Monday, March 30, 2020

Coronavirus 19

30th March 2020

Over the past 18 editions of this series of mini-blogs I have stressed the uncertainties. Here I try to constrain the uncertainty based on what we surely know.

The UK has now seen 1228 deaths.  (Update 31st March:  1789) (update 1st April: 2352)
The numbers are rising about every three days.
It takes, typically, almost three weeks from infection till death.
Most of the people who die over the coming three weeks have already been infected.
It is reasonable to assume that the infection rate has been doubling every 3 days, at least until recently when stricter stay at home measures were announced and adhered to.
Therefore the deaths over the coming days are already baked in.
15 days, five doublings, we see almost 40,000 deaths.
Three weeks, seven doublings, we pass 150,000.

If the current measures on lockdown are effective we should see the inflection in the logistic curve in a couple of weeks time, with the increase in deaths then falling off.

The Government is not telling us numbers like these. Is the Government telling us the truth? The whole truth?


And here is a message from Rupert Read, a philosopher.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Coronavirus 18

Saturday 28th March

13/03/2020 11
14/03/2020 21
15/03/2020 35
16/03/2020 55
17/03/2020 71
18/03/2020 104
19/03/2020 144
20/03/2020 177
21/03/2020 233
22/03/2020 281
23/03/2020 335
24/03/2020 422
25/03/2020 465
26/03/2020 578
27/03/2020 759
28/03/2020 1019
29/03/2020 1228

UK deaths are almost doubling every three days. If such an exponential growth continues there will be a million deaths by the end of April and everyone will be dead before May ends.
Of course that won't happen. Even if we do nothing, the virus will not be able to find new victims so the death rate will slow. There will be an inflection in the logistic curve.
And we are doing a lot, by staying at home and being very careful. Some have been irresponsibly careless, including the Prime Minister and Health Secretary by not applying their own rules on social distancing to themselves.
The Financial Times is displaying global data in a useful (and free) way.
There is still almost as much uncertainty about key factors as there was when I started writing this series in early February. We don't know how many cases there are, we don't know the R0 number, we don't know the case fatality rate.
What we can be certain about is that for the last decade and more government has not applied the Precautionary Principle, has left the health service woefully under resourced and has ignored a wealth of scientific advice and recommendations. It has all been compounded by a litany of bad decision making since January.
London has become one of the global hot-spots for Covid-19 infection yet Heathrow is still receiving and sending out flights from and to every corner of the world. Flight numbers may have reduced by over 80% but these international airports are still ensuring that the global pandemic is maintained.
You can watch it happening minute by minute at FlightRadar.

With extraordinary prescience, Professor Tim Lang's Book,  Feeding Britain : Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them, was published this week. Written just before SARS-CoV-2 was a thing, it tells us what we really need to know about the UK's food system.
Buy the book, and read the book when you've done work in the veg plot.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Coronavirus 17

24th March 2020

At last, far too late, the government is doing what it should have done weeks ago.

This is 17th in my Covid-19 series of little blogs. The first one, posted on the 7th of February, started with these words:

When it was first suggested that UK nationals should be flown out Wuhan, I remarked that it might be better if all international flights were grounded, reducing both the speed of infection spread and our carbon emissions.

In the old story, Cassandra did not fare well at the time but it was the leader, Apollo, who was condemned by history.

One day, when he hear the mother of all inquiries, we will revisit advice given, yet ignored, by government. There will be pile upon pile of it.

Here is one small sample out of the many, the Global Preparedness Monitoring report 'A World at Risk' dated September 2019.

Today, however, while we sit at home, our minds should turn to how we rebuild a better society. The unfairness must go. Today we have some people sitting at home and being paid £2500 per month from public funds to do nothing, more than many in the NHS have ever earned, while millions in the self-employed gig-economy have been promised nothing but a vague recommendation to enter the Byzantine world of the benefits system with its dysfunctional Universal Credit.

And we must also turn our minds to global heating . Let's treat Covid-19 as a drill. The 
Climate Emergency is not a drill. 

The lesson from Cassandra must not have to be learned twice over.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Coronavirus 16

21st March 2020

13/03/2020 11
14/03/2020 21
14/03/2020 35
16/03/2020 55
17/03/2020 71
18/03/2020 104
19/03/2020 144
20/03/2020 177
21/03/2020 233
22/03/2020  281
23/03/2020  335

If the UK death count continues to double every 3 days then we pass a million before end April. If we do the right things it might not.

I'll keep it brief because I want you to read two lengthy articles:

The first is science. It's the second on the subject from Tomas Pueyo et al.
This is a tremendously important article. Quite long, already more than a day old in this fast-moving world, but absolutely necessary that everybody understands the message contained.
Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance

The second is politics. It concerns how we in the UK got to where we are right now. We don't yet know whether Mr Johnson and his government will be responsible, by their bad decision making and inaction, for thousands or millions of avoidable deaths. We will only see that in the rear-view mirror. But right now we have to understand the history of the past fortnight. It is outlined by Alex Wickham and the good folk at BuzzFeed.
10 days that changed Britain

Please read these two articles, pass them on to as many people as you can, and act thereon.

Right, I'm off to the veg plot because this year I aim to grow a surplus. Just in case others don't.

And here's a short film, horrifying, yet beautiful.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Coronavirus 15

19th March 2020

The UK death count appears to be doubling in about two days.

13/03/2020 11
14/03/2020 21
15/03/2020 35
16/03/2020 55
17/03/2020 71
18/03/2020 104
19/03/2020 144

With exponential growth, the trick is to act before it looks like you need to.

We've been saying for quite a while that the UK is about a fortnight behind Italy and that we should have used that opportunity to do everything now being done two weeks ago.
14 days ago Italy was on 107. Italy now has just under 3000 deaths.

I notice that in the Second World War there were a total of 450,900 UK deaths. This was 0.94% of the 1939 population. If the fatality rate of Covid-19 is only 0.9% we should feel we got away with the optimistic end of the predicted uncertainty range.

The UK Government is now taking actions, albeit late in the day, and still not going far or fast enough. Perhaps it is not the moment for recriminations, but if only for the benefit of future historians, it is important to record where culpabilities lie.

Here is an article published in the Guardian on the 10th of December 2019, before we heard of this virus. Written by a hospital doctor, Andrew Meverson, it starkly explains just how close the NHS is teetering on the edge of collapse, with blame firmly laid on the current Prime Minister and the past decade of government policy.

"You and your party have had nearly a decade to leave the health service in a better state than when you found it. On every objective metric, the Conservative party has failed in that, and we see this in our NHS hospitals every single day. ...Prime Minister, the NHS is not safe in your hands. Your negligence and that of your party over the past decade has contributed to the deaths of nearly 5,500 patients, and if you were a junior doctor like me, your licence would now be revoked, and you would be sent to prison."

The vital policy imperative when faced with an exponentially spreading pandemic is to act before it looks obvious to the lay observer that the time is right. The Government should have been preparing for a novel viral pandemic for years and should have built a health service with enough slack in the system to cope with shocks. The Government should have sprung into action into action in January and by early February (when I started writing this series of blogs) every citizen in the land should have been aware of the dangers, should have changed their behaviour and should have been planning for the worst.

Then the worst would not not come about.

While not wishing to compare apples with pears, we now have to accept that the situation has the possibility of being more dangerous to lives in the UK than the Second World War.

And yet. We are getting positive news from China. Suppression of the outbreak appears to be working. Will we now learn form the Chinese experience and take the actions today to suppress the virus here, and clutch victory from the jaws of defeat?


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Coronavirus 14

17th March 2020

Not so long ago the UK Prime Minister was cheerfully dismissing the notion of social distancing, telling us how he had been shaking hands with "everyone" in a hospital.

Yesterday we got a significant policy change, prompted, it has emerged, by the actual scientific advice, particularly this report from Imperial College:

Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand - 16th March 2020

The government is still not telling the whole truth. Prof. Chris Witty, in the prime minister's briefing yesterday, spoke of keeping fatalities below 1%. There were two things wrong with that:

1. He did not point out that 1% translates to around a quarter of a million deaths.
2. He did not point out that 1% assumes that the health services do not breakdown and can provide intensive care to those who need it.  It will break down, unable to treat many. Just what the fatality rate becomes is a deep uncertainty.

It is hard to visualise numbers such as 1,000,000. The Grenfell Tower disaster killed 72. It would take a disaster like that every day for the next 38 years to reach a million.

Now let's get on with the job of building a better world.

Last night saw the launch of the film, The Sequel, based on the  work of my late friend David Fleming. I was planning to attend the launch (see yesterday's blog) but last night we watched it on line and then the discussion between Shaun Chamberlin, Caroline Lucas, Kate Raworth and Rob Hopkins.

I cannot recommend highly enough that people take these dreadful times to look forward with a measure of optimism, learning how to survive the future and build a better society. That was David Fleming's message.

Start the conversation here:

Monday, March 16, 2020

Coronavirus 13

16th March 2020

We can do a lot whilst waiting for our government to get its act together.

1. Assume that we have Covid-19. (It might be the case.)
2. Behave in a way that slows its spread to other, perhaps more vulnerable, people.
3. Maximise personal hygiene. (Soap*) 
4. Meet as few people as we can.
5. Remember we are doing this to minimise peak demand on NHS so that deaths in the UK can be counted in hundreds of thousands not millions.

*That soap thing, it really does work. The virus is essentially a piece of RNA, the genetic bit that allows replication, and some proteins and enzymes that do the damage, all held together with a lipid or fatty material. Here's the vulnerability. If soap touches, it all falls apart. End of virus. So the advice to wash thoroughly with soap is good. Very good. 

Of course a lot of us will need to interact closely with others to keep society functioning. The above five points still apply and should be kept in mind all the time. Even when we are necessarily with others.

But we all need to do whatever we can. Today I was planning to travel from Lincolnshire to London for the launch of the film, The Sequel, based on the life and works of my late friend David Fleming. It was to be a lovely evening, celebrating David Fleming's vision for the future with the best of people, Caroline Lucas, Kate Raworth, Rob Hopkins and Shaun Chamberlin. It isn't going to happen. 

Still, there will be an opportunity to share in this no-longer-a-real-event tonight online.
More information of how you can join us at The Sequel.

And more still on Shaun's blog at Dark Optimism.

Stay safe, keep others safe, and we'll build a better world on the other side. Meanwhile this is a good moment to read David Fleming's works, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Coronavirus 12

15th March 2020

The UK government's action, or lack of action, has come under unprecedented criticism.

Harry Stevens, in the Washington Post, provides a helpful visualisation of how an infection can spread and how that spread can be slowed, giving the health care system invaluable time to cope. Watch it here

A letter from Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, and many other well know figures (and me) was sent to the government, calling for more urgent action. Read it here

Most importantly, 282 scientists from British universities and a further 33 distinguished international scientists, have signed this letter.

It concludes, "We consider the social distancing measures taken as of today as insufficient, and we believe that additional and more restrictive measures should be taken immediately, as it is already happening in other countries across the world."

The UK Government has never before faced such a serious criticism from the scientific community on an issue that is life-critical for a couple of million people.

Arne Akbar, Professor of Immunology University College London, President of the British Society for Immunology, is about as top a top expert as one can find. He has written this open letter to the Government.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Coronavirus 11

14th March 2020

If you haven't, look at previous posts linked to on the right.

We need to talk about the numbers.

The UK Government says 80% of the population may catch Covid-19 and 20% might be infected at the same time.
Let's make the arithmetic easy enough to check in our heads. Call it 50 million people infected (That's optimism bordering on magic.) 20% of that is 10 million. 5% of them are acute cases needing intensive care treatment to stop them dying. That's 500,000. Compared to that number, the actual number of ICU beds is approximately zero. That means most of those 500,000 people will die, in a short space of time.

That's our elderly relatives and our friends who are imuno-compromised or have 'underlying health problems'  or are just unlucky.

More numbers:

In countries and parts of China away from Wuhan, where draconian measures have been put in place and the health services have been prepared, case fatality has been kept be low 1%.  Let's pretend it's only 0.5%
If that were the situation in the UK (It isn't, this is not Fairyland) then 250,000 people will die.

A more realistic figure if we take drastic action now, i.e. lock-down of everything and everybody to smooth the peak in demand on health services and add a good deal of optimism, is that we get a case fatality rate of 1%. That means 1,000,000 people die.

The current UK Government policy as announced by the Prime Minster a couple of days ago leads to something in the region of 5% case fatality. That means 2,500,000 die.

When faced with governance failure the population has to do the right thing despite the government.

We all need to stay at home as much as we possibly can. Don't go to meetings and entertainment. If you are an event organiser, cancel it.

In this diagram the red area represents the UK, the blue area shows Fairyland.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Coronavirus 10

13th March 2020
[If you are new to this blog, it might be worth your while glancing at previous parts, linked to on the right.]

There is general agreement that any delay in the now inevitable spread of Covid-19 reduces the intensity of peak demand on the health services. In the UK the NHS has little slack at the best of times and now the worst of times brings the threat of overwhelming demand in which people will die because there is a lack of physical space, equipment and staff.

There has been little mention in the news media or from government statements of the importance of smoothing the peak in terms of potential casualties numbers. Estimates, still with a deal of uncertainty, of case fatality rates under different local circumstances vary from under 1% to around 5%. The essential factor seems to be the ability of the health services to cope with the small proportion of victims with acute symptoms. And that is where smoothing the peak of demand is vital.

For the UK smoothing the peak is all about shifting the fatality rate from the 5% region to below 1%. What was missing from yesterday's government statements was how this translated into actual numbers, the shift from over 2 million deaths to under half a million deaths was not emphasised.

What we got instead was the argument about the importance of timing. This seemed to be based on some notion that the public would not accept drastic social distancing for very long, that we would somehow get tired of making the effort and give up. That is a political judgement.

The government makes much of its policy being based on the science and the Prime Minister makes statements while flanked by his medical and scientific advisers. But remember these are political appointments, people on the government payroll, and subject to political restraint in everything they say. (Recall the sacking of David Nutt by the then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, or the way David King has become much more vocal on the climate emergency since retiring.)

The current government position on social distancing, amounting to little more than "wash your hands" is a political decision, not scientifically supported. It is a decision that will determine, along with the past decade of NHS funding policy, whether the ultimate death toll from Covid-19 in the UK will be about half a million or a couple of million.

The stakes are high. We have not seen a peace-time situation before where government could be responsible for two million avoidable deaths. At least, not since the Irish potato famine.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Coronavirus 9

You might think, having listened to the Budget Speech, that the UK Government is now doing the right thing.

They are not.

I'll not waste your time explaining why as Tomas Pueyo does it so well.

Read this and share it widely and quickly.

Social Distancing will save lives. It's up to each of us to act now, even before government tells us to.

And if you don't want to take Tomas Pueyo's word for it, other similar work is available, as reported in today's Guardian.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Coronavirus 8

Readers of this little series of bloglets (for #1-7 see panel to right) will know that I have tried to emphasise the uncertainty around the Covid-19 pandemic, hoping for the best whilst being aware of the worst.

We can still hope for the best, that the virus will spontaneously mutate into a less harmful form and that the outbreak will peter out. There is, however, no evidence of that yet. So let us plan for the worst.

It is important to understand the underlying nature of how an epidemic can spread and the best account I've seen so far is this video from 3blue1brown . It's a bit of a maths lesson but it is quite okay to let the mathematical notation wash past you; the essential message will stick. I do urge all my readers to watch it. The eight minutes will not be wasted.

Lives depend on delaying and spreading out the peak in demand for health services. Tragically, our political leaders, and even some of their scientific advisers, seem to be acting like frightened rabbits caught in the headlights. In the UK we are some 10 to 14 days ahead of the situation in Italy but instead of grabbing the chance to get ahead of the curve by implementing drastic measures our government has announced they are going to wait and see.

This may turn out to be the most egregious failure of leadership in our lifetime.

Governments may fail but that just places a greater responsibility on each of us. It is high time we assume that other people are potentially infectious and that we do everything we can to avoid becoming infected ourselves. It is time we assume that we ourselves are infected and that we do everything we can to avoid infecting others.

For my part, as curator of an art exhibition planned for this coming April (see Faces of Climate) I have today written to the venue organisers to explore possible dates for a postponement.

Life as planned will be disrupted in the coming weeks. For some it may be disrupted permanently, but we all have our part to play to minimise that.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Coronavirus 7

This is the seventh in my series of bloglets on Covid-19. (Click on links in panel to right for earlier episodes.) Over the last month I've tried to emphasise the uncertainties while making clear the possibilities of bad outcomes. With each day that passes the probability of good outcomes has faded and the probability distribution has looked more skewed to the bad end.

Earlier to day I tweeted a few figures from the UK:

Big caveat: we don't really know how well the reported cases reflect the actual cases. That said...
03/03/2020 51
04/03/2020 87
05/03/2020 116
06/03/2020 164
07/03/2020 209
08/03/2020 273
What is the doubling time?
It takes about 26 doublings to go from one to 67 million.

The doubling time question was rhetorical. There is such unreliability in the figures, particularly in as much as we don't know how many mild cases of infection are going unrecorded, that there is little point in trying to derive a precise number, but suffice it to say it looks like a few days rather than a few weeks of months.
Our politicians (remember the Prime Minister was happy to declare he had been shaking hands with everyone in the hospital) have been woefully slow to move from 'containment' to 'delay'.
The news coming from Italy is not encouraging. The infection there seems to be running at about a fortnight ahead of the UK. 
That gives us an opportunity. Government might be wise to act now on the basis of data that we can expect to see in a fortnight's time, rather than to wait until that data arrives.  Significant delay is going to be best achieved by acting ahead of the curve, rather than in response to the curve.
Delay is important as it spreads the workload of the NHS. That is life-critical.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Coronavirus 6

March 2nd 2020

A quick update in this mini-series of mini blogs on Covid-19. (See previous episodes here.)

The window of opportunity for containment and prevention of pandemic seems now to have slipped away. We still don't have firm data on the reproduction number, RO, how many people on average get infected from an ill person. Nor do we have a sound figure for the mortality rate, though the evidence so far points to an order of magnitude of 1%.

What has become clearer is that containment is unlikely and the probability that the virus spreads throughout the global population has increased.  1% of a large proportion of the human population is a large number.

The UK government is still trying to assure people that #Covid-19 is containable. The truth is that it probably is not. The sooner we accept that there is a pandemic the more likely we will adopt appropriate measures.

The objective of government policy and personal behaviour should be to slow the spread of the virus, in the hope that a sudden spike of illness across the population that overwhelms the health service may be avoided.

Short term economic costs must not be allowed to trump a longer term human and economic catastrophe.

Here I re-post a message from a GP, Dr Peter Weeks @DrPeterWeeks1 that he posted on twitter.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Coronavirus 5

This is the fifth in my series of short blogs about Covid-19. Maybe read the others first here.

It's three weeks on and much of the uncertainty I wrote about is still there. We still can't be sure whether the outbreak will peter out with only a few thousand deaths or result in a hundred million fatalities. But each day's news shifts the probability a little towards the bad end of the spectrum.

What is clear is that individual behaviour change is sensible and responsible. Let's not think so much about saving our own worthless hides but rather do it to slow the spread to the elderly and those with weaker immune systems. That's the responsible thing.

Mindful of the uncertainties, it's worth assuming that the most likely way to spread the virus is with close contact, touching other people or surfaces recently touched by others and then touching ones mouth, nose or eyes.

So it's time to ditch the embarrassment of breaking social norms and conventions.

When we meet and greet avoid the kisses, hugs and handshakes.
Touch as few public surfaces as possible.
Wash our hands.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Flooding is not a government priority.

Six years ago, in February 2014, I wrote a couple of pieces relating to the floods then affecting particularly the Somerset Levels. At the time the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, standing in a puddle in his wellies, spoke of money not being a barrier and promising sufficient government spending to deal with the issue.

Today government ministers and Environment Officials are again standing in soggy spots wearing wellies assuring the public they are on the case, spending more than ever and planning to spend even more to keep us all dry in our homes.

Nearly £5bn is earmarked to be spent on flood defences in England over the next six years. Compare and contrast with spending on HS2. I'm not saying it is necessarily an either/or question, but when numbers involving billions are concerned it's useful to have some comparisons to get a handle on the magnitudes. (NHS spending is about £130 billion per year.)

The data are here.

Are government priorities correct? How should government compare the misery and economic harm of ordinary folk flooded out of the homes with cutting journey times from London to Birmingham and beyond?

Dealing with uncertainty is a critical feature of our times, but little attention is given to its serious consideration. The Royal Society is addressing this with its conference 'Confronting Radical Uncertainty' in April 2020.

What we can reasonably assume to be certain is that global heating will continue through this century, sailing through the 1.5° and 2°C targets. For the British Isles the consequence will be to increase the frequency of extreme weather events and to increase their severity.

With the current 1°C of warming, we ain't seen nothing yet.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

What About the Miners?

I was at a little climate demo in Horncastle yesterday, a bit of joint affair between FridaysForFuture, Extinctinction Rebellion The Labour Party and others, under the banner of Horncastle Climate Action.

I got chatting about future XR actions, particularly at the Pont Valley coal mine in County Durham to somebody carrying a Labour Party placard.

She was, she explained, someone who absolutely understood the climate emergency. But (is it something deeply ingrained in the psyche of Labour members?) she was concerned about the jobs and livelihoods of the coal-miners.

Well, yes, I sympathised, but there will be no jobs and livelihoods for anyone if we don't stop burning the black stuff. Stopping coal mining comes first and then we must address the issue of social justice and the rest that is at the core of Labour's existence.

My conversation should not have stopped there. We should have gone on to discuss the fact that everything has to change. But I'm not sure that some folk, even though they say the 'get' the climate issue, are not ready for this, Everything has to change. It's not just a handful of coal-mining jobs. There are oil workers, gas workers, gas fitters, people who make car engines, car salesmen, aircrew, travel agents... every job in every industry in which fossil carbon is burnt. And that is very nearly every job.

It's not about the miners. Everything has to change.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Coronavirus 4

(Maybe read the previous items in this series on coronavirus first - links on the right.)

Professor Julian Hiscox is Chair in Infection and Global Health at the University of Liverpool, so that's about as expert as they come. He was talking on Radio 4 Today Programme this morning and a 7.56 said this:

"To me this virus is more like a slightly bad strain of influenza virus and between 6000 and 10000 people each year in the UK die of flu depending on the particular flu strain through the flu season and I think if you're worried about something make sure your flu shots are up to date and then worry about this disease afterwards."

There's a fine line between not frightening the horses and being complacently unprepared for a potential disaster, and Professor Hiscox seems to have decided that this is not the moment to point out that 2019-nCoV might be as deadly as the flu pandemic at the end on World War One that killed between 50 and 100 million, between 3 and 6 % of the then global population.

Of course it might not turn out anything like that serious, but the truth is that we don't yet know.

Were we to apply the precautionary principle enthusiastically, we would be making personal preparations now, planning how to avoid infection in our daily lives. Such planning might be a waste of effort or it might ave lives

Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Social Care issued this press release, announcing new regulations to impose restrictions on any individual considered by health professionals to be at risk of spreading the virus.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said:

I will do everything in my power to keep people in this country safe. We are taking every possible step to control the outbreak of coronavirus.

NHS staff and others will now be supported with additional legal powers to keep people safe across the country. The transmission of coronavirus would constitute a serious threat - so I am taking action to protect the public and isolate those at risk of spreading the virus.

Clinical advice has not changed about the risk to the public, which remains moderate. We are taking a belt and braces approach to all necessary precautions to ensure public safety.

Our infection control procedures are world leading – what I am announcing today further strengthens our response.

The regulations have been put in place to reduce the risk of further human-to-human transmission in this country.
So that's all right then.

This is a molecular illustration of a 2019 novel Coronavirus comparative model
Source: Gianluca Tomasello 

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Coronavirus 3

9th February 2020

In Part 1 and Part 2 of these little thoughts on 2019-nCoV, I discussed some key issues where the data is still woefully lacking, the case fatality rate and the reproduction number, RO, which tells us how easily the infection spreads.

The outbreak is a live experiment in how humanity deals with the precautionary principle. We still lack the basic information that leads to any certainty between an epidemic that quickly loses its virulence and peters out relatively harmlessly, or one that becomes a global pandemic, infecting a large proportion of the world's population, not ending until most folk have either recovered with their resistance built up or are dead.

It's instructive to consider for a moment the rather different pandemic around the end of the First World War. Between 1917 and 1920 H1N1, known as 'Spanish Flu' infected over a quarter of the world's population. Estimates of fatalities range from 50 to 100 million, some 3 to 6 % of the then population. For background on this start at Wikipedia.

Of course medical science has progressed over the past century. Patient care and treatment of secondary consequences has improved. Some of the already available anti-viral drugs may prove effective against 2019-nCoVn and a vaccine may be developed over the coming month. Or it might not.

The precautionary principle demands, in the face of a potential catastrophe facing a billion people or more, that everything potentially useful be tried to slow and halt any emerging pandemic. Now is perhaps not the moment to worry about the supply chain of parts in the motor manufacturing industry, but rather to ensure that the pharmaceutical industry has all the resources that it can usefully use, that the healthcare systems are as good as they can be and that population are kept informed with the best information available.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Coronavirus 2

8th February 2020

In the previous blog I suggested that a key issue in determining the mortality rate of 2019-nCoV was the lag time between infection and death.  We are not yet sure what it is, but the longer the gap the greater will be the likely mortality rate. And neither do we know the true number of people who have been infected. It is bound to be much higher than recorded but the bigger the number the lower will be the likely mortality rate.

Another key issue is how easily the virus jumps from person to person. In the case of the current outbreak we don't yet have good data on that though it seems to spread more easily than MERS did. The MERS virus seemed to peter out after spreading to several successive people. There's no sign that 2019-nCoV is doing that yet.

The key measure is the reproduction number, RO, the average number of other people that any individual with the virus will infect. We don't yet know what this is, but estimates have put it between about 2 and 4. For an epidemic to stop the RO number needs to be less than 1. The common influenza has an RO just about 1.3 and the value for SARS was 2.

Noting that all data are subject to error, accidental or deliberate, the Woldometer  website  is supplying a constantly updated set of data on the progression of this coronavirus outbreak.

Friday, February 07, 2020


7th February 2020

When it was first suggested that UK nationals should be flown out Wuhan, I remarked that it might be better if all international flights were grounded, reducing both the speed of infection spread and our carbon emissions.

There is a key point being missed in the reports about the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who called, in late December, for greater measures to prevent the infection spreading, and was criticised by his government for his pains.

This report in the Guardian ends thus:

"But in early January he treated a woman with glaucoma without realising she was also a coronavirus patient; he appears to have been infected during the operation."

The time between infection and death in this single case appears to have been around five weeks.

One of the major factors determining whether 2019nCoV peters out relatively harmlessly or becomes a global pandemic that kills ten of millions of people, is the mortality rate. This has not yet been confidently determined. It is likely to be higher if there is a big time-lag between the time of infection and the time of death. If there is a longer time-lag then more of people who have been infected already will succumb and the eventual outcome worldwide looks more grim.

People should know about this sort of stuff.

Picture from Medscape

Here's an interview, from 5th February, with Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, discussing the situation and how we deal with uncertainty when the stakes are so high.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Wealth, Whence and Whither.

Wealth, Whence and Whither, and the basis for funding a Universal Basic Income.

From where does wealth arise and to where does it (should it) go?

There are three sources of wealth creation:

1. Land
2. Capital
3. Labour

'Land' in this context doesn't just mean the ground, but all the stuff we get from the natural environment, such as minerals that are mined and quarried, energy from fossil carbon, radioactivity, wind and sun, and food grown from the soil. It is essentially the province of the primary industries, mining, agriculture, fishing and energy.

'Capital' is the machinery, factories, buildings and infrastructure used to convert 'Land' into things we actually want to use. It is either owned by individuals, capitalists, or by the state or other community enterprises. The employment of 'Capital' adds value to 'Land' and thus creates wealth. 

'Labour' is what we do when we, er, labour, work, toil or maybe invent and create. There are different forms of 'Labour' from slavery, through employment by others in exchange for wages, to self-employment and voluntary work.  Whatever, it all goes to add value to 'Land' rather like 'Capital' does.

Much of the day to day cut and thrust of political debate concerns the second two sources of wealth, Capital and Labour and the traditional left-right spectrum reflects the arguments about who the owners and beneficiaries of Capital should be and how Labour is regulated and how the wealth created is distributed. Libraries enough have been filled with writing on the subject so I will not add much more. I will concentrate on Land.

Once upon a very long time ago there were no people. In the case of Britain let's begin after the ice left, roughly 10,000 years ago. Nobody owned the land, folk walked north following the retreating ice and advancing animals and vegetation. The land provided food for all able to take it. The wealth created by the Land was a common good, distributed amongst all the people.

Somehow, sometime between then and the time when people started writing down their affairs, Land came to be possessed by individuals and laws were created to maintain possession. The powerful took unto themselves at least some of the Land and devised a system of governance that entrenched their ownership of this form of wealth creation. Some Land continued to be held communally for the common good, the wealth being distributed amongst all the citizens, but this fraction dwindled over the centuries, famously contracting with the Enclosure Acts but continuing to this day as public assets are privatised, the common ownership of Land being transferred to individuals and the arising wealth transferred with it.

Most of this transfer of ownership of Land to private individuals took place without the consent of the previous owners, most of the population.  It was theft, though the people doing the thieving were also the law-makers and they made the laws that called it not theft.

To right this wrong the transfer could be reversed, the ownership of the Land transferred back to the common ownership of all the citizens. The wealth arising from Land could be distributed to all the citizens as a Universal Basic Income (UBI). We could still have capitalists owning and benefiting from the mean of production and we could still have labourers being exploited to greater or lesser extents by employers. Enterprise and hard work could still be rewarded.The arguments between left and right could continue. But now all citizens would enjoy their fair share of the wealth of their own Land.

There has been much talk (and a few limited trials in other countries) of UBI recently. Critics have questioned where the money to fund it would come from. The discussion above provides the answer; UBI is funded from the birthright of the citizens, the Land component of the nations wealth. Such a basis for UBI would be the most significant change in the economic relations of the people since the Neolithic. We could do it now.
Bingham Canyon Mine, Utah
The world's largest mine; how is it that this mine and its products are in private ownership and the wealth created enjoyed by the few?

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

What the Girl Said

Today, 21st January 2020, a seveteen year old girl spoke to the grown-ups at Davos. This is what she said:

I will speak later today so I just want to take this opportunity to once again remind everyone of our current situation.

In Chapter Two, on page 108 in the SR 1.5 IPCC report that came out in 2018, it says that if we are to have a 67 percent chance of limiting the global average temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, we had on January 1st, 2018, about 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit in that budget.

And, of course, that number is much lower today, as we emit, about 42 gigatons of CO2 every year, including in land use. With today's emissions levels, that remaining budget is gone within less than eight years. These numbers aren't anyone's opinions or political views. This is the current best available science. Though many scientists suggest these figures are too moderate, these are the ones that have been accepted through the IPCC.

And please note that these figures are global and therefore do not say anything about the aspects of equity, which is absolutely necessary to make the Paris Agreement work on a global scale. And that means that richer countries need to get down to zero emissions much faster and then help poorer countries do the same so that people in less fortunate parts of the world can raise their living standards.

These numbers also don't include most feedback loops, non-linear tipping points nor additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution. Most models, however, assume that future generations will, however, somehow be able to suck hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 out of the air with technologies that do not exist today in the scale required - and perhaps never will.

The approximate 67 percent chance is the one with the highest odds given by the IPCC. And now we have less than 340 gigatons of CO2 left to emit in that budget to share fairly.

And why is it so important to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius? Because even at 1 degree people are dying from climate change because that is what the united science calls for, to avoid destabilising the climate so that we have the best possible chance to avoid setting off irreversible chain reactions.

Every fraction of a degree matters.

Since last summer, I've been repeating these numbers over and over again in almost every speech. But honestly, I don't think I have once seen any media outlets or person in power communicate this and what it means. I know you don't want to report about this. I know you don't want to talk about this, but I assure you I will continue to repeat these numbers until you do.

And later in the day, this:

One year ago I came to Davos and told you that our house is on fire. I said I wanted you to panic. I’ve been warned that telling people to panic about the climate crisis is a very dangerous thing to do. But don’t worry. It’s fine. Trust me, I’ve done this before and I can assure you it doesn’t lead to anything.

And, for the record, when we children tell you to panic we’re not telling you to go on like before. We’re not telling you to rely on technologies that don’t even exist today at scale and that science says perhaps never will.

We are not telling you to keep talking about reaching “net zero emissions” or “carbon neutrality” by cheating and fiddling around with numbers. We are not telling you to “offset your emissions” by just paying someone else to plant trees in places like Africa while at the same time forests like the Amazon are being slaughtered at an infinitely higher rate.

Planting trees is good, of course, but it’s nowhere near enough of what is needed and it cannot replace real mitigation and rewilding nature.

Let’s be clear. We don’t need a “low carbon economy.” We don’t need to “lower emissions.” Our emissions have to stop if we are to have a chance to stay below the 1.5-degree target. And, until we have the technologies that at scale can put our emissions to minus, then we must forget about net zero. We need real zero.

Because distant net zero emission targets will mean absolutely nothing if we just continue to ignore the carbon dioxide budget — that applies for today, not distant future dates. If high emissions continue like now even for a few years, that remaining budget will soon be completely used up.

The fact that the U.S.A. is leaving the Paris accord seems to outrage and worry everyone, and it should. But the fact that we’re all about to fail the commitments you signed up for in the Paris Agreement doesn’t seem to bother the people in power even the least.

Any plan or policy of yours that doesn’t include radical emission cuts at the source, starting today, is completely insufficient for meeting the 1.5-degree or well-below-2-degrees commitments of the Paris Agreement.

And again, this is not about right or left. We couldn’t care less about your party politics. From a sustainability perspective, the right, the left as well as the centre have all failed. No political ideology or economic structure has been able to tackle the climate and environmental emergency and create a cohesive and sustainable world. Because that world, in case you haven’t noticed, is currently on fire.

You say children shouldn’t worry. You say: “Just leave this to us. We will fix this, we promise we won’t let you down. Don’t be so pessimistic.”

And then, nothing. Silence. Or something worse than silence. Empty words and promises which give the impression that sufficient action is being taken.

All the solutions are obviously not available within today’s societies. Nor do we have the time to wait for new technological solutions to become available to start drastically reducing our emissions. So, of course the transition isn’t going to be easy. It will be hard. And unless we start facing this now together, with all cards on the table, we won’t be able to solve this in time.

In the days running up to the 50th anniversary of the World Economic Forum, I joined a group of climate activists demanding that you, the world’s most powerful and influential business and political leaders, begin to take the action needed.

We demand at this year’s World Economic Forum, participants from all companies, banks, institutions and governments:

Immediately halt all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction.
Immediately end all fossil fuel subsidies.
And immediately and completely divest from fossil fuels.
We don’t want these things done by 2050, 2030 or even 2021. We want this done now.
It may seem like we’re asking for a lot. And you will of course say that we are naïve. But this is just the very minimum amount of effort that is needed to start the rapid sustainable transition.

So either you do this or you’re going to have to explain to your children why you are giving up on the 1.5-degree target. Giving up without even trying. Well I’m here to tell you that, unlike you, my generation will not give up without a fight.

The facts are clear, but they’re still too uncomfortable for you to address. You just leave it because you think it’s too depressing and people will give up. But people will not give up. You are the ones who are giving up.

Last week I met with Polish coal miners who lost their jobs because their mine was closed. And even they had not given up. On the contrary, they seem to understand the fact that we need to change more than you do.

I wonder, what will you tell your children was the reason to fail and leave them facing a climate chaos that you knowingly brought upon them? That it seemed so bad for the economy that we decided to resign the idea of securing future living conditions without even trying?

Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fuelling the flames by the hour. And we are telling you to act as if you loved your children above all else.

Thank you.

Greta Thunberg