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1 April 2020

First Thoughts: Herd immunity, the end of Tory philosophy and longing for the new cricket season

The advocates of herd immunity remind us why it's always worth checking the credentials of academics, and why county cricket could be the perfect sport for a pandemic.

By Peter Wilby

The body of right-wing opinion that argued global warming, smoking, corporal punishment and most diseases are good for us now insists that a dose of Covid-19 never did anybody any harm. These serial deniers include the Mail on Sunday’s Peter Hitchens and, less consistently, Donald Trump.

They contend that shutting down the economy and putting us all under house arrest will increase addiction, malnutrition, mental ill-health and domestic violence. The resulting death-rate, they say, will exceed that from coronavirus, which mostly affects people who would have died pretty soon anyway. 

The deniers seized on a report from an Oxford University team suggesting that the virus was circulating in the UK as early as mid-January; that half the population has already contracted Covid-19, mostly suffering little or no illness; and that we were therefore now close to the sunlit uplands of “herd immunity”.

The paper estimated that only one in a thousand infections will require hospitalisation. I looked at the data: more than one in 1,000 of Lombardy’s entire population have already been hospitalised. I also looked at the authors. The team leader, Professor Sunetra Gupta, I found, published an article last summer arguing that frequent modern travel, by spreading low-virulence pathogen strains, created “widespread immunity”to high-virulence strains, making anything comparable to the 1918 global flu pandemic unlikely. That hasn’t worn well.

Life on Mars

It always pays to look at academics’ credentials. Another report, from Imperial College London, predicted that the UK lockdown will reduce deaths to only 5,700 in total, peaking at 260 a day. That looked pretty silly when the daily toll immediately rose to 260, though it dropped on the next two days. The lead author, Tom Pike, is a professor of microengineering who specialises in developing instruments for Martian exploration. I may rely on him if I take a trip to Mars but, here on Earth, I’ll stick with the medics and epidemiologists.

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The gloaming

Announcing measures for helping workers who lose income from the shutdown, Rishi Sunak has twice thanked the TUC. Since the Tories have cold-shouldered the unions for 40 years, this is a significant departure that occasioned little comment. In his Times column, the former Tory MP Matthew Parris, echoing the comment by Sir Edward Grey (then British foreign secretary) in 1914, that “the lamps are going out all over Europe”, observes that now “the lamps are going out right across Tory philosophy”.  A cause of regret for him – but of celebration for me.

Bobbies on the beat

Nevertheless, I share the worry of Parris and others that the police will over-reach their new powers. Derbyshire police, for example, sent drones over an almost deserted Peak District to spot lonely dog-walkers. The force posted pictures of the outlaws on social media, with captions warning that such journeys were “not essential”. Most of us categorise as “not essential” the surveillance of people who are likely to be among the more conscientious observers of social distancing. More essential are stopping gatherings of youths on street corners and – dare I say it? – pursuing mainstream police duties such as investigation of burglary, theft and fraud.

Sporting arcadia 

This should be the start of the cricket season, with several weeks of four-day county matches. Alas, if cricket is played at all this season, it is likely be confined to 20-overs-a-side matches. But why? Suppose restrictions on movement are eased very slightly from June. What could be better than a full programme of the County Championship, which dates back to 1890? No problems with social distancing among spectators, since attendances are always sparse. With a few tweaks to the laws, even players needn’t be closer than two metres from each other. Broadcasters could fill their empty sports channels all day, every day. And we could all enjoy a season of cricket as played in the 1950s, the true cricket-lover’s land of lost content.

This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021