Happy 'Rule of Six' day everyone. I’m off out a bit later to meet five friends in a pub (true story). So I will be fully compliant and will positively baste my hands in sanitiser on the way in. But I hope to get a little merry nonetheless. But across media land toys are being propelled out of prams at high velocity over the new restriction as pundits declare what a nonsense it is (see my previous piece from last week for examples).
One of the arguments they cite is that deaths from Covid are still flatlining (correct) while hospitalisations are not rising (incorrect, they bottomed out at under 750 and have now gone above 900). Dealing with these arguments in turn, deaths are a lagging indicator, so one would not expect a notable rise in those before lots of other warning signs have gone off on the dashboard anyway. Hospitalisations are one such warning sign and it is true they remain relatively low, having peaked at nearly 20,000 per week back in the spring.
But 'Rule of Six' antagonists are letting their hearts rule their heads here. Of course, none of us – bar I suppose Matt Hancock and one or two other 'Jumped up Little Hitlers' (copyright, every bar room prophet ever) – actually relishes restraints on citizens going about their normal lives.
Yet Covid-19 has potentially exponential characteristics, as we saw earlier in the pandemic after the R value had been out of control. Daily deaths seemed to go from a dozen to 100 to nearly 1,000 in the veritable blink of an eye.
Let us conduct a little statistical experiment to highlight what we are dealing with. Suppose that no new restraints are imposed and the R value (which may already be up to 1.7) reaches two for a month or so. Let us further assume an infectivity cycle of half a week and a hospitalisation rate of just three per cent (it may actually be a little higher than that).
What we get is basically a real-world illustration of the Wheat And Chessboard problem that many of us learned about in our school days – where each square on the board has twice as many grains placed on it as the previous one.
We start off with 3,500 confirmed daily cases. After a week, that has become 14,000. Another week on, and it is 56,000. By the time four weeks are up it has hit almost 900,000. Based on our assumptions, the initial 3,500 daily cases will result in just over 100 new hospitalisations per day – about what we’ve got at the moment. But in a month’s time that will have risen to a little shy of 30,000 – completely unsustainable, deaths in the corridors stuff.
Even running the same calculation with R at 1.5 leads to 90,000 new cases per day after a month and 2,700 daily hospital admissions. In other words, we could be back to the worst days of March and April.
Now if you are a lockdown sceptic who believes, as I do, that running at as close to normality as possible in our economic life and in the education sector are vital goals, then surely socialising is the area that must therefore take the most strain in any strategy to keep a lid on Covid.
A 'Rule of Six' restriction is, in my view, a wholly proportionate response to the moment in which we find ourselves. We have small but indisputable bits of data in front of us which show Covid is making a comeback. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter a whole lot if that comeback goes unchecked for a week or two. But if it goes on like this even for a month then we are stuffed. For we will have encountered what Wheat and Chessboard aficionados term, while gulping hard, 'the second half of the board'.
And that is a place where we really, really will not wish to find ourselves. So yes, I’m tired of Covid and you are tired of Covid. Yes, we wish it would all just go away and are inclined to cling to the unfortunately now disproven notion that it has. And yes, the Government has made countless atrocious errors in its handling of the pandemic. But really, cut them a bit of slack on the 'Rule of Six'.