From David Maughan Brown in York: Accountability

September 16th

The ‘operational challenges’ (see my September 6th entry) wholly unapologetically identified by our esteemed Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, as being responsible for people with Covid-19 symptoms being sent hundreds of miles across the country to be tested are worsening, and are already resulting in a health crisis months before the predicted winter surge of the virus.  Yesterday more than 100 people, who, after hours – sometimes days – of trying, had found it impossible to book a test, are reported to have flooded the Accident and Emergency Department at a hospital in Bolton in a desperate attempt to get themselves tested.  Front-line NHS staff, including GPs, are having to stay at home and add to the burden being shouldered by their colleagues because even they are finding it impossible to get a test.   Hancock is now petulantly blaming people who don’t have symptoms for blocking up the system by getting themselves tested, or at least by trying to.  Somebody needs to point out to him that one of the many problems with Covid-19 is that people carrying the virus can be infectious even if they are asymptomatic.  So to advise GPs to go to work when they don’t know whether they are infected, as Hancock is implicitly doing, may well add a few more to the thousands of unnecessary deaths this country has already suffered.

One might have thought that running a country of over sixty million people would carry a greater level of responsibility, and should accordingly carry a higher level of accountability, than running a FTSE company.  Under Health and Safety legislation, company directors are responsible for ensuring that their company complies with its obligations relating to the health, safety and welfare at work of its workers.  Company directors whose gross negligence leads to the death of even one of their workers can be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter and find themselves in prison.  But gross negligence on the part of a government, leading to twenty thousand deaths of their citizens, carries no such accountability.   Had it done so, to cite just one example, even our cavalier Prime Minister might have thought twice about not bothering to attend five consecutive meetings of the Cobra emergency committee held to discuss Covid-19 in the weeks before the virus arrived in UK.

But then, if the same code of conduct applied to running the country as pertains to company directorships, Boris Johnson wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a national emergency committee.  According to a Begbies Taylor advice article, ’Company directorship brings with it a legal obligation to act in a “proper” manner when undertaking company business. If you are found to have acted improperly, you may face disqualification as well as other penalties and fines,’ or even ‘a possible prison sentence in the most severe cases.’ The article goes on to point out warningly that, ‘Company director disqualification can stop you from acting as a company director if you fail to fulfil your legal duties or demonstrate improper conduct.’   It might be thought that ‘fulfilling your legal duties’ probably doesn’t extend to unashamedly announcing an intention to flout international law.

In the lead-up to the election of Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party (note the irony in the name), on 25th May 2019, Peter Stubley published an article in The Guardian titled ‘Boris Johnson: The most infamous lies and untruths by the Conservative leadership candidate.’  Johnson has repeatedly been fired from jobs for dishonesty, on one occasion for lying to the then Prime Minister about one of his many affairs.  There can surely be no question that he would have been disqualified from company directorship for improper conduct on more than one occasion, a disqualification that lasts for 15 years.  Yet here he is, negligently mishandling the most deadly pandemic our country has experienced for a hundred years, and simultaneously cocking a snoot at international law as he leads the charge of the morally light brigade over the cliff-edge of a no-deal Brexit.  And there isn’t even a company AGM at which he can be held to account.

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 Louis in Johannesburg: Fracture Lines …

It has become a truism that Covid19 has exposed many of the fracture lines and contradictions in South African society. The inequality across SA society has become much more visible and prominent. There are stark provincial differences in dealing with the crisis. Ideologues persist in shunning the private sector, which at the same time are providing a far more efficient basis for testing services to stem the pandemic tide. Prevention measures remain better than cure.

There can be no mistaking a capable state with a clear strategy, leadership that takes a stand for their strategic priorities and relentless delivery of quality services. In Gauteng province where I live, we have gone in the last few weeks, from the expectation of a massive wave of infections to the reality of infection levels that may well overwhelm the medical facilities available.

The stated intent by the ANC government of “flattening the curve” was to buy time to expand medical facilities such as testing and tracking as well as increasing beds available for those in most in need of intensive care. The official reason given was “to save lives” This government mantra reminds me of the  mini-speech/presentation delivered on take-off about “the unlikely event of an emergency landing etc.” The best part is the “life-jacket under your seat” part, especially in the event of an emergency sea landing. With large jet engines hanging off the wings which will be the first to touch the water surface in an emergency landing, does this not cause the aircraft to cartwheel out of control killing all on board! Safety regulations being what they are, they shall be obeyed even if they do not make sense. Politicians being what they are, they must be seen to be doing their best even if their leadership does not make sense. In defence of political leadership, much has yet to be understood about the behaviour of the Covid19 virus. A curious comparative African statistic  on 4th of July 2020 raises many questions.

South Africa: Population 59,312,107 Total deaths 2,952, Full lockdown, Unemployment rate 30.1%, GDP Growth -7.2% in 2020.

Tanzania: Population: 59,727,695, Total deaths 21, No lockdown, Unemployment rate: 1.98%, GDP Growth 2.5% in 2020.

The Democratic Party-run Western Cape Province is the only province that has done this. The eight other Provinces seem to have postponed the inevitable tsunami and squandered the time created by lockdown by a lack of implementation, leaving very few options. It is emerging that lives lost through the loss of jobs may be substantial; some estimates place the economic consequences at R1.2 Trillion and counting. Testing by the government takes at least six days to obtain results. My Covid19 test took six hours in a private sector facility. The ANC Government insists on working separately from the private sector while it is clear where efficiencies lie. An ideological bias towards a statist policy creates a manifest learning disability. ANC politicians continuously refer to expected surges trying to create the impression that they are in control, while the opposite is true. Professor Alex van den Heever of the Wits School of governance said recently that the government now needs to seriously change tack and begin to do its job-rather then just pretending. The Western Cape’s response to Covid19 should be recognised and replicated because it represents best practice.

I’m not holding my breath. There seems to be a deep inability to learn within the ANC government. Other examples exist but are ignored. Much yet to be desired for evidence based policy and modern government.

Cape Town was the first Metro to conduct a full virtual council sitting where it passed an adjusted budget with an R3 billion social support package. This was made possible by the City’s history of responsible, clean financial management. It offered the most comprehensive services to homeless people of any metro during the initial hard lockdown providing temporary emergency facilities housing 2,000 people: providing meals, shelter, blankets, sanitation and psychosocial services including assistance with getting identity documentation and registering for social programmes.

President Ramaphosa, who has recently been compared to Churchill, admonished the population not to stigmatise of people testing positive for Covid19. He commanded that it “must stop.” Stigmatisation seems to be a throwback to one of the responses to HIV/Aids infection. A kind of denial of existence. In his defence, he has prioritised the lack of capability in government. However, a general lack of follow-through by government, now also in the case of flattening the curve tactics. The time between early lockdown and exponential infections seems to have been squandered in all provices where the ANC rules.

Capability can be seen and appreciated in Japanese industries, during the quality revolution stretching from the1940s to the 1980s. In Singapore, the government scenario planning unit anticipated, amongst other dynamics, a viral attack and prepared plans accordingly. More recently, China has demonstrated its capability to build medical facilities at a breath-taking pace. The capability of these government organisations is unmistakable. This capability has taken years of steady investment to build.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: miscounting

June 3.  The puzzle is why Matt Hancock thought he could get away with it.

Everyone knew that his claims for the level of coronavirus tests included multiple swab tests for the same individual, posted tests, pregnancy tests, driving tests, eyesight tests (the last two another form of double counting in Cummings land).

Yesterday he received a magisterial rebuke from the chair of the UK Statistical Authority, Sir David Norgrove:

Statistics on testing perhaps serve two main purposes [lovely use of mock diffidence in the ‘perhaps’].  The first is to help us understand the epidemic, alongside the ONS survey, showing us how many people are infected, or not, and their relevant characteristics.  The second is to help manage the test programme… The way the data are analysed and presented currently gives them limited value for the first purpose.  The aim seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding.  It is also hard to believe the statistics work to support the testing programme itself.  The statistics and analysis serve neither purpose well.

Hancock and his fellow ministers seem to have forgotten that in earlier moments of virtue, previous governments have set up a series of bodies to keep them numerically honest – the UK Statistical Authority, the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), amongst others.  These are staffed by competent, principled, number-crunchers who appear at times to take a positive pleasure in pointing out the official misuse of data.

It is not that Norgrove himself is new to the game.  He has been in office since 2017, and on 17 September 2019, he wrote to the then Foreign Secretary, one B. Johnson, about the Brexit Bus: 

I am surprised and disappointed that you have chosen to repeat the figure of £350 million per week, in connection with the amount that might be available for extra public spending when we leave the European Union.  This confuses gross and net contributions.  It also assumes that payments currently made to the UK by the EU, including for example for the support of agriculture and scientific research, will not be paid by the UK government when we leave. It is a clear misuse of official statistics.

The explanation of these repeat offences is not innumeracy, but rather a varying approach to the function of figures.  In the case of the bus, Cummings had correctly calculated that it did not matter if the numbers were challenged.  The mere act of discussing the claim, up to and including Norgrove’s letter, anchored in the public mind that there was a substantial cost to EU membership.

Similarly, Hancock, desperately trying to defeat the coronavirus, seems to have calculated that the only way to mobilise action is to set and report huge targets, so as to create a boiling mass of activity amongst those charged with delivering outcomes.  As anyone involved in running large organisations knows, there are more sober, disciplined, forms of project management, but Hancock seems entirely to lack the mental or practical resources to use these.

I came across this process when working on my book on solitude.  As I reached the present, Theresa May published the world’s first strategy for tackling loneliness.  When I examined the figures she was using, I found that her claim that 20% of the population was lonely was contradicted by data in the same document from the ONS, which had calculated a figure of 5% (the same figure as lately reported by the Nuffield / UCL study discussed in the diary entry for May 27).  But it was the larger headline figure that featured in the press release accompanying the strategy, and in the subsequent public discussion.   Statistical accuracy was subordinated to the need to dramatize a newly foregrounded social condition.

It was not difficult for a toiling researcher into the past to work this out.  Historians can count when they need to. 

Guess what is the subject Sir David Norgrove’s Oxford degree. 

Look it up if you don’t believe me.