From David Vincent in Shewsbury, UK: On Saints

St. John Henry Newman

September 25. I read that Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu has resigned suddenly over a scandal concerning the purchase of property in London.

This is, of course, not the first time that a large sum has been used to buy housing in the world capital of laundering illegitimate money.  What caught my eye was the role in the Vatican played by the Cardinal, which presumably will be carried on by his successor.  The corrupt prelate was in charge of the department that decides who will become saints.

It might be supposed that in this time of crisis, when the wrath of God is being visited on the children of disobedience, we are in sore need of such exemplary figures.  Since the early days of the pandemic, there has been chorus of praise in the media for the devotion in particular of health professionals who were risking their lives to save the afflicted.  The now discontinued collective applause on Thursday evenings was a diffuse recognition of their selfless dedication.

It is important, however, to look carefully at the criteria for canonisation in the Catholic Church.  Besides leading an ‘exemplary life of goodness and virtue worthy of imitation’, and ideally having suffered martyrdom, the candidate also has to be shown to have performed directly or posthumously two miracles.  Much of Cardinal Becciu’s time will have been spent sifting out candidates who were exemplary moral beings but could not display the requisite number of verifiable miraculous actions.

A miracle is a divine event that has no natural or scientific basis.  The latest English saint, Cardinal Newman, was credited with curing a man’s spinal disease and a woman’s unstoppable bleeding.  I used to teach Newman’s theology for a living as part of a Master’s course in Victorian culture.  He was the leading Christian intellectual of his generation in England, first in the Church of England, and then following his conversion in 1845, in the Catholic Church.  None of his writings, and no scholarly examination of his career, ever featured a personal role curing the sick, but the Vatican managed to find two instances which could not be explained by medical science.

It could be argued that this kind of saint is nothing but a threat in our present difficulties.  The public figure who by his own estimation mostly closely fulfils the criteria of performing actions that defy scientific reasoning is Donald Trump.  Since the outset he has made predictions about the course of coronavirus and the efficacy of remedies (including bleach) that are not only unsupported by medical knowledge but in his terms are the more credible because they are the product of a higher grasp of the truth.  Trump evidently believes that he has access to knowledge that has more authority than the reasoning of toiling scientists.  So, by extension, the internet is awash with covid-19 cures sold on the basis of their superiority to orthodox medicine.

We see it also in the pale imitations of Trump who govern our destiny in Britain.  Whilst they must make a profession of listening to scientists, their narrative of progress is essentially magical.  Johnson has made a series of proclamations about the course of the pandemic which have no basis in evidence-based fact, but are justified only by private insight into the future.  Similarly his hapless Health Secrecy has promulgated achievements and targets for track and testing (with a new app launched yesterday) that are the product of faith rather than substantive calculation. 

Now, more than ever, we should seek solutions that have a rational or scientific basis.  We want leaders of goodness and exemplary virtue; we have no use for saints.

That said, the odd martyrdom would not come amiss.  St Dominic Cummings would be a good start.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Log Stack

September 24.  It’s the autumn equinox, so we take delivery of a thousand kiln-dried logs to get us through the winter. 

As the logs tumble out of the trailer onto our drive, we ask how business has been during the pandemic.  Never better says the man from Logalog, a Shropshire firm specialising in high quality timber.  In March, orders were three times higher than the same time last year. Enquiring on the web confirms this report.  ‘Kindwood’, a firm claiming to be ‘the UK’s first and only true sustainable firewood brand’, experienced a 320% rise in sales at the beginning of the lockdown.

It’s an oddly atavistic form of hoarding.  It was to be expected that there would be bulk buying of modern essentials such as loo paper and pasta, and later handwash and face-masks.  But not firewood, at the end rather than the beginning of winter (I find a report of a similar rise in demand in March in the Stirling Woodyard, Adelaide, Australia, but there at least the obverse seasons made this a more rational behaviour).  There is something very primal about stocking up with firewood in the face of a looming national crisis, just as the days are lengthening.

Our heap of logs has then to be transported down the garden and carefully stacked.  For this activity I rely on one of my favourite books, Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood.  Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.  This was a surprise hit when it was published in Britain in 2015.  Its title fully reflects the contents.  Chopping, and in particular stacking wood are treated as both a science and an art.  There are wrong ways and right ways to construct piles that are stable, damp-proof and aesthetically pleasing. Mytting writes (p.113):

‘You know exactly where you are with a woodpile. Its share price doesn’t fall on the stock market.  It won’t rust.  It won’t sue for divorce.  It just stands there and does one thing:  It waits for winter.’

Or a pandemic.

Amongst the information the book conveys is the existence of a Norwegian law which requires every house over a certain size to possess a source of heating independent of the electricity supply.  This makes a lot of sense.  Most forms of domestic warming depend on the national grid, either directly or in order to pump the water through a central heating system.  In an arctic winter, if the electricity supply fails, families can freeze to death.  Hence the importance of a log-stack (and a wood-burning stove, upon which Mytting is also a source of encyclopaedic advice).

Almost unnoticed in the catalogue of government incompetence, the British long-term energy strategy collapsed last week.  Hitachi pulled out of building a nuclear power station in Wylfa, north Wales, calling into question the planned Sizewell C project.  The only plant actually under construction, Hinkley Point C, is over time and over budget.  The official policy is to rely on nuclear power to fill the gaps in renewable energy generated by the sun, wind or waves.  If that strategy is correct, the consequence of the serial failings in implementing the nuclear programme will be that sooner or later in the UK, the lights will start to go out, and the central heating boilers cease to function.

Better stock up on logs.  But do make sure they are stacked properly.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK. New Life



September 21.  We have a new granddaughter, conceived when coronavirus was only an unreported event in China.  ‘Shielding’ has entered our vocabulary during the last six months, but no living being has been as protected from the raging storm as this infant growing in her mother’s womb.  Now she is amongst us, three weeks old, small but perfectly formed.

There have been a host of petty inconveniences surrounding her first few days.  My son found himself almost completely excluded from her birth, much as fathers were when I was born. It took a fortnight’s careful planning before my wife and I could drive down to London to greet her.  Distance was observed during the visit, masks were worn where necessary.  What effect so many half-covered faces is having on this intensely observing person we will only later discover. 

These difficulties eventually will pass.  The bigger question is the longer term.  I grew up in a country still recovering from the material and human destruction caused by the Second World War.  My recollection of that era is entirely of the future that was being created in the 1950s.  I had no experience of ruined buildings and crippled lives.  Just a newly-built housing estate in the midlands, and parents making their way out of the working class into the relative comfort and security of white-collar occupations.  The state was responding to the failures of a previous generation by creating a structure of welfare from which I directly benefited.  My granddaughter might not feel so blessed.  She may instead experience a childhood over-shadowed by the re-fighting of wars of the previous decade.

About the yet longer term I have almost nothing to say.  With an average amount of luck, this small child will live through the whole of this century.  I simply cannot conceive what her surroundings will look like by the time she reaches my age.  Climate change must constitute the greatest risk, but what in the end will be the balance between human neglect in creating the crisis and human ingenuity in responding to it, is beyond my calculation.

At least we have met.  A cousin has just sent me a photograph of my paternal grandmother, Hannah, called Polly.  She was a miner’s wife, and died of TB, what used to be called consumption, at the age of forty, on my father’s tenth birthday.  I never knew even what she looked like.  Cameras were uncommon possessions in her community.  But it turns out that an image has survived, taken in a studio in Hanley.  I gaze upon her face with fascination.  She has thick dark hair, pulled back from a central parting.   A strong, intelligent, humorous face.  In what way have her looks found their way into my children?  What was she like, and what part could she have played in my childhood, when she would only have been in her sixties and seventies? 

I have lived long enough to encounter five grandchildren, and with this latest there is once more the prospect of getting to know each other, of exchanging views about what the world is like and how we might better live in it. 

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Sneak Culture

September 17.   Boris Johnson has given an interview to this morning’s Sun in which he is quoted as criticising the Home Secretary’s encouragement to neighbours to report breaches of the ‘Rule of Six’ to the authorities.  He told the newspaper that “I have never much been in favour of sneak culture myself.”

Only readers of a certain age and a deep immersion British boarding school literature will understand the meaning of a ‘sneak culture’.

For illumination, let us turn to an iconic figure in such stories, the rotund person of Billy Bunter.  In Billy Bunter’s Barring Out of 1948, Frank Richards’ eponymous hero is facing, not for the first time, a moral dilemma.  Bob Cherry, a fellow pupil in the Remove at Greyfriars School, is facing expulsion after a bag of soot was inadvertently dropped on the head of the master, Mr. Quelch.  Bunter announces to his class mates that he knows the culprit and intends to inform the headmaster.  His proposal arouses immediate hostility:

“That’s why—I—I—I mean, I—Look here, you fellows, I jolly well know who it was, and I’m going to tell the Head.”

“You can’t do that,” said Harry Wharton.  “You can’t give a man away—we don’t sneak in the Remove.  But you can tell us, and we’ll put it to the fellow to own up.”

“And we’ll put it pretty strong!” growled Johnny Bull. 

“I’m going to tell the Head,” persisted Bunter.  “’Tain’t sneaking—I’m no sneak, I hope!  Did you fellows ever know me do a rotten thing?  I ask you!”

‘Sneaking’ constituted a fundamental breach of the public-school code.  That Johnson should use the term betrays not just his upbringing but the juvenile way in which he conceives the restrictions his government has introduced.  On the one hand there is an intrinsically repressive state, prone to impose regulation in order to entrench its power.  On the other there is the community of the governed whose principal loyalty is to each other.  There is no offence greater than reporting misbehaviour to authority.

In a grown-up world, it might be supposed that citizens and the state have a common interest in rules designed to achieve the urgent objective of controlling infection.  If the agents of discipline, the police or local wardens, are seen as representatives of an alien regime, the prospects of observance diminish.  There will instead be a corresponding increase in jolly japes like un-distanced drinking or non-face-masked shopping.

For Billy Bunter, as ever, the story ended badly:

“So you’ve wriggled out of it, you fat worm?” exclaimed Bob Cherry…  “Gentlemen, chaps, and sportsmen,” said Bob Cherry.  “It was Bunter all the time, and he seems to have pulled the Head’s leg and got off.  I’m glad he isn’t bunked, but he’s going to be jolly well bumped—.”

“Oh, really, Cherry—!”

“Collar him!”

“Here, I say, you fellows—Leggo—Beasts—yaroooh!” roared Bunter, as he was collared. 

Bump! 

“Oh, crikey!  I say—.”

Bump! 

“Will you leggo?”

Bump! 

“Whoooooop!”

Billy Bunter sat on Smithy’s carpet, and roared.   

Our own fat worm deserves no less.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: “very little Difference was to be seen.”

BuildBackBetterUK

September 15.  Once the scale of the pandemic became clear, commentators of all perspectives began asking the question, how different would the post-coronavirus world look?  Would individuals, societies, governments, embrace radical change, or would we do all that we could to reinstate familiar routines and pleasures?

Looking back in 1772 to the 1665 plague, Daniel Defoe was pessimistic about the outcome.  “But except what of this was to be found in particular Families and Faces,” he wrote, “it must be acknowledg’d that the general Practice of the People was just as it was before, and very little Difference was to be seen.”*  At least part of the explanation for the transient effect was that the outbreak of bubonic plague was immediately followed by the Great Fire of London, which reset the programme of improvement on every front.  We have already arranged for a cataclysm next year in the form of a no-deal Brexit, which in the UK at least may indeed wipe out all prospect of progressive change in the 2020s.

Nonetheless the question remains on the agenda, even if the point of conclusion is now receding into the distance.  The large-scale Nuffield / UCL Covid-19 survey which I have written about before, has just asked its panel of now over 70,000 respondents whether they expect to change the way they live their lives once the pandemic is over.**

The results are deeply underwhelming.  Whilst only ten per cent expect to return exactly to their previous life, a mere two per cent of the respondents assented to the proposition, “I will entirely change the way I lived compared before Covid-19”.  Over half the population thought that “they were more likely on balance to return to how things were before” with about a fifth expecting to change things and over a quarter in between no change and some change.

When the survey focussed on the specific actions of those who wanted a new life, the poverty of aspiration becomes still clearer.  Top of the list is an activity which perhaps has been created by the pandemic, giving more support to local businesses.  But as the fourth most desired change is more shopping online, it seems unlikely that there is going to be a wholesale shift to buying the necessities of life from the grocer around the corner.  Otherwise the head of the chart is filled with such mundane ambitions as saving more money, exercising more, eating healthier food.  About ten per cent report an intention to ‘seek a new romantic relationship’ but it is not clear whether this ambition has been communicated to an existing partner.

The problem with these sorts of enquiries is the absence of a pre-Covid baseline.  In a culture which foregrounds the freedom of individuals to set their own future, it might be supposed that a desire for some sort of change is near universal.  The content of the reported agenda looks a lot like the first week of any given New Year, when in the aftermath of over-consumption, resolutions are formed to live a more virtuous life.  These peter out as the days lengthen, leading to an outcome that looks very like Defoe’s verdict.

The conclusion has to be that alongside staying alive and getting a virus test, we need to devote serious time to conceiving a new future.  It will not occur by default, nor by responding to short-term inconveniences.  The slogan ‘Build Back Better’ is now widely used by agencies, pressure groups and politicians (even B. Johnson, God help us) reacting to the crisis.  On the survey evidence, what is better remains out of focus and beyond what at present we seem able to imagine. 

*Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722; Penguin 2003), pp. 219-20.

**Covid-19 Social Study Results Release 19, 26th August 2020, pp. 44-50. https://b6bdcb03-332c-4ff9-8b9d-28f9c957493a.filesusr.com/ugd/3d9db5_fba549666ba14e18bc1f844446a31c9b.pdf

From David Vincent In Shrewsbury, UK: Smoking the Mail

Daniel Defoe

September 10.  Over the last six months, the main exposure of our home to the threatening outside world has been in the form not of visitors but deliveries of post, weekly groceries and the fruits of online shopping.   The postman and other van drivers keep their distance.  The problem is what to do with the letters and boxed items.  We know that the coronavirus can linger on hard surfaces for at least twenty-four hours.  This causes us to leave untouched boring items such as advertising circulars and bank statements. But we are less patient with anything that looks as if it will entertain us or improve our lives.

For guidance on how we should conduct ourselves in this regard, we can turn once more to Daniel Defoe.  Alongside his Journal of the Plague Year he also published the much less well-known Due Preparations for the Plague, as well for Souls as Body.  Being some seasonable Thoughts upon the visible approach of the present dreadful Contagion in France; the properest measures to prevent it, and the great work of submitting to it (1722).  This was a more overtly didactic work than the Journal, although it deployed much of the same material. 

Among the topics he addressed was how to treat incoming mail.  James Daybell and other historians have demonstrated that there was a widely-used postal service operating across Britain by the mid-seventeenth-century.  It was deployed for business purposes, for connecting family members of the middling and upper classes, and for supporting an international network of scholars.  At the Restoration in 1660, Charles II established the General Letter Office, which was designed to create a state monopoly in the conveyance of letters.  Operating with a very broad understanding of infection, Defoe regarded the service as a serious threat to health. 

We now know that the bubonic plague was spread by fleas carried by black rats, and unlike fabrics sent about the country, the hard surface of paper was not likely to be a means of transmission.  But it is now, so we should take seriously the Due Preparations.   In the book Defoe cited the example (also referred to in the Journal) of a prosperous wholesale grocer in London, head of a household which comprised his wife, five children, two maid servants and an apprentice.  The grocer took the precaution of keeping his doors shut in order to avoid physical contact, hauling any necessary items to an upstairs window by means of a pulley:

“Hitherto he had corresponded with several of his acquaintances and customers in the country, and had received letters from them, and written letters to them constantly, but would not do any business, or send any goods to them upon any account, though very much pressed to it, because he resolved not to open his doors, whatever damages he suffered.

“His letters were brought by the postman, or letter- carrier, to his porter, when he caused the porter to smoke them with brimstone and with gunpowder, then open them, and to sprinkle them with vinegar ; then he had them drawn up by the pulley, then smoked again with strong perfumes, and, taking them with a pair of hair gloves, the hair outermost, he read them with a large reading-glass which read at a great distance, and, as soon as they were read, burned them in the fire ; and at last, the distemper raging more and more, he forbid his friends writing to him at all.” (New York, 1903 edn., p. 63)

I can only commend this practice to you.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Public Good and Private Mischief

September 8. I have been reading Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, a biography of the outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665.

Defoe addressed his subject much as Netflix might treat the current event.  Carefully accumulated factual evidence was translated into a moving human document by means of a lightly fictionalised narrative structure.   He wrote in 1722 about an event that took place when he was about five years old.  His direct memory of the plague must have been slight, but as the son of a London tallow-chandler he grew up amidst a community for whom this was an epochal experience.  He was one of the first modern journalists and accumulated as much factual evidence as he could find, making particular use of the contemporary Bills of Mortality which provided a weekly map of the spread of the plague across the city.  Defoe wrote to entertain, to make money, but above all to warn.  The plague had broken out again in Marseille in 1720, and all Europe was on the alert in case it spread across the Continent once more.  The Journal was history written to prevent its repetition. 

In every major plague outbreak from the fifteenth century to the coronavirus, the central response of authorities has been to keep victims apart from those yet to be infected.  Whether it was the forty-day quarantine invented by the Venetians in the fifteenth century, or our own mis-firing track and trace system, the task is to identify the sick and remove them from the company of the healthy.  Until the late nineteenth century there was no accurate understanding of the biology of pandemics, but the coming of DNA analysis has made little difference to the essential common-sense reaction.

Neither has there been any alteration to the basic relocation of power from the individual to the collective at such a time of crisis.  In 1665, the Lord Mayor of London imposed the drastic remedy of locking families in their houses when one of their members fell ill.  Defoe was impressed by the ferocity of the policy:

“It is true, that the locking up the Doors of Peoples Houses, and setting a Watchman there Night and Day, to prevent their stirring out, or any coming to them; when perhaps the sound People, in the Family, might have escaped, if they had been remov’d from the Sick, looked very hard and cruel; and many People perished in these miserable Confinements, which ‘tis reasonable to believe, would not have been distemper’d if they had had Liberty, tho’ the Plague was in the House … But it was a publick Good that justified the private Mischief; and there was no obtaining the least Mitigation, by any Application to Magistrates, or Government, at that Time, at least, not that I heard of.” (Penguin Classics Edition, 2003, p. 48).

So it comes to pass that the plague has arrived in my own small village.  A twenty-year-old decided that he was owed a continental holiday.  On his return he transmitted Covid-19 to his parents.  Defoe’s principle still applies.  ‘Publick Good’ justifies ‘private Mischief’, that is to say the harm caused to the felt interests of individual citizens.  Parties, large-scale social gatherings, foreign vacations, are personal luxuries we cannot afford.  In Defoe’s plague year the Magistrates stuck to their rule, despite the many attempts to evade it.  As we must. 

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK.

September 4. The Rise of an Historian

Here’s a question for you.  Who is the author of this PhD?

“This research takes a chronological approach, in order to trace both the development of policy and of the role of the JIC within central government. It explores the major crises of the period: the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948, the riots in East Berlin of June 1953 and the 1958-61 Berlin Crisis. Away from these crises, the thesis examines the picture that the JIC painted of Soviet intentions and capabilities in Eastern Germany and of the development of the two German nations.”

The answer is the second, or joint second, most powerful man in the British political system.  Should he wish so to do, the new Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service could describe himself as Dr. Simon Case.  At a certain point in his late twenties, he decided not to publish his thesis and pursue a university career, although he has retained an association with academic life and is currently a visiting professor at King’s College London.  Instead he passed the exams for fast track entry into the civil service.  Thereafter he rose rapidly, until he fell out with the then chief Brexit negotiator in 2018, and after three months working on the Irish problem left for what was surely the dead-end job of Private Secretary to the Duke of Cambridge.  Now amidst the massacre of Permanent Secretaries, he has been recalled to active service. 

The question for us all is not so much his indecent youth, as his academic qualification.  Should we worry that the country is now being run by two historians in their forties?

A further degree gives only qualified assurance.  I spent my adult life in the company of men and women with a doctorate, and supervised a fistful of students seeking to obtain one.  I know whereof I speak.  Demonstrated command of what is usually a very narrow field of knowledge is not to be confused with any level of general intelligence or practicality.  I have worked with holders of PhDs whom you would not trust to write an online shopping list, much less unpack the groceries on arrival.   However, Case appears to have been an exception.  His supervisor Peter Hennessy has said that “He had a muscularity of intellect and masses of intellectual curiosity, plus precise organisational gifts which you don’t usually see in students.”  A historian who can tie his shoe-laces unaided is indeed a promising prospect.

The larger question resolves itself into a narrower issue: can he defeat ‘hard rain’ Cummings in the battle to politicise the civil service. 

There are two grounds for hope, beyond the general fact that after the brutal dismissal of his predecessor, he is unsackable for the time being (unless Johnson goes the full Trump and dismisses all his senior officials every year).

The first is that his academic mentor was not, as in Cummings’ case, Norman Stone, the most morally corrupt senior historian of the modern era (see Diary 27 April), but the upright Peter Hennessy (see Diary 23 June), the wisest and best informed of all historians of contemporary British politics.  And Hennessy backs him: “There is nothing flash or histrionic. He is one of those people you find every now and again in professional life who are so capable that you don’t mess around with them because they are a level above.”

The second is that the completion of the long, lonely road of a Ph.D in the humanities is at least a measure of persistence.  This is someone who has demonstrated a capacity to take the slow road to achieving his goal.  Cummings has never held any post for much more than a year and will be out of Number 10 before the end of 2021, for whatever cause.   Case will outlast the man who despises the civil service, and with any luck will turn out to be its creative defender.

*you can read the full thesis at: https://qmro.qmul.ac.uk/xmlui/handle/123456789/1495

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Corrigendum

On this my hundredth diary entry, I begin with a correction.  On August 7, I wrote: “It is generally accepted that the only way of ending the pandemic is the discovery of a vaccine and its manufacture and distribution on a global scale by multi-national drug companies.”  A day later, a study conducted by King’s College London and Ipsos Mori reported that only 53% of the British population was definitely or very likely to accept being vaccinated, whilst one in six said they would definitely be very unlikely to go ahead with such a treatment.

This finding is in fact very similar to a survey I discussed on July 6, based that time on a YouGov poll.   

At face, the finding is deeply depressing.  It suggests one of two things.  Either the community spirit that has carried us through is decaying just when it matters.  The widely-observed initial lockdown depended on an act of collective altruism.  Those unlikely to suffer greatly from an infection controlled their social lives on behalf of the elderly, and those with co-morbidities, who were much more vulnerable.  In the new study the young (16-24 and 25-34 year-olds) are twice as likely to refuse a vaccine as the old (55-75).

Or the proportion of the population prepared to disregard medical advice is much larger than we supposed.  It is not so much a matter of disputing a particular scientific finding.  There will always be argument about which remedy is most appropriate, even amongst researchers themselves.  Rather we are faced with a Trumpian disdain for science altogether as a mode of advancing the truth.  It is a wholesale rejection of the Enlightenment project, the notion that the natural world could be progressively understood through evidence-based rational discourse. 

There is, however, a caution against despair.  The opinion poll surveys are asking a hypothetical question.  There is no vaccine, merely encouraging reports of several clinical trials.  Conversely there are any number of bogus cures being widely discussed in books and online forums.  John Naughton in his Observer column on Sunday column traced in convincing detail how the algorithms on sites such as Amazon are promoting anti-vax literature with little to counter it.

As and when the vaccine is found, manufactured, and distributed to doctors’ surgeries, then the whole debate will shift.  Governments will stop issuing vaguely optimistic promises and get behind a determined programme of mass vaccination.  If it is seen to work not just in random trials but in real populations, the proportion of refuseniks will surely shrink to a marginal though possibly damaging fringe (at least in the UK; all bets are off in the States, whoever wins the presidential election).

It may be that the poll findings are not so much a cause as a reflection of a collapsed optimism.  I have been writing entries every weekday for nearly five months.  During that time public spirit has made a transition from panic contained by collective endeavour to weary disillusion with every aspect of the official effort.  We come to the end of the first period of the pandemic with the highest per capital death toll in Europe and the deepest projected economic recession.  Whether it is a second phase or a renewed surge, there appears no end in sight to the level of infections, which in England climbed back over a thousand at the weekend. No-one believes the assurances of any part of government, from face-masks to care homes to test and trace to reopening schools.  Dominic Cummings’ Flight to Durham in late March and subsequent non-apology in the Downing Street garden is held to mark the turning point in public confidence.  He’s still inside Number 10.  It will take a real vaccine, actually and widely available, before spirits change.

But by that time, we will be in the throes of Brexit.

Enjoy the rest of your summer.  I’m taking a break.   

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Keeping the Secret (2)

Sylvia Richardson

Not my words.  Just a letter in Friday’s Guardian from senior statisticians, on exactly the same theme as my piece on August 4: ‘Keeping the Secret’:

“The Covid-19 public health crisis has placed a sharp emphasis on the role of data in government decision-making. During the current phase – where the emphasis is on test and trace, and local lockdowns – data is playing an increasingly central role in informing policy.

We recognise that the stakes are high and that decisions need to be made quickly. However, this makes it even more important that data is used in a responsible and effective manner. Transparency around the data that is being used to inform decisions is central to this.

Over the past week, there have been two major data-led government announcements where the supporting data was not made available at the time.

First, the announcement that home and garden visits would be made illegal in parts of northern England. The prime minister cited unpublished data which suggested that these visits were the main setting for transmission. Second, the purchase of two new tests for the virus that claim to deliver results within 90 minutes, without data regarding the tests’ effectiveness being published.

We are concerned about the lack of transparency in these two cases – these are important decisions and the data upon which they are based should be publicly available for scrutiny, as Paul Nurse pointed out in the Guardian (Secrecy has harmed UK government’s response to Covid-19 crisis, says top scientist, 2 August).

Government rhetoric often treats data as a managerial tool for informing decisions. But beyond this, transparency and well-signposted data builds public trust and encourages compliance: the daily provision of statistical information was an integral part of full lockdown and was both expected and valued by the public.

As champions for the use of data in policymaking, set out in the Royal Statistical Society’s data manifesto, we ask the government to recognise the importance of transparency and to promptly and prominently publish all data that underpins its decisions.

Prof Sylvia Richardson, Prof David Spiegelhalter, Prof Christl Donnelly, Prof Peter Diggle, Prof Sheila Bird, Simon Briscoe, Prof Jon Deeks On behalf of the Royal Statistical Society Covid-19 taskforce.”

On the one hand secrecy, is bred in the bones of the British system of government despite legislative reform.  It is made worse by the arrogance of an 80-seat majority and the conviction that control over communication is essential in what amounts to a wartime endeavour.  As was noted in an earlier diary entry (April 27), almost none of the Ministers have a scientific background, including those at the frontline of managing the pandemic.

On the other hand politicians, as they have stressed from the outset, are dependent upon the input of scientists.  This means not just their knowledge, but how that knowledge is generated.  Scientists proceed by evidence-based research, open to review and improvement by other practitioners.  As Sir Paul Nurse and now the Royal Statistical Society complain, their culture is fundamentally at odds with those they are now working with.

With Johnson and Cummings in charge, there seems no likely resolution of this impasse.