Dr Waqar Rashid

Vallance’s dire Covid warning was a mistake

Vallance's dire Covid warning was a mistake
Sir Patrick Vallance (Getty images)
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The idea on the whole was sound. The execution less so. Boris Johnson was nowhere to be seen at yesterday's press conference. Instead, the honest brokers in this crisis, the medical scientists, were front and centre, in what may be a Downing Street briefing remembered for all the wrong reasons. When chief medical officer, professor Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, had finished their statements, there were plenty more questions than answers – not least as a result of their use of a graph showing how quickly the coronavirus crisis could get out of hand if we fail to act.

As a medic, I'm inclined to be supportive of Whitty and Vallance. I know how difficult the job can be and how precarious the situation is. Yet some of the data presented was so flawed and the graphical depictions so unnecessarily jaundiced that all I was left with was a mixed feeling of emptiness and anger. Emptiness because of how the two scientists had failed to connect with people. And anger because of how some of the data and graphics resorted to one of the biggest and most damaging tools of compliance deployed in this whole sorry affair: fear.

Their trump card was an extrapolated graph, which showed how, if cases doubled every 7-8 days, Britain would have almost 50,000 cases and 200 or more deaths per day by mid-October. This was not a prediction, just an illustration of the danger of exponential growth. But the message was unambiguous: it's time to panic.

Before introducing the graph, Vallance had set the scene with the situation unfolding in Spain and France. We were told these countries are a few weeks ahead of us, and that cases, hospital infections and death are rising there. But what was not presented was another side of the story: that, depending on what analysis you use, as of 3 September, case numbers based on positive PCR tests appear to be flat in Spain. And nor did the lurid warning come alongside any other possible scenario. To make matters worse, the actual figures from Spain and France were not extrapolated in a similar fashion to what was suggested could unfold in Britain. This could have presented a different, more nuanced picture; after all, it is clear that although cases are rising in those countries, they are well below the doubling every seven days rate that was painted in bright red as a possible scenario for the UK. This is effectively a mis-representation of data and simply promotes fear.

But whether or not the scenario offered up yesterday will unfold or not, the take-home message is that Covid is back and dangerous. Hospital admissions are rising. But why did the graph (below) chosen to illustrate this miss the main peak of the epidemic up to May? If this had been shown, it would have made it clear just how small the number of hospitalisations still remain, compared to the proper peak of this nasty virus. This would have helped clarify what these numbers actually mean.

No one is saying Covid doesn't exist and nor are they saying measures shouldn't be taken to fight this disease. But we must retain a sense of perspective. Unfortunately, this was missing from Whitty and Vallance's conference. The blatant contortions the data was made to perform and the graphical illustrations used reduce our trust in the group of people who we should and need to rely on most in this epidemic. The refusal to take questions made matters worse. Where was the evidence to justify what is now almost certainly an inevitable second lockdown? 

Most people who watched this briefing will be more scared, yes, but they are unlikely to be better informed. So, the result is this: come winter, even if some of the dire predictions are even remotely correct, we will be facing a significant number of infections from all kinds of winter viruses. This will mean that some more restrictions and cooperation from the public are vital. Yet the well of trust has been emptied and the excellent compliance which has been a feature from much of the public will have disappeared at just the wrong time. Downing Street will come to regret its use of a highly-questionable scenario, without taking questions, to justify a tightening of Covid restrictions. 

Written byDr Waqar Rashid

Dr Waqar Rashid is a consultant neurologist at St George's University Foundation Hospital NHS Trust, London. This article is a personal view and does not necessarily represent the views of the Trust. He tweets at @DrWaqarRashid1

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