On Saturday, a statistic was widely shared on social media as evidence the coronavirus pandemic has been overblown and measures to tackle it should be eased as most people aren’t at risk of dying from the disease.
“The number of Covid-related deaths in England involving individuals under the age of 60 and free from a pre-existing condition is 377.
“This is for the entire period of the pandemic.”
The claim is true and it was tweeted by columnist Paul Embery with a link to the NHS data that backs it up.
It was quickly seized upon by a number of commentators as evidence that lockdowns are disproportionately affecting people who should have no fear of dying from the virus.
Talk Radio host Julia Hartley-Brewer said we’d “locked down an entire country for a virus that mostly kills the very old and sick”.
She added: “The rest of us should be free to decide our own risks.”
Former Brexit MEP Claire Fox suggested restrictions should be eased because “fear” has made “people think the virus [is a] mortal threat for all”.
There are a number of issues with this statement.
The old and the sick
The most obvious issue is the claim suggests the lives lost of those over the age of 60 and those with preexisting conditions are somehow less tragic than others.
A person over the age of 60 can be in perfect health and still of working age. And while preexisting conditions do include terminal illnesses such as cancer and severe heart disease, they also include illnesses that are by no means death sentences such as diabetes and obesity.
Severe mental health conditions, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are also counted as pre-existing conditions.
The Great Barrington Declaration
Both Hartley-Brewer and Embrey later clarified their statements, stating they are arguing for the shielding of the vulnerable people while the rest of the population “carry on living” and “go about their normal business”.
This is the approach laid out in The Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) which argues against strict lockdown measures and policies, in favour of letting the virus run its natural course among the young and healthy in society, while still protecting those who are most vulnerable.
The ultimate goal is ‘herd immunity’ which is what happens when enough of a population becomes immune to a disease, either because they’ve been vaccinated or because they’ve had the disease, recovered and developed immunity.
The GBD, proposed before any effective vaccines had been developed, advocated achieving her immunity by allowing most of the population to become infected with Covid-19 – a hugely flawed approach which was dismissed by the vast majority of the scientific community.
Firstly, it’s impossible to shield everyone in the country and the GBD doesn’t explain how this would be obtained other than to say “retired people living at home should have groceries and other essentials delivered to their home” and should try and meet relatives “outside rather than inside”.
Nor did it contain the opinions of any of those who would spend the winter months effectively locked away from society while the rest of the country returned to restaurants, bars, gyms and work.
Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in Global Health at the University of Southampton, told HuffPost UK earlier this year “it is a very bad idea” and that segregating members of society “would also promote further inequalities across society, for example across the Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities [who are at greater risk from Covid-19]”.
Sweden’s death rate per capita is several times higher than that of its Nordic neighbours and has recently passed laws enabling the legal enforcement of lockdown measures.
Earlier this month Sweden’s king said: “I believe we have failed. We have had a large number of deaths and that is terrible. That is something that brings us all suffering.”
Around one in five people with coronavirus may go on to suffer long Covid, data suggests, and the symptoms can be severe.
A small study published in October from the National Institute for Health Research, which is largely funded by the Department of Health and Social Care, suggested that long Covid may in fact be four different syndromes.
These are permanent organ damage to the lungs and heart, post-intensive-care syndrome, post-viral fatigue syndrome and continuing Covid-19 symptoms.
Earlier this month Dr David Strain, clinical senior lecturer and honorary consultant from the University of Exeter Medical School, said long Covid was “happening to younger people, more women than men – basically the population that were suggested to be at lower vulnerability from the initial disease, and therefore have been taking roles with higher hazard of coming into contact with the virus”.
Last week Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, explained that as well as the elderly, there has to be concern about the effects of long Covid in relatively young people.
He said he found the idea of his colleagues or his relatives becoming affected by long Covid “terrifying”.
Only focusing on those who have died during the pandemic plays down its severity by excluding the far higher number of people who have been hospitalised by the virus.
While hospitalisation rates are highest among the elderly, large numbers of younger people have required hospital treatment, a number that would only increase if the virus was left to run rampant.
For example, on December 2 eight children and 114 people aged 18-65 were admitted to hospital in England in a single day.
As chairman of the Healthcare Workers’ Foundation Dr Dominic Pimenta has pointed out, we only have a certain number of hospital beds in the UK.
Allowing non-vulnerable people to “go about their normal business” will inevitably lead to a rise in infections and a rise in hospitalisations.
And if hospitals are full of Covid patients then there aren’t any free to treat anything else.
Alas, it’s not the first time journalists have pretended to be scientists and got it very wrong about coronavirus .
Earlier this year Hartley-Brewer helped promote the apparently alarming statistic that 91% of coronavirus tests in the UK are “false positives”.
Obviously this would be shocking if true – it would basically mean the pandemic isn’t really a pandemic and we’ve all been sitting in our homes under various forms of restrictions for months all for no reason.
But it isn’t true. You can read about it in detail here, but in short, Hartley-Brewer based her claims on one article written by someone who got their maths a bit muddled and has been repeatedly claiming the pandemic is “over” for months.