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Barrington belief or bewilderment?

14 Oct 2020  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Barrington belief or bewilderment?

Which side of the Barrington debate should newspapers stand? Ray Snoddy assesses the moral responsibility of the press

A remarkable story came out of the blue last week, which appeared to overthrow conventional worldwide scientific wisdom on COVID-19 – the Great Barrington Declaration.

Three top scientists with impeccable credentials from Oxford, Harvard and Stanford meeting in the small Massachusetts town of Barrington said, essentially that the response to the pandemic by most of the governments of the world, advised by their top scientists, was wrong.

The thesis was simple, though the implications are profound – protect the elderly and the vulnerable and allow the rest of the population to go about its daily business, and entertainment in pubs, theatres and sports stadia, as normal while gradually building up herd immunity.

It represented ‘manna from heaven’ for the Conservative-supporting press from the Daily Mail and The Sun to the Daily Telegraph, which have long been arguing that the economy should not be destroyed just to tackle the virus.

“World’s Top Scientists Rage Against Lockdown” was the Mail’s enthusiastic splash and inside, the Barrington Declaration was printed in full.

The reservations of three scientists who had not signed the declaration were carried at the end of the main story, almost as an after-thought.

An editorial comment attacked government ministers who “shamefully smear” critics of the curbs as wanting to kill hundreds of thousands.

“But the scientists say that as COVID is, for the majority, no worse than flu, we should shelter the most vulnerable and let everyone else get on with their lives, building up immunity. The Mail concurs,” the comment said.

By way of contrast, The Times splashed with a story predicting correctly, that soaring virus infection rates have put Britain on the brink of tougher lockdown measures.

The Barrington Declaration was covered fully but on page 10 and noticeably, the article put scientific reservations much higher up the story, making clear the Barrington views were controversial to say the very least.

When the three-tier system was introduced this week, The Sun made its position clear –that Prime Minister Johnson’s three-tier system was not the sensible middle way it seemed.

“A simpler, saner idea is backed by The Sun and many scientists worldwide: That the old, sick and vulnerable be protected as best we can while allowing the rest, and our economy, to function normally while observing the basic anti-COVID measures we all know,” the paper argued.

Many scientists worldwide? How many is many?

Initially, no less than 4,000 doctors and scientists from around the world signed the online declaration by professors Gupta, Kulldorff and Bhattacharya.

You can point out perfectly reasonably that the 4,000 scientists and doctors who signed the Barrington declaration represent an infinitesimally small proportion of the estimated seven million scientists and nine million doctors worldwide.

But the numbers game is a very unsatisfactory argument given that the history of science is littered with examples of a small number of scientists, or even a single thinker, being proved right and the great herd of contemporary wisdom almost ludicrously mistaken.

Less than a week after the Barrington Declaration in the UK, it was revealed that the SAGE committee had three weeks earlier urged the Government to take immediate sterner action against the virus.

Now the Prime Minister is again coming under increasing pressure to go for a “circuit breaking” national lockdown to halt the exponential rise in cases, hospitalisations and deaths.

How do journalists and editors, many if not most, educated in the humanities choose between competing bands of scientists arguing from the same or similar facts, when the issues often appear to change on an almost daily basis?

Is it even moral for journalists to try to reach clear conclusions given that jumping one way or another might endanger the lives of their readers, listeners and viewers?

What journalists can and should do is what they are best at, and that is asking the right questions.

Even for journalists who are non-scientists, it is possible to spot the logical flaws, problems of definition and missing issues in the Barrington effort.

The first big question is, is it really possible to identify all individuals who are likely to be vulnerable to this disease? And even if you can, is it really possible to isolate them from society?

Are you saying you can just look at birth certificates and bang up the elderly in their homes and drop off food parcels at the door – for the rest of their lives presumably?

Many millions of people have some serious underlying health condition, some more serious than others. All of them to self-isolate?

The second big question to ask is, whether herd immunity really exists for this particularly nasty virus?  Almost by definition we have not yet had time enough to really know how long immunity lasts for those who have caught the infection.

So is it not risky to allow the virus to rip through society in advance of having such knowledge?

Isn’t it a problem that the Barrington Three concentrate exclusively on death rates from COVID-19 and ignore the increasing evidence of “long Covid,” the hundreds of thousands who have long-term debilitating condition following infection?

Not everyone can leap out of their sick beds like President Donald J.Trump, at least for now, claiming they have suffered little more than flu-like symptoms.

Wouldn’t adopting such a strategy amount to a vast worldwide experiment on billions of people without having any clear idea in advance of what the outcome could be?

What if such an experiment backed by the Daily Mail and The Sun went ahead and the ideas of the Barrington three plus the 4,000 convinced scientists turned out to be completely wrong?

The battle continues in today’s newspapers with the Daily Mail urging the Prime Minister, having “defied the boffins” once, to hold his nerve and do the same again.

There is also a feature arguing that Britain must not be sacrificed on the altar of fighting COVID – by a professor of sociology.

At the bottom of page 10, the Daily Mail records that deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday rose to 145, the highest in four months.

Meanwhile a Financial Times scoop reveals that two of the government’s scientific advisors, who presumably didn’t sign the Barrington Declaration, have just published a paper arguing that thousands of lives could be saved by introducing the two-week circuit breaker over half-term.

Some journalists at least are continuing to ask questions. If only there were more of them.

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AlistairMoulton Black, Actor, private on 17 Oct 2020
“What makes it even more ludicrous, is the 4000 signatures are false. Cartoon characters names are amongst the fake signatures of ‘scientist‘. My girlfriends boss who’s has become a very well known epidemiologist in the uk, supposedly signed it... twice! And I can assure you that he hasn’t signed it at all. In fact, they are trying to get his name and some others at her institutes names off there. I feel people are allowed their views, but to fabricate signatures is fraud.”
NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 14 Oct 2020
“As a researcher, this looks remarkably like a fixation on (the wrong) metrics**. We see it a lot in comms agencies, sales organisations etc: people who don't feel naturally at home with data get told that a particular number is key to measuring their success, and that if that number gets big, that's bad. So they fix on this number, and the number becomes the objective of every initiative. New daily cases is that metric, and SAGE has been told to focus on how to bring it down, ignoring any outside considerations; policy is being decided purely on that number; and even health policy, and the cancellation of lifesaving procedures and screening, is being determined purely based on that new daily case number.

But the underlying assertion that that metric represents success or failure has really not been questioned except in passing. Hospitalisation and death rates no longer correlate with new daily case loads as they did in March. Sweden of course took a different approach overall, and was utterly villified (albeit that that's quietened down a little as the rest of Europe hits the second wave).

As you conclude, of course, there *should* be more questioning of these basic assumptions; revisiting whether these are the right metrics against which to base our national strategy. But the media - as well as the politicians - continue to follow the herd, and ridicule or sideline anyone who asks legitimate questions to check that we're still making the right choices.

**and, for the purposes of this discussion, let's ignore willful/ political/ incompetent mishandling of said metric...”