Misinformation costs lives, David Warburton. Spread facts, not fiction

On 8 January, MP for Somerton and Frome David Warburton gave an interview to the Somerset County Gazette containing a great deal of misinformation. Short of a small link to a fact-checking website in the middle of the article, his views were printed uncontested. Is it right for an MP to be given a platform to spread misinformation, with no counter-argument produced in the article? Where Covid-19 information is concerned it is not a case of simply allowing him his opinions: much of what was said was factually incorrect, suggesting a desire to downplay the severity of the virus. At a time when it is crucial that everyone not only abides by lockdown rules, but understands why they need to abide by these rules, it is more vital than ever that correct facts are published.

Warburton starts off by claiming that the new variant is no more virulent and is simply more transmissible. This is misleading, as a more transmissible virus spreading exponentially is by its very nature more deadly.

If a virus has an ‘R­’ number (reproduction rate) of 1.2 and a mortality rate of 1 per cent, then 100 infected people will infect 120, who will infect a further 144 etc. After 10 rounds of infection a total of 2,600 people will have been infected, with around 26 deaths.

If a virus has an ‘R’­ number of 1.9 (70 per cent more transmissible) and a mortality rate of 1 per cent, then 100 infected people will infect 190, who will infect a further 361 etc. After 10 rounds of infection a total of 68,000 people will have been infected, with around 680 deaths.

Warburton goes on to claim that the UK’s case rate appears to be much higher than our European neighbours because we are doing more testing than them. It is true that we are testing more than they are, but that is a consequence of the scale of the pandemic in the UK. The best way to measure whether a country is carrying out sufficient testing is to look at how many positive cases you find per test you do. A low positivity rate means you are successfully finding most cases. A high rate means you are likely to be missing many cases. When the article was written, the UK had a test positivity rate of 12 per cent, as did Germany and Italy. Spain was doing better at 9 per cent, with Denmark at 2.5 per cent. However, when Denmark, Spain, Germany and Italy had around 2,000, 10,000, 14,000 and 17,000 new daily cases respectively, the UK was finding 60,000! So no, the scale of our new cases was not a consequence of us carrying out more testing than our neighbours.

Warburton claims our mortality rate “remains much the same as others”, which is sadly untrue. There are only four other European countries with a higher mortality rate (how many deaths you have as a proportion of infected people) than us. You are nearly three times as likely to die if you catch Covid-19 in the UK as you are in Denmark or Norway. In terms of deaths per total population, we have one of the highest rates in the world. (We have had the highest at times over the last month.)

He tries to claim, “the false-positive incidence of our testing is giving us a bleak picture”; however, this sentence is neither true, nor stands up to logic. There have been claims made, which have been repeatedly disproven, that PCR tests (carried out to detect the presence of antigens rather than antibodies) produces lots of false positive results. False positives account for a vanishingly tiny proportion of our case numbers. But putting that aside, there is no logical explanation as to why the UK would have a higher proportion of false positives than our neighbours, given that the PCR tests used to detect Covid-19 cases are standard across the world.  

The next claim is that the reason why hospitals are full of Covid-19 patients is that anyone who attends hospital is tested for Covid-19, so they may be positive but asymptomatic, and simply have a broken ankle. As the nurses and doctors working on the front line will tell you, this is NOT the reason that hospitals are reporting such high numbers. You only have to look at Intensive Care Unit (ICU) numbers. In January 2020 the UK had 4100 adult critical care beds (including intensive care beds and high dependency beds) in total. We currently have 4000 Covid-19 patients in ICU beds alone (400,000 in hospitals in total). And Covid-19 patients only make up half of the ICU numbers.

Shockingly, Warburton claims “that excess deaths over the past year have not been statistically higher than the average for previous years” which is, again, simply not true. In 2020, around 73,000 more people died than the average of the previous five years. That’s 14 per cent above the average. That’s the highest excess death number we’ve seen in the UK since 1940.

Warburton quotes the ONS study that estimated that lockdowns will have resulted in 200,000 non-Covid-19 excess deaths. However, when looking at the report itself, this is only half the story. It compares the number of deaths estimated (circa 200,000 over the next 50 years, later revised down to 27,500) due to delayed healthcare, suicides, domestic abuse, people being scared to go to hospital etc. following a lockdown, with the number of deaths estimated if no lockdown had been implemented. These were estimated at 450,000 Covid-19 deaths and more than 1,000,000 deaths as a direct result of people not being able to access hospital care due to over-run hospitals. It is worrying that an MP is happy to quote figures from a report that supports his viewpoint, while completely ignoring the other figures from the same report, which show why his anti-lockdown stance is so damaging.

The figures Warburton cites as the risk of death (“for the under-60s, there is a 1-in-300,000 chance of death, for the over-60s, there is a 99 per cent survival rate and for the over 80s, it’s still 90 per cent”) are again misleading. The lowest Infection Fatality Rate according to this Nature article  (for 5-9 year olds) is around 0.001 per cent, rising to 0.1 per cent in the 55-59 age group. So much higher than his 0.00033 per cent. The 1 per cent and 10 per cent are better estimates. However, although 1 per cent and even 10 per cent may seem like low numbers, with 12 million over-65s in the UK and 1.6 million over-85s, the number of deaths would be vast if the virus were to be left unchecked.

What he also fails to consider is that death and survival are not the only outcomes that need to be considered. Up to 10 per cent of Covid-19 survivors are now suffering long-term health problems as a result of their infection. Many were previously fit and healthy and seemingly only had Covid-19 ‘mildly’. The long-term health and economic burden of what is now referred to as ‘long Covid’ must be considered by people advocating allowing millions of people to contract Covid-19 for the sake of keeping the economy going.

Warburton appears to have bought into the philosophy that we “allow the vulnerable to isolate and protect themselves” while “those not at risk have little reason not to resume a normal existence”. This seems to suggest finding a way somehow to completely separate all the over-65s and those who are clinically vulnerable from the rest of the population. How would that even work? Do we lock them all at home? Ban them from doing the shopping? Ban them from going to work? Imagine the hit on the economy that would produce, let alone the huge impact on their mental health.

This route also fails to factor in:

  • the sheer number of people who would end upsuffering from long Covid
  • the number of people who would fall ill and die from Covid-19 in the younger populations (risk at age 35 is around 0.1 per cent: with 8 million 30-40 year-olds in the UK that’s 8,000 deaths) and
  • the perfect conditions for developing more deadly mutant strains of Covid-19.

Finally, Warburton makes the claim “once the vaccine has been provided to those most vulnerable there is no reason for us to continue with the restrictions”. This is a dangerous suggestion. The vast majority of current cases are in the under-65s, and 75 per cent of patients in ICU with Covid-19 are under 70, so vaccinating the over-70s is going to have little impact on cases, and minimal impact on hospital pressures. Fortunately, it should have a significant impact on deaths, but as explained above, that does not mean the virus should then be given free rein to spread.

It is completely understandable to want lockdowns to end and to hope that the virus will somehow magically fade away, allowing us all to return to normal, but Covid-19 doesn’t pay any attention to this sort of wishful thinking. If Warburton and others like him want a return to normality, then they need to ensure the government takes note of successful strategies elsewhere and starts to implement these – including properly quarantining travellers, an efficient and effective Track-and-Trace system, and a workable financial package to allow people who have contracted Covid-19 to isolate properly. All these measures are woefully lacking in the UK, and without them, lockdowns are our only option.