Archive for March, 2020

COVID-19: Where are the green shoots?

Tuesday, March 31st, 2020 | Health & Wellbeing

Today’s government spoke of “green shoots” and the idea that things might be getting a little better in the number of infections, which will have a knock-on effect later down the line. Unfortunately, that “down the line” could be a long way away.

This graph includes today’s provisional figures for Italy, Spain, UK, France and the US.

Italy and Spain are still rising, and while deaths per day are not increasing, they’re not decreasing, either. Italy is now three weeks into its lockdown. Most other countries, including France and the UK, seem to be following the same curve. The UK is still ahead of Italy at this point and by an increasingly large margin.

If the US figures are accurate, they have had the worst single day of any country without this entire crisis. But their reporting is a bit patchy, so it’s plausible that some of the deaths from yesterday were only recorded today.

The case for ending the lockdown

Sunday, March 29th, 2020 | Health & Wellbeing, Religion & Politics

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the major challenges of our time. Many of us would advocate for evidence-based policy: we should let science guide us on the best course of action. Unfortunately, a complete lack of evidence for our current approach means the way forward is unclear.

The evidence for the lockdown

At first glance, it seems self-evident that implementing a lockdown will reduce deaths. If we all stay at home, it will reduce the transmission of the disease. In theory, this should allow us to spread the disease out over a longer period, and thus avoiding the healthcare system becoming overwhelmed.

Unfortunately, the evidence does not support this view. A Cochrane Review from 2011 concluded “there was limited evidence that social distancing was effective, especially if related to the risk of exposure.”

At the moment, we don’t even understand how dangerous COVID-19 is. As Dr John Lee notes in his article in The Specator, the lack of testing means the mortality stats are meaningless. We’re comparing deaths to confirmed cases, but the untested cases are anywhere from three times as many to three hundred times as many if a recent study by Oxford University is to be believed.

This is confounded by COVID-19 being a “notifiable disease”, meaning that a death could be reported as COVID-19 when a patient actually died of something else. This seems highly plausible given the average age of COVID-19 deaths is 79.5.

As Professor John Ioannidis points out, due to the lack of evidence, the policies we implement could hinder rather than help.

School closures, for example, may reduce transmission rates. But they may also backfire if children socialize anyhow, if school closure leads children to spend more time with susceptible elderly family members, if children at home disrupt their parents ability to work, and more. School closures may also diminish the chances of developing herd immunity in an age group that is spared serious disease.

Even if we somehow did concede there was some evidence for social distancing, we do not need to confound this idea with a lockdown. You can implement social distancing: such as getting people to work from home and banning large gatherings, without implementing a lockdown in which nobody is allowed to leave their house.

Further, even if social distancing did turn out to reduce infection rates overall, we need to look specifically at how it affects the elderly and vulnerable. It could be that young healthy professionals can lock themselves away and avoid infection, but those who require carers coming in and out of their home, or those who need regular medical appointments, cannot. Another example of how social distancing can harm, rather than hinder because the natural immunity we would otherwise develop from the age-groups at the least risk is never built up.

Ultimately, then, the evidence for social distancing is not substantiated. It could be that the models from Imperial College London are correct. But they may also be utterly incorrect. And that is serious as I will explain below.

Social costs of a lockdown

A lockdown is a serious thing in itself. It violates both Article 3 and Article 13 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. If you are a Brexit-voter who supported leave because you were tired of human rights, you might like the sound of that. But most of my friends are fellow lefties who quite like human rights.

You could argue that is worth it temporarily to protect public health. And maybe it is. But we need to take all of the consequences into account.

These vary from the (arguably) mild: people have had their lives put on hold. They are not allowed to do the things they enjoy, like seeing the people we love. And doing the things we love: whether that is music festivals, triathlons, pub quiz nights or basically any hobby that doesn’t involve sitting on your sofa.

And continue up to the very serious:

  • Children are being stripped of their education. It’s impossible to expect parents to homeschool to the standard of professional teachers, and so much of education is the social education of interacting with peers and the school system.
  • Some children only get hot meals in school.
  • University students who are paying £9,000 per year tuition fees are not receiving their education
  • The cost to people’s mental health of being socially isolated and not going outside as much.
  • The resulting increase of suicides.
  • The transfer of healthcare resources from other conditions to COVID-19. Doctors and dentists are no longer offering appointments and operations for non-life-threatening but nevertheless debilitating conditions have been cancelled
  • The tidal wave of anxiety from people wondering whether they have a job tomorrow, or already having lost their job
  • The self-employed who find their income has suddenly disappeared and that they are not eligible for government support (which covers nowhere near 95% of self-employed people as the Chancellor claimed)
  • The already-overstretched police services admitting that they will only be investigating the most serious crimes because they will be too busy enforcing the lockdown
  • The domestic abuse victims who we have locked in a building with their abuser, and given their furloughed abuser nothing better to do than sit around and drink.
  • Drug and alcohol users who are in recovery but now more likely to relapse.

These are really, really bad.

People who have flouted the social distancing rules have rightly been called callous towards more vulnerable members of society. But we need to be careful not to fall into the same trap. To dismiss the social costs because our mental health is not suffering, because we have not lost our job, or because we don’t have children who spend years working exams they are now not allowed to take, nor even say goodbye to their lifelong school friends, is a privilege many other people in society do not enjoy.

As Lee puts it, “the moral debate is not lives vs money. It is lives vs lives. It will take months, perhaps years, if ever, before we can assess the wider implications of what we are doing.”

Weighing up the costs

Some young people have died from COVID-19 and that quite rightly tugs the heartstrings. But emotion is very different from evidence. And the evidence from Oxford University shows that the average age of those dying is 79.5.

Life expectancy in the UK is 81. That’s a loss of a year and a half, which is a serious and significant difference. I would be heartbroken if I lost my grandmother 18 months prematurely.

But we have to weigh that against the real and serious damage we are doing to everyone in society. Imperial’s modelling, which has formed much of the basis of the current strategy, predicts that social distancing and lockdowns will have to continue intermittently but indefinitely while we wait for a vaccine. Said vaccine will take at least 18 months to develop, even if everything goes smoothly, and that is before we even start the even bigger hurdle of global immunisation.

If we truly are looking at a 2+ year timescale, the cure would seem worse than the disease. With the average life expectancy of a COVID-19 victim only being 18 months, the majority are likely to die of natural causes in the meantime, doomed to be cremated at a funeral that nobody is allowed to attend.

Worse still, it may be that, as many commentators have predicted, social distancing and lockdowns are not sustainable for such a long period of time. As a result, the pandemic will continue to flare up and kill just as many people, and all our suffering will have been in vain.

If the pandemic magically goes away in the next 12 weeks, then you can make a solid case for the lockdown. And let’s pray that it will. But if not, and we have to keep the suppression methods in place until the vaccine arrives, or they simply fail, we will have wasted more of everyone’s lives than we saved for the 0.25-1% of people who, already at the end of their life, had it cut slightly shorter.

Ultimately, we do not know what the correct answer is. A lack of testing and a lack of data means the conclusion is unclear. And yet, based on that, we are implementing a policy with dire consequences for education, mental health and quality of life.

Editing notes: reflecting back, I’m not sure 81 is a fair assessment of life expectancy. Although it is the average life expectancy in the UK, once you reach 79.5, you are likely to live longer than 81. How we adjust for this is unclear, though. The ONS suggests that a 79-year-old will live another eight years. But this is for a typical person, and we know that most people survive the virus but that rates of mortality are particularly high for people with underlying health conditions. Therefore, in order to adjust, we would need to know the life expectancy of a 79-year-old with underlying health conditions. Unfortunately, that is data we do not have.

The digital clinic

Sunday, March 29th, 2020 | Business & Marketing

They say that the necessity is the mother of all invention. With the impending COVID-19 crisis looming, we decided it was finally time to make virtual appointments part of Leeds Anxiety Clinic’s offerings.

That was easier said than done. Because of the social distancing recommendations already in effect, and Amazon having halted warehouse shipments, the few webcams that were available had all been panic-bought by other people. Luckily, we were able to beg and borrow the equipment we needed until we could get our own.

We’re still playing around with how to produce the best quality experience, both in terms of the technical setup and the differences between delivering therapy face-to-face, where you can easily scribble a diagram or analyse holistic body movements, and delivering it digitally. Early efforts are working well, though.

COVID-19: The curve starts here?

Friday, March 27th, 2020 | Health & Wellbeing

At first glance, yesterday’s figures do not look too bad. Both Italy and Spain seemed to have stopped shooting up. But the provisional figures from today (Friday) mean that they are both going to set new heights tomorrow.

It’s a bad day for France and the UK, too, who both had record days.

Here is the other big change: I have also started tracking Netherlands. Why? Because Netherlands are sticking hard to the herd immunity strategy. This was mentioned in the UK and, depending on who you believe, was always a side-effect of the plan, or the plan until Johnson’s critics spooked him into adopting the current approach. Tracking Netherlands may provide some evidence as to how effective the lockdowns are.

Let’s look at total deaths.

The first thing to explain: I have now capped this at 60 days, rather than expanding it as the dataset grows. This makes it easier to see the curves in the early days. It does mean we are now missing the past five days from China. But the line is basically flat (they are still having a handful of deaths per day, though).

Second thing: I have included the UK’s provisional figures from today in the report. That makes the graph look much scarier. We are the blue line. Until this point, we could hold out some hope that our line would follow the green line (China) and not the red line (Italy). But at this point, it looks like we are accelerating on “the European trajectory” as we could call it.

And, to state again, the UK is ahead of almost every other country was on day 15. This includes Italy. Spain is the only exception, who are way ahead of everyone. Ignore the single dot from Netherlands, that is erroneous data. Currently, they are roughly in line with other European countries.

Swimming 3km

Friday, March 27th, 2020 | Sport

I’ve been working super hard on my front crawl since September: getting in the pool three times a week, every week, and relentlessly doing drills. It’s going well. In February, I reached 3km continuous.

Unfortunately, now all the pools are closed so everything has come to a halt. Lakes are too cold, and there are movement restrictions anyway. Let’s hope that better times are on their way soon.

COVID-19: UK by region

Thursday, March 26th, 2020 | Health & Wellbeing

It was a bad day for Spain yesterday who reported more deaths than Italy. Italy, on the other hand, maybe showing signs of levelling off. The UK had a fairly good day, but that may be due to underreporting: the BBC said the timeframes were chopping and changing, which might explain why we had few deaths yesterday but over one hundred today.

Here is the new graph for today. It shows cases across England broken down by NHS region, with the separate nations (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) also getting their own slice of the pie.

A third of the cases are in London. But that is not abnormally high: they have 13% of the population and the most international travellers passing through. Still, might make you think twice before taking the tube. Otherwise, it is fairly well spread out across the country.

COVID-19: Black Tuesday not so black?

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020 | Health & Wellbeing

I mean, we have definitely had better days. Spain, France, the UK and the United States all had their highest ever death count yesterday. And bear in mind that I am only tracking seven countries. But there is a silver lining: although Italy had a bad day, too, it was not as bad as two days ago.

It is still too early to say whether the UK is going to follow Europe or China. But it would seem odd if it did follow China given we have been taking at best similar, and at worse, much more lax measures than the rest of Europe, while China went into lockdown early and did a lot of testing.

The problem is that we are still earlier on in this than everyone else. We’re on day 12. Italy is on day 29, Spain is on day 17 and France is on day 18. At this stage, everyone except Spain was behind us. Early indications from the NHS is that today wasn’t too bad, but it’s only 9pm, so we’ll have to wait and see.

COVID-19: Age group stats

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020 | Health & Wellbeing

I’ve updated the graphs for today. WHO report on what happened yesterday, so when I say today, I mean the data the WHO published today, but it’s actually yesterday’s data. And yesterday wasn’t too bad. Italy continued to decline for the second day in a row. And when I said the borderline for good for the UK was 331 deaths, we came in at 335, so pretty close.

That said, based on today’s media reports, we know that the UK, Italy and Spain are all having a really bad today. So, tomorrow the graphs are likely to look terrible.

Anyway, onto today’s graphs. I took the figures from Imperial College London on the likely mortality rates of COVID-19. These are adjusted based on many cases not being reported, and for a UK/US healthcare system.

I want to preface the following by sating: just because you have a low risk of dying, does not mean you can go around doing whatever you like. You can spread the virus without knowing and you could end up spreading it to someone with underlying health conditions, who are much more likely to die. And that would make you a murderer, morally, although not legally.

Ok, the graphs. First, your risk of dying is low.

Even if you are in the 80+ age category, you only have a 27% chance of needing hospital treatment and a 9% chance of dying. That is much higher than the everyday life of course! This is a serious thing that kills people. A lot of people.

But, for an individual’s risk, you have a 3/4 chance of being able to cope at home, and a 10/11 chance of surviving. Certainly not a Russian roulette game any of us would want to play. But it is good to know that our grandparents having a fighting chance.

Below, is the same graph but zoomed in. The X-axis only runs to 30%. This is not representative of your overall chances but means we can see it better.

In the lower age categories, the outcome looks rosy. If you are in your 30s, for example, you have a 3% chance of requiring hospitalisation and a one in a thousand chance of dying.

I don’t know what percentage of the population have underlying health conditions. But I imagine it increases with age and maybe around 3% for someone in their 30s and may well be 9% for someone in their 80s. If so, that would mean that COVID-19 typically only kills when you have underlying conditions. But I don’t have those figures, I’m speculating. The WHO has stressed that younger people are not invulnerable and they are literally the World Health Organisation, so we should listen to them.

It also seems likely that the stats for underlying health conditions are much higher than those percentages and that most people with underlying conditions are also fine. Or as fine as you can be when you have a nasty flu. As Chris Whitty keeps reminding us, the vast majority of people, even in “at-risk” categories, will get over it.

That’s all for today. See you tomorrow to talk about Black Tuesday :(.

Yoga for Athletes

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020 | Books

Yoga for Athletes is a book by Ryanne Cunningham. It provides an introduction to yoga and makes some suggestions as to how athletes can use yoga. But, to be honest, it all felt pretty vague. More like a general book of yoga with a nod given to the idea that the reader may also be an athlete and that yoga could be useful for that.

The various poses are explained, but not in a manner I found completely clear. The routines may be more useful, but only make up a few pages at the back of the book.

COVID-19: What’s changed today?

Monday, March 23rd, 2020 | Health & Wellbeing

The WHO has now released today’s situation report. Here are some of the headlines:

  • China and South Korea are still seeing deaths, but not many.
  • Italy recorded 649 deaths, compared to 795 yesterday. It has dropped before and then continued to rise, though.
  • The US has reported 201 deaths today, doubling their total. As none were reported yesterday, could just be delayed figures?

Let’s update the graphs.

Deaths per day

Deaths per day graph

Let’s hope today’s result is a sign that Italy is turning the tide and not just an anomaly. On the other hand, let’s hope the US result is an anomaly based on delayed data and goes back to normal tomorrow.

My previous graph showed the incorrect figure for the UK yesterday, which I have now corrected in this graph.

Cumulative deaths

Cumulative deaths since the 10th death graph

Nothing terribly important to report here, I think. Italy and Spain are still on scary trajectories. It’s too early to say what is going on in the UK. We might follow China. But it is important to remember that Italy weas behind China until day 15. We’re only on day 10, so there is plenty of time for it to accelerate on Italy’s path.

Massively simplistic rules of thumb are a bad idea. But let’s make some anyway. It’s unlikely to start magically dropping at this point (see below), so anything below or around 331 cumulative tomorrow would be a good result. Anything significantly above that would be a bad result. And anything around the 381 mark would be a terrible result.

Social distancing has a delayed effect

One final thought: there is probably at least a 14-day delay between implementing social distancing and seeing any benefit. The virus has an incubation period, then five days of fever and coughing, then the respiratory issues kick in.

We implemented our first set of social distancing (telling people to work from home and not gather in groups) on Tuesday 15 March. That’s six days ago.

We implemented our second set, closing schools and telling people “seriously, stay away from each other” on Saturday 21 March. That was two days ago.

That means that we have 8-12 days of nobody was social distancing damage before we even get to the “we told you all to distance, not cough on each other in the royal parks” damage, which may or may not be resolved. What you do today affects what happens in the ICU two weeks from now.