From David Maughan Brown in York: Roosting chickens

October 14th

Flocks of chickens are coming home to roost on our Prime Minister, the supposedly Honourable Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and it isn’t just the odd stray feather they are contributing to his general air of lazy dishevelment.  When the great moment came on Monday for the unveiling the new Covid-19 tiered lockdown system that had been trailed so extensively for the better part of the previous week, Boris Johnson’s Chief Medical Officer, standing a socially distanced few feet beside him, calmly asserted that he had no confidence that it would work.  Immediately after the news conference, the Scientific Advisory Council for Emergencies (SAGE) released the minutes of a meeting it had held on 21st September at which the Government’s own hand-picked scientists unequivocally advocated a short, sharp, ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown as the only way to get the rapidly escalating incidence of infections under control. Boris Johnson rejected their advice and implemented his Rule of Six and the 10pm curfew on restaurants and bars instead, thereby comprehensively demolishing any last remnants of his endlessly repeated claim to have been ‘following the science.’  He can no longer get away with blaming the scientists.

The latest figures show that very nearly 20,000 people were diagnosed as Covid-19 positive in UK yesterday.  There has been an exponential increase in the number of infections, hospitalisations and deaths in the weeks since Boris and his lackeys took that September decision, and we are headed within the next two weeks to equal the March and April numbers in intensive care and we haven’t hit winter yet.  The trailing of the severe Tier 3 restrictions in Liverpool five days in advance inevitably resulted in the predicted partying in the streets on Tuesday night in anticipation of the midnight implementation of the new rules.  The almost unbelievable stupidity of that crowd differed only from the stupidity of the similarly maskless crowd that flocked to Donald Trump’s recent election rally in Florida in that, whereas the stupidity in Florida was suicidal given the age-profile of that crowd, in Liverpool the sozzled revellers appeared to consist largely of young people who probably won’t die themselves but will inevitably be passing the virus on to their elders, some of whom most certainly will die.  The measures brought in by Boris on 21st September as an alternative to the lockdown simply haven’t worked, and there is no reason whatever to imagine that his new Tier system will work either.   The number of infections in York, currently in tier 1, has increased by almost 50% in the past 24 hours.

If the current exponential growth in infections and deaths is stripping the Emperor of whatever clothes he had left, the wedges Johnson’s incompetence has succeeded in driving between the different nations of the supposedly United Kingdom will soon be making his unsightly nakedness even more glaringly apparent.  Northern Ireland has decided to implement the national lockdown Boris is refusing to agree to.  In two weeks time it will be possible to compare the results of the two different approaches to the crisis.  In the meantime the government of Wales has felt obliged to take the extraordinary step of trying to protect the public health of its citizens by banning cars from the North West of England.  Scotland, one gathers, is contemplating taking similar measures.  So some parts of the UK are, indeed, taking control of their borders – but, again, not in the way Boris anticipated.

The flocks of chickens do not cluck in unison.  Johnson is caught between several competing factions.  One flock consist of the supposedly ‘libertarian’, Tory backbenchers who oppose any kind of lockdown on the basis of the damage it does to the economy.   Closer inspection would probably reveal that that group really doesn’t care how many plebs in ‘the North’ die, just as long as their own shares in in the Wetherspoons pub chain don’t take too much of a hit.  That group would be better described as braying rather than clucking.  Another group, including extra-parliamentary experts, is warning the government about the destitution that will result if a lockdown is implemented without adequate support for those whose incomes will suffer: parents won’t be able to buy shoes for their children; women will have to prostitute themselves to keep food on their children’s plates.  The official opposition is demanding a national lockdown along the lines of SAGE’s September recommendations.  The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, is still threatening to bring legal action against the government and refusing to cooperate if restrictions in his area of responsibility are raised to Tier 3 without adequate financial support being put in place

If the variously suicidal or homicidal crowds of revellers and Trump devotees can be fairly described as stupid, their idiocy does not begin to compare with Johnson’s stupidity as he steadfastly lumbers towards a ‘no deal’ Brexit in 10 weeks time, apparently intent on making sure that the worst crisis in UK since World War II gets a whole lot more catastrophic for everybody involved.   And ‘everybody’ includes the entire continent of Europe, even if it will be vastly more catastrophic for us in the still ‘United Kingdom’. Having opportunistically lied and cheated his way into the position from which he can do greatest damage to the country he is supposed to be leading, Johnson fully deserves everything the roosting chickens can dump on him.   If I sound close to despair, it is because I am.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Keeping the Secret

Sir Paul Nurse

After the performance of the confused Matt Hancock over the weekend (see yesterday’s diary), the premium on a figure of trust and competence has risen still further.

Step forward Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner, director of the Francis Crick Institute, former president of the Royal Society, chief scientific advisor to the European Commission.  Here at last is a figure whom a local radio presenter would not be able to reduce to incoherence in a few short minutes.

His contribution to the Covid-19 debate on Sunday should be taken seriously.  The issue to which he drew attention was excessive secrecy in government decision-making.

I have written a book on this subject.*  I argued that the birth of the modern state following the 1832 Reform Act was accompanied by the development of the doctrine of ‘honourable secrecy’.  Politicians and civil servants controlled information on the basis not of law but culture.  Honourable men could be trusted to decide what to say and when not to say it.  For as long as the state machine remained small, this system worked on its own terms.  The government apparatus was, for its times, both competent and honest.  But when, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the civil service expanded and drew in officials who were not gentlemen, and still worse, not men at all, then a law was required to discipline junior staff.  The definition of what was a secret was left in the hands of senior officials and their masters.  The continuing growth of the role of the state in everyday life eventually required further legal clarification, resulting in a revised Official Secrets Act in 1989 and the 2000 Freedom of Information Act (FOI).

But entrenched habits die hard.  What bothers Nurse are two aspects of the old culture.  The first is that despite twenty years of FOI, official information is still seen as the possession not of civil society but of politicians and their advisors.  They are free to decide when to release it, and even to admit that it exists at all.  In the words of Henry Taylor in 1836, ‘A secret may be sometimes best kept by keeping the secret of its being secret.’ 

The second is the instinctive feeling that open debate impedes rather than enhances policy-making.  It invites disruptive commentary by the ill-informed or the ill-intentioned.  It distracts and delays the work of those charged with taking action.  Better to leave the moment of full openness until some later inquiry.

Thus SAGE, the key advisory committee, chaired by two scientists who are now government employees, sought in the early stages to deny information on who were its members unless they were subject to unwarranted lobbying.  Its advice on key areas of policy remains confidential.  “It sometimes seems” said Nurse, “like a ‘black box’ made up of scientists, civil servants and politicians are coming up with the decisions. … It needs to be more open. We need greater transparency, greater scrutiny and greater challenge to get the best results.”  Rather than the scientific culture of critical debate informing government, the political process had muzzled science.

The consequence, as so often in the past, was that the wrong decisions were made and then covered up to prevent embarrassment.  On the rolling shambles of coronavirus testing, for instance, Nurse charges that, “They seemed not to want to admit that they weren’t prepared, that they were unable to do the testing properly, because that would have been an admission of failure from square one.”

As in other areas the response to the coronavirus has exposed rather than transcended deficiencies in public life.  And as elsewhere, this matters not just for the management of the crisis but for the future of society more generally.  The pandemic is just one example of how complex policy decisions will need to be fully informed by scientific information which is itself a matter of constant debate. 

The discovery of how far secrecy is still ingrained in the official mind is an open threat us all. 

*The Culture of Secrecy.  (Oxford University Press, 1998)

From David Maughan Brown in York: Proportionality.

June 23rd

Three men sitting with their friends enjoying the sunshine on a summer afternoon in Reading last Saturday are suddenly attacked without warning by a man they don’t know, and brutally, and with ruthless efficiency, stabbed to death.  Three of their friends are also stabbed, but their injuries are relatively minor.  It soon becomes apparent that their attacker, who is quickly arrested, is a mentally disturbed asylum seeker from Libya, Khairi Saadallah, who is said to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his involvement in the Libyan civil war.  The identities of the three dead men are released one by one; moving tributes are paid to them by parents and friends, who express their shock and loss; the pupils of James Furlong, by all accounts an inspirational local history teacher, gather to pay their tearful tributes.   Boris Johnson tweets a formulaic statement to the effect that his ‘thoughts are with all those affected by the appalling incident in Reading’; Priti Patel calls the attack ‘senseless’ and elaborates on her boss by adding her heart and prayers to her thoughts which are ‘with all those affected’; the media are full of photographs of people laying bunches of flowers as tributes.   The attack is appalling, the grief of those who knew the men heartfelt and touching.

The sigh of relief that will have gone round Downing Street and the editorial offices and newsrooms of our predominantly right wing media must have been audible across London.  Here, at last, they were back on familiar non-Covid territory:  terrorist attacks, knife-crime, asylum seekers, Muslims, white victims, grief-stricken parents and friends.  After weeks of increasing discomfort as they watched the government they had supported into power demonstrating an embarrassing level of blundering incompetence in its handling of a killer pandemic, they were able to beat the Law and Order drum to their hearts content and, in the process, turn their collective back on the Covid-19 fall out.

I suspect I am not alone in detecting a certain disproportionality in what has been going on here.  A couple of weeks ago Professor Neil Ferguson, whose statistical analysis was instrumental in persuading our Government to institute the lockdown in the first place, said that the belated imposition of that lockdown will have resulted in some 20,000 unnecessary deaths.   A government that, supposedly, religiously ‘follows the science’ needs to take such statements seriously, even if a number of senior scientists have been sufficiently sceptical of their claim to feel the need to set up their own parallel, but independent, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.   That means that in recent weeks roughly seven thousand times as much grief, anguish and loss can be laid at the door of our incompetent government as can be laid at the door of Khairi Saadallah’s murderous killing spree.  Those 20,000 deaths will have been painful, lingering and desperately lonely; the grief of parents, partners and children will have been just as devastating; uncountably more lives have been irreparably disfigured and futures blighted.   The media could obviously never lavish as much attention on those twenty thousand lost lives as it has been able to lavish on the tragic deaths of the three men murdered in the park in Reading on Saturday, and culpability for the 20,000 deaths will never be as easily provable, but we should bear all those other deaths in mind, even as we are appalled by what happened in Reading on Saturday.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Back to school?

1st June

How on earth could it have come to this? Today is the day, much-heralded by the tabloids, for the return to school after the ten long weeks of lockdown and home-schooling.  But only for some classes and only in England, and it is being left entirely up to parents, living through the worst health emergency this country has experienced for a hundred years, to take the potential life-or-death decision whether or not to risk sending their children back to school if they happen to be in the eligible classes.

On what possible basis are they supposed to make that choice?  Because the government of England, which we used to think was the government of the United Kingdom, says it is now time (and safe) to do so?  But the June 1stdate was decided weeks ago on the basis of no evidence whatsoever that it would be safe by today and, given that 8,000 people are still being infected by the virus every day, it is still, all too clearly, not without risk.  And not just risk to the children.  Although the evidence shows that children are the age group least badly affected by Covid-19, the extent to which asymptomatic children can carry the virus back into their homes to infect the rest of their families is still a lot less certain.

So are parents supposed to base their decision on our government’s track-record where the virus is concerned?  That is something of an ask considering that the UK is widely considered to have been one of the four worst countries in the world when it comes to its handling of the pandemic, unfair as that is to the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and North Ireland.   Thanks to a decade of austerity, and a linked determination to be deaf to all warnings, we were hopelessly illprepared and under-equipped for the outbreak of a widely predicted global pandemic.   We stopped testing and tracking just when we should have been ‘ramping’ it up.  We allowed two major sporting events to go ahead, bringing thousands of spectators into this country from the epicentre of the disease in Europe, at a time when the rest of Europe was busy locking everything down.   We didn’t close our airports when we should have, and our government now bizarrely thinks that it is a good idea to do so three months too late.   So our government’s track-record isn’t going to inspire in parents a lot of confidence that it knows what it is talking about when it says it is safe for schools to reopen.

To complicate their decision even further, parents are having conflicting advice and concerns dinned into them from all sides.  The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) thinks it is OK for schools to reopen, but at least four members of that group have come out independently to say it is too soon.  And in any case that group lost credibility to such an extent when it became clear that Dominic Cummings was sitting in on SAGE meetings, and might be influencing its decisions, that an independent group scientific advisory group felt obliged to set itself up.  Teachers unions think it is too soon.  The vastly more credible devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and North Ireland, which don’t consist of English Nationalists, think it is too soon.   But educational experts and children’s mental health experts are consistently pointing to the need to get children back to school as soon as it is safe to do so.  And almost all parents who aren’t teachers are likely to be only too ready to acknowledge that the home schooling they are trying to supervise won’t be as educationally sound as the lessons their children enjoy (or otherwise) in their classrooms.

What more basic reason could there ever be for having any government at all than to have a competent and authoritative body that can ensure that children will be safe in its schools?  One only has to look to New Zealand to know that, even in a global pandemic such as the one we are trying to live through now, that is not an unrealizable ambition.  But pity the unfortunate parents in England who have been left high and dry by our parody of a government to make the choice themselves as to whether to expose their children and their families today to the unquestionable, if one hopes relatively minor, risk of being infected by Covid-19.  It is a huge relief for me personally that none of my grandchildren is in one of the guinea-pig classes.  Not that I imagine for one moment that my children would think it a good idea to send their children back to school in present circumstances, even if they were eligible.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: following the science …

27 April. When the time came to choose my A levels, I thought that as well as History and English, it would be useful to take Maths.  This was immediately forbidden.  The school timetable could only cope with science or humanities.  No mixing.  So my third subject became Latin.  This may have helped my prose style over the years, but I have always regretted my lack of any engagement with the world on the other side of the fence.

In the course time I found employment as a history lecturer at Keele University.  Keele had been founded in 1949 by A. D. Lindsay, a visionary Oxford philosopher.  His premise was that the urgent task of post-war reconstruction would place scientists and engineers at the forefront of change.  It was critical, therefore, that they knew how to engage with politics, society, history and ethics if they were to make an appropriate contribution.  Conversely, those governing and administering the reconstructed country would need to be able to understand the work of the technicians.  The solution, therefore, was a higher education curriculum which required those undertaking specialist subjects to spend time studying, at least in outline, topics in other parts of the curriculum.  A physicist would do a first year course in Western Civilisation and take minor subjects in the social sciences and humanities throughout the degree programme.  A political scientist would spend quality time in a science laboratory.  By the time I arrived, some quarter of a century later, the vision had been weakened by the ingrained conservatism of the schools and the professions, but it still existed as a model which, by and large, the rest of the sector was failing to follow.  Its relevance to the forthcoming task of post-pandemic reconstruction can scarcely be understated.

The consequences of this failure are evident in the current crisis.  Britain has tended to address the task of politicians communicating with scientists by ensuring that figures such as Chief Scientific and Medical Officers are capable of engaging with non-specialists, not the other way round.  Thus it is that Johnson’s cabinet contains just two people with scientific backgrounds, Alok Sharma who studied Physics, and Therese Coffey, who, alone of her colleagues, has a Ph.D, in Chemistry.  She has been virtually invisible throughout the crisis.  

There are three farmers educated at agricultural colleges – perhaps they have transferable knowledge of rural epidemics such as BSE or Foot and Mouth.  Starmer’s shadow cabinet is no better.  In academic terms it is decidedly brighter than Johnson’s, but again only two scientists – Valerie Vaz,  Biochemistry, and Thangam Debbonaire,  Maths.  All the rest are social scientists or historians (except three who left school at sixteen).  The current debate over running the NHS is conducted by an Oxford PPE student for the Government and a Durham Philosophy and Politics graduate for Labour.  Margaret Thatcher has been repeated as a female prime minister, not as a research-level scientists.  Angela Merkel has demonstrated just how valuable such a background is in this crisis.

Then there is Dominic Cummings, by far the most powerful figure in Number 10.  He is currently in trouble for taking part in meetings of SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), then running round to the other side of the table and receiving its ‘independent’ advice.  Cummings is, I am sorry to say, an historian.  He was taught at Oxford by Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History, right-wing newspaper columnist and possessor of other serious moral failings.  Stone died last year.  His obituary written by the authoritative figure of Sir Richard Evans, recently retired Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, ended with the following paragraph:

‘Journalists often described him as “one of Britain’s leading historians”, but in truth he was nothing of the kind, as any serious member of the profession will tell you. The former prime minister, Heath, was wrong about many things, but he was surely right when he said of Stone during his time in Oxford: “Many parents of Oxford students must be both horrified and disgusted that the higher education of our children should rest in the hands of such a man.”’

Whether Cummings’ parents came to regret their choice is not recorded.  Its impact on their son seems to have been considerable.

Specialised knowledge still matters, never more so.  The point for non-scientists is not to know what scientists know, but to know how they think.  Yesterday Brian Cox, the astronomer, was interviewed on the Andrew Marr show in his capacity as a contributor to the BBC ‘Bite-Size’ programmes which are providing curriculum for home-schooled children.  He referred to the great populariser, Richard Feynman, and his argument that the chief characteristic of scientific activity was the embrace of doubt.  There was no such thing as a monolithic, unchallengeable body of facts, particularly in the case of a virus that has only existed for a few months. 

‘The point is’, concluded Cox, ‘that we are facing the unknown … if you hear a politician saying that we’re following the science, what that means is that they don’t really understand what science is.’