STEPHEN GLOVER: We're having a national nervous breakdown over Omicron

STEPHEN GLOVER: I don’t doubt that Omicron is rife. Caution is sensible – but we’re having a national nervous breakdown

So here we go again. Another Christmas is in peril. Boris Johnson pops up frequently on our television screens, and with every new appearance, he seemingly edges closer to another spate of restrictions.

The spectacle of droves of gloomy scientists flooding back onto the airwaves, particularly the BBC’s, to demand tougher restrictions from the Government is now a dependable part of Christmas.

Only this time it’s apparently worse. True, even doom-mongering scientists are forced to concede that we have more protection than last year because of the vaccine rollout, so in that respect things are better.

On the other hand, there is Omicron. The very word is sinister. It sounds like the name of a leader of a particularly evil group of extra-terrestrials determined to destroy our way of life. Which may be what we are going to allow it to do.

Boris Johnson pops up frequently on our television screens, and with every new appearance, he seemingly edges closer to another spate of restrictions

I don’t doubt that Omicron is rife and spreading like wildfire. Many of us will know of one, two or three people who have contracted it in recent days. It’s said to be three times as infectious as the Delta variant it is supplanting.

But are some scientists, politicians and journalists exaggerating the danger of the new variant, and in particular ignoring or underplaying the strong evidence emerging from South Africa that it is likely to lead to significantly fewer hospitalisations and deaths? I believe so.

And was Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, correct when she declared yesterday that Omicron poses ‘probably the most significant threat we’ve had’ since the start of the pandemic? I very much doubt it.

Was Jenny Harries (pictured), chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, correct when she declared yesterday that Omicron poses ‘probably the most significant threat we’ve had’ since the start of the pandemic? I very much doubt it

That’s the same Jenny Harries who, in the early days of the pandemic, suggested it wasn’t ‘a good idea’ for the average member of the public to wear a face mask, and was also sceptical about banning mass gatherings.

I submit that we are in the grip of panic. We are having another national nervous breakdown. The last one, you may recall, occurred when the shortage of a few tanker drivers was turned into full-scale fuel shortage as people queued for hours for petrol. It’s called hysteria.

Foolish

The latest claim is that there will be a million cases of Covid a day by the end of the week. Maybe it has supposedly already happened. During yesterday morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4, I heard that this figure would be reached ‘within days’, ‘in a week’ and in ‘two weeks’.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that figure were soon increased by the doom-mongers to two million cases a day. In which case, by the New Year most of us will have had Covid, or be about to be struck down.

Maybe we will have a million cases a day. It would be foolish to rule it out. But all we are offered at the moment are predictions, largely based on modelling by Jenny Harries’s UK Health Security Agency.

On Monday, it claimed there were 200,000 new cases every day — about four times the official government number at that time. The distinguished statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter rightly said that this figure was ‘a bit naughty’ because it didn’t show how the figure was reached.

Government scientists declare that the Omicron infection rate is doubling every two days, while Boris Johnson said at his press conference yesterday afternoon that the process is taking less than two days. According to this method of calculation, there were 800,000 new cases yesterday, and there will be 1.6 million today. This sounds crazy to me.

How much better it would be if the Government and its scientists restricted themselves to known facts rather than crystal ball gazing. Tell us what you know is happening rather than what you think might happen.

The irony, of course, is that while the Government is uninhibited with its speculations, it clams up concerning statistics about the age and vaccination status of people who die in hospital from Covid. Solid facts are shared much less generously than wild conjecture.

Alas, people listening to spine-chilling forecasts are apt to work themselves into a state of fear. I fear the BBC acts as a willing mouthpiece. It is far from being the only offender among broadcasters but stands out because its reach dwarfs its rivals.

Unsurprisingly, the Beeb is almost exclusively interested in apocalyptically minded epidemiologists. One of its favourite gloomsters is Professor Graham Medley of Sage. It again offered the floor to him this morning.

Professor Medley feared that Omicron could trigger a ‘very large’ wave of hospitalisations because it is so transmissible. Professor Adam Finn, another of Auntie’s pets, gave a similar message on BBC Breakfast. He implied that new government regulations may be necessary.

By contrast, highly qualified scientists who take a more balanced and less pessimistic view are given short shrift by the Corporation. I am thinking of eminent people such as Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, and Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the same university.

Neither of them is famous for pushing for new restrictions, and both tend to advocate restraint — which doubtless explains why they’re not favourites at the Beeb. Another moderate who is largely shunned is Professor Robert Dingwall of Nottingham Trent University.

One of the BBC’s favourite coronavirus gloomsters is Professor Graham Medley (pictured) of Sage

Ignored

Yesterday he criticised the general panic over Omicron. He pointed out that a real-world study of 78,000 Omicron cases in South Africa has been largely ignored by British scientists and policy-makers.

The study found that, with the new variant, the risk of hospitalisation is 29 per cent lower than with the original Wuhan strain, and 23 per cent lower than with Delta. Two vaccinations offer good protection against hospitalisation or death. Only five per cent of people with Omicron required intensive care treatment, compared with 22 per cent of Delta patients.

Granted, South Africa is not Britain. Its population is significantly younger. On the other hand, Dr Angelique Coetzee — a South African GP who knows more about Omicron than most — points out the high level of HIV infection, and therefore medical vulnerability, among many South Africans.

Kate Bingham, the scientist and venture capitalist responsible for Britain’s stunningly successful vaccine rollout, is another measured voice. She told a Commons committee on Tuesday that Omicron may be ‘a more mild disease’.

Deaths

Neither the BBC nor the Government seems receptive to this possibility. The scientists who are driving the debate are those recommending new restrictions, or postulating stratospherically high levels of infections.

Remember, too, that a greater number of cases is not a bad thing if it doesn’t lead to more hospitalisations or deaths. Quite the opposite. A milder though more ubiquitous version of the virus may build up our immunity against future variants.

All I am saying is that we shouldn’t panic. The BBC and some epidemiologists seem determined that we should. Caution is sensible; hysteria is not. Incidentally, isn’t it interesting that the BBC and, I suspect, many of the scientists demanding restrictions, privately loathe Boris Johnson?

Will he do their bidding? Or will he wait, and judge how harmful Omicron really is to a population of which the great majority will have received a booster? The next few weeks are going to test his mettle as never before.

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