Weak leaders follow the Covid crowd

From the UK, the chairman of restaurant chain Weatherspoons – Tim Martin – questions Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s lockdowns and argues that government policies should be based on common sense and careful arguments – not groupthink.

The commentary was published in the Weatherspoon quarterly customer newsletter – available here.

Johan Giesecke, the Swedish epidemiologist, said in April (interview on page 14) that it was “fascinating” how deeply flawed Imperial College research “changed the policy of the world”, causing “100 countries”to lock down in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Until that point, it seems, lockdowns had been almost universally regarded, by health authorities worldwide, as counterproductive. In fact, calculations using Imperial’s ‘modelling’ indicated that, without a lockdown, there would be 82,000 fatalities in Sweden.

Yet, alone in Europe, the Swedes rejected the Imperial model and refused to lock down – and fatalities from COVID-19 were less than eight per cent of the number predicted.

Wetherspoon has presented complex accounts and explanations of our business to shareholders, the City and the media, twice per annum for the last 28 years.

Had we made the same awful mistakes as Imperial, this surely would have resulted in the dismissal of directors and the loss of all credibility.

A contrasting view to the hysteria of Imperial College, SAGE and the (UK) government is exhibited in an open letter (8 November) to the
Prime Minister fromDr Rosamond Jones and several hundred health professionals and scientists.

They say that the “management of the crisis has become disproportionate and is now causing more harm than good”.

The letter blames “politicians and the media” for “fuelling the idea that we are dealing with a global killer virus” and for presenting a “rising death toll”, without comparing it with “flu deaths in other years” or “deaths from other causes”.

The letter is reprinted on pages 12/13 of the Weatherspoon magazine.

Anyone familiar with the stock market will be painfully aware of the limitations of experts’ forecasts, such as those of Imperial College or SAGE.
As the world’s most successful investor, Warren Buffett, known as the Sage of Omaha, has said: “Forecasts tell you a lot about the forecaster, but nothing about the future.”

The universal failure of economists to predict the ‘Great Recession’ of 2008-2010 is a fairly recent example. No sector of the economy comprises more top-class university graduates than the banks, brokers and fund managers of the City of London and Wall Street.

Yet ‘groupthink’ in the finance world is legendary – not for nothing are financial institutions known as the
‘thundering herd’.

The comfort blanket of groupthink, in all walks of life, probably offers greater personal safety. Being wrong together, as part of the herd, is easier than being right alone.

It has required immense bravery and conviction for people like Dr Rosamond Jones, Professor Carl Heneghan and Professor Sunetra Gupta to counter, publicly, the powerful SAGE and government orthodoxy.

Isolation and vilification by the herd are unattractive prospects for contrarian thinkers.

Buffett calls the compulsion to copy others the “institutional imperative”: “a deep human craving to conform, especially when faced with difficult decisions”.

You might think that a university education would help to avoid groupthink, yet, sadly, the evidence in the finance world and elsewhere is the opposite – albeit with honourable exceptions, universities often encourage, perhaps not deliberately, tramline thought processes.

This is an important point, since the most senior UK politicians and their advisers come from a very narrow clique, as the front cover
of this magazine illustrates.

They are far more prone to tramline thinking than they realise. Einstein was nothing if not original, but he never went to university.
Likewise, Shakespeare had ‘no Latin and but little Greek’ and was deprecated as an ‘upstart crow’ by the pompous ‘university wits’ of his era,
whose own literary efforts have not passed the test of time.

Churchill, often regarded as the greatest Briton, is another example. Struggling with exams, he nevertheless became the country’s highest-paid journalist as a young man, then a renowned historian – and, against the odds, rallied the country in its darkest hour to battle for survival.

By a similar token, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg and many other titans of the technology world chucked in university long before finishing their degree. For a pub business, like many businesses, there has been perpetual danger from groupthink in the last 40 years, disguised as the latest economic or political fashion.

In the early 1990s, for example, the UK joined the fashionable currency experiment – the exchange rate mechanism (ERM).
It was supported almost unanimously by politicians, economists and the media.

This disastrous economic experiment, the forerunner of the euro, pushed interest rates up to 15 per cent, precipitating widespread mayhem, recession and bankruptcy.

In early 2000, there was a subsequent mighty struggle against the groupthink of the UK and European establishment to avoid joining the euro – a currency which has subsequently caused so much hardship across southern Europe.

Anyone running a pub business has to declare a personal interest in respect of the latest product of international political groupthink – lockdowns.
Clearly, if maintained for long enough, they will eventually prove fatal to our business. So, there is an inevitable risk of lack of objectivity in our hostility.

However, it is now surely crystal clear, as Professor Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh says, that lockdowns “defer a problem, they don’t solve it”.

It’s also now clear, as indicated above, that lockdowns cause immense collateral damage – to the economy and to mental and physical health.
In addition, as former Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption emphasises (opposite), the emergency legislation through which lockdowns have been instigated in the UK is a serious threat to democracy and ancient civil liberties.

In fact, in spite of these criticisms, following the first lockdown, a sensible enough set of rules for pubs and restaurants was nevertheless agreed on among government, civil servants, the police, local authorities and pub companies, before pubs reopened on 4 July 2020.

Since then, disdaining consultation and acting under emergency powers, a small band of ministers and government advisers has run amok, relentlessly moving the goalposts, capriciously changing the rules with the introduction of curfews,masks to visit toilets andmany other initiatives withno scientific basis.

Most people today struggleto find objective information about the conflicting views on COVID-19 – especially since a section of the media, SAGE and leading politiciansof all parties have been almost unanimously pro lockdown – and have deliberately stoked public fear, as Jonathan Sumption also highlights(next page).

In this edition of Wetherspoon News (pages 4–23), we’ve tried to provide some alternative views to the prevailing orthodoxy promoted by SAGE andthe government.

It’s vital for the public to consider all sides of the argument, so as to keep the government and vested interests in check.
It was the opposition of the public, not that of politicians, universities, the media or experts, which kept the UK out of the euro, after all.

There have already been two lockdowns – owing to colossal costs, money is in short supply, for both companies and the country.
Let’s make sure that future government policies are based on common sense and careful arguments – not groupthink.