Thursday, 14 January 2021

It's over, time to move on

You might wonder why I'm writing a postscript on Brexit. Well, I'm wondering too...but I'm hoping this will be my last post on Brexit for a very long time. There shouldn't really be anything much more to say for a while. Should there.....?

Well, there will inevitably be columns written for years on whether we are better or worse off. And (I fear) on why we should apply to rejoin. But they will mainly be easy to ignore. I expect few people will have any appetite to engage in such debate. Wolfgang Munchau, the eurozone commentator who "speaks like a German but writes like a Brit" argues that Sir Keir Starmer is very wise to make clear that, for Labour, the Brexit issue is closed. He wants to fight the next election on the future, not the past. He wants to move on and Munchau feels the EU must also move on and resolve its dilemma between cohesion and integration as reflected in the views of Chancellor Merkel and President Micron.

The integration drive was effectively the cause for euroscepticism, a word invented by the British. Munchau argues that the UK's Brexit debate was an absurd "category error" between Leavers who opposed integration and Remainers who were in denial integration was occurring:

"While I favoured Remain in the 2016 referendum, I was troubled by the Remain leaders’ reduced view of Europe. The union they wanted to remain a member of was not the same union I ever experienced. I understood the least we agreed on what the EU is."

It will be interesting to see whether integration within the EU accelerates without the brake of UK membership. As for the UK, does the end result of many years of aggro - I nearly put four and a half but that is just since the referendum - make any sense? Well, what was the alternative?

I recently came across a book I bought in 2017 which I can now consign to the recycle: Nick Clegg's How To Stop Brexit (And Make Britain Great Again). Intrigued by the title - and it was already on cut price offer shortly after publication - I'd bought it to try to understand the rationale behind a democrat denying democracy. After reading it I still couldn't fathom it.

To be fair, I had expected that, the year following the Gina Miller Article 50 court case, that the book would be full of rearguard spoiling tactics, legal action and brigading the support of the egregious and not lamented ex-Speaker John Bercow and the House of Lords that Nick had been so anxious to reform. But no. He seemed to think that, by simple reassertion of the points that had not been telling in the referendum, folk would realise they should think again and would change their minds. And that this could be followed by a process to back off from Brexit. It was touchingly naive. 

The early chapters, about how the EU was now heading in the direction of a two speed Europe, we've heard before and it hasn't happened. Anyway I'm not interested in getting to the same place at a slower rate. The middle chapters feature conspiracy theories about a cabal of think tanks and wealthy business people who Clegg claims influenced right wing Tory MPs with their vision of turning the UK into Singapore on Thames. The businessmen he names include Peter Hargreaves of the financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown, Anthony Bamford of JCB, Boris Johnson's latest unsuitable political peer Peter Cruddas, Aaron Banks and others. Besides the fact that a very low tax, low regulation economy was never going to happen, none of this explains or even acknowledges that the Vote Leave campaign tapped into a strong vein of national pride in ordinary people in neglected areas of the country. Though for that Clegg blames a "small group of newspaper owners and editors". His pantomime villains are Rupert Murdoch (for the Sun but not the Times group, thereby ignoring how much editorial independence Murdoch has always allowed), "UKIP supporting Richard Desmond" of the Express and the "billionaire Barclay brothers" owners of the Telegraph. And, of course, Paul Dacre who is the odd one out as he was editor of the Daily Mail, not owner, though Clegg is very keen to describe him a "secretive multi-millionaire who claims to stand up for ordinary people".  Who knew newspapers were so influential, when only 40% of the population ever read them?

But it was the closing chapters, that I've just re-read, that turned my stomach. Deploying the stale old argument that the only way ahead was more Europe not less and that pooling our sovereignty is the way to increase our power, Clegg made clear that his vision was for a Europe without the UK's a la carte arrangement which he described as complex and unfair. He quoted Guy Verhofstadt "... a new Europe, a Europe without rebates, without complexity, with real powers and with unity".

I thought that was enough to make me want to throw up, but then I read Clegg's masterplan for how to achieve his vision. Just how would he kick start discussion of a Europe of concentric circles and get everyone's buy in? Easy: a joint UK-EU convention should be formed, removed from "the bungling hands of government ministers and elevated above party politics" and handed the task of sketching out a future arrangement. It would be chaired by serious and experienced figures from either side of the channel. Clegg also proposed who those people should be: Sir John Major and the Dutch PM Mark Rutte, who would work to a short timescale. The concept of giving some unelected people, who we can't get rid of by voting them out, the job of deciding how we move forward in an undemocratic federal club run by politicians also we can't vote out is beyond parody. But bizarrely Clegg didn't say at any point how this would actually extract the UK from Brexit. "Once Article 50's point of no return has been successfully delayed or paused, the discussions must not drag on" he said, without saying by what process the UK government would set aside the referendum result and ditch Article 50.

Clegg argued that "now that we can see what Brexit really means why wouldn't we change our minds? Don't let anyone tell you that we can't". Well Nick what we can see now is people haven't changed their minds, at least not substantially. The Sunday Times has had a panel of 52 leavers and 48 remainers through the whole period and, while views have shifted within the camps of leave and remain not a single person has switched sides. Larger opinion polls give results which depend on the specific question but none show a substantial collapse in support for leaving.

Clegg closed his book by saying "Brexit does not have to be hard or soft, clean or messy or even red, white and blue. In fact Brexit does not have to mean Brexit at all." From a man who called himself a democrat. Wow.

We can leave Clegg to cry into his beer and worry about the US government's anti-trust suit against Facebook. For ardent remainer/rejoiners in general Brexit can never make sense but, given that there was a referendum on a simple majority basis and the result was to leave, we have a result that is undoubtedly Brexit. Even Nigel Farage hasn't popped up to say it isn't a real Brexit. But I don't think we'd have got there without the change in course when Captain May was ditched for Captain Johnson. Nor would we have done so if we hadn't found some principles we were prepared to die in a ditch for. Whether the UK, in the limit, was prepared to opt for no deal mattered far less than whether the EU believed it would.

During May's convoluted negotiations - on the withdrawal agreement, remember not the trade deal - I felt that the UK was not standing up to the EU enough and I argued that we should walk out of the negotiations early in order to reset the tone. While everything was one way at that time with, for example, various concessions on rights of EU nationals residing here given up in the vain hope of immediate reciprocation, with hindsight I suspect that tactic would have failed at that time. Part of the problem was that the UK saw Brexit in purely transactional terms: it wanted the closest to single market membership that it could get and it assumed the trade balance in the EU's favour meant they would want continuity as well. However, unlike the UK at that point, the EU side had principles that mattered to it more than short term economic optimisation. To be fair to them the integrity of Margaret Thatcher's brainchild, the single market, was paramount. If you have no principle to walk out over it's hard to walk out.

But the real problem was that the EU leaders felt they could trample all over May who was too desperate to clinch a deal. That was visibly evident in the manner of the serial humiliations they subjected her to, especially at the Salzburg EU summit. Who can forget the pictures, which looked uncomfortably like sexist bullying:

There was also the Donald Tusk tweet "cake? No cherries" which led to him being accused of mocking the diabetic May, apparently to his humiliation, though the intention clearly was to humiliate May and the UK.

However, even had the EU gone for May's Chequered compromise - her attempt to keep as close as possible to Europe and secure frictionless trade - it's not clear how she ever expected to get it through Parliament as many of her own MPs would never have supported it and, at that stage, neither would Labour, which was set on making life difficult for the government rather than securing a solution. It was politically incoherent. The whole doomed enterprise only started to stand a chance when the Tories went for Johnson. In contrast to May the EU leaders seemed only to pleased to be photographed back slapping with Johnson when the transition deal was agreed in October 2019:

Truly charisma is a strange and powerful quality

Once Johnson got his majority he was able, unlike May, to credibly threaten no deal on trade. The asymmetric nature of UK-EU trade - we buy more than we sell but for each individual EU country the total volume of stuff they sell to us is far smaller than the share of our exports that goes to the EU - implies much more pain for the UK from no deal than for any individual EU country. I thought this might mean our bluff would be called over no deal. But in the end it was the EU that blinked. I accept many commentators say that wasn't the case. David Smith, for one, says that the "thin" trade deal secured was always on offer. Personally I don't believe it was. At least not without level playing field constraints and unacceptable dispute resolution provisions. The EU's insistence, until the closing throws of the negotiations, on being able to control the playing field and the arbitration of whether that control was fair were points that they could never sustain in a trade negotiation with almost any third party country and so were, for me, too much to swallow. So when Lord Frost, in the first trade deal negotiating session in March, outlined the UK's key demand, that the it "be treated as an independent nation" one British official said Michel Barnier responded with a "hilarious meltdown", launching into a "massive rant" in which it is claimed he said "why do you keep mentioning 'sovereignty'? All you do is mention this word". In another meeting an enraged Barnier apparently shouted "I am calm!" leading the British officials to refer to his outbursts as "Michel's calm and serene moments".

A fundamental point of the EU is that nations pool sovereignty for mutual gain. The whole point of Brexit is that the UK was opting out of that concept. It had found some principles at last. However, EU leaders apparently believed Johnson had backed Brexit only to further his career and had never studied his reasons. Apparently it was a book by his then wife, Marina Wheeler, that originally convinced Johnson that leaving was the only way to make our laws entirely British. As a result Wolfgang Munchau frequently commented that he felt the risk of no deal was vastly underestimated in EU national capitals. 

Johnson and Frost were convinced May had accepted too willingly that the price of tariff-free access was that Britain had to agree to rules written in Brussels. Johnson is said to have told Frost to play "ultra-hardball" even if it put noses out of joint. When Barnier published a graphic suggesting the UK had to remain in the EU's orbit, Downing Street pointed out that he had previously told May that she should seek a Canada-style trade deal, the model Johnson now wanted. "Now they say that's not on offer at all. Michel Barnier, what's changed?" tweeted the 10 Downing Street account.  "We trolled him from government accounts" an official recalled. "The Commission went absolutely tonto". But by June the EU had accepted no role for EU law, or the ECJ, in the trade treaty. 

Nevertheless I still feel that the EU's about face on whether it would offer a Canada style deal was tantamount to bad faith. And this still left the level playing field issue, with the EU proposing an "equivalence" clause under which, if the UK's rules did not rise and fall in line with the EU's, retaliatory tariffs could be instantly applied on anything they chose. Again not a condition that would be normal or readily accepted in a trade deal. The EU also proposed that, under no deal, the EU should be able to dictate what goods would need to be checked at ports on the Irish Sea and which might have to pay tariffs. One wonders what part of "no deal" they didn't get. It was this that led to the controversial Internal Market Bill. Frost met EU criticism about the potential breach of aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement by stating that it reflected the PM's "determined view to protect the integrity of the country". When the EU announced after its October summit that it was entirely up to the UK to make "the necessary moves to make an agreement possible" Frost and his deputy, Oliver Lewis, argued that only by walking away could they create enough drama to get EU leaders to override Barnier's remit. Johnson agreed and told them not to go back to Brussels.

At last - and at the right time - we had walked away from Rene. EU officials admit this had an effect. They "never, ever believed May would go for no deal...with Johnson 5 to 10% of you thinks he might do it - and that changes the nature of the game". Oliver Lewis, in proposing the Internal Market Bill, reckoned that the EU had to believe that Johnson was mad enough to implement it and go for no deal. This "madman" strategy is one I recognise having once had my commercial manager say "we're not really going to do that are we?" My response was all that mattered was that the client looked us in the eyes and believed we would. (It worked, though it may not have done me personally any favours. As it touched on national security I'm saving the story for my memoirs).

Frost's gesture was a stay away rather than a walk out but it had the right effect, as arguably did the Internal Market Bill that caused such ructions about the potential to break international law. Personally I think it was clever to threaten to do something drastic that would not be needed if there was a deal. Like many I was uncomfortable about it at the time but such is the way in a negotiation with the gloves off. There was a risk that it would cause long term ill feeling, but only if the negotiation was ultimately unsuccessful. What all those who campaigned against no deal failed at every turn to appreciate was that removing no deal inevitably meant a crap deal when the other party was so steadfast in pushing not for a good or a fair deal but for the deal that suited them the most. A deal that left the UK under some form of EU control.

The other point about Frost's stay away was that, while EU national leaders refused to directly engage with Johnson, EU President von der Leyen intervened by sending her political adviser Stephanie Riso, a former deputy of Barnier, to take over the talks. "Suddenly there was serious engagement and dialogue" a no 10 source told Tim Shipman. "She sat there doing all the work, the EU team huddling round her while Michel played on his phone".

Even once dialogue restarted the EU attempted to introduce clauses giving the EU the right to introduce lightning sanctions in any area if Britain diverged from EU rules, which Frost described as a "baseball bat to bash us into alignment with EU law forever" and at a later stage to retaliate across the board, in this case if Britain sought future reductions in access to its fishing waters, a so-called "hammer" clause. Frost negotiated away the former threat with Riso, sustaining the argument that retaliatory tariffs should be proportionate and that the clause should give each party equivalent protection. The fishing hammer required Johnson to call EU President van der Leyen on the evening of Monday December 21st to say "I cannot sign this treaty, Ursula. I cannot do something that is not in the interests of my country." Talking in her language Johnson is reported to have said "viel hummer, kein hammer" (lots of lobster, no hammer), which led to the final horse trading on just how many years the fishing transition period would last.

It always seemed bizarre for the deal to hang on fish, when the contribution of one department store to the UK economy exceeds that of fishing. (Mind, that department store is Harrods). But as one British aide put it "it's not about fish, it's about freedom". Even after the principle was agreed, Frost stayed in Brussels, going line by line through the revised quota plan for each of a dozen species of fish. The fact that the British lead negotiator needed to do this reveals how little trust there was right to the end, though I've previously read that the EU have a tendency to try to slip through changes in the detail of final drafts. Not good behaviour.

The final result is that neither side seems to have "won" the negotiation. And neither claimed to have, which would have been inappropriate and unseemly anyway. It seems a reasonably balanced outcome, which was by no means guaranteed. Had we settled for whatever we could get the deal would have been far worse. It undoubtedly delivers a proper Brexit, fulfilling the promises to take back control of borders, money and laws. From my point of view a key red line of freedom from the yoke of the European Court of Justice has been met. If anyone believes the ECJ is a proper court independent of politics perhaps they can explain why the number of ECJ rulings against the UK has fallen from double figures annually to low single figures since the referendum. It's a weird legal system that responds in that way to a plebiscite, though my main issue has always been that the fundamentally different UK and European legal systems implied an incompatibility which meant arbitration would always tend to be skewed.

The fact that, when it came to the closure of the deal, criticism of it was so muted confirms that the deal is coherent and makes sense. When Labour speaks up for the City and complains that financial services was not included when no-one expected it to be included in this round and the City wasn't squealing that loudly you know that there isn't much to criticise. Of course the small band of passionate advocates of our EU membership will be sad but the referendum swung partly on how small that group was and its failure to convey any positivity in the 2016 campaign.

While it seems that the deal does meet the EU's primary goal of protecting its single market, Munchau argues that the EU did not do itself any favours with the deal as he sees the EU lagging the US and China in most high-tech areas:

"I am moderately confident that the UK will carve out niches in a few sectors like artificial intelligence, genetic research and fintech. But I worry about how the EU will cope in the digital 21st century. I would have preferred an agreement to strengthen joint innovation in high-tech areas rather than one that focuses on protecting legacy market shares."

Johnson was undoubtedly right to put a guillotine on the timetable for negotiations and resist all calls for an extension to avoid no deal. The whole point was that no deal had to be a real possibility. Extension would have prolonged the misery for no improved chance of success as the basic facts on the points at issue weren't changing. Indeed most of them were crystal clear at the outset. But all the aggravation confirmed just how naive Liam Fox's comment about the "easiest trade deal in human history" was. Fox assumed that what mattered was the starting point, when all regulations are in line, rather than the direction of travel and divergence, which was what concerned the EU. Whether it was fair for them to attempt to sustain their point that we could not be treated like Canada just because of our geographical proximity is now, fortunately, moot. Well not fortunately, actually, thanks to Frost and his team whose grit was in stark contrast to May's team of appeasers. In the end there was probably not much more or less aggravation than I feared when deciding that the pain of the transition would be too much and I opted, against my instincts, to vote remain. Though remember, while the negotiations and the official transition period have completed, the transition for British companies has only just started. And my fear about the impact on markets and the value of my pension has not borne been borne out - so far - though only because of quantitative easing and the ongoing backwash from the financial crisis which has now morphed into the pandemic crisis, all of which has dwarfed Brexit.

So while the guillotine was necessary, the anguished calls in mid-December for us to avoid the risk of no deal when a deal was 98% agreed were based on faulty judgement. The point was argued strongly and eloquently by the ever misguided Ed Miliband, saying that it was nonsense to risk the certainty of tariffs on everything over possibility of punitive tariffs on some items in the future. Andrew Marr gave Miliband a pretty good going over on TV on 13 December so I was shocked when Andrew Neil, whose views and logic I can't normally fault, collapsed into hyperbole a few days later arguing that it would be ludicrous to fail to agree with 98% settled and that no deal would be a "nail in the coffin of western democracy".  "Why not suck it and see?" said Neil, failing to recognise that the 2% mattered. After all chimps and humans share 98.8% of their DNA and, at that stage, the deal was still a chimp.

Neil did recognise the problem that the talks had been soured by the desire of the Brussels elite to punish Britain for having the temerity to leave, to encourage others not to do so. And that the EU position was always illogical, viewing Brexit as an act of self-harm while also wanting to confine post-Brexit Britain so that it could not go too far out on its own. "Just why a country they thought was heading for basket-case status needed to be so shackled was never explained".  Neil suspected that the real fear was that Britain would make a success of Brexit. Which remains to be seen: it might, but it might signal a long term decline. But May's solution of staying within the EU orbit would certainly have led to long term decline: the EU would have seen to it.

So can British business make a success of Brexit? Now the real transition has started Johnson's apparent total misunderstanding about the importance of non-tariff barriers either revealed naive ignorance or that the "fuck business" comment he refused to deny making in June had substance. Johnson ludicrously claimed that the deal had no non-tariff barriers when it actually ladles red tape onto business. Nevertheless, I feel the problems have been exaggerated. The BBC is always looking to run stories on the lines of "it's a disaster and it's all the government's fault" but it has been able to find few such stories in the immediate aftermath of 1 January. It ran a story about the problems faced by Scottish fishing companies and I saw a graphic showing a process of nearly 30 steps for them to export to Paris. However, most of the steps did not seem complicated and will become copy and paste repetitive. And several of the steps were always there, including the one labelled "catch fish".

Most businesses sell the same things over and over and they will soon get on top of the paperwork. Yes it's an additional overhead. But on the other hand it might encourage companies who previously only exported to Europe to look for new markets, once they've got the hang of exporting for real.

I was worried at the outset about financial services, as it represents 11.5 % of our employment tax revenues and nearly 7% of our GDP (fishing is said to constitute 0.1%). The EU undoubtedly has its eyes on stealing London's lunch. After all it is ridiculously dependent on London, with 90% of some euro based transactions occurring there. But there's a rub. London is ranked as the world's number two financial centre scoring 766 on the Global Financial Centres Index compared with 770 for New York (so make that equal first within the measurement noise). On that list there is no EU city in the top 10, though on another index Frankfurt sneaks in to 10th place. London will lose business to Paris and Frankfurt - and maybe more to New York - but the idea that the EU can insource much of that activity on any forseeable timescale is surely for the birds. Moreover, many have argued that our reliance on financial services makes for an unbalanced, London-focused economy. If the combination of Brexit and covid security of supply issues, together with the freezing of UK-China relationships, encourages UK companies to invest in more home based manufacturing some helpful rebalancing (and levelling up) might accrue.

Business does not always respond as politicians expect, as we have seen from empty supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland. It has been reported that some mainland based businesses decided they couldn't be bothered with the extra paperwork for the supposedly non-existent border in the Irish Sea. But the fact that there have been few such stories, apart from the odd one from Scottish fishermen, the bizarre Scottish seed potato blight (they can't export to the EU including Ireland, major market for the product) and the stories of overzealous Dutch customs officials confiscating legal vegetarian sandwiches along with illicit meat sandwiches, would appear to indicate that things are actually running fairly smoothly. You can bet we'd hear if they weren't from the "it's all a disaster and it's all the government's fault" brigade.

That supposedly non-existent border in the Irish Sea does bother me but then I always said there had to be a border at the border or in the Irish Sea. The cunning solution was to have a bit of both while pretending it was neither. And as the Irish free travel area has always bothered me I can live with that. Indeed, Northern Ireland may be uniquely placed to benefit from being in the UK and EU single markets. In which case the Brexit end position might not provide a push towards a united Ireland.

The end point is that the UK found it's principles and Johnson delivered a coherent Brexit that lived up to the promise of the Leave campaign: control of borders, money and laws. The principle is we are an independent country.

Which leaves the Scotland problem. For another day.

"Madman" Johnson gets his Hollywood ending. Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times, 27 December 2020

No deal would be a nail in the coffin of Western democracy and celebrated by Russia and China. Andrew Neil, Daily Mail 15 December 2020.

What Boris Johnson's mistake tells us about our future. Faisal Islam 24 December 2020

Moving On. The UK needs to move on from Brexit but so does the EU. Wolfgang Munchau, Eurointelligence

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

The pubs with no beer

"But there's-a nothing so lonesome, morbid or drear
Than to stand in the bar of a pub with no beer"

It has been interesting watching the fairly minor differences in the approach to covid between the leaders in Whitehall, Holyrood and Cardiff blown out proportion. Especially when the fact that the Scots and Welsh ride on the coat tails of the English NHS on procurement and so many other issues that it is practically quite difficult for them to adopt significantly different policies. They can and do make a lot of noise though.

However in recent weeks small but significant differences have opened up and we have data on new cases under different regimes. Boris Johnson, having tried a regional, tiered approach lost his nerve and went for a four week national lockdown which started on 5 November. England has now reverted to a  tiered system, albeit with greater restrictions. Nicola Sturgeon has tweaked but stuck with her local tiered system - with even more tiers than the supposedly "confusing" English system Sturgeon hasn't hesitated to criticise. Meanwhile Mark Drakeford pre-empted the English lockdown and went for a 17 day "fire break" aka circuit breaker lockdown from 23 October to 9 November.

When Drakeford announced his fire break Johnson was under pressure from Labour to do something similar. One can imagine the conversation between Drakeford and Keir Starmer going something like:

MD: "I'm thinking of announcing a circuit breaker lockdown, Keir"

KS: "Go for it Mark. When it works Johnson will look stupid and I'll look wise".

I never had dour Mark Drakeford down as a gambler. And I doubt he thought he was gambling with his fire break. However, I thought at the time it was a very risky punt. Why? Because a two week lockdown would probably depress the number of cases but not bring it right down. So the number of cases would resume climbing from a higher baseline - with a bit more than 6 weeks to go to Christmas. And the post firebreak regime was much less restrictive than it had been. As Drakeford promised it is Wales-wide, with no local variations. We can travel throughout Wales, for example, whereas through October up to the firebreak we had been restricted to our county.

Now I didn't think this required much of a crystal ball, but the graph for the number of recorded cases in Wales shows exactly the pattern I expected (remember the first peak would actually have looked much higher if as much testing had been done then):

Extrapolate six weeks of increasing cases on this graph and Wales could have easily have had double the pre-firebreak number of new cases each day. And that's without allowing any extra uplift for the Christmas party season. Which is why gambler Drakeford had to fold his cards and announce tough additional restrictions this week. So from 6pm on Friday pubs can no longer serve alcoholic drinks. Yes, that's right, they can open but not sell alcoholic drinks, whereas in tier 2 in England pubs can serve drinks but only with a Scotch Egg, sorry substantial meal. The pressure is obviously getting to the First Minister if he doesn't understand the business model of a pub is to sell alcohol.

So now we have people complaining about the unfairnesses of the tiered system in England and the unfairnesses of the national system in Wales. We have Tory MPs criticising Johnson's tiered system and its impact on business without explaining exactly what they would do when the hospitals could not accept new patients, which seems to me would only be a matter of time if the restrictions were lighter. But we can, as I anticipated draw some conclusions.

Firstly, those calling for a circuit breaker lockdown a month ago were misguided. It doesn't even seem to get you back to the start point of the 2 week break. I'm very surprised that in the debate over the last few days Johnson and Hancock haven't pointed this out. With hindsight Captain Hindsight and his supporters were barking up the wrong tree.

Secondly, a tiered system can work, but the restrictions in the highest tier need to be tight enough - effectively a full lockdown other than schools being open. You get cries of "unfair" from areas with moderate infection rates brigaded with adjacent areas into tier 3. But if you break down the areas too finely you'll get cries of "confusing" and that it appears irrational to have pubs on opposite sides of a road operating under different restrictions. And as we see from Wales, a single national system produces the same cries of "unfair" from the lower infection areas (like mine, where we had zero new cases reported one day earlier this week).

Thirdly, while I think the governments of the four UK nations were right to agree what rules to adopt for Christmas we can expect some pretty high case numbers in January. The cavalry might be on the horizon in terms of vaccines, at least for this phase of the pandemic. Time will tell whether the vaccines bear down on covid in the same way as TB (i.e. nearly eliminate it), or like flu (seasonal variations coming round each winter) or something different from either. But for now we have a tricky few months to get through.

I think it is unfortunate that the firebreak didn't work better. It seems to me that, if you could plan for a fortnight's lockdown, say in every 6 weeks then businesses could plan for when they would be open, ordering stock etc. (It breaks my heart to think of the amount of beer ordered by pubs for the Christmas season that will go down the drain). But the fact is that it didn't work well enough to have much more than two weeks on for every two weeks off. So pretty useless then. Will Sir Keir Starmer admit that? After all he's quite fond of saying Johnson has got things wrong.

It also shows how vacuous the calls are for an "exit strategy". Predicting with any accuracy how much the virus will spread under different sets of rules is pie in the sky. The only strategy is to be ready to adjust the tactics as time moves forward. Controls have to be tightened or relaxed depending on the prevalence of the virus, even though some choose to criticise this as changes of direction, or "not knowing what they're doing". Those who beg for a definitive plan, an exit strategy, whatever, don't seem to recognise that it would always need to be able to adapt to prevailing circumstances between now and the vaccines paying off, presuming they do.

But, rather than end on the thought of the pubs with no beer (or beer they can't sell) I'll end on the hospitals with no patients. For some the answer to the risk of the hospitals overflowing is "use the Nightingales" (they are called Ysbyty Enfys which means Rainbow hospitals in Wales). Yet we now know what we suspected at the outset - you can build emergency hospitals remarkably quickly by repurposing other buildings but how can you staff them? So what purpose do they serve (other than the distraction of "don't just stand there, do something" back in April). Well, we've had our flu jab there so I've seen inside the Ysbyty Enfys Llandudno. On our previous visit to that part of Venue Cymru we saw the Stereophonics. And well organised it looked as a hospital. It certainly helped to space people out queueing for their jabs, which didn't just make us feel safer but enabled our GPs to maintain their self isolation which they have sustained since March. While some Nightingales have treated covid patients most have had few - and Llandudno none. Though that might be explained by the unsubstantiated rumour I've heard that the large skid-mounted oxygen tank which has been present on the site for many months can't be commissioned because of the proximity of a petrol station. If true I imagine the petrol station would be closed if the hospital really were needed. But without enough staff to operate it in parallel with the regular hospitals, what purpose would they serve? I can only assume it would be to hold dying patients before despatching them to emergency morgues if numbers of covid casualties overwhelmed the normal capacity. That would at least prevent the news channels showing frail, mainly elderly patients dying in tents or other makeshift facilities, as per the field hospitals deployed in northern Italy all those months ago. I feel sure that nightmare scenario is what has driven Johnson and Hancock's decision making, whether the vision offends them too much or they feel just it would be death politically. 

I'm not saying they are wrong in that analysis, even though it didn't appear in the government's sketchy cost-benefit analysis of the covid restrictions. It's just unthinkable and, it seems, unsayable.


In 1957 A pub with no beer, performed by Slim Dusty, was the first Australian song to win a gold record. It was based on a poem by an Irish-Australian poet and has been covered by many artists in subsequent decades including Rolf Harris, the Dubliners and the Pogues. 

The data for Wales covid cases is from the Public Health Wales dashboard but the graph came from Wales Online:

Monday, 30 November 2020

Yer Gone

For an Everton fan I've been comparatively well disposed towards Liverpool for the last few seasons. They undoubtedly deserved to win the Premier League last season. Indeed they deserved to win it in the season of Stevie G La's unfortunate slip even though that incident, despite Gerrard's repeated self-flagellation over it, didn't occur in the game that really scuppered them, a subsequent chaotic 3-3 away draw at Crystal Palace. 

And I've said many times that I would have done the same as Virgil van Dijk and signed for Liverpool ahead of Manchester City as I would choose to play for Jurgen Klopp ahead of Pep Guardiola every day of the week, mainly because of Klopp's passion and passionate style of play.

However, I've completely lost it with Jurgen over the last week.

First there was Klopp's bizarre interview with Geoff Shreeves of Sky after last week's match, which wasn't aired in the UK but was widely reported.  Concerned for player welfare, and even though Liverpool hadn't been involved in the Saturday 1230 fixture selected by BT, Klopp went off on one.  "If you" (i.e. Sky) "don't start talking to BT we're all done". Klopp doubled down when Shreeves pushed back that  it was wrong to suggest the Sky were to blame, saying "Everybody tells me it's difficult... (it's) just a decision in an office...." 

Klopp might have had in his mind that Liverpool were playing in the Saturday 1230 fixture this week, against Brighton. Even so, Jurgen, the office you need to lobby is your chairman's, not the tv companies.

As eloquently pointed out by Martin Samuel, BT paid £900 million for the Premier League 'Package A'. When they bid they knew they couldn't pick a fixture involving a team playing in the Europa League on Thursdays. But also preclude the two teams playing in the Wednesday Champions League games and the package would not command the same fee as there would be a risk of not being able to pick enough marquee fixtures. The 1230 timing works well for the home market and several eastern time zones, tapping into lucrative Asian afternoon and evening markets. The Premier League, perhaps egged on by the tv companies, packaged it that way to maximise revenue. So blame the club chairmen, not the tv companies, Jurgen.

The contract runs, I think, until 2023. Change it now if you want Jurgen. Get John Henry to talk with the Glazers. You'd have to give some money back. Don't expect the likes of Brighton to take less, as it's no skin off their nose to play at 1230. So the four Champions League clubs would have to take the hit. Fat chance. 

Jurgen doubled down yesterday after Brighton got a late equaliser in the 1230 match. Liverpool had lost Milner to injury and Klopp sarcastically congratulated BT's Des Kelly interviewing him, noting that Liverpool have had the most 1230 kick offs among Premier League clubs, with three. FYI Jurgen, by the end of the cycle of current picks in December Liverpool will still have had three, along with Man United. Everton will have had four.

Kelly more than stood his ground, noting that Klopp was going for the wrong target - the chief executives of the clubs had to have the discussion. Klopp's argument evolved to these being difficult times, to which Kelly's rejoinder was that they are, stadia are empty and the broadcasters are supporting the game. Klopp said it would be the same for 3pm or 5.30pm kick offs. Again off target: 5.30 is too late for much of Asia and the League has never sanctioned televised matches at 3pm on a Saturday. This predates the Premier League era, stretching all the way back to Burnley's chairman Bob Lord in 1960, to avoid threatening live attendances across the divisions at the traditional kick off time. The broadcasters are indeed supporting the game and without them the Premier League would be in a pickle.

The only thing Kelly didn't say was that the clubs would get less money with restrictions on 1230 kick off picks. I'd have liked to hear him ask Klopp whether Liverpool would be happy with that.

Klopp also had a go at Sheffield United's Chris Wilder for supporting keeping three substitutes rather than moving to five, even though Klopp, unlike Carlo Ancelotti, rarely uses all three subs. I accept there is a player welfare issue and Liverpool have been hit by a cluster of injuries but I don't accept that these are necessarily because of the programme of matches. The injuries to Van Dijk and Thiago weren't due to the programme. Keita and Milner have racked up a third or less of the possible Premier League game time this season. Some have tried to attribute Gomez's injury training with England - no other player was near him when he suffered a tendon injury - to fatigue but it sounds like one of those random unfortunate events to me. Which makes me conclude that Klopp just wants to gain further advantage over less affluent clubs by having more choice from his strong bench. Why not eleven subs from a bench of eleven, Jurgen, so you can cover every position? Take all the drama out of it, why don't you? 

Answer: that's exactly what he wants to do. Klopp and Guradiola have been pushing the big 6 cabal's 'Big Picture' ever since it was rejected, at least rejected for now. They want every possible advantage over the hoi polloi like Wilder's team and their ilk. Fortunately Ken Bates made sure at the foundation of the Premier League that the vote of a club like Sheffield United counted as much as Liverpool's or Manchester United's and, crucially, that a two-thirds majority is required to make changes, so 14 of the 20 clubs have to be in support. The current big 6 can't just have it their own way. Bates was presumably influenced by the motivations of the then big 5 clubs in the run up to the establishment of the Premier League, those clubs being Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton. Note not Chelsea or Manchester City, because things change and should be allowed to keep changing.

Klopp has also been whingeing in advance about two games in 48 hours over Christmas. It's what we've always done, Jurgen. Originally it was because that was when extra games could be fitted in while the masses were off work and could go to the match. I suspect that the tradition has been maintained because these are good tv slots. Either way, you chose to come here, Jurgen..... slagging off our traditions isn't a good look for an immigrant worker, mate. 

Football is meant to be competitive, Jurgen. It's meant to be unpredictable. And by the way, Liverpool's most famous manager said the league was a marathon not a sprint. So it's a slog.

But, in a spirit of helpfulness, I have several options for you Jurgen.

1. Bugger off back to Germany. Not my preferred option as Klopp's team has enhanced the Premier League. Watching Manchester City is snooze inducing in comparison.

2. Get your chairman to convince the Premier League to modify Package A and get the Champions League teams to take the financial hit. After all, I can live without watching matches on a Saturday lunchtime as it clashes with playing golf...

3. If your main concern is the number of fixtures, lobby to radically change the Champions League. After all it is European competitions and international matches where the increase in games has come from. In 1978 Liverpool played seven matches in winning the European Cup. Winning the Champions League in 2005 took 15 matches and in 2019 it was 13. The extra matches come in the group phase, which is tedious and predictable. The expanded competition and seeding means the big teams avoid each other, but even when they used to meet at that stage in the past those games were often underwhelming without the imperative provided by the knock out format. There are many dead rubbers. So let's go back to just champions and a knock out format. Even if the current definition of "champions" were maintained, ditching the group phase for knock out matches would save four fixtures - exactly the number cutting the Premier League from 20 to 18 teams would achieve. Oh and keep the League Cup as you don't play your first team until the later stages anyway do you, Jurgen?

4. Accept things as they are. 

My preferred option is number 4 though only because, in the recent seasons when Everton have qualified for Europe I like going to those midweek group matches, as much for the company, beer and chips with curry as the football. If I was a tv only supporter I'd say option 3. Not that it stands a snowball's chance in hell of happening of course. Elite football is now a power compact between FIFA, UEFA and the big clubs. This gives us an overblown  World Cup in a ridiculous location in 2022, an overblown Champions League which a cabal of clubs seek to turn into a closed shop and a group of foreign owned Premier League clubs, who happen to currently be the most successful who want to keep it that way permanently and exclude anyone else from joining the party. Option 4 will come under threat when the cartel of so-called big clubs regroup, rehash and represent their Big Picture, making it out to be for the good of the game rather than the good of themselves.

Anyway, normal service is resumed: the Liverpool manager comes on tv and I start to rant....

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Science or logic?

Pressed Rat and Warthog have closed down their shop.
They didn't want to, 'twas all they had got.
Selling atonal apples, amplified heat,
And Pressed Rat's collection of dog legs and feet

Sadly they left, telling no one goodbye.
Pressed Rat wore red jodhpurs, Warthog a striped tie.
Between them they carried a three-legged sack,
Went straight round the corner and never came back.

The bad captain madman had ordered their fate.
He laughed and stomped off with a nautical gate.

I thought of Ginger Baker's spoken nonsense poem to music from 1968 when Captain Madman, aka Boris Johnson, did his abrupt about face and went for a month's lockdown having previously rejected calls for a two week circuit breaker intervention. A lot of shop owners will be in the same position; indeed Mrs H's favourite local clothes shop recently bit the dust. While still having its steady trade of ladies of a certain age once it was allowed to reopen in the summer, the lack of weddings and a school prom dress season meant profitability was far over the horizon.

The business community has been in despair for some time, but in my last post (27 Oct) I shared my long-held concerns, dating back to April, about whether the current approach to tackling covid is getting the balance right and my fears that the young will not only pay the price long after us oldies have gone but get pretty angry about it once they realise their fate.

Democracy Man, commenting on my last utterance, urged me to say what my strategy would be, other than (I paraphrase a bit) " I wouldn't have started from here". Well if I knew the answers and everyone else didn't that would be quite remarkable.... but there are some things I consider fairly obvious.

Firstly, there's a lot of dodgy use of statistics going on. Some of this is because many folk just don't seem to get the time lags involved. They don't understand that a negative test just means you tested negative at the time of the test - it could be a false negative, you could have been incubating the disease or you could have caught it subsequently. Testing tells us a lot but it isn't the magical solution many people have assumed it to be throughout the crisis. We heard a lot complaints that care home staff weren't being tested but, unless you test them on their way into a Premier League style bubble (to be fair some carers did lock themselves down where they worked in the main lockdown) you would have to test them at the start of every day's shift and get an immediate result, which even then would not be a 100% guarantee. We may get there but we aren't there yet.

One of the more obvious time lags is deaths lagging hospital admissions which lag new cases. Many commentators were noting recently that covid isn't even one of the top causes of fatalities. This graphic was in the Daily Mail but Sky News and others also picked up on the relevant ONS data:

The eagle eyed among you will have noted that this data related to September and so was already 2 or 3 weeks out of date when it was published. Covid deaths at the time were getting into the hundreds daily. In the spring they peaked at over a thousand. Multiply the covid deaths above by an order of magnitude and you get a very different picture. As nearly 500 deaths were reported on 4 November we seem to be getting towards the earlier peak. I have noted previously that those deaths will not all have occurred on the previous day but will have been scattered over several weeks, such are the time lags in recording and reporting deaths and their causes, so even the daily deaths figures can be misleading.

It's not just the newspapers that use dodgy stats and projections of course. Profs Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance took some flak at Tuesday's Science and Technology Select Committee for using out of date assumptions as the starting point for their 4,000 fatalities a day number that seemed to spook the PM out of his regional tiered system into the new lockdown. This figure was subsequently branded by Theresa May as "wrong before it was even used". Whitty and Vallance also used a very selective picture of hospital loading which focused only on the 29 worst affected hospitals, not the picture over all 482 in England. Whitty bit back at the select committee that even if 4,000 was over the top we were well on track for 1,000 deaths a day and, even if MPs were happy with that number, he wasn't. And the 4,000 wasn't a prediction it was a model (hmm, I've heard that excuse before and may even have deployed it myself). Moreover, while it hadn't allowed for the tiered restrictions, they had made a difference but not enough.

Subsequently Whitty has apologised for appearing to say that cases in Liverpool were still rising across the age groups despite the tier 3 restrictions when they were not, an impression he has since corrected.

But if we take a step back for context, even hundreds of deaths a day wouldn't necessarily be regarded as any more than "it's what it is" in a major flu outbreak and wouldn't lead to calls for lockdowns. The 2017/18 flu season claimed 22,087 lives in England for example, so I would guess daily deaths may well have peaked at several hundred. Interestingly a confidence interval of around plus or minus 700 is given on the 22,087 figure, and 88% of the total were aged 65 and over. And we vaccinate against flu.

As the average age of a covid fatality in the UK is higher than the average life expectancy it isn't surprising that an increasing number of commentators have been calling for a version of  the Great Barrington declaration, arguing that it's time to shield the vulnerable and let everyone else live their lives. In this week's Sunday Times, Business Editor Oliver Shah was given a platform in the main paper, which he used to argue that the new national lockdown threatens us all saying businesses need an exit strategy:

"Boris Johnson and Sunak must plot the quickest way possible out of this shutdown and then vow never to do it again. The alternative is to risk the destruction of a generation's prospects. To flip round another slogan, we should let the NHS protect us - and let us concentrate on protecting our ailing economy."

Shah has written many strong columns in the newspaper but I'm afraid this wasn't one of them. Firstly, if Johnson and Sunak knew how to plot a way through this, let alone specify a realistic exit strategy, they would long since have done it, as would their equivalents in many other countries. There isn't a global pandemic playbook to crib from. We thought we had one, but it had been written for influenza. Secondly, a lockdown of 2 or 4 weeks duration will certainly not eliminate the virus, it simply pushes the curve of cases and fatalities back a few weeks. So the numbers will rise again. The inevitable result is that, until or unless vaccines make an impact, we face periodic "reset" lockdowns if the virus is not to run rampant. Few politicians are being honest enough to own up to this but it seems inevitable to me. 

This didn't stop Sir Vince Cable arguing that the circuit breaker concept is "crude, lazy and defies common sense".

Others have argued against lockdowns on purely medical grounds. The Daily Mail has a tame oncologist from a London teaching hospital, Prof Angus Dalgleish, who argued that if lockdown was a drug it wouldn't get approved because they do "more harm than good".  Now I have some sympathy with Dalgleish, given the fact that he probably hasn't been able to carry out as many operations as normal. Indeed the scandal (for I believe it is such) of why so many cancer operations and other elective surgery such as joint replacements have been deferred is a bit of a puzzle to me. Most hospitals had just about got back to where they would normally be and some have really got it sorted: Croydon is now doing 20% more operations than pre-covid by effectively creating a separate hospital within a hospital combined with Premier League style testing and isolation. Dalgleish notes than less than 0.01% of covid deaths are people under 45 and claimed that, at his hospital, only two or three dozen patients have tested positive for covid since London was put in tier 2, compared with half their admissions in the previous peak. But he isn't in one of the country's hottest spots.

Plenty of people have argued that lockdowns don't work at all, some misquoting the World Health Organisation, which nevertheless has noted they build up a lot of problems. WHO's David Nabarro told the Spectator:

“lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never, ever belittle, and that is making poor people an awful lot poorer.” 


“The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganize, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted, but by and large, we’d rather not do it.”

so they should "not be used as the primary means of control of this virus". Which isn't at all saying "lockdowns don't work".

Moreover, there is a big logical problem with the Dalgleish and Shah arguments: they are effectively decreeing that the NHS can cope. Fine if it does, but if not it isn't only covid deaths that would soar. Elective NHS procedures would be put on hold and non-covid deaths would also soar as a result. In some cases there would be time lags but the total of excess deaths would be very much higher. That isn't so much science as logic.

There is of course an argument (which I have certainly flirted with) that those excess deaths are "worth it" for the broader societal gains. The government admitted on Tuesday that the Treasury had not carried out any assessment of the effect of the new lockdown on jobs. It is very difficult - and for some controversial - to try to equate deaths and other disbenefits but the government does that all the time, explicitly or implicity, so I find this revelation truly astounding. We've heard a lot about Prof Neil Ferguson's fairly basic (and fairly crummy) model, which seems only to count covid deaths. There must be some reputable modellers trying to make a broader assessment, whether or not this has been commissioned by the government.  I find it staggering that we haven't heard from them after so many months. Those who assert that letting the virus run wild would be disastrously damaging to the economy as well as health may well be correct. But if it were so overwhelmingly the case it shouldn't be difficult to produce an analysis that demonstrates it.

I accept that drawing conclusions from any models which value health as well as economic impacts is problematic. Several decades ago I spent a fair chunk of my career working on the development and application of risk assessment techniques for major hazard processes and transport. At the time I researched the difficulties of balancing costs of preventing accidents that might happen with resulting risk to life*. Though fraught this stuff is done all the time. Most people have heard of the NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) approval process for drugs to be deployed in the NHS. That scheme values a quality adjusted life-year at £20,000 to £30,000. Many would appreciate, if not necessarily accept, that road safety schemes are approved on the basis of cost and risk, effectively putting a price on saving a life (though actually putting a price on reducing the probability of accidents that could happen and might cost lives) . So of course the government should be attempting to balance all of the various costs and disbenefits in the strategy it adopts to contain covid. It should also try, difficult though that is, to have an adult discussion with the electorate over the choices it is making and the uncertainties it is grappling with.

As it is well established that people are generally not good at intuitively assessing the probability of these type of risks I am not surprised the government has ducked that challenge. I read that less than two-thirds of a sample of MPs were able to correctly put a probability on not getting a head from two tosses of a coin which was depressing but was still a higher proportion savvy MPs than I would have guessed (though maybe the group included a lot of gamblers).

I also accept that the picture is still very confusing, data is very incomplete and many aspects of the "science" are as yet poorly understood, so even the most robust of plans would be subject to rapid revision when the facts change. I don't know how Shah expects a clear and definitive exit strategy for business in those circumstances.

So even if the government had a plan it would not necessarily survive contact with the evolving situation. Indeed, Johnson has probably had several plans and on at least two occasions they have rapidly been binned. The first occasion was in March when he really didn't want to lockdown (and herd immunity may or may not have been part of the plan) and the second was last week when the commitment to a regional tiered approach got ditched. Mike Tyson famously said "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth". The punch Boris Johnson has taken to the mouth twice now is the spectre of people lying on  trolleys and the floor in the corridors of NHS hospitals. He has presumably judged that those pictures would be intolerable to the public. Indeed, they may actually be intolerable to him personally. Hence the NHS is not there to save us, as Shah would have it, the priority come what may is to "save the NHS". What Shah nor anyone else writing similar anti-lockdown columns hasn't told us is what they would do when the hospitals get overwhelmed across the board.

Although a further lockdown buys time, the idea that a short circuit breaker gives the opportunity to fix things, as advanced by the Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford (he was talking about test and trace) is risible. Whether or not we are in a lockdown doesn't change anything much in terms of the challenge to improve how those processes operate. And when Angela Merkel proclaims "very, very difficult months ahead" for Germany despite its stronger testing capability and three times as many hospital beds per head of population compared with the UK it's obvious that greater testing and hospital capacity isn't the whole answer.

So I feel it's not so much an understanding of science that is lacking much of the time, especially since "science" hasn't got anything like a full understanding of covid yet. Most of what is selectively presented to us isn't based on science: it's empirical data. No element of scientific methodology has gone into its capture or analysis. There are no theories followed by controlled experiments to validate the theories, other than in the development and production of vaccines and tests on drugs. People - some of them admittedly very knowledgeable and experienced - pore over the data and jump to conclusions. So there isn't much science going on but the main problem is the lack of application of sound logic. 

Nevertheless it was scientific understanding that convinced me we mustn't let the virus rip and run its course after I picked up a copy of New Scientist, which gave two reasons. In addition to the one we hear all the time, about avoiding overwhelming hospitals, the other reason is that the more the virus spreads the more opportunity it has to evolve. It quoted one American scientist as saying "we are fortunate that the virus is not mutating fast". A recent analysis of more than 18,000 genomes from around the world found very low levels of genetic diversity. This is fortunate because it increases the chance of rapid and successful deployment of vaccines. The study concluded that these viruses were all so similar that a single vaccine should protect against them all.

New Scientist also rubbished the Great Barrington declaration, which argues for shielding the vulnerable while everyone else "should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal" allowing herd immunity to build up. For SARS-CoV-2 the herd immunity threshold would be 60 to 70% of the population. This depends on the typical R number, the average number of people that each infectious person infects, assumed to be about 3.5 for covid. For measles the numbers are 15 and 95%. There are two problems. Firstly herd immunity from a virus has only ever been achieved in humans through vaccination. Secondly, even if the death rate is less than 1% letting the virus run free would hospitalise and kill millions. If I apply those numbers to the UK population of 67 million some 45 million people would need to have been infected, potentially killing 450,000 people. (See: I just got Neil Ferguson's headline number without needing a "model". God knows what they pay him for....) To be fair to Vallance, he was saying much of this about herd immunity back in March.

Moreover, herd immunity can only be built if the immune response totally prevents individuals from picking up and transmitting the virus. That sometimes happens but often doesn't: a lot of the time an immune response stops us from falling ill but doesn't prevent onward transmission. The same is true of vaccines. We don't yet know whether natural immunity or the vaccines under development will halt transmission. Until we do assuming herd immunity is "unscientific and irresponsible".

A further nail in the coffin of the herd immunity argument came soon after when it was reported that covid-19 antibodies fall away quite rapidly after recovery. This isn't game over for natural immunity as the role of T-cells wasn't part of the relevant study. There is hope that vaccination responses may be stronger and early studies on older people look promising.

Nevertheless I was convinced that we can't at this stage allow most things to return to normal, we must buy time and opportunity for vaccine deployment. If the vaccines don't work we may have a diferent problem to face but we aren't there yet.

So returning to Democracy Man's challenge, to keep control of the virus the only thing that matters is keeping R below 1. Exactly how doesn't really matter other than to the specific people the restrictions affect. Unless the virus can be eliminated some people are going to catch it and it will continue to circulate in the community, even if the numbers of cases are small. So whatever scope (some call it a budget, or headroom) is available while keeping R below 1 should be used to provide essential services, education and keep open all parts of the economy where people don't gather in close proximity for more than very brief periods of time. Keep going all the things that really matter for the long term and all the things that pose low risk. Everything else might have to be put on hold.

Whether the controls are national or regional is partly a matter of preference. We now have a semi-scientific experiment with Scotland going regional, England national and Wales having a shorter circuit breaker. I have my opinions on these but we should get some useful data by December.

Keeping schools open is a total no brainer. When children are at so little risk I was very impatient about the schools being closed for so long and I am relieved to see that, this time round, only the teachers unions (surprise, surprise) want to see them closed. I am intrigued at how any teacher, but particularly any science teacher could claim "the science" backs the idea that schools need to close. The already overwhelming argument was reinforced by a study published this week that said adults living in houses with children at school are at no higher risk. 

Universities are a tougher call. It was always obvious that the virus would spread among the student population in a 2020 covid version of fresher's flu. Indeed I mischievously chuckled at the start of the uni term about a national experiment with herd immunity among 18 to 21 year olds, keeping them in their uni accommodation and away from relatives until December when they had all caught the virus. But actually I think the government's decision was simply that otherwise lots of universities would need bailing out. Large lectures can be given on line and face to face tutorials in smaller groups can be run so I'd still leave universities open to operate as best they can.

I entirely understand why businesses that have spent time and money making themselves supposedly "covid safe" - I assume there is a whole new army of safety elves engaged in those assessments - are furious that they have now been closed down anyway. For the most part this makes little sense in terms of the individual establishments, especially shops where there are low people densities. Having a Black Friday sale scrum has been avoided in England (unless it is rescheduled into December) but Wales might have to take a view on that. Restaurants and pubs, where you sit opposite someone and talk at them, are much more questionable and would be the first type of business I would close. 

The most dangerous thing is gathering in houses, which is why all the UK national governments have retained controls over who you let into your home.

I accept that the rules are not just framed on the basis of what specific activities are considered low enough risk. It seems to me that the British public only has two modes: frightened to death and mainly compliant in lockdown, anything goes otherwise. So maybe there have to be periodic lockdowns to get the message through.

I realise this isn't very different from what most governments are doing. But I feel Johnson needs to channel his Churchillian tendency and tell everyone that, until we can start to put the first generation vaccines into play - which may only be a few weeks now - we just need to "keep buggering on".

But of course, on my version of the planet golf courses wouldn't close. Mrs H is even more irritated by this than me, calling it the "politics of envy and resentment". I think she's probably right, because it sure as eggs are eggs ain't based on science. Anyway, what's the point of being "world king" if I can't declare golf courses open?

So yes, my approach is only a tweak on what is being done and what most countries are doing. Because the only other option is to live in a country like China or South Korea with a very different approach to civil liberties. Or live at the arse end of the world - New Zealand.

* Don't ask - I might dig out my publications on the subject! For now I'll just say that not much appears to have changed in 35 years


Pressed Rat and Warthog is on Cream's Wheels of Fire Studio album, 1968. But listen to the equally apposite Born Under A Bad Sign though....and of course White Room.

Flu data from Public Health England's annual surveillance reports available at

Oliver Shah's column "Stem the tide. Protect the economy. Save jobs" was in the Sunday Times on 1 November

Circuit breaker idea is crude, lazy and defies common sense. Vince Cable in Daily Mail 19 Oct 2020

Prof Angus Dalgleish's piece If lockdown was a drug it wouldn't be approved does more harm than good was in the Daily Mail on 29 October

Bruce Y Lee explained how the WHO Special Envoy of Covid-19 David Nabarro is being misquoted and taken out of context in the WHO Warning about covid-19 coronavirus lockdowns,, 13 October

Angela Merkel was quoted in the Guardian's piece Global Report: Merkel says Germany faces "difficult month ahead" in covid fight, 26 October

Germany has 8 hospital beds per 1,000 people, UK 2.5. For a full list of countries see Wikipedia

New Scientist magazine on 27 October included an editorial "Now is not the time" (to let our guard down), a super piece titled "The evolving virus - the coronavirus has mutated very little, but as more people are treated or vaccinated it could face pressure to evolve" and a comment column "Absurd about the herd. Assuming that herd immunity will result from letting most people get covid-19 is unscientific and irresponsible". Both the latter pieces by Graham Lawton.

Coronavirus: Antibodies fall rapidly after covid infection dashing hopes of herd immunity, Sky News reported on the REACT-2 study by Imperial College on 27 Oct,

Sir Patrick Vallance tells Sky News about 60% of people will need to become infected in order for the UK to enjoy "herd immunity".  Sky News 15 March

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

I Am The Law - and an ass?


You know I am no stranger
I know rules are a bore
But just to keep you from danger
I am the law

sang the Human League in 1981. They were referring to the comic strip character Judge Dredd though when Welsh First Minister announced the "fire break" lockdown of 17 days starting on Friday 23 October it sounded much the same to me. Mark Drakeford (sorry, Phil Oakey) went on to sing:

You're lucky I care
For fools like you
You're lucky I'm there
To stop people doing the things
That you know they're dying to do

A few things have been bugging me about the whole covid thing lately but Drakeford, who has previously struck me as highly logical and competent, lost me with his "fire break" version of the circuit breaker concept. But it did make me think about why a different approach has been taken in Cardiff from Whitehall.

The UK government has been facing mounting criticism from two sides - from one side folk who don't like the introduction of additional restrictions (or, in the case of northern areas don't like it unless their palms are crossed with enough silver) and from the other side folk who think there should be more restrictions. In the latter case many have advocated a circuit breaker - a short, sharp lockdown to reduce the prevalence of the virus so people can all go out and party at Christmas time. That might be a parody of the circuit breaker option, but only a slight one. Slight because it's small but also slight because it's a deliberate slight on my part - is there any point in a 2 week clampdown? The experience of the spring was that the virus spreads rapidly but even with a fairly full lockdown it takes much longer than that to get the numbers down low. Most of those arguing for a circuit breaker hadn't actually spelled out exactly what they meant or wanted to see, at least until here in Wales we found out because one was imposed. So we are now on involuntary extended half term as we participate in an experiment which might, by the end of November, show whether it was a good idea by comparison between the new covid cases figures for England and for Wales.

Of course, it's an easy call for Wales. In areas like the one I live in the economy is heavily dependent on tourists and hospitality so, after a pretty good summer which caught up some of the lost ground, instead of a good autumn running into Christmas they've already been closed for some time because most of Wales has been on local restrictions, in our case confined to our county borough. The atmosphere for business is very negative - in other words the economy is buggered anyway, so Drakeford had nothing much to lose by implementing a circuit break. After all, benefits remains one of the areas that has not been devolved to Wales (and only very partially to Scotland) so Rishi Sunak picks up the universal credit bill for Drakeford shutting down the Welsh economy. Not exactly a difficult decision then. Boris Johnson is in a very different position from Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon. None of the political commentators I read have picked up this fairly obvious point.

Indeed, you can't get away from politics in any of these decisions. Is it a surprise that the Labour Welsh First Minister should adopt a policy recommended by the the Labour leader Keir Starmer? One can imagine the conversation - "go for it, Mark".

A circuit break is also an easy call for the scientists. The Times* quotes a Tory MP saying the reason Whitty and Vallance are calling for harsher measures is that they are "shitting themselves" about the eventual public inquiry and don't want to face questions on whether their advice cost 10,000 deaths.  They undoubtedly see the manifold disbenefits of the restrictions but only seem to be influenced by the projected covid death count. These are projections that can never be tested as the assumptions going into them never prevail.

The government also has a problem that it can't talk with its SAGE group of so-called expert scientists without material immediately being leaked to the press. It seems advising the politicians in confidence isn't enough, they have to lobby for their preferred course of action via the media. This seems to me  completely unprincipled as the same scientists also say that decisions between courses of action can only be taken by the politicians.

There is a further problem that few government ministers have much understanding of science and so are reluctant to challenge the advice they are given, even though there is far from one common, unified scientific view.

My perspective on this is that nearly all governments in Western democracies are following very similar strategies: there is almost no material difference between them. The difference between what Johnson, Sturgeon, Drakeford and Foster are doing is actually minimal, as are the differences in the results they are getting. (Don't kid yourself Welsh and Scots - all four home nations are banded together in the highest category in the league tables of how countries are doing). The difference from current policy in what Starmer is suggesting (and Drakeford has done) is also pretty small - it just puts the areas of the country where the prevalence of the virus is relatively low into the circuit breaker with the higher areas, without saying why that makes sense. 

And the difference in the results similar countries are getting is also minimal. USA, France, Italy, Spain and Italy are all getting broadly similar results. Some European countries have better figures, notably Germany and Greece, but there are some countries that have done very much better on deaths:

One can't help but conclude that you have to live in a country with a very different civil liberties culture to be significantly safer than in the UK. Or in New Zealand, a country with much more limited connections to the rest of the world. Oh I know Jacinda Adern is getting lots of plaudits, but it is claimed that there may have been something like 1400 separate intorductions of covid into the UK**, which is why it was much more prevalent than realised in February and early March, whereas the Kiwis had the advantage of coming to the party late and with far fewer gatecrashers.

But is there any alternative to the current approach, other than minor differences of detail? I wrote way back in early April about the paper published by Tomas Pueyo in March called The Hammer and the Dance. At the time he was urging President Trump to lockdown the USA to get control of the situation (the "hammer" phase) while predicting that it would then be necessary to loosen and tighten restrictions from a broad menu of options in order to balance economic and health wellbeing until a vaccine is produced (the "dance" phase). Which is basically what all countries are now doing. It is producing complaints about the confusion caused by rules and guidance changing and varying within countries on a local basis and the impact on livelihoods. As I predicted the hammering and dancing is producing "personal and public debt on a previously unimagined scale" and is stealing the future of younger generations (hence the title of my piece on 7 April ending "the young will pay the price"). 

I agreed that there was no other way forward at the time, as no government could survive the NHS being overwhelmed and numbers of fatalities reaching a quarter or half a million as predicted by Neil Ferguson, even though he knew that it was highly unlikely his modelling could ever be compared with reality as it assumed essentially no social distancing measures, some of which were already in place.

But when Drakeford announced his fire break I flipped. Maybe I should get behind the Great Barrington declaration, authored by academics from Oxford, Stanford and Harvard, which argues for letting people at lower risk - and those at higher risk if they wish - get on with living their lives normally because of the adverse physical and mental health effects of lockdowns. The Oxford academic signatory is Sunetra Gupta, long term rival/nemesis of Imperial's notorious Neil Ferguson. The declaration explicitly advocates building up herd immunity to eventually reduce risk to the more vulnerable. It was kept deliberately short to be "accessible" leaving it open to criticism that it is light on detail of who should be protected and how. Indeed the majority of the Wikipedia entry on the declaration is devoted to analysing the holes and weaknesses in it.

The declaration came at a time when an increasing number of commentators were questioning the effectiveness of the current approach. For example, the Daily Mail City editor Alex Brunner ran a column on 22 October titled "How terrifying the country now owes £2 TRILLION - and it's the young who will have to pay" (only 6 months to catch up with me Alex, not bad). The next day dyed in the wool conservative (and Conservative) Tom Uttley confessed in the same newspaper that his wife is a criminal, going on to say it was absurd that her offence was to give two old ladies (Uttley's elderly sisters) a lift home from church. Yes, that breaks current coronavirus rules but the alternative was them getting a bus or taxi, arguably exposing themselves to more risk. Uttley argued that as the rules become ever more illogical it gets harder to obey them and that seeing family and helping others while accepting the risk is part of being human. "Why can't they accept...we are all going to die one day, if not from coronavirus then from something else.... (why) behave as if living for ever is a human right, to be protected even at the expense of ruining the country?"

Indeed the Mail had implicitly supported the Great Barrington declaration on 16 October, arguing in an editorial titled "How did they turn a crisis into an epidemic of madness":

"We may have to accept the contagion in our midst, like humans have had to do with almost all other infections down the millennia, shield the vulnerable and get on with the business of living".

Meanwhile Drakeford's fire break rules mean that, alone or with my better half, I could legally cycle to the golf course, walk around it and cycle back but I can't drive there, hit a ball around it and drive back.Mrs H reckons this is an example of the politics of envy and resentment -  why should  folk be allowed to play golf when other activities are banned? Or maybe it's just the streak of Methodist puritanism present in Welsh culture. Subsequently the mainstream news and social media have had lots of fun with Drakeford's ban on supermarkets selling "non essential" items which have included sanitary products and baby milk. To be fair these were bizarre errors by retailers. In Llandudno a shopper was allowed to buy a roasting dish after politely asking at Asda, though I preferred the story of the chap who turned up at Tesco wearing footwear, underpants and a mask on the grounds that clothes had been deemed "non essential".  Nevertheless, peeved by this pettiness I had been going around deliberately attempting to provoke comment by maxing up my comment from April on the following lines:

"The young are going to be very angry indeed when they find out that we've left them a colossal mountain of unaffordable debt that will potentially blight their living standards for their whole lives all to control a disease that mainly affects the very elderly, with the average age of a UK covid victim (82.4) being higher than the average life expectancy and many of those victims not knowing what day it is and with very limited life expectancy at best".

This intemperate rant actually produced very little pushback.

But I had argued myself into a position where I felt that it might be best to adopt the Great Barrington approach or, at the very least, follow Sweden and have a more limited set of standard social distancing measures and live with the results. That at least would mean the rules would be clear, even at the expense of potentially having to ruthlessly triage hospital and intensive care admissions - which according to the Sunday Times is what happened in the first peak anyway***.

And then I read the latest edition of New Scientist.   

To be continued......

* Coronavirus: Tories now doubt scientists they pledged to follow. The Times 17 Oct

**This claim is made by Prof Francois Balloux of UCL as reported by MailOnline, 26 Oct. The same story revealed that a 51 year old Essex woman, who became ill with flu-like symptoms in late January and was hospitalised in February with pneumonia has tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, becoming Britain's first known covid patient from a time when it was thought there were only nine people in the UK with the disease, all either Chinese students or having visited a French skiing resort, neither of which applied to the cleaner from Essex.

*** Revealed: how elderly paid price of protecting NHS from Covid-19. Sunday Times 26 October 2020

Monday, 19 October 2020

The most surprising thing I've read recently

I've read a number of remarkable things recently. Some have been remarkable for recounting colossal incompetence or revealing vapid stupidity. But these three items caused me pause to think. So which did I find the most surprising?

1. The budget for series four of Netflix's The Crown, reported to be around £100 million (yes, it was quoted in £ not $ but then it is recorded at Elstree in Hertfordshire) exceeds the Queen's annual sovereign grant of £82.2 million.

2. Berlin's new airport was due to open in 2012 when officials rang the alarm over the snagging list of over half a million faults. The airport opening has long been set for this month but as of today there are no obvious updates on Google confirming that it will. In the meantime I read that "baggage carousels rotate, indicator boards flicker and trains run into the station without a passenger in sight. It is an epic failure of public sector management".

3. The American bush cricket or long-horned grasshopper, one of the tettigoniidae family of small cicadas has a particularly loud three-pulsed song, rendered as "ka-ty-did", hence their onomatopoeic common name katydid. The "song" is of course stridulation, the act of producing sound by rubbing together body parts (stop sniggering at the back!) The katydids rub the hind angles of their front wings together, one acting as a tough ridged comb and the other as a plectrum. I never did find out What Katy Did, but remarkably you can tell the air temperature by the frequency of the katydids' chirps. For American katydids the formula is generally given as the number of chirps in 15 seconds plus 37 to give the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.

So which of these did I find surprising? Well not the cost of making The Crown, especially when I'd also read that they have a huge research team and for every word spoken in the film there are pages of briefing notes. One of the team spent two weeks researching the label on a bottle of wine from which a character briefly swigs. I'm sure it's immaculately done but so far life has been too short to make space to watch The Crown, after all we have only just got on with watching Line of Duty.

 The katydids temperature related call is remarkable but I recall that the rate of a first order chemical reaction roughly doubles for each 10C increase in temperature. Indeed, I once surprised a work colleague who developed his own photographic films by correctly predicting how much quicker his photos would develop at higher temperatures in his dark room from one data point (he used a look up table). All living things are basically chemistry in action and the katydids are presumably cold blooded creatures, so everything they do will be affected by the ambient temperature. Wonderful but not so surprising then.

So it's the Germans' inability to build an airport to any sensible timescale that I found the most surprising. Someone asked me last week how it could possibly cost £100 billion to build a railway line, i.e. HS2. I answered that, besides the fact that anything and everything to do with a railway is eye-wateringly expensive, unfortunately we seem to be incapable of delivering major public (or in many cases private) projects to any kind of sensible budget drawn up in advance. I pondered that this might be because if the cost were estimated with any degree of reliability none of the projects would get ever get built, though this is a bit of a simplification. I saw plenty of estimates that were believed to be conservative turn out to be gross under-estimates when things go wrong. And the bigger the project the more scope for unknowns and the more there is to go wrong. I ended my career believing that a manager who had delivered a big project to time and cost had probably had a fair amount of luck as well as done a good job, though I didn't ever tell them that of course.

But the Germans? Crikey.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Should we have more or fewer billionaires?

This is the second post* in what might be an occasional series in which I ask a question in the manner of an amateur psychometric test intended to give insight into people's preferences and prejudices. Note your answer, read the blog and then check whether you would still give the same answer. Like a psychometric test there is no "right" answer but the answers can still be revealing.

Today's question is: would the country be better if we had more or fewer billionaires? As it's in psychometric style you're allowed to pick from 5 answers: a lot more, some more, the same, fewer or a lot fewer. There is of course, no "right" answer but think of your response and then read on.

This particular question was prompted by reading about one famous billionaire, James Dyson, the UK's richest person according to this year's Sunday Times Rich List** and a young Brit who seems destined to follow a similar path.

Dyson has already gone from hero to zero. He commercialised bagless vacuum cleaners using cyclones -a well known concept to process engineers for decades but usually quite large devices. Indeed, Mrs H and I always found the early models far too heavy and cumbersome.Whereas the latest battery powered versions are just fantastic, a design triumph. (Yes, I do know how to use it....).  Further success followed with the air blade hand dryer which became so familiar when we used to travel and call at motorway services, if you can remember that far back. And he knows how to turn a profit: £1.1bn on £4.4bn of sales in 2018 is quite a margin for electrical appliances. The zero part started for some with his support for Brexit and he became a pantomime villain when he announced in 2019 that his company HQ would move to Singapore. Dyson says the move was not to optimise tax: the company expects to pay more tax as a group not less. And it has increased head count in the UK since the announcement - they have 5,000 people working on product development in Europe and North America. Dyson says that, as he sees the major future growth coming in Asia "if you are designing things for people in Asia you should be in Asia. You've got to live it and breathe it and think like Asians. It would be arrogant to think we can imagine products for that market sitting here in Wiltshire".

Like most entrepreneurs Dyson has had failures as well as successes. For example, there was a contra-rotating washing machine which had two drums rotating in opposite directions which didn't succeed. And more recently he set out to develop the world's best electric powered car but pulled the plug on the project after spending (I nearly said blowing but we'll come back to that) half a billion quid on the project. But if you presume that the project failed technically, you would be wrong.

The reason was purely commercial. Dyson designed a stylish 7 seater SUV with a windscreen raked more steeply than on a Ferrari. Huge though, weighing 2.6 tons even though the body is aluminium. Huge enough to accommodate a battery pack that would carry it over 600 miles on a single charge and with plenty of innovative features. The prototype looked superb. But Dyson decided he could not bring the car to market as it would have had to be priced above £150k. Whether or not that is good value the simple fact is it is a lot higher than the electric models sold by BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Jaguar  Land Rover who all subsidise costs through sales of traditional petrol and diesel cars. So Dyson reluctantly pulled out after investing £500M of his own money. Yes that's a lot but Tesla has burned through $19 billion of investors' cash without making a profit yet. And the work Dyson has done on optimising battery electronics and other aspects may yet be of value.

What about Dyson's personal circumstances? He is domiciled in the UK. He paid £103 million in personal tax in 2018, the fourth highest according to the Sunday Times Tax List (yes, they have one of those as well). That's enough to cover the employment costs of about 2,500 NHS nurses for a year. So Dyson's company makes a lot of profit, but they invest a lot and his company and he personally pay loads of tax. He owns loads of land - more than the Queen - but that means he pays to maintain it. Overall Dyson would seem an example of a billionaire who is a major asset to the country.

What about this next guy?

His name is Fred Turner and he's not a billionaire - yet, anyway, but I wouldn't bet against it happening. The 25 year old Yorkshireman is on his third or fourth business idea already. He first came to prominence aged 15 when he began building a polymerase chain reaction genetic testing machine in his parent's cellar. It subsequently won him the UK Young Engineer of the year award.  A farmer contacted Turner and persuaded him to test his cows to gather data for breeding, feeding and health management of his herd. Turner set up a company to provide genomics data to farmers which he ran while studying at Oxford. Then, aged 19, he dropped out of Oxford and moved to California where he was accepted into the well known Y Combinator start up accelerator which invests in launching businesses. But the farming idea didn't work - there weren't enough farmers interested in using the technology. So Turner pivoted to an idea based on helping doctors to prescribe the right drugs to patients with sexually transmitted diseases taking account of antibiotic resistance. That also failed to take off: Turner wound it up and launched a company called Curative, the target being testing for sepsis, a big market as 1.7 million people are affected each year in the USA. And then the Covid-19 pandemic appeared.

Turner reckoned the normal supply chain for testing could flex by perhaps 20% when an increase of 10 to 100 times was needed. Turner saw no point in designing a new test which would have to compete with other companies for scarce supplies. So Curative designed a do-it-yourself test which didn't rely on nasal swabs, for which there would be competition for supplies and which also doesn't require supervision by a health professional wearing PPE. You cough three times, swab the inside of your mouth, drop the sample into a tube and seal it in a bag. The test soon received emergency authorisation by the US FDA. It has proven to be as accurate as the more invasive approach, which I suspect is more reliable provided the swab is taken properly - a significant proviso. I know which sample I would rather provide. 

Turner's test was being used within days on government officials, fire and police officers in southern California. By May his  company was making over 100,000 tests a day and won contracts with the US Air Force, the city of Chicago and the state of Delaware. By the end of July it had won a $42 million contract to supply a quarter of a million tests to the US Department of Defense. As of 9 September Curative claimed to be carrying out 10% of all the USA's coronavirus tests.

In the early stages the test was offered to the UK's Department of Health and Social Care. I expect you can guess what happened. Turner was told "random offers" weren't being accepted and to go through the official process. Curative supplied all its information, including its US authorisation and its capacity, only to receive an email saying "we're not interested. We are no longer accepting testing proposals". And that was the last they heard.

People like Dyson and Turner have an insatiable will to achieve. They have ideas and the vision and drive to turn them into reality. When one idea doesn't work they react quickly and pivot to another, many times if necessary. They go where they can get their ideas implemented. 

Now what was your response to the question posed at the top - would the country be better if we had more or fewer billionaires? Note I said "better" not "better off". I'm not asking whether billionaires pay enough tax, their residential status or anything else, just whether you think it would be better if we had more or fewer of them in the UK.

For me it's a no brainer. I'd rather have a lot more billionaires, especially ones like Dyson who create wealth and employment and pay their taxes. I accept the country might be less equal, but Soviet-style equality of misery (apart from the apparatchiks of course) has never appealed to me. And we need to do more to keep people like Fred Turner in the UK, so there will be more like Dyson in the future. Otherwise we'll all be poorer.

* The first punk psychometric was Should we carry coals from Newcastle? (Northumberland actually) on 7 July.  The question posed was: should we allow any more coal mines to be built in the UK?  Like many my knee jerk reaction would be to strongly disagree but, after reading the facts, I flipped to srongly agree. Meanwhile the government still sits on the relevant planning application which I have predicted they will "bottle".
** Rich List 2020 was in the Sunday Times magazine 17 May 2020.
*** Turner's story was told in Oxford dropout's winning test for Covid-19, Sunday Times 17 May