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by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 21
January 2021

Latest infections data may be less gloomy than the headlines

We’ve been in this third national lockdown for nearly three weeks now. Covid-19 deaths are at an all-time high: 1,800 were reported on Wednesday. Schools are closed, bars are closed, we can’t see our friends or family.

It is pretty disheartening, therefore, to read that there is “no evidence of a decline” in infections since the lockdown began. The headlines are based on Imperial College’s excellent REACT-1 study, a survey that randomly samples the population and estimates the total prevalence, just as an opinion poll estimates voting intentions.

The headlines are, on the face of it, correct. The most recent REACT-1 data, round 8a, covering the period 6 January to 15 January, found about 1.58% of its respondents to be positive. Round 7b, the one before, found only 0.91%. That’s an increase of well over 50%, and all ages and subgroups showed a rise. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 14
January 2021

What explains the Germany Covid surge?

I wrote in October about the “German coronavirus mystery”. “Let’s get straight to the point,” I said. “About one in every 1,600 British people has died of Covid-19 since the first confirmed death in early March. Meanwhile, about one in every 10,000 Germans has.”

There were, I said, several factors, but that (pace the headline) there was no need to posit anything mysterious, any secret “immunological dark matter” or hard-to-interpret cultural factors. Instead, I said, “Germany was better prepared and reacted faster than Britain did, and in some ways got lucky, while making some mistakes of its own; it had a political system and, of course, politicians, which were better suited to the moment; and together, those factors added up to keeping several tens of thousand Germans alive.” ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Monday, 4
January 2021

Boris Johnson fails the marshmallow test

There was a bit in the Prime Minister’s address announcing Lockdown 3: Lock Downer which made me do a double-take.

You may wonder why we didn’t announce schools closing earlier, he said, instead of waiting until the day after hundreds of thousands of children had already gone back. And the reason was that “we did everything in our power to keep schools open”, because they know how important school is for parents and so on.

It made me think of the marshmallow test.

The marshmallow test is a staple of psychology. A child is offered a marshmallow. They can eat it right away, with no penalty. But, says the researcher, if you can wait 15 minutes without eating it, you can have two. It’s supposed to be a test of a child’s ability to defer reward, and is apparently predictive of various life outcomes or whatever. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Wednesday, 30
December 2020

What’s the real cost of sending kids back to school?

Children are supposed to be going back to school soon. In our borough, primary-age children are expected to return on 4 January; there is to be a staggered return for secondary schools, but they should all be back by the 11th. Reports suggest it won’t happen, and that Tier 4 areas are going to learn their schools are to be shut, but Michael Gove says he is still “confident” they will remain open.

But should it? Just before Christmas, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine released modelling, taking into account the new B.1.1.7 variant of Covid that has been spreading in the South-East and elsewhere. Their central finding was that Tier 4 restrictions as they stand will not bring down the R value to below 1 — and, in fact, that even a national lockdown like that in November would not do it, “unless primary schools, secondary schools, and universities are also closed”, until at least 31 January. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Wednesday, 16
December 2020

Unconscious Bias Training is an empty PR drill

I had a phone call from a government minister, not long ago, which is not something that happens to me very often. Kemi Badenoch, the women and equalities minister, wanted to talk to me about unconscious bias training, because she’d read the two articles (1, 2) I’d written for UnHerd on the topic.

The short version of those articles is that while unconscious bias is probably a real thing, the training that is given to reduce it does not seem to work, by any reasonable definition of the word “work”. There is no standard of what counts as UBT, and what training exists doesn’t seem to make people behave in less prejudiced ways; what’s more, it has “potential for back-firing effects”. (Not my words, Lynn. The words of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.) ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Friday, 11
December 2020

Your Christmas gifts are worth less than you think

My cousin David is an economist, although I do not hold this against him. He mentioned the other day that he and his wife, also a social scientist, have an unusual approach to gift-giving, in that they don’t.

Or, rather, they don’t at Christmas, or birthdays, or anniversaries. Together, they worked out (he wrote up our conversation here) that “Given our average life expectancies (and marriage expectancy?) we are looking at well over 200 gifts” over the course of the marriage, and it’s quite hard to come up with that many thoughtful gifts. Instead, they do nice things together (meals out, day trips) and if — at any point of the year — they happen to see a gift that they think the other would like, they just buy it, and give it then. “It removes the stress involved with time constraints of birthdays, etc,” he says. “It also has the added bonus of being a surprise.” ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 3
December 2020

Healthcare workers will be the first piece of the vaccine jigsaw

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been approved for use in the UK, and vaccinations will start in the next week or so. It’s fantastic news, obviously. But, you might wonder, is it all that good news for you, given that you are (on the balance of probabilities) not in the first groups who will get vaccinated.

I want to say that, yes, it is. It is fantastic news for one fairly key reason: healthcare workers will be among the first to get vaccinated. That alone should have a pretty dramatic impact on the course of the disease.

As Andrey Zarur, the CEO of the biotech company GreenLight, told me for this piece, the toll on healthcare workers in the first wave was awful. This BMJ paper says that patient-facing healthcare workers in Scotland were three times as likely to be hospitalised as non-patient-facing ones. Healthcare workers are more likely to be exposed, and more likely to get higher viral doses, which raises the risk of severe disease. That meant that they died at about the same rate as the population as a whole, despite being, on average, younger and healthier than the rest of us. ...  Continue reading

by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 26
November 2020

I am utterly confused about the Oxford vaccine

I am extremely confused, and I want you to be confused too. Normally I like to make things clearer for readers, but today I don’t think I reasonably can.

I wrote on Tuesday that we ought to be excited about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine; I still think that’s true, but I have a lot of questions that I would like answered.

In my piece I wrote that some participants were given a lower dose of the vaccine, then a standard dose booster, unlike most who got a standard/standard regimen. And people who were on the LD/SD were much better protected than those on SD/SD: 90% efficacy to 62%.

When you chop the data up into “subgroups” like this, you have to be careful that you’re not “noise-mining”. Say your drug doesn’t work overall, so you look at smaller and smaller subgroups until you find that a tiny set who happen to have done better, such as elderly hispanic women — but it was just a fluke result that you only got by torturing the data. For an intuitive explanation, see here...  Continue reading

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