1) Net Zero Europe bracing for energy shortages as freezing weather sets inBloomberg, 20 December 2021
Europe is bracing for energy shortages as freezing weather sets in, boosting demand and sending prices surging at a time supply just can’t keep up.
Temperatures are forecast to fall below zero degrees Celsius in several European capitals this week, straining electricity grids already coping with low wind speeds and severe nuclear outages in France. To make matters worse, Russia intends to keep natural gas flows through a major transit route to Germany limited on Monday after capping supplies over the weekend.
Energy prices have spiraled out of control this year, with European gas prices surging some 600%. Prices surged as much as 8.8% early Monday, while short-term electricity prices jumped in auctions Sunday. In France, power for delivery on Monday rallied to the highest level since a rare spike in 2009, while Germany prices were the third highest on record.
Rising prices have fueled inflation, a headache for policy makers already contending with the spread of coronavirus omicron variant just before the holiday season. Geopolitical tensions between Russia and Ukraine could also make things worse, with a potential invasion likely to send prices even higher.
Jeremy Weir, chief executive officer of commodities trader Trafigura Group, last month warned that Europe could experience rolling blackouts in case of a cold winter. And that was before Electricite de France SA said it was halting reactors accounting for 10% of the nation’s nuclear capacity, leaving the region at the mercy of weather at the height of winter in January and February.
Benchmark Dutch gas prices jumped to almost 149 euros a megawatt-hour, the highest for a most-active contract since a 40% surge on Oct. 6. Traders are also on edge as auctions for pipeline capacity next month will provide an indication as to whether Gazprom PJSC intends to boost supplies in January.
With nuclear outages biting, electricity producers will have to use more gas to keep the lights on. But Russia plans keep flows into Germany via the key Yamal-Europe pipeline capped, potentially forcing Europe to reply on its already depleted gas inventories. Storage sites are only 60% filled, a record low for this time of year.
Only 4% of capacity was allocated for Monday to send gas through Germany’s Mallnow station, where the pipeline crossing Belarus and Poland terminates. That compares with about 35% of capacity that Russia has booked for most days this month.
And there’s no relief in sight. Temperatures are expected to remain below normal levels in the U.K., Denmark and northern Germany next week. While traders expect more liquefied natural gas to come to rescue due to lower demand in Asia, cargo diversions will take some time and increased arrivals at European ports are unlikely to come before January.
2) The cost of Boris Johnson’s fracking ban: UK gas prices reach all-time highs as winter tensions mount across EuropeCity A.M. , 18 December 2021
UK gas prices surged to an all-time high of 350p per therm on Thursday, up 520 per cent year-to-date amid soaring demand and continued supply concerns across the continent this winter.
Caving to the green lobby, Boris Johnson has essentially banned extracting Britain’s massive shale gas reserves
While prices dropped to 320p per therm on the UK Natural Gas Futures on Friday morning, the benchmark remains ahead of Asia’s liquefied natural gas.
Nathan Piper, head of oil and gas research at Investec anticipated that gas prices would remain high as economies recover from the pandemic.
He said: “We believe there is a high likelihood of both prolonged and even higher prices through winter with after effects that could stretch beyond the next two years.”
The soaring prices reflect current market conditions across Europe, and follow continued geopolitical uncertainty and rising tensions over the 759-mile Nord Stream 2 pipeline which would double Russian gas exports into Germany.
The Kremlin-backed controversial gas project – which would supply 55 billion cubic metres of gas per year – has been completed but awaits approval from German regulators, who are yet to certify the pipeline due to concerns over its governance.
Earlier this week, the regulator announced that no decision on certifying the pipeline is expected in the first half of next year.
“There will be no decisions in the first half of 2022,” said Bundesnetzagentur (BNetzA) President Jochen Homann.
3) Pricey electric chargers drain drivers’ wallets
The Times, 19 December 2021
Drivers of electric cars are paying up to seven times the price to power up their vehicle at a public charge point than at home, according to new research.
While motorists can sign up for tariffs of only 5p per unit at home, they are paying an average 35p per unit for rapid and ultra-rapid public charging, and 24p per unit for slower devices.
The findings by Zap-Map, a digital platform for drivers searching for charge points, raise concerns that those without off-street parking will be locked into permanently higher prices as the country transitions to electric cars.
About a third of all households in England and Scotland and a quarter in Wales do not have off-street parking and electric vehicle (EV) charging. In London more than half (56 per cent) rely on public chargers.
There are several reasons why charging at home is cheaper. Most importantly, many benefit from low-cost deals by charging at off-peak times in the small hours. Commercial operators also have to pay VAT at 20 per cent, rather than the domestic energy rate of 5 per cent, as well as having to cover the costs of installing charging equipment on the street.
The research by Zap-Map analyses motorists’ charging habits at 60 per cent of all chargers in the UK from September to November. This means the findings are not distorted by the tariffs of expensive outliers with few customers.
Prices were calculated for pay-as-you-go rates available to all drivers, although some networks offer membership discounts for regular users. There are about 370,000 “pure” electric cars on the road, according to the RAC, but the energy regulator Ofgem predicts this could reach 14 million by 2030.
The premium for using a public charger has widened since November, as networks have passed on electricity price rises. BP Pulse raised the price of each unit, a kilowatt hour (kWh), from 20p to 33p at its slow and fast networks, while Source London increased it to 69p.
By contrast, Ovo, the third-largest domestic supplier, offers a tariff at 5p per unit, and about 60,000 drivers use the Octopus Go tariff which electricity at 5p per unit from 12.30am-4.30am. It means the electricity costs about 1p per mile.
Motorists without a charger would usually pay 24p per unit for a device taking between two and 12 hours, and an average 35p a unit for rapid charging on a motorway or other long journey, taking between 20 minutes and an hour to recharge to 80 per cent.
Edmund King, president of the AA, said the country risked installing public charging networks that would force millions of motorists to pay permanently higher prices.
4) EU likely to classify natural gas and nuclear as green energy, Commissioner says
Bloomberg, 19 December 2021
The European Union will likely include gas and nuclear power as sustainable green-energy investments in its proposed list to be unveiled in mid-January, a key commissioner said.
Gas is not an “ideal” energy source but better than coal, the EU’s internal market chief Thierry Breton said in an interview published by Die Welt over the weekend. “If you don’t want nuclear power, you have to be pragmatic and not afford ideological doggedness.”
“Atomic energy and natural gas will help us meet our climate goals,” Breton said. “That is why we in the Commission are counting on presenting a taxonomy that includes nuclear power and natural gas.”
The EU is still debating its so-called “taxonomy” list laying out sustainable energy investments as the bloc pushes to meet its carbon ambitions by 2050. At a summit this week, EU leaders were divided on including gas and nuclear in the list, especially as countries face record-high energy costs.
This week, Breton also accused U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo of lobbying on behalf of Big Tech companies after she criticized the EU’s new tech rules as disproportionately affecting American companies.
“This is not something that we do against anybody,” Breton told the Financial Times. “We do it for our European fellow citizens and our companies. This is our duty.”
Breton said he has the phone numbers of all the major U.S.-based tech firms and they can call him to express their concerns: “We could discuss,” he said. “So we don’t need any extra lobbying.”
Breton spoke just days after he told the European Parliament that the joint U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council “was not particularly fruitful” at this stage in regulating Big Tech firms.
5) William Nattrass: Eastern Europe is paying for the EU’s climate revolutionThe Spectator, 19 December 2021
Eastern European countries are now realising that they could face a drawn-out economic catastrophe as a result of spiralling prices and decreasing availability of fossil fuels.
Europe’s energy crisis shows little sign of abating. After Germany this week withheld approval for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline over fears that it could be used as a political weapon by Russia, benchmark gas prices spiked by 10 per cent across Europe, coming close to all-time highs set earlier this autumn.
Some energy traders had hoped that the first supplies arriving through the controversial pipeline would help alleviate pressures this winter, but on Thursday the president of Germany’s energy regulator played this down, warning that approval for Nord Stream 2 cannot be expected in the first half of next year. And as the prospect of relief from the East fades, cracks are starting to emerge in the EU’s wider energy policy, with rumblings of discontent growing in central and eastern Europe about the role which the EU’s climate strategy might be playing in the dire state of affairs.
The Polish parliament last Thursday passed a resolution saying the EU’s energy system ‘has become a huge threat to Poland following the adoption and implementation of new climate policy instruments.’ And in the neighbouring Czech Republic, ministers this week warned of steep increases in energy prices and entreated the EU to take a more liberal attitude towards the use of fossil fuels to keep lights on and homes warm this winter.
Experts have pointed out that there are multiple factors causing the current crisis. With Europe already heavily dependent on Russia for natural gas, it’s widely speculated that Vladimir Putin is toying with the bloc by holding resources in reserve which could be sent west.
And the combination of a cold winter last year – leading to the depletion of existing stocks – and an explosive restart to industrial activity when pandemic restrictions were loosened, is thought to have caught the EU on the wrong foot.
Increased dependency on natural gas is the direct result of the EU’s emissions reduction strategy. Analysts have praised the switch to gas as a ‘success story’ in ‘filling the gap’ between the phase-out of carbon-intensive coal and the phase-in of renewables.
Yet the political ramifications of this switch are well known. Nearly half of the EU’s supply of natural gas comes from Russia – a proportion which is only likely to increase if and when Nord Stream 2 finally becomes operational. As control over Europe’s power supply falls ever deeper into the clutches of the Kremlin, eastern European states will find not find much solace in knowing that they are vulnerable to harsher geopolitical winds from the East thanks to an emissions reduction strategy formulated in Brussels.
But this isn’t their only concern. Leaders in the region are also becoming increasingly worried about the effect of the EU’s wider attempts to phase out fossil fuels, which they claim is going too far and too fast for the bloc’s less developed energy sectors to keep up.
Like the UK, the EU uses an emissions trading scheme (ETS) which limits the emissions available to certain industries through a steadily decreasing overall cap. This is intended to make emission-heavy fuel sources like coal less attractive in the short term and, in the longer term, to squeeze fossil fuels out of the European energy market altogether.
Unsurprisingly, the ETS is deeply unpopular in some central and eastern European member states which are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. In the Czech Republic, fossil fuels still account for over half of all energy production, while in Poland the figure is higher still, at over 80 per cent.
As the market becomes ever more restricted, and as Russia assumes ever greater control over supply, these countries see the future very differently to wealthier EU member states with well-developed renewable power industries already in place. The European Commission is bullish about subjecting more of the bloc’s economy to the emissions trading scheme – but traditionally poorer, more fossil-fuel dependent countries are waking up to the fact that they will be the ones left picking up the tab.
The Czech minister of industry and trade, Karel Havlíček, warned this week that alternative energies won’t be able to replace fossil fuels in the country for almost 20 years, and local experts tell me that on the country’s current trajectory it will take longer still. Meanwhile in Poland, an EU directive earlier this year to close the giant Turów lignite mine led Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to warn of an ‘energy disaster’ and ‘huge social problems.’
These countries will be more or less dependent on fossil fuels for decades to come. With the ETS making coal an increasingly inefficient economic proposition – and with natural gas supply becoming increasingly subject to the whim of Vladimir Putin as well as increased competition from Asia – they view the future with understandable trepidation.
A recent increase in the price of carbon emissions on the ETS, resulting from the substitution of dreaded coal for missing gas supplies, is now jolting central and eastern European leaders into panic about the direction in which the EU is heading. At an EU summit on Thursday, Czech leader Andrej Babiš demanded the return of 400 million emission allowances to the market to alleviate pressures, after Poland called for the ETS to be suspended altogether.
Having made a slow start in developing alternative energy sources, these countries are now realising that they could face a drawn-out economic catastrophe as a result of spiralling prices and decreasing availability of fossil fuels. Grim omens are already emerging; in the Czech Republic, the bankruptcy of major supplier Bohemia Energy earlier this autumn saw nearly a million customers switched to ruinous emergency contracts with replacement suppliers.
Cases like this raise concerns that the biggest losers of the EU’s emissions reduction drive will ultimately be the citizens of poorer countries which, as a result of historical disadvantage, have always been behind the curve in adopting renewables. Western Europe may be bullish about phasing out fossil fuels – but central and eastern European nations are unlikely to accept entrenched economic inequality as the necessary collateral damage of an energy revolution.
6) Biden’s China and climate goals clash over solar panelsThe Wall Street Journal, 20 December 2021
The Biden administration faces a looming decision on solar-energy tariffs that pits its goal of combating climate change against its ambition to wrestle high-tech manufacturing supply chains from China.
Early next year, U.S. taxes on imported solar panels are set to expire after a four-year run. Many climate activists and solar-energy users want the administration to scrap the tariffs, saying they make solar panels needlessly expensive.
“The solar industry is literally trying to save the planet,” the Solar Energy Industries Association, which represents companies that install and use solar panels, recently told the Biden administration. “Tariffs only stand in the way by slowing growth of solar deployment and undermining efforts to replace fossil fuels with cleaner renewable energy.”
U.S. solar manufacturers are petitioning to extend the tariffs for another four years. They say without them, the U.S. will effectively cede the business of making solar panels to Chinese companies, which already dominate key portions of the solar supply chain.
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, whose office administers the tariffs, hasn’t taken a position on the matter and declined to comment for this article.
The tiff is the latest evidence of tension between the administration’s economic goals and the long-term task of tackling climate change, which President Biden has called the world’s greatest challenge. This fall, Mr. Biden’s pledge to cut emissions from gasoline consumption ran up against a near-term need to increase oil production amid rising prices.
In the solar market, the economic goal is building a resilient supply chain independent of China, while boosting U.S. manufacturers in their effort to win a greater slice of an expanding pie. The Energy Department estimates that 40% of America’s electricity could be solar as soon as 2035, and the industry could “employ as many as 1.5 million people—without raising electricity prices.”
Relying entirely on tariff-free goods from China may be the cheapest option to achieve that outcome. But advocates for tariffs say that view is shortsighted, as it may make it impossible for an American solar supply chain to compete.
“We have to keep the tariffs to allow the domestic industry to get further scale and further capacity,” said Michael Stumo, chief executive of the Coalition for a Prosperous America, a group of manufacturing, agricultural and union organizations that supports the use of tariffs to boost domestic U.S. manufacturing and reduce dependence on China.
This month the International Trade Commission, a U.S. government body that makes recommendations on tariff policy, issued a 586-page report to President Biden endorsing a continuation of the solar tariffs, which expire Feb. 6. It cited evidence that removing the tariffs could cause “serious injury” to attempts to revive American solar manufacturing.
Considering the climate impacts wasn’t part of its remit.Many industries have disappeared from the U.S. and moved to China or other countries, but the structure of the solar market is unique.
Solar panels are made in four steps. The raw material, polysilicon, is molded into ingots—large, rod-shaped crystals. Ingots are sliced into paper thin wafers, which are processed into solar cells. Finally the cells are assembled into the familiar modules, or panels, that wind up on roofs.
The U.S. has no significant capacity to produce wafers or cells, having seen a nascent domestic industry wiped out during the past decade.
But there are a number of American factories capable of producing polysilicon, which is also used in semiconductors, and a handful of struggling U.S. manufacturers still make solar modules.
see also Patricia Adams: China’s Energy Dream (pdf)
7) WSJ: Joe Manchin Rescues the DemocratsEditorial, The Wall Street Journal, 20 December 2021
Joe Manchin’s decision on Sunday to oppose the Build Back Better Act is a service to the country, sparing it from huge tax increases and new entitlements that would fan inflation and erode the incentive for Americans to work.
Paradoxically, it is also a blessing for Democrats if they get the message, and it offers President Biden a chance to reboot.
“My Democratic colleagues in Washington are determined to dramatically reshape our society in a way that leaves our country more vulnerable to the threats we face,” the West Virginia Democrat said in a statement after announcing his opposition on Fox News Sunday. “I cannot take that risk with a staggering debt of more than $29 trillion and inflation taxes that are real and harmful to every hard-working American at the gasoline pumps, grocery stores and utility bills with no end in sight.”
He’s right on every point. He also referred to “geopolitical uncertainty,” especially regarding China and Russia, noting that passing the bill would make it harder for the U.S. to respond rapidly to “these pending threats.” This is a wise warning that the U.S. cannot finance both a runaway entitlement state and an adequate national defense in a dangerous world.
All of this brought the predictable consternation from progressives, with a furious Bernie Sanders denouncing Mr. Manchin and promising retribution in West Virginia. It’s a hollow threat. West Virginians opposed the BBB bill by about 3 to 1 in a recent poll.
Mr. Sanders demanded an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor, and Mr. Manchin said he’s fine with that. As we’ve written, bring it on, and make Senate Democrats running for re-election in 2022 vote on it. Don’t be surprised if such a vote never happens.
The same media that cheered Mr. Biden’s entitlement ambitions as the second coming of FDR are now blaming Mr. Manchin for hurting his party. But where were they when we warned that Mr. Biden and Democrats in Congress were offering a radical agenda that far exceeded the mandate of their narrow victories in 2020 and the grasp of a 50-50 Senate? The media’s progressive bias again misled Democrats into thinking they would carry the day.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, refused to take Mr. Manchin’s red lines seriously when the West Virginian wrote them in the summer. Mr. Schumer kept looking over his shoulder at a potential primary challenge in 2022 from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Now we’ll see if AOC challenges him anyway as he tries to pick up the pieces.
As for the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had her Members vote to pass tax increases and $5 trillion in spending that will not become law. She had promised her swing-district Members she wouldn’t do that as she did when they voted for a climate bill that failed in 2010. Then she did it anyway.
Reps. Josh Gothheimer (New Jersey), Henry Cuellar (Texas) and many others will now have to defend a bill that Republicans can accurately say was too radical to pass. This is Mrs. Pelosi’s fault, not that of Mr. Manchin, who was honest about his objections from the start.
We have to admit that Mr. Manchin’s defection also vindicates Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s strategy to support an infrastructure bill that showed bipartisan Senate deal-making is possible. We don’t apologize for opposing that bill on the merits; it contains hundreds of billions of dollars in wasted spending. But Mr. McConnell calculated that sometimes you have to sacrifice a piece to win the chess match, and the GOP leader read the West Virginian well.
The silver lining for Democrats is that this gives them a chance to face political reality before they leap off a cliff. The Democratic left must now confront the limits of their power. Mr. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren thought they could bully their agenda through a 50-50 Senate, though they had both lost to Mr. Biden in the 2020 primaries. Their failure to narrow their ambitions doomed the bill.
Yet they somehow persuaded Mr. Biden that he had to govern from the left, in what has proven to be a catastrophic misjudgment. Someday we will learn why Mr. Biden made that decision, though perhaps it is as simple as the fact that throughout his career he has followed his party rather than lead it.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain and domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, the lead architects of this misjudgment, should tender their resignations so Mr. Biden can get advisers willing to govern from the middle. He can start by focusing on the main concerns of voters: coping with Covid-19, reducing inflation, and at least trying to do something to restore order at the border.
The response of many readers will be that this is impossible since Mr. Biden is too weak a leader to pull off such a course correction. Perhaps he is. (See the White House’s tone-deaf Sunday response nearby.) But we’re not about to cheer lead three more years of presidential failure. Mr. Manchin offers Democrats a lifeline back from the abyss.
8) Radical activists fear Joe Manchin may have doomed American climate policyVox, 19 December 2021
On Sunday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) may have delivered a final blow to the United States’s best chance to take action on the climate crisis this decade.
After months of negotiations with the White House and Democratic leaders, Manchin announced on Fox News that he will be a “no” vote on the centerpiece of the president’s domestic agenda in its current form. That agenda — known as the Build Back Better Act — would have invested $555 billion in clean electricity, electric vehicles, and reducing methane emissions.
Although the $1.75 trillion bill has already passed the House of Representatives, a no vote from Manchin would ensure the bill does not have a path forward in the Senate. That’s because Democrats were relying on a budget process that requires 50 Senate votes to get it to President Joe Biden’s desk.
As Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote, it’s possible that Manchin’s Sunday comments were just another negotiating tactic, and he could be convinced to support a revised version of the Build Back Better plan that delivers on what he wants.
But if the bill truly is a goner, it will be much more than a political setback for the Biden agenda. It will be a colossal tragedy for the planet and future generations, which are depending on the US government to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels this decade with major legislation like this bill, to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The bill also contains funding for adapting to climate change and helping the most vulnerable communities; without it, the US will be far less prepared to face escalating climate disasters here at home.
It’s unlikely Democrats will have exactly the same set of political circumstances — in control of both the presidency and Congress — to pass a similarly ambitious climate agenda in the next decade. “We won’t be acting on the climate crisis if we don’t pass this bill, and there’s not a decade left to waste,” said Leah Stokes, a climate political scientist at UC-Santa Barbara who has been advising Democrats. “Senator Manchin talks a lot about that and what he owes to his grandchildren, and the number one thing he owes to his grandchildren is a livable planet.”
Democrats probably won’t get a second chance after next year’s midterms to act. And the next time they do have a chance, it may be too late to limit some of the worst effects of warming….
9) Manchin deals blow to Biden’s climate agendaThe Washington Post, 20 December 2021
The legislation included hundreds of billions for electric-vehicle charging stations, as well as tax credits for wind and solar projects
President Biden’s climate agenda suffered a massive setback Sunday after Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) pulled his support from Democrats’ spending bill, potentially dooming the legislation amid warnings from scientists that the world is running out of time to prevent climate change’s most catastrophic effects.
Manchin’s comments on “Fox News Sunday” put at risk a $555 billion package of tax credits, grants and other policies aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions that would rank as the largest clean-energy investment in U.S. history. The legislation’s passage would have helped Biden meet his goal of cutting America’s greenhouse gas emissions in half compared with 2005 levels by 2030.
The senator, who had been the chief Democratic obstacle to the White House’s sweeping policy initiative for nearly six months, said he could not support the bill because of his concerns about inflation, the growing deficit and the need to focus on the omicron coronavirus variant….
The administration has already adopted several policies to limit climate pollutants: This week it will tighten mileage standards for cars and light trucks, and it has adopted rules that would curb potent greenhouse gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning. But several analyses have shown that these executive actions will not make deep enough emissions cuts to meet the president’s global climate pledge.
“Without Build Back Better, the 2030 target is certainly still feasible, but it’s going to be a lot harder to reach,” said John Larsen, a director at the Rhodium Group, an independent energy research firm. “In one action, the federal government was going to get halfway there.”
The president and his deputies can still write new regulations to encourage utilities and auto companies to shift away from fossil fuels, while tightening energy efficiency standards, Larsen said, and state actions can also accelerate greenhouse gas reductions. But without the bill’s generous tax incentives and spending to ease the transition, industry groups will be less likely to accept those changes without a fight. And a future administration could unravel these rules more easily than an existing law.
10) And finally: Chief Covid modeller claims Government ordered scientists to focus on gloomy scenarios
The Daily Telegraph, 20 December 2021
By Fraser Nelson
Why does Sage not tell us the probability of its gloomy Covid ‘scenarios’?
Over the weekend, the latest Sage document arrived with some blood-curdling figures on what could await us if we fail to lock down. The omicron wave could be the deadliest yet, we’re told, killing up to 6,000 of us in a single day. This would be at least five times more than the peak of previous wave – and this from an omicron variant that South Africans say is far milder! We are a highly vaccinated country whose people are teeming with antibodies. Yet somehow, after all of these jabs we are, once again, sitting ducks.
But dig deeper, and the Sage story changes. The 6,000 is the top of a rather long range of “scenarios”, not predictions. The bottom is 600 deaths a day, which certainly would not pose an existential threat to the National Health Service. Why won’t they tell us how likely (or otherwise) these scenarios are? I was mulling all this when, on my Twitter feed, up pops the chairman of the Sage modelling committee Prof. Graham Medley. I thought I’d try my luck and ask him.
It’s a strange place, Twitter. People turn up who should not be there, but sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can get a response. Prof Medley is with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), which last weekend published some grim omicron scenarios. A bank, JP Morgan, spotted a flaw: each LSHTM scenario assumed that omicron was just as deadly as Delta. “But evidence from South Africa suggests that omicron infections are milder,” it said. Adjust for this and Covid hospital numbers end up at just one-third of the January peak. So this omicron wave “would be manageable without further restrictions”. Quite a spot.
I asked Prof Medley: why not say so? When giving his scenarios, why couldn’t he say what JP Morgan had said: that if it’s as mild as the South Africans seem to think there could be no real problem and no need for lockdown? “What would be the point of that?” he replied. “Not a snarky question. Genuine to know what decision-makers would learn from that scenario.” To me, this seems odd: wasn’t the JP Morgan point rather relevant? That we might be able to live with Covid and carry on as usual without lockdown? Why not include that as a possible scenario?
“You know the answer,” he replied. “Decision-makers are generally only interested in situations where decisions have to be made.” But isn’t it just as vital to be told if action is not needed? I asked him straight. “So you exclusively model bad outcomes that require restrictions and omit just-as-likely outcomes that would not require restrictions?”
“We generally model what we are asked to model,” came the reply. “There is a dialogue in which policy teams discuss with the modellers what they need to inform them with their policy.” Again, quite the revelation. Until now, we’ve been told that policy is informed by the data: the impartial independent Sage scientists come down with their figures, and ministers act on this advice. Lockdown is always said to follow the science. But Prof Medley suggests the scientists are doing what they are “asked” during a “dialogue” with a pre-existing “policy”.
At this point our conversation was interrupted by “Reg”. “This entire exchange has left me open-mouthed,” he told us both. “To think of the livelihoods at stake here, mainly because they don’t see the need to model accurate outcomes as it will not make the government take any action. Scandalous.” Prof Medley gave “Reg” the same cryptic reply. “We model the scenarios that are useful to decisions.” He then left, and started to responding to others who asked him if he’d model in his Speedos if asked.
What to make of all this? Is this how Sage really works? Are we all going to be locked down again based not on evidence-based policymaking, but policy-based evidence-making? Since our Twitter exchange went viral I’ve been contacted by a few government ministers saying they were alarmed to think Sage modellers are not giving the probability of various outcomes and cooking up gloomy scenarios to order.
Perhaps we’re all reading too much into what Prof Medley said. But given what’s at stake, these issues may be worth clearing up before Sage “scenarios” are used to lock us down again.