23 June 2021

The latest Smiley myth: it’s not the jabs, it’s just ‘seasonality’

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The rise in Covid cases that started in early May took many of us by surprise and spooked the Government, leading to the delay of Step 4 in its pandemic roadmap. The Government always expected numbers to tick up as the ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’ were relaxed, but the rate of growth was unnerving. After loitering at around 1,500 positive tests a day at the start of last month, recorded cases quadrupled to over 6,000 by 7 June (all figures in this article are for England). The rate of growth has since slowed to around 30% a week, but it is hard to deny that we are in a third wave of sorts.

The good news is that the vaccines are working as well as expected, despite the dominance of the Indian variant. As of yesterday, 1,301 people were in hospital with Covid-19. This is a rise of 50% since the low of 870 recorded four weeks ago, but it is a far cry from the quadrupling we would have expected before the vaccination programme began. It is vastly less than the 39,000 in hospital at the height of the second wave and well below the 4,000 who were in hospital this time last year.

The people being infected this time are younger than before, a smaller proportion of them are going to hospital, those who do are spending less time there, and far fewer of them are dying. The number of deaths has doubled, but from the very low base of five a day. More of them are dying ‘with Covid’ rather than ‘of Covid’ than in previous waves; alas, the vaccines do not protect against cancer and heart disease.

These numbers will keep rising for the foreseeable future, but it is nothing the NHS cannot handle. As more jabs are delivered, the virus’ ability to circulate will continue to weaken and should eventually break. The prospect of further lockdowns seems remote. 

No one should be happier about this than the ‘lockdown sceptics’, but when I tweeted this news on Monday, a lot of angry people with pink flowers and smiley faces in their profiles told me I was wrong. Our relatively happy situation was not due to the vaccines, they insisted, but to ‘seasonality’. A number of them suggested that the vaccines had made things worse and that we are heading for an almighty wave of death and disease when winter arrives.   

One of them even made a meme to help a slow-witted person like myself understand what was really going on. It’s not the jabs, you see. It’s just summer.

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A pedant or scientist might point out a number of dissimilarities between this year and 2020. As can be seen in the image above, the number of Covid deaths started falling in April last year whereas they started falling in January this year. In the northern hemisphere, January is not traditionally considered to be part of summer.

What the meme doesn’t show is the sharp rise in infections in the last seven weeks which did not happen in the same period of 2020. We were testing fewer people last summer, but there is little doubt that the number of cases was in decline last June (we were in lockdown, after all). The ONS infection survey suggests that twice as many people currently have the virus than had it last June.

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This time last year, we had three times as many people in hospital with Covid-19 and five times as many people dying with Covid-19. The number of people being infected was falling, as was the number of people being hospitalised and dying. Today, the numbers of people being infected, hospitalised and dying are all on the rise. There is no seasonal pattern here. There is no pattern at all.

Seasonality is not completely irrelevant. Warmer weather allows people to mix outdoors where the risk of infection is lower. Scientists still can’t fully explain why influenza is so seasonal, but this is probably the main reason. However, influenza has quite a low reproduction rate, with an R0 of 1.3. The original SARS-CoV-2 had an R0 of 3. The UK variant has an R0 of 4 and the Indian variant has an R0 of 5. Warmer weather can be enough to tip the balance in our favour if other social distancing measures are in place, but there is nothing magic about the changing seasons that makes Covid-19 disappear. 

It’s not flu, it’s SARS. Plenty of countries have seen the virus surge in spring, summer, autumn and winter. The UK is now one of them. 

The reason why Covid deaths started falling in April 2020 and January 2021 should be obvious. In both cases, lockdowns had begun a few weeks earlier. Lockdown sceptics naturally claim that this is just a coincidence and have put forward alternative explanations. Last year, their theory was that Britain had reached herd immunity, but when that crashed and burned so spectacularly they resorted to claiming that seasonality was pushing the infection rate down in early February

Seasonality is now supposedly suppressing the virus once more, even though the infection rate has been actually been rising quite sharply (to plug this hole in the theory, they have resurrected their tired and discredited theories about PCR tests, spin cycles and false positives). 

This is all nonsense and easy to disprove. The more interesting question is why they want to believe the vaccines are useless. Why are people who were insistent that there would be no second wave last winter because of herd immunity so sure that there will be a massive wave this winter despite 87% of adults already having antibodies? Why has there been such a shift towards anti-vaxxing among lockdown sceptics, including some of the most prominent figures, such as Piers Corbyn, Michael Yeadon and Naomi Wolf (all of whom have been kicked off Twitter)?

When I wrote about the smiley phenomenon in January, I pointed to the power of confirmation bias. None of us wanted this pandemic and its lockdowns. If someone tells us that it is all hoax and it’s just the flu, we want to believe them. But why would anyone want to believe that there is no end in sight?

Part of the answer is bloody-mindedness and wilful contrarianism. Many of the lockdown sceptics who are not in it for the money are in it for the attention. But there is more to it than that.

If you have spent the last year claiming the Government wants to keep us locked down forever, it makes no sense for the government to be jabbing the population with an effective vaccine. If you don’t really believe that there is a disease, there cannot be a cure. If your view is that the Government, the scientists and Big Pharma are lying about everything, your opinions write themselves. 

With the possible exception of the weirdos who enjoyed lockdown, hardly anybody wants to see more ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’. The Zero Covid movement has fallen apart. Even Devi Sridhar has abandoned it. At this stage in the game, the only people who really want – or need – another lockdown are the lockdown sceptics.

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Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.