‘I don’t think that word means what you think it means,’ says the Spaniard Inigo Montoya in the film The Princess Bride, when Vizzini keeps saying it is ‘inconceivable’ that the Dread Pirate Roberts is still on their tail. I muttered those words to myself during a parliamentary debate just before the start of the latest lockdown, when the minister twice said that the wave of infections was increasing ‘exponentially’.
Far from increasing, let alone exponentially, the data showed that the wave was faltering if not cresting already. The lockdown came in on a Thursday. The very next day data from three reliable sources – the Office for National Statistics, the government and the Covid Symptom Study – showed slight falls of the number of positive cases or some levelling off. The fall was steep in some places such as Liverpool. The cynic in me wondered whether the haste with which the government had rushed to bring in the national lockdown, at the urging of its questionably sage advisors, was so that lockdown could be credited with the fall that was coming.
Ah, said the government at the time, but hospital admissions are still increasing and so are deaths. Well, sure. Hospital admissions lag cases by two weeks, and deaths lag admissions by two weeks. We now have two more weeks of data and the evidence looks clear. The faltering of the wave in late October and early November was not just a pause but a peak. Hospital admissions appear to have peaked on 11 November and began to fall, implying a peak of infections in late October, well before lockdown began. Even deaths seem to have now stabilised, unexpectedly, with the seven-day average also steady since 11 November.
The same thing happened in April, when in retrospect it became clear that infections peaked before lockdown began, with deaths peaking around 8 April – too soon to credit the lockdown.
What explains the peak, then, if not lockdown? In some places, such as London, the virus may be struggling to find susceptible people. Some are already immune after the first wave, others have a degree of cross immunity from common colds. Above all the superspreaders – the people the virus really relies on – have been depleted by previous infection because they were the first to catch it. We know that about 80 per cent of cases are spread by between 10 and 20 per cent of people.
But it may also be because voluntary measures work. People did change their behaviour again in October, as the warnings ratcheted up. It really is not necessary to order people about: much better to ask them. Not only does it work, but it gets buy-in. Ordering stops people thinking and starts making them rebellious.
Take me. I don’t want to catch this virus. I am in my sixties and more at risk than some. I can work from home. Therefore, given the choice, I will be cautious, at least as much as I am being now. But the moment the government says to me ‘you are free to do as you please’, I will have to think through what I therefore plan to do. Do I start socialising yet? Travelling? Probably not. At the moment, I just don’t have that conversation with myself. Instead I try to get my head around the rules that say what is and is not permissible, as set out by the prison guards, and try to suppress my instinctive desire to start digging a tunnel beneath a wooden horse.