Daniel Andrews
(Image: AAP/James Ross)

Last month, to the great ire of the pro-lockdown crew, I questioned the hysteria surrounding the mutant British COVID strain. Alas, a month later my doubts appear justified.

The British B117 strain is certainly more contagious than the original strain of the virus, but it appears to be far less so than first thought. Original estimates claimed it could be up to 70% more transmissible. Recent studies show an actual increased transmission rate of 35-45%.

There were also claims that the variant would be resistant to vaccines. These too appear incorrect.

This hasn’t stopped state premiers from both sides of politics from rushing to lock down Perth, Brisbane and now Victoria off the back of the alleged “hyper-infectious” strain. According to Dan Andrews and his new health minister Martin Foley, this variant is moving at “hyper-speed”. (In Brisbane, the “hyper-infectious” strain infected one spouse; in Perth it infected no one; and so far in Victoria, a handful of close contacts).

One of Australia’s leading epidemiologists, Catherine Bennett, told the ABC that UK health data indicated carriers of the UK strain are infecting 14.7% of close contacts, compared to 11% with the earlier strains. In real terms, let’s say the average person has 15 contacts: that means they infect 2.2 people instead of 1.65 people.

More contagious? Yes. Hyper-infectious? Not so much.

The difference is 34% — far from the 70% levels still being claimed. (This was similar to the findings in a recent US study that is not yet peer-reviewed.)

This is being borne out in the UK, which has seen the seven-day average case load plummet from 60,000 per day in early January to around 14,000 per day now. A 77% drop in a month.

Of course there are a number of factors that have contributed to this, including a strict lockdown — although numbers had started dropping before lockdown would have had full effect — and the beginnings of the rapid vaccine rollout. But it’s difficult to correlate the panic over a super-infectious strain alongside a 77% collapse in infection numbers.

The state premiers and the prime minister claim to be guided by science in their rush to close economies (Berejiklian aside). Yet those same premiers happily propagate gross exaggerations of the transmissibility of the UK strain.

Our elected leaders are either ignoring the studies or they are misleading their constituents. But as long as causing fear wins votes, it’s unlikely anything will change.