Six is not a number it is arbitrary and dystopian

Six is not a number it is arbitrary and dystopian

by Linda Holt
article from Wednesday 16, September, 2020

WE ARE NOW officially living under the Rule of Six. The police are charged to enforce it. In Scotland, more than six people (not counting children under 12) from a maximum of two households are banned from meeting outside of work, school and certain other specified settings. If police “reasonably suspect” more than six people from two households are inside your home – they now have the power to force entry. 

Those who breach the Rule of Six are subject to an on-the-spot fine of £60 which doubles with each repeat offence up to a maximum of £960.

Matt Hancock, Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon have touted the “simplicity” of the Rule of Six. Apparently, simplicity is a short-cut to efficacy when it comes to securing mass compliance to public health protocols, despite the questions it may raise, including the obvious one about how such a rule can differ across the four UK jurisdictions. 

The Rule of Six sounds appropriately like something out of a dystopian novel. The most chilling thing about it is that in the space of six months, unlimited and arbitrary state control of private and public intercourse by citizens has become acceptable. Emergency measures that would have been unimaginable a year ago are now commonplace. The abnormal has become normalised to such an extent that it is now beyond the social and political pale to question or challenge the Covid status quo in any serious way. 

A third of Scotland – 1.7 million people – is already under even more severe restriction, with visiting other households banned outright in so-called local lockdowns. The mood music coming from Westminster and Holyrood suggests that local lockdowns are liable to continue or be expanded, and the Rule of Six augmented by curfews.

Since the Rule of Six was brought in under emergency regulations for dealing with Covid, it has not been subject to parliamentary debate or scrutiny at either Westminster or Holyrood. The opposition parties in both parliaments fully support it; Ruth Davidson was cowed to the point of kowtowing at Thursday’s First Minister’s Questions. Some dissent has been heard at Westminster; the rule has reportedly caused splits in Johnson’s cabinet, and some MPs have publicly denounced it as “arbitrary powers without scrutiny”. To Holyrood’s absolute shame, however, no MSP has voiced concern that the Rule of Six is draconian or being implemented without due democratic process. 

Instead, Scotland has seen an outcry after the BBC belatedly called time on the First Minister’s daily Coronavirus briefings. They will still be broadcast on the Scottish Government’s YouTube channel and Sky, and the initial speech is always published online, but the BBC’s decision was rounded upon as an outrageous affront to democracy. The First Minister has defended the broadcasts’ necessity, claiming they provide context and explanations for measures people might otherwise be reluctant to accept. In reality, she delivers patronising pep talks in which she “shares our pain”, fetishises the numbers, and invokes scientific authority without nuance or qualification.

Much has also been made of the First Minister’s willingness to expose herself to scrutiny from the press, though in truth she has hardly been subjected to forensic questioning. No journalist at her briefings offers the confidence and clout of an Andrew Neil or Jeremy Paxman, to put it kindly, and the forum is designed to prevent follow-up queries. It is rare to see the answer to a journalist’s query become a news story when Nicola Sturgeon swats away reporters’ questions like pesky flies. 

Ultimately, the First Minister’s daily media briefings are no substitute for parliamentary scrutiny. We need our elected representatives to present evidence and develop arguments, to debate and challenge Covid policies. Parliament has been bypassed in favour of a media pageant fanning a personality cult. Nationalism has degraded Scottish politics to such an extent that no one in the SNP, and barely anyone in the opposition, has been able to call out this style of politics for what it is.

So how might a functioning parliament challenge the government’s approach to Coronavirus? It could, for example, have run with the words of Professor Jason Leitch, the national clinical director, who let the cat out of the bag last week about the current testing regime. At a web Q&A for members of the business body FSB Scotland, Leitch was asked about different kinds of Coronavirus test and whether businesses might be able to rapidly test workers. He replied: 

“Now the test just now is a bit rubbish. It is positive if it finds live virus, or remnants of dead virus, it can't tell the difference. So you could still be shedding virus six weeks after you have had the infection, and still get a positive test, and you're not infectious. So the test we have just now is a bit rubbish, and the science is trying to improve that test all the time.” 

This was no slip of the tongue. Leitch was merely reflecting the scientific consensus about the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test. When he is in political mode with the First Minister, test results are used as the indisputable arbiter of lockdown policies. When a journalist put Leitch’s words to the First Minister at the following day’s briefing, she attacked the media for taking the words of a non-politician out of context, and insisted he was referring to tests in the context of rapid screening testing. Labour and Conservative spokespeople attacked Sturgeon for her Trumpian attack on journalists, but both continue to shy away from addressing the “substance of a valid report”.

The truth is that the current test, as it is being used in Scotland, cannot accurately and reliably determine whether someone has Covid-19 and is infectious. Professor Carl Heneghan of the Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine has writtenextensively about how the chances of a PCR test accurately detecting Covid-19 could dip below 50% if the overall prevalence of the virus is low. As Heneghan observes, “the harms of false-positive results can be substantial: operations can be delayed or cancelled; patients are kept in hospital, just in case; further testing is required; in some cases, it drives local lockdowns”. 

The problem of “weak positives” led Public Health England to issue new guidance to laboratories to set a “limit of detection”, a threshold for the quantity of viral material before a positive test would be considered accurate. Positive results outside this limit should trigger repeat testing before contact tracing is initiated and people are asked to quarantine. However, Heneghan worries this move is meaningless, as the limits have not been specified by PHE and fatal uncertainty about the definition of a Covid-19 case remains. 

Confronted with the PHE guidance, the First Minister declined to follow it: “When it comes to contact tracing, I guess my view as a politician is that we should still err a bit on the side of caution, rather than the opposite, so that we're catching as many people as we possibly can”. As a politician, Sturgeon is happy to promulgate fictional cases of Covid-19 based on the PCR test as the justification for far-reaching policy. Knowingly inflated case statistics have driven the imposition of unnecessary quarantine on countless individuals and wholesale lockdown measures on local and national populations, with all the economic, social and educational costs these actions entail.

Nonetheless, there is much greater cause for worry and doubt about current policy than dodgy case numbers. It is not at all clear that general lockdowns work, despite the conviction of our leaders. Statistical evidence of the virus’s progress in many countries indicates a fairly uniform curve, irrespective of when lockdowns and other measures were brought in. Equally, there are signs that, adjusting for seasonality, ripples of the first wave have surfaced in many countries, but without deaths and hospital admissions comparable to the first wave; this trend is also uniform, and predictable given what we know about other Coronaviruses.

If all this is true – and I would urge anyone interested to follow this link for the evidence – then it suggests that the UK’s whole approach to Covid-19 is misguided. Rather than following a model of suppression and elimination, should we not be taking our cue from Sweden: allowing a natural herd immunity to develop, with mitigation in the form of hygiene precautions, some limited social distancing, and targeted protection for the elderly and vulnerable? This can be done without shutting down schools, the non-Covid health service and the economy, as the Swedish experience proves.

In retrospect, it is unsurprising that the vast majority of political leaders in early 2020 reacted as they did to the arrival of Covid-19. Political leadership means nothing without control, or the semblance of control. Woe betide the candidates who say they are powerless, that they can’t do anything significant to fix the housing crisis, the health service or climate change – what then would be the point of voting for them? 

Herd immunity quickly became a taboo term. Amid world-wide panic about Coronavirus, no politician could risk appearing to be leaving people to die – even though, in reality, all politicians are responsible for policies (involving drugs, healthcare, pollution, traffic, etc.) that we know leave thousands to die. Politicians are also past masters at confusing correlation with causation. If something good happens, it’s down to their actions, so of course it is inconceivable that lockdown hasn’t “worked”. In any case, the price of lockdown for individuals and for the country has been so high that it would be political suicide for any leader to now admit that they were mistaken.

Yet Nicola Sturgeon admitted in a recent briefing that elimination does not mean eradication, an impossible feat even for such an isolated country as New Zealand. Implied in the Scottish approach is that we must live with a certain amount of Covid infection as the price of coming out of full lockdown, and in so far as we are doing it, we are ipso facto building up herd immunity. In response to an article by Heneghan, the First Minister had to admit very belatedly that previous figures for Covid cases in hospital were misleading, revising them drastically downwards from 262 to 48. 

This revelation – which had it signified the opposite, a five-fold rise, would have exploded across the airwaves with demands for more stringent action – was not accompanied by any reflection on whether the fear of the current rise in infections was being overplayed. To labour the point: no one in power in Scotland seems to be prepared to enter into any public discussion of the nuances and uncertainties of our approach to tackling the pandemic.

But we are complicit too. In the technological playground of the 21st century, a smartphone in everyone’s hand, it is increasingly difficult to believe we can’t beat a virus. The simple, binary language of combat, control and victory is irresistible; our politicians simply tell us what we want to hear. Evidence-based science gives way to superstition, parliament is side-lined, Chief Mammy morphs into Big Mother and scepticism is denounced as heresy

So, yes: in six short months ‘the rule of six’ has appeared and dystopia has crept into everyone’s lives.

Linda Holt is an independent councillor for East Neuk & Landward and a prospective candidate for alliance4unity in next year's Holyrood elections.

Photo of number six door number with spyglass by nowyn from Adobe Stock 

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