I suspect that one of the reasons scientific researchers and other academics very seldom seem to go into politics and achieve high office is that they are seriously hamstrung by old-fashioned and outmoded ideas about honesty. Their lives as academics will have been nurtured on notions of academic integrity: you don’t invent the results of your experiments and reverse engineer the experiment to fit those results; you don’t borrow chunks of other people’s work without acknowledgement and pretend they are the product of your own original thinking; you don’t invent quotations and attribute them to historical figures to flesh out your argument. So academics might be expected to take a rather dimmer view of such behavior, and get angrier about it, than most others seem to.
A considerable furore, and a vast amount of ridicule, has rightly been occasioned by Dominic Cummings’s excursion to County Durham to share his Covid-19 virus with the Northerners, and by his ridiculous story about having driven the thirty miles to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight. But very little fuss appears to have been made about the fact that, very soon after he arrived back in London on 14th April, Cummings sat down to doctor a blog he had published on March 4th 2019 by inserting a paragraph which enabled him to assert during his Downing Street rose garden non-apology last week: ‘Last year I wrote about the possible threat of coronavirus and the urgent need for planning….’ The lack of integrity displayed by this piece of chicanery would have been enough to earn Cummings a disciplinary hearing, and possibly the sack, in an academic environment, but it appears to be the kind of thing that people have come to expect from Downing Street these days. It certainly won’t have bothered Boris Johnson whose own first sacking, in that instance from his job as a reporter for The Times in 1988, was for inventing a quotation to attribute to an historical figure in a front-page story.
Johnson’s distant relationship with the truth is so well known that newspapers have been listing and ranking his ‘biggest lies’, which inevitably include the two most potent Brexit untruths: the £350 million a week for the NHS, and the 70 million Turks imminently scheduled to invade the UK to take people’s jobs and sponge off the NHS as soon as Turkey joined the EU. But it is the everyday lies from Downing Street, the deliberate massaging of the truth, which illustrates the lack of integrity most insistently. And here the best example is, once again, the daily episode of the coronavirus testing fairy story, for which the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has just been rapped over the knuckles by the head of the UK Statistics Authority, who accuses the government of continuing to mislead the public with its statistics on Covid-19 tests.
To distract attention from the heated debate over whether Hancock’s arbitrary target of 100,000 tests a day by the and of April had been met, Boris upped the target to 200,000 by the end of May. A minor tweaking of the language, presumably by way of elegant variation, somehow changed the target to ‘capacity’ for testing rather than actual tests. Hancock proudly announced over the past weekend that ‘capacity’ was indeed up to 205,000. He didn’t mention that the number of tests actually carried out was fewer than 130,000, and of those some would have been posted out but not yet returned, and others would have been double counted: when two swabs are used on the same person that sometimes counts as two tests, not one. The statistics have no integrity whatever, and there is precious little to be found in 10 Downing Street from where they come.