My predictions, that is, rather than the Government’s. The headline in the online Daily Mail just now reads:
“Matt Hancock urges England to stay vigilant after major study said rate of decline in Covid cases has SLOWED.”
Well, of course it has slowed. And the fact that Matt Hancock does not see why, after all this time, is par for the course.
The UK’s ONS data says that the number of positive tests over the last week was 50,208. That number is, in itself, completely meaningless without a context, the most immediately useful being that the number of tests performed over the same period was 4,391,640. That gives a percentage positive rate of 1.14%.
Now recall that Hancock said in Parliament last year (making a complete guess, actually) that the false positive rate for PCR tests is 1%. He should obviously realise that, on that basis, the decline has slowed because the virus has more or less disappeared, and we’re hitting the false positive baseline, so there is little scope for further decrease. That he doesn’t realise this means that he doesn’t even listen to himself, or else fails to understand what he is saying.
Now, there are some complications to that. A proportion of the tests being done are no longer PCR tests, but LFT tests, and they have a false positive rate of nearer 0.3%, which just happens to be the rate they have been getting among schoolchildren using LFT tests. It’s not easy to tell what percentage of tests are of this type overall, though – there is a separate chart for PCR tests which suggests more of them being done in the last week than the total tests, so something can’t be right there. But the percentage of LFT tests, whatever it is, will tend to lower the overall false positive rate (but increase the false negative rate, if there are any real cases about).
BUT on the other hand, over the summer period last year, when it is pretty certain now that the virus was scarcely around, the positive test rate, all from PCR, was constant at around 1.6% as the number of tests went up, until the infection season began in September and the percentage crept up. So our current 1.14% of positives is already lower than what seems to have been a false positive baseline last summer. Maybe LFT tests help explain this.
Another confounding factor, as my pharmacist friend reminded me, is that PCR tests, still not properly standardised, will be picking up as positives plenty of dead viral fragments from those who were infected over the winter, and that would tend to push the case numbers up and hence slow the decline.
With all that in mind, things look (as always) far better than the pessimistic government and risk-averse SAGE groupthink fears. Our lockdown and exemplary vaccination programme have succeeded richly! Except that’s not what’s happening, as any fule gno. Whilst age-differences seem to demonstrate a more rapid fall in positive tests among those vaccinated, exactly the same kind of overall fall is seen in the EuroMOMO data from every single country in Europe. In fact, together with Israel, Portugal and Spain our fall came rather later than most. Exactly the same pattern is seen in the overall US figures too, and it is no doubt even more masked in the northern states. And the pattern is just the same in Canada.
In other words, it’s as clear as day that the primary driver of the improvement in COVID across the entire northern hemisphere is nothing whatsoever to do with interventions medical or non-medical. They differ from nation to nation, and in particular the scandal of the EU’s inability to vaccinate their people quickly has been an ongoing issue this year. No, the drop in cases is by far primarily due to the natural seasonal decline that I predicted, not particularly cleverly, as lockdown began in December.
So it looks very much as if it’s over for the winter, and on comparison with other novel viruses it is likely to be over permanently, bar the shouting. That is, unless the Government insists on wasting money on ongoing testing of the healthy, and then cranking it up when the flu season gets going again in the autumn. In that case, Lord Sumption may well be right in saying that, with the unspoken taboo against governments imprisoning the population gone, we could start the lockdown pattern all over again – only with even less money in the national coffers.