Yes, I know. Available. Crazy, isn’t it?

Really?

Yes. It also helps that it’s also my favourite satire written by Alexander Pope, one of the most metrically pure English poets who also knew his way around a crude insult or two. If you’ve not read it, you should give it a try.

So this is satire, right?

Can’t deny it. There will be some. But it’s also an experiment in writing and drawing, giving work away for free in order to see how many people are willing to support a writer doing his thing. It’s the weird stuff that I wouldn’t get published elsewhere in this word of diminishing demands and cookie-cutter tastes.