Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Cummings and goings - pot calls kettle Blackford

Ian Blackford, the lead SNP MP at Westminster tweeted this a few hours ago:

is trashing public confidence and doing lasting damage to public health messaging by undermining trust in the rules. With every public utterance they dig the hole deeper and deeper. The situation is intolerable- the PM must sack Cummings and he must do it now.

He has said lots of other stuff including "I'm afraid this sums it up. One rule for them and another for the rest of us".

The same Ian Blackford tweeted this on 26 March, 2 days after the lockdown started:

London to Skye is over 600 miles. It is assumed he took at least one flight and a ferry journey. Some punters on twitter are saying he had covid symptoms but I don't know where they get that from. But it seems clear his journey had even less justification than that of Dominic Cummings. And Skye has subsequently proved a covid hotspot with a large number of care home deaths.

This has been all over twitter for many hours now but Blackford hasn't responded and, for some reason, the mainstream media is not (yet) running the story.

Lots of people (who mainly look like Tory supporters) have asked Blackford directly on twitter to respond. I saw a suggestion that he just blocks each of them to stop them putting more on his twitter feed.

Now as it happens I am in the minority of people who think Cummings's journey was possibly justified. I wouldn't have wanted to leave my children when young with unfamiliar child minders. It's easy to say he must have had options but nobody knows that. We had relatives we would not have considered it suitable to leave our children with when they were small. I have seen a suggestion that Cumming's son is autistic. I don't know if it's true, but it would seem material. For what it's worth, on what I've heard, I probably would have done the same as him (not sure about the eyesight test drive, though it is logical). However the explanation doesn't really pass what at work we used to call the 'red face' test. Clearly most people think it broke the lockdown rules and/or guidance (whether or not it actually did) and the episode is doing enormous political damage to the government. 71% of people think he should go. (Actually I wondered if that meant he had become more popular....).

Incidentally in Wales it would be clear that he had broken the guidance to "stay local".

Of course, any way you look at it, the government's guidance will now be undermined. Though I have yet to see any of the many points on the lines of "we've sacrificed this or that" which are remotely comparable. No, it's not a justification for going to the beach. Or to see your relatives, which he didn't do. Someone said they had been scrubbing carrots and decontaminating packaging - for what when he was spreading the disease? But as far as we know he remained isolated with his immediate family and they were presumably scrubbing carrots for their own safety. Yes some NHS and care workers have lived apart from family because of the risk. They made their own assessment of what was best in their situation. As did Cummings, whether you think it was a good or reasonable assessment or not.

Whether or not Cummings goes for me this has revealed three things.

1. Johnson seems desperate to keep him at almost any cost. I can't help linking it to something I saw reported a week or two ago. The PM, going through the plan for the next stage of the covid battle, turned to Sir Mark Sedwill the cabinet secretary and head of the civil service. "Is it your job to implement this?" Sedwill replied "no prime minister, it's yours". Most PMs feel the civil service blocks them as much as assists them but this seemed to me to be pure "Yes, Minister" stuff. It's risible to me that the PM could be responsible for implementing almost anything. I'd have wanted to sack Sedwill on the spot, even if the appropriate answer perhaps should have been "why not set up a task force, prime minister?" (But that would have been too helpful). I can't help wondering if Johnson feels that Cummings is his only chance to get the civil service to do remotely what the government wants. It looks like he'll have to find another way.

2. Cummings has had an almost universally bad press over the years. "Career psychopath" was one famous comment from a "colleague". This episode has made him seem more human to me.

3. Blackford confirms hypocrisy knows no bounds in politics. Now he does happen to be perhaps the single current politician I love to hate the most (he's turned me from a confirmed unionist to an independence supporter for Scotland just to get him off my tv). But the media presumably don't want to dilute the attention from Cummings. If Cummings goes, Blackford will probably be next in the firing line, but it seems not before.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Changing the message

"Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives" worked well in terms of affecting the behaviour of the bulk of the population. But has it been too successful? It certainly seems to have put the fear of God into a lot of people. It has accentuated the public's notorious inability to understand and balance risks and benefits. And it isn't going to be easy to evolve, as shown by the reluctance of some teachers to get back to work, even though most of them and their charges are in very low risk groups. It's entirely possible that they will be at more risk travelling to work than once they get there. And of course, the risk to the teacher is being weighed against the benefit to the pupils.

Messages are difficult to change but easy to undermine as the Dominic Cummings saga shows, whatever the rights and wrongs what actually occurred.

All of this and much more is well summed up by Libby Purves in The Times today who says:

 "Another week on the road to financial misery and social dissolution. Over half the nation freezes in cautious immobility while the rest carry us on their backs. As the tenth week of lockdown begins, ever more intense is the shame of cowering behind a thin red line of gallant weary workers who are poorer and face more danger.

On the safe side are the comfier pensioners and the still-earning professional classes — executives, lawyers, journalists, academics — working from home with a garden or park, shopping online, moaning humorously about haircuts. Out on the front line “key workers” keep us all going. Not only NHS and care staff but a host of others: police, binmen, security guards, bus drivers, shelf-stackers, shopworkers, warehouse and postal workers, ships’ crews, delivery drivers roaring along the motorways in HGVs or piloting battered vans from local pick-up centres so that Amazon and Etsy can serve our whimsies...

Most of those working hardest are lower paid.... It forcibly reminds us of widening social inequality irrespective of value.... as we boredly seek entertainment....

..when government advisers shrug off their own warnings and break the rules, the fury is national and dangerous. It doesn’t help that, like most of the rural cottage-creepers (i.e second home owners) they probably did no actual harm. They just weighed the risks, as Swedes were allowed to and we weren’t. But in a democracy rules are made for all..... So the privileged owe respect to the obedience of poorer citizens."

Saying that, personally, she tends towards Lord Sumption’s view on leaving things to individual common sense and judgment, she continues: 

"At first there was a logic in the lockdown, to protect an NHS that had, by world standards, been left with far too few intensive care beds. It needed time to reconfigure and build. But it has done that with astonishing energy and now there are vacant beds, unused Nightingale hospitals, A&E departments open and tentative moves towards routine surgery.
So, for several weeks now, government restrictions have been built entirely around the mystical “R” number and political nervousness. It is, admittedly, tricky. Leaders told us daily that every inessential step outdoors would kill someone’s granny and make a tired nurse cry: an idea backed with ghoulish, shroud-waving sentiment by, in particular, the BBC bedtime news. So it will take nerve to ease up and say, “Nobody is ever entirely safe but keep calm, keep distanced, wash your hands and carry on.”

One of the most useful risk comparisons I've seen during lockdown is that the average risk from covid-19 roughly doubles an individual's annual risk of death from all causes, whatever age the individual. This wouldn't hold for people with particular vulnerability. The government now needs to get that perspective across. The message that life isn't risk free is completely obvious and yet very hard to communicate effectively. Purves has made a pretty good stab at it. Shame Dominic Cummings is probably a bit preoccupied to read it at the moment.
Lockdown is exposing some stark social divides. Libby Purves, The Times, 25 May

Sunday, 24 May 2020

It's on his head

I last wrote about Prof Neil Ferguson (the Imperial College modelling dude) back in April (see University Challenged - it's all in his head,  8 April) when I expressed shock that the computer model he used to influence government policy is entirely undocumented. Since then Ferguson has resigned from the the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) after, as some newspapers put it, he "broke his own lockdown rules" having a lady friend round to his house. (Perhaps I should have ended that sentence before "at his house").  His work prompted the lockdown by modelling options rather than setting the rules but never mind as said lady friend, Antonia Staats, added to the amusement value by telling the Guardian that she did not believe their actions to be hypocritical as she regards their households "to be one".  The Staats have two children and an open marriage. According to the Sun at the time of her second visit to Ferguson she suspected her husband had symptoms of coronavirus.

Rather belatedly a number of journalists including Vanessa Chalmers and Matthew Syed have joined me in questioning Ferguson's flaky software. They both report a flurry of criticism against Ferguson's modelling which predicted up to half a million deaths if the UK didn't change track. (Actually I think he predicted half a million in a "do nothing" scenario and a quarter of a million if the government maintained the mid March social distancing protocols without further measures).

What's happened since I inferred that Ferguson's code was crap because he couldn't be arsed to document it properly is that he's published it and others have now decided that it is indeed crap, or at least "unreliable". The program has been called a 13 year old "buggy mess". A group at Edinburgh Uni found that the model could give different outputs when fed the same inputs and gave different results when run on different computers, both of which are absolutely standard checks for software integrity. One source said that this quality of work would have got Ferguson sacked in private sector, which was broadly what I was implying in my article of 8 April. (Yes, of course I am also implying that it's taken the country's journalists only 4 to 6 weeks to catch up with me).

But wow. What if Ferguson's modelling really isn't fit for purpose? While the UK government had signposted that it might move to stricter restrictions, and potentially lockdown, there was an almost audible crashing of gears when Ferguson's body count forecasts were released. What if they were overstated? I wouldn't put it past Ferguson to have tweaked his inputs to get the biggest numbers, as he does seem to be an attention seeker. So was lockdown an over-reaction? After all some countries have never gone for a full lockdown, notably Sweden and South Korea.

The costs are already coming through - borrowing at the highest monthly figure on record in April and all those deferred operations and treatments storing up health impacts for starters. And not just at hospitals - a relative of ours can't get an essential B12 injection because the GP's aren't providing the service and is having to pay for less effective prescription for an oral alternative. Multiply such things by millions of people and thee will be plenty of non-covid health effects from the lockdown. Plus jobs destroyed and schools closed. And all that mental health anguish for families unable to see each other and, of course, the fans of Liverpool FC.......

With regard to schooling, I'm sure the children from middle class backgrounds will soon catch up and might even get some benefit from the change in routine. But the reason the government is desperate to get year 1 and year 6 children back is obvious: so many studies show that children from deprived backgrounds suffer disproportionately. The start they get off to matters (hence the need to get year 1 back) and the start 11 year olds make at high school on completion of their final primary year 6 can also have a huge effect. I think the government already has its eyes on the next election and is worried that the current school closure, along with the inevitable economic hardship for vulnerable communities, could be damaging enough to increase inequality by 2024, fatally impacting its levelling up agenda and aspirations to keep the red wall flat. It may be self interest but who says these things don't matter to Tory governments? They obviously do to this one.

Matthew Syed makes the interesting assertion that the government and its advisers have been guilty of groupthink and attention blindness. He has ploughed through the minutes from scientific advisory groups which were rather belatedly published recently. He notes the documents are impressive and most folk would conclude are underpinned by cutting edge science. It's only when you look at it in the round that you notice something he calls "curious". They are all specifically about flu.

There is the "scientific pandemic influenza group on modelling". The key planning document that has informed government policy for a decade is called the "UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Survey". The review of whether to close educational facilities is called the "Impact of School Closures on on an Influenza Pandemic". There is a paper called "Impact of Mass Gatherings on an Influenza Pandemic".

OK, they couldn't look in detail at coronavirus in advance, SARS-COV-2 didn't exist - though you might think they would have at least considered whether the experience with SARS and MERS - and indeed ebola - was relevant and different. There is a reason this is important, indeed critical: flu has long been considered impractical to contain, it spreads too efficiently. But covid-19 can be contained: it has been in South Korea, for example, where there hasn't been a single day with deaths in double figures even though it has kept offices, restaurants and shops open.

The logic of the UK's "contain, delay, research, mitigate" strategy is based on flu. Syed suggests it was the mindset of flu, not experience emerging from Asia that led our Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty to assert on 12 March that containment was pointless. (Actually by then I suspect he was right, but not a couple of weeks earlier). Perhaps it was also why his deputy, Jenny Harries - admired in our household for her performances at the Downing Street briefings - said on the same day that "community testing was not appropriate". (Though maybe it was not appropriate because it was not feasible with the capacity then available, which I don't myself think is blameworthy though we might otherwise have started to push for more capacity sooner).

Syed thinks the government is  not culpable for following the advice of its experts during this period. Ministers aren't modellers or health experts and can't be expected to second guess the scientists they have decided to trust. But if the scientific papers had been published sooner the blind spot might have been spotted. There was no downside to publishing earlier: the government was following the advice and and, as Jeremy Hunt has said, it's not as if transparency would have handed our enemy, the virus, some secret information it could use against us. If there was groupthink it was encouraged by the fact that SAGE is full of modellers and clinical academics but has no experts with an explicitly public health or infectious diseases background.

The Imperial College model was, of course, built for flu. And it is possible that not only the UK has been fighting the wrong war: the policies of the US, French and German governments were also influenced by Ferguson's work.

You might by now be thinking that I've got it in for Ferguson. Not particularly, but here comes the cheap shot. He's got form. His work has advised the actions of five prime ministers, on foot and mouth (2001), SARS (2003), swine flu (2011), MERS (2012) and ebola and zika (2014). In the foot and mouth outbreak nearly 6 million cattle, sheep and pigs were culled, partly because Ferguson's modelling had suggested animals on farms neighbouring an outbreak should be included even if there was no evidence of infection. The Times says that "experts later claimed the work was seriously flawed". In 2005 he said that up to 200 million people could be killed by bird flu. Now he did say "up to" but by 2009 the toll was 282. (I remember my company buying a huge job lot of tissues and hand sanitiser, see my post of 15 April). In 2009 a government estimate based on Ferguson's advice said that a "reasonable worst case scenario" was that swine flu would lead to 65,000 UK deaths. OK "worst case" but the total was actually 457.

Maybe Ferguson is like one of those doomsters who can say they correctly predicted the latest stock market crash, having predicted one every year for the last 20 years......

I don't know Ferguson's politics but as he is 1) an academic and 2) his floozy is a left wing campaigner I'll bet he reads the Guardian and not the Telegraph. Which is just as well as as the Telegraph ran a piece entitled "Neil Ferguson's Imperial model could be the most devastating software mistake of all time", quoting a the boss of a software firm asking why the government failed to get a second opinion.

Advisers advise, ministers decide. But first the ministers have decided which advisers to appoint. I said on 8 April that I hoped they had chosen the right ones. I'm not convinced there is evidence that they have had "lucky generals" in this war.

I am not (yet) claiming that lockdown in the UK was unnecessary. After all, the loading on intensive care facilities was ramping up alarmingly until it mercifully peaked leaving some spare capacity, much of it created by repurposing NHS facilities in great haste. Indeed I suspect the news coverage from Italy was as important as Ferguson's suspiciously round numbers of a quarter and half a million. Which is why I suspect he frigged the input data, though by the sound of it he could have just re-run the model time after time with the same data until it randomly gave him the large enough numbers he was seeking. But I am wondering why the curve appears to be slowly flattening everywhere despite differences in policies between countries. David Smith noted a possible explanation given in a paper published by Prof David Miles and Oscar Dimdore-Miles. Yes, related, father and son. David is a professor of financial economics and was once a member of the Bank of England monetary policy committee. His son is an "Oxford scientist". I looked him up and he's a graduate physics student specialising in environmental science so I'm not sure how qualified this makes them to use a so-called SIR (susceptible-infected-recovered) disease spreading model, which they coupled with actual data on numbers of cases and presumably parameterisation (otherwise known as guesswork) on how many asymptomatic cases there might be.

I looked up the Miles duo's paper. It is pretty technical with lots of equations I might once have understood better than the words. It outlines a 'simple' method for estimating the spread of covid-19 in the absence of large scale random testing.They applied the model to the UK and other countries and found that, to get the results to match actual data on daily new cases of the virus, they needed to have high numbers of infected, asymptomatic people. The results were very sensitive to whether the transmission rate of the virus is different for symptomatic and asymptomatic cases, which is uncertain. Nevertheless they postulate that the infection may have spread far enough to mean that the trajectory of falling new cases could be maintained with some easing of restrictions. In other words there may have already been enough people infected for herd immunity to be a factor, which implies a very much higher number of people infected than most experts think.

Now I think that sounds most unlikely. And yet the virus seems to have peaked and be tailing off just about everywhere, independent of the specific policies adopted by individual governments (though I have seen that there has been an uptick in cases in Florida since policies were relaxed). But if that was the case it would also mean that the precise distancing and lockdown strategies didn't matter that much. So we could have stayed with something like the pre-lockdown social distancing exhortations, or gone for a shorter lockdown, with more people working. This would have avoided the restart issues we now have with the population's poor instinctive grasp of risk causing much concern. If so we've just caused enormous health, financial and emotional damage to the country mainly because of one man and his dodgy model.

I said Ferguson's problem was that it was all in his head. But it might be on his head as well.

Sources included:

Neil Ferguson: UK coronavirus adviser resigns after breaking lockdown rules, The Guardian 5 May 2020 included the Antonia Staats comment about "same household" .

Vanessa Chalmers Mail Online 17 May https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8327641/Coronavirus-modelling-Professor-Neil-Ferguson-branded-mess-experts.html

Matthew Syed, Fixated on the flu and shrouded in secrecy, Britain's scientists picked the wrong remedy. Sunday Times 17 May

Neil Ferguson profile: the professor who turned the UK's coronavirus response, The Times 6 May

David Smith's Economic Outlook column in the Sunday Times, 17 May.

Assessing the spread of the novel coronavirus in the absence of mass testing. Oscar Dimdore-Miles and David Miles. Covid Economics: vetted and real time papers. Issue 16, 11 May 2020, page 161. Centre for Economic Policy Research, CEPR Press.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Oh frigate

I wrote recently about how fond I am of swifts and swallows and noted how the swifts spend most of their life on the wing, sleeping by switching down half their brain at a time. While on holiday (remember them?) in the Caribbean earlier in the year we heard about the remarkable frigatebird. With its wingspan of over 2 metres it has the largest wing area to body weight ratio of any bird and is found widely across tropical ocean areas.

It is known that that, while travelling huge distances across the water - flying for up to 2 months at heights up to 4000 metres - the frigatebird sleeps for 45 minutes a day in 10 second bursts. (No, I don't know how they did that research).

On land the birds sleep for one minute at a time throughout the day and night, effectively being asleep half the time. Like swifts the frigatebird performs unihemispheric sleep to keep watch while circling in rising air currents.

Frigate birds are well known for badgering smaller birds until they disgorge part digested food which the frigate bird catches in mid air. Just as well because, unusually for a marine bird, they don't come down on the sea: they snatch prey from the surface using their long hooked bills. They bathe by flying low over the ocean surface and splashing themselves but they don't swim and struggle to to take off from the water due to their short legs. They aren't great walkers either, so they sit around a lot.

Besides its heavily forked tail, a distinguishing feature of the male frigatebird is its red gular pouch, which is normally hardly visible:

but which it inflates in a preposterous courtship ritual, rather outdoing a robin:

There are five varieties of frigatebird: Ascension, Christmas, Great, Lesser and Magnificent. So when you hear reference to the magnificent frigatebird it's not a compliment, just its name.

Travel over huge distances has been frequently documented, particularly when they depart the colony where they were born. But they generally remain near the islands where they breed and prefer to stay close to land, usually within the range where they can find flying fish (no need to get wet to take them I suppose).  European sailors learned that local sailors in the tropics thought frigatebirds to be a good omen because their presence indicated land was close.

There are stories that frigatebirds could be relied on to return home and so were used in several island areas to relay messages like carrier pigeons. Polynesian poetry refers to taking pet birds on their sailing canoes as they could be relied upon to fly off in the direction of land, or return if land was not within easy flying range.

Frigatebirds are monogamous and the males and females collaborate in feeding their young for the first three months, after which the male's attendance trails off, leaving the mother to feed the chicks for another 5 or 6 months, amongst the longest duration of parental care for any birds. Which is probably why one of our tour guides on St Vincent this year referred disparagingly to her husband as being just like a "damned frigatebird". I suppose she meant that he sat around a lot half asleep, hung around for a while but then disappeared for months on end leaving her to bring up the kids.

Come to think of it Mrs H might feel I have some things in common with the frigatebird as well as the swift, though in my case I left her with the kids and went to play football. Where I would spend a lot of time shouting at my fellow defenders for being half asleep and to stay alert. Which I seem to have heard somewhere else lately....

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Ministers should tell it straight

Back on 30 April I pronounced "we're long past the peak but they don't seem to want us to know that"  - and then within an hour or two Boris Johnson announced that we were past the peak. As my blog had been in draft for two days I must be a bit more dynamic. (It wasn't the words, I was struggling to get the axis right on my excel graph and import it in a decent enough form. Meanwhile they kept publishing more data...).

In that speech Johnson held out the hope of an easing of the restrictions but without risking crashing into a second mountain as we come out from the tunnel under the first, as Johnson put it. Although it sounded mangled and contrived I thought it was actually quite a good and tangible analogy. Now Johnson has stuck with the mountain analogy, saying in his much awaited TV address on Sunday that there is often more risk in coming down the mountain.

The speech has received mixed reviews and Johnson is now at some political risk in trying to move forward. The "stay alert" message is blatantly less clear than "stay home": note how they have to be two words, die hard, lethal weapon, star wars.... It is presumably designed to be useful during a period of change in the measures, so its meaning can't be as unmistakably obvious. At least yet. I take it as a proxy for "keep your wits about you, heed the current advice" as the current advice will change and, like financial investments, can move in either direction. It may or may not prove to be a good slogan, but I don't think we can tell yet.

Criticism of the PM for not giving full detail on Sunday seemed petty - in a ten minute TV address in which he said further detail would follow in his full announcement to Parliament? (Maybe that's why, traditionally, it's done the other way round, telling Parliament first, Boris). But the Times had a poll which showed why people thought what they did about Johnson's performance. While their poll showed 44% support for the changes to enable unlimited exercise and that those who can go to work should, with 43% opposed, support was stronger from males, leave voters and over 50s. In other words people who were more likely to have voted for Johnson. So whether people agree with what he said or not actually tells you more about them than about what he said.

According to Dominic Sandbrook* the procession of people critical of the government interviewed on BBC recently nearly all turn out to be a motley collection of left wingers and Corbynites. It doesn't mean they are wrong about PPE, testing or whatever but it makes one wonder about balance. Tell me how you voted in the referendum and general election and I'll tell you what you think about the job the government is doing....

A specific criticism in Scotland and Wales of the PM's TV address was that the he should have made clearer that the specific changes he was trailing apply in England, the details for other countries being devolved which, on the face of it, is a fair cop. But then the devolved administrations like nothing more than to try to bounce the PM and the national government. And you can only get an agreed position if everyone wants to agree. I think it was 100% deliberate and I don't, personally, blame him trying to railroad the devolved administrations as they try it on him all the time.

So Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of what is now known officially as the Welsh Parliament rather than Assembly (it's still the Senedd in Welsh) got his retaliation in first by speaking on Friday lunchtime. And it was immediately clear to me that I wouldn't be playing golf in Wales this week, whatever Boris announced, as Drakeford announced no change except that garden and recycling centres could open.

To be fair to Drakeford he presumably knew that Johnson was going to go further and so he either had to fall in line or speak first, as speaking after Johnson would never have worked. And there are reasons for Wales taking a more cautious approach. While Wales and Scotland have a lower death toll per 100,000 of population than England (35 for Wales v 51 for England) Wales has more total cases - 365 per 100,000 against 251 for England**. I found this surprising as Wales is doing far fewer tests so it is presumably a genuine difference. And on that point about testing, whatever you think about the slow start England go off to on testing and the rapid increase in recent weeks, Wales is in a huge hole in comparison, with a capacity to do less than half the number of tests per million of population that England can do***. This has left the first minister plaintively sticking with the argument that it isn't necessary to test everyone in care homes, while Matt Hancock was desperately trying to find more people to test from care homes or anywhere else to get up to his 100,000 target. (For the record, I agree with Drakeford and may come back to testing when I get around to finishing reading a recent Harvard Medical School report on the subject I've found online).

As well as a higher pro rata number of cases and lower testing capacity, Wales has a weaker and less resilient NHS than England and an almost total lack of private healthcare capacity in much of the country. All of which may have been why we were left still firmly in lockdown in Wales while England has started to relax ever so slightly. Even though, painfully for me, this meant golf courses in Wales would remain closed while they re-open in England, I could understand the reasoning in Wales and so accepted it without being too glum. If it is decided to devolve powers it is only to be expected that there will be some differences, otherwise what is the point in doing it?

So I found it a bit puzzling that people fretted over the anomalies and the fact that the nations couldn't agree on every last detail. The devolved administrations are bound to take a different view on many issues because their situations differ in many respects. But then it is easy for Wales, Scotland and Ireland to be cautious and let England lead in re-opening the economy. After all, they probably feel that, in the limit, the English will bail them out.

A couple of days later Wales fell a bit more into line and said golf courses could open after all from next week, which also required the revision of guidance on travelling to take exercise. There is a different emphasis, requiring people to "stay local" which I think makes good sense. My only real criticism of the Johnson approach at this stage is that it seems unnecessarily risky to say that people can travel as far as they want to exercise, but setting specific limits is difficult. I'd stick with a formula on the lines of "for exercise purposes you should not travel further than the nearest suitable large open space". This would enable the Cumbrian police to turn back folk with canoes on the car roof who have driven for more than an hour to get there, which seems irresponsible.

Indeed, the main thrust of Johnson's speech was exactly what I thought it should be: those who can go back to work should try to do so. Indeed Mrs H will confirm that I've been saying for some time that  the basis of the first relaxation message should be "if your work is not on the list of banned activities (like hairdressing, restaurants) and you can't work from home then you should speak to your employer about whether they have set up arrangements for you to be able to go back to work." Although the unions were initially hostile, when the further details came through the next day there was a sea change with a fair bit of support from many unions and some constructive dialogue about difficult issues such as transport.

But isn't it remarkable that Johnson should say "those who can go back to work should". One might ask why they haven't been working? I've noted before that many activities which were not prohibited were wound down because some businesses thought it was in their interest to furlough people. And some individuals chose, for their own reasons, to stay at home even when they weren't required to do so.  Sources say Johnson, soon after leaving hospital, said that the opportunity to not work was "well and truly taken". The government have to pull off a number of well judged manoeuvres now and one of them is to decide how to keep businesses in the game while weaning the economy of Sunak's blanket dose of financial heroin, a task which he started on Tuesday.

Meanwhile the journalists continue to have a nightmare in terms of their generally pathetic contributions at the daily briefings. Beth Rigby, Sky's political editor with the low voice and, it would seem, equally low IQ is my current bete noir. On the Thursday before the VE Day bank holiday she put it to Dominic Raab that it was confusing to people that the PM had indicated changes from Monday, which they would have read (though only through press speculation) would include more outdoor exercise and sunbathing, but he "doesn't turn up" to tell those people what the changes might be ahead of the sunny bank holiday weekend. Now I feel that the politicians have been excessively polite, with the odd exception - I think it was Matt Hancock who called one journalist's question "stupid", earning a round of applause in our house at least. Raab said the government would take the right decisions at the right time and implied that it had not yet received all the necessary advice to take the decision. I felt he should have told her to go away and reflect on what happened in San Franscisco when the Spanish flu lockdown ended in 1918. Mass gatherings recommenced, there were street parties and, soon, a substantial second wave of infections. Beth needed to be told that's exactly why the announcement was delayed until Sunday.

On Sunday Rigby said the PM had acknowledged that we may never find a vaccine. Leaving aside the thought that her choice of words implies she thought we'd find one hiding behind the sofa, no politician or expert has, to my knowledge, ever claimed that development of an effective vaccine was certain. Johnson humoured Rigby before saying he hoped "we will achieve a virus" before correcting himself a few moments later. We already knew long ago that Johnson is not very good at dealing with questions. For someone obviously bright he seems to need quite a lot of time to process the question and so his answers rarely come out crisply. Presumably he was flummoxed by the thought that someone so brain dead could actually speak.

Other questions were more useful in so far as they put questions that many other people might be thinking even though the answer is obvious. There was a harmless lady who told the PM on Sunday evening that he was telling her to go back to work but her child was still off school, there was no childcare available and she didn't know how she could safely travel. Boris quietly gave the right answer: she should talk to her employer who he hoped would be sympathetic. Meanwhile I'm screaming at the TV that the prime minister can't possibly sort out childcare and study travel options for millions of people who need to take a reasonable degree of responsibility for themselves.

Back in the day psychometric profiling at work revealed that I can, on occasion, lack empathy (really? tell me something that wasn't obvious I hear some of you say). I fear the questions at the briefing sessions have confirmed that tendency......but sometimes it is necessary to tell people to just get on with it.

The government will quite rightly leave time for people to get their minds around their situation. But I seem to be in a minority who think the guidance and advice is, for the most part, perfectly clear and that many intelligent people who say it isn't are being deliberately obtuse. Maybe it's just me - Mrs H and I disagreed quite volubly on this on Monday evening, though she came round more to my view after listening to Alok Sharma's briefing on Tuesday. Nevertheless, I wish the government would let an attack dog off the leash to spell things out for those who need it.

Perhaps something like this:

"We are past the peak and the R value is somewhere below 1. We can't be absolutely sure by how much so we have to make small changes and see how we go.

We want to get schools open, get people back to work, allow people to have more social interaction and get pubs, restaurants, theatres and so on back open.

Given that we think R is between 0.5 and 0.9 we don't have a lot of scope to make changes without risking a second peak. So it's obvious that we have to prioritise the first two over the last two. That's why many of you could start going back to work from last Monday but we didn't want people partying in the parks over the sunny bank holiday weekend - sorry but that's just the way it is.

So we need people who work in activities that are not currently banned - and which actually have never been banned - to talk to their employer about going back to work if they aren't already working. We thought these activities were sufficiently safe to continue when the lockdown started so (surprise, surprise) we think they are capable of being made safe enough now.

Of course each employer's workplace is different and not every workplace can be adapted to meet the current guidelines. Good employers will have been addressing how best to make the workplace safe, taking account of government and industry guidance. They should also have been consulting with any relevant trade unions. Ask questions if you need to and look at reliable information sources like gov.uk and the Health and Safety Executive's website.

You will also need to think about childcare arrangements (if relevant) and how you travel to work. If public transport is your only option, talk to your employer about flexible working patterns to avoid peak hours and look again with them at how much of your work you could do from home. And, if it's practicable for you, ask about sponsored cycle to work schemes.

Oh and by the way the teachers saying it's not logical that they can teach a class while not seeing their family? Well it's a good job the ICU nurses haven't taken that view, isn't it?

We've got to minimise spread across society while using what scope we have for more interaction to save jobs and the economy. To plagiarise Bill Clinton, it's the economy, stupid rather than stupid partying.

We know this is easier for some people than others but the government can't provide every answer to every individual's questions. You are just going to have to think about some of this for yourself.

And yes, it might seem anomalous - or even unfair - but life isn't fair, coronavirus isn't fair and just what is it about all of that that you lot don't get?

No questions because you've already got more than enough answers. Just go away and get on with it."

I understand why government ministers are being emollient and polite. They need to retain public sympathy and support, which would be easy to lose. So I realise they can't address journalists and the public in that way. But I'd dearly love to see Michael Gove deliver that message. If not I'll volunteer. Alternatively it would be wonderful to tell Beth Rigby her questions are facile.....

* Amongst other things, Sandbrook claimed that all the medics and nurses who appeared on a recent edition of BBC's Panorama were Labour activists or supporters which, if true, makes his statement that the programme was 'shamelessly partisan' prima facie reasonable.  Daily Mail 12 May

** My data on coronavirus cases comes from a super interactive map for much of the world and quite a few specific countries in the New York Times. Don't worry, the UK data is from the NHS and PHE. There is  no paywall. It's at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/world/europe/united-kingdom-coronavirus-cases.html#states. You can click on menus to get other countries and regional data for most of them.

*** Wales test capacity 2350 per day (from BBC 9 May) equates to 783 per million of population. Scotland capacity is 8350 per day which equates to 1670 per million of population but only a third of that is actually being done (560 per million) from Herald, 10 May. UK tests done 1-7 May, from Downing Street briefing pack 7 May (available on gov.uk) has average UK tests carried out 90,000 per day. With some mixing apples (test capacity) with pears (tests done) English tests are running at around 85000 per day, about 1500 per million of population, though the capacity is somewhat higher.

Sunak has to do this while helping businesses which have a realistic chance of getting back on their feet in a reasonable time. Hello Richard Branson, this isn't Virgin Atlantic. Not because he's a billionaire - it's his decision whether his airline is worth bailing out with his own money, that's the whole point of  limited companies - but because it isn't at all clear when we'll need as much airline capacity as we currently have. There is no point in subsidising activities for which there may be no need for several years. The planes can be mothballed and Richard, or someone else, can start a new airline when the demand is there. But the problem for the government is that logic may be clear for airlines but what about retail, pubs, restaurants, entertainment and so on? I'd argue that most of these businesses (yes, including football clubs) could easily be restarted when they are needed again. If they run out of money and go bust that might be sad, especially for people who have sunk life savings and huge energy into their own restaurant or other endeavour. But that is part of the risk in starting any business: stuff can happen. Sunak is probably hoping things pick up quickly enough for him not to have to decide which businesses he really needs to sustain to restart or the economy because indefinite blanket support is not sustainable.


The government is going to tell us next week what options there might be for easing the coronavirus restrictions. I doubt it will be much we haven't long since guessed. I'm sure many parents of school age children will be glad to see schools re-open - and probably now think teachers are underpaid. But if R is around 0.7 and opening schools might increase it by 0.2, as some have suggested, that wouldn't leave much scope for restarting the economy. And there's little point in kids going back to school if their parents are sitting at home, it's just not sustainable. One option could be to say the kids can go back if the parents are working, but I can imagine opposition to that idea. It might actually be easier to start some summer camp type options for child minding - I know a fair few youngsters who'd much prefer to be with a golf coach than a teacher and social distancing might be more practicable than at school.

A trickier aspect might be encouraging risk averse people back to work who might prefer to sit it out at home. Rishi Sunak might have to tweak his various schemes, for example putting more restrictions on which type of business can furlough staff going forward, to get the desired result.

For myself it would be good to get back to playing golf - surely one of the sports that lends itself most to social distancing other than perhaps long distance solo cross country skiing. It might also be good for Mrs H's state of mind for me to get back to golf..... Either way I doubt it will be a good idea for us to see our granddaughter yet a while even if it were allowed, notwithstanding her lovely but tearful voice message the other day, saying she can't come to build sandcastles on our local beach "because coronavirus hasn't gone yet".

While we try to get through the next 12-18 months of vaccine development, with no absolute guarantee of success, the elements of a containment strategy based around testing along with civil liberties infringing but absolutely essential track and tracing methods will be critical. This is the real reason why it is important that the government has ramped up testing capability. A lot of the pressure for increasing availability of tests seems to me misguided at best. While testing symptomatic health and other key workers who are self isolating but may not have the disease does add value by getting useful people back to work, it seems to me that randomly testing lots of asymptomatic people hardly adds any value. Unless, that is, it's part of large sample tests as described at Thursday's downing Street briefing which will provide data about spread of the disease and which there was presumably no scope for while testing capacity was limited.

So I understood why Mark Drakeford, Wales's First Minister, plaintively said that there would be no value in extending testing to everybody in care homes. I smirked a bit because this was a rare example of the Welsh or Scottish administrations being bounced by the English, in this case because Matt Hancock had extended testing in England in his desperation to deploy newly available testing capacity and get close to 100,000 tests performed per day by the end of April, Wales having much less testing capacity after the well publicised fiasco at the end of March of the contract they thought they had with Roche that never was according to the company.

It strikes me that it doesn't add much value to do a single test on a asymptomatic care home worker if they don't get the result back immediately. But as usual questions buzzed around my head. How long after exposure to the virus would a test show positive? How long then before symptoms appear? And how quickly can the test results be made available - what are the limitations imposed by the RNA-DNA transformation and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) that the the most reliable type of test currently available relies on?

So I've been reading what I take to be a fairly definitive article on testing from the Harvard Medical School and some other reputable sources*. The Harvard article is in bitesize Q&A form and helpfully jargon-limited.  The PCR test is well established and reliable, with few if any false positives and false negatives mainly due to poor swab taking, not the test itself. But the method takes several hours to produce a result to which you have to add the time to batch up samples, get samples to the lab, run the test and check and return the results. Which is why it tends to take a couple of days, or longer, for people to get their test result. So you can't test someone and give them the all clear before they go on their shift. Faster genetic tests being developed, typically based on a method called loop mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP), hold out the prospect of a test result within half an hour. Still not as quick as a dipstick diabetes or pregnancy test but perhaps we can get to the point where workers get up, take the test, have breakfast and get ready to head off to work having got a negative test result. But we're not there yet.

Testing only tells you not got it at time of test (a few days ago)

Isolate over 60s and only have tested people interacting?
Fine as long as over 60s can golf......


See also good articles in New Scientist:
and the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

Monday, 11 May 2020

EU courts might not be supreme over national courts after all

I've been reading about a fascinating spat between the German constitutional court and the EU. 

It was sparked when the German courts upheld several complaints against the ECB's bond purchasing programme (aka quantitative easing, QE) started in 2015 that was meant to boost the economy and push inflation up closer to 2%. (More recently coronavirus has prompted more such purchases but that wasn't covered). The German court said the programme was beyond the mandate of the ECB and said the German central bank must quit the scheme within three months unless the ECB can prove its necessity. Wolfgang Munchau comments:

"The ruling raises complex and potentially troubling issues for the EU as a whole. The German constitutional court has accused the ECB and the CJEU, the court of Justice of the European Union, of abusing their power, and of acting beyond their assigned competences. That concept is known in German constitutional law as acting ultra vires. In the German legal interpretation of European integration, all sovereignty still rests with the member states. The EU is clearly not a federal state, but a deferred power. Member states have transferred certain rights to the EU. The German court said it accepts that it is bound by CJEU rulings, but only those that occur within the EU's agreed competences. All bets are off it the CJEU goes ultra vires. And, crucially, the German court decides if and when that happens. (My emphasis)

This is the most serious challenge to the EU's legal framework we have yet come across. 

We expect the ruling to strengthen the determination by the Polish government to press ahead with judicial reform, and to resist interference by the EU into what they consider domestic legal affairs."

But on 8 May the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that the highest court in the EU had responded:

"In order to ensure that EU law is applied uniformly, the Court of Justice (ECJ) alone ... has jurisdiction to rule that an act of an EU institution is contrary to EU law," a statement said."

"Like other authorities of the member states, national courts are required to ensure that EU law takes full effect. That is the only way of ensuring the equality of member states in the Union they created."

Going off on a temporary tangent, I thought the Germans were meant to be on a newly discovered holiday to mark the end of fascist rule in Germany on 8 May, but apparently that is just Berlin. East Germany used to recognise 8 May as the Day of Liberation and this year Berlin has declared it a holiday. There is now a petition to make it a national holiday (like it is in France) but many are opposed to celebrating the end of fascism in the country, including the AfD, who say it was "a day of defeat". I once worked in a multi-national management team in which, rather to my embarrassment,  the Brits mercilessly repeated chunks of Fawlty Towers dialogue ("I mentioned the war once but I think I got away with it") with the Germans pretending to laugh and the Americans looking on bemused. It really does still seem that many Germans would prefer to ignore that period of history rather than celebrate the fact that it ended and the modern democratic Germany was created, though I can also understand why, for them, the re-unification of Germany marks full liberation.

Returning to the original theme (if you can still remember it) the QE program is credited with having ended the eurozone debt crisis. However, some critics (I imagine especially German ones) argue it flooded markets with cheap money and encouraged government overspending.

As noted by Munchau the German ruling stoked fears that it could be used for anti-EU efforts by the nationalist governments of European Union member states such as Hungary and Poland. There are also fears the decision could help raise objections to a new bond-buying scheme meant to support Italy, Spain and others from economic ruin due to the coronavirus pandemic. But then the EU has never been big on helping out its member states in trouble, just ask the Greeks. Though I can readily understand why the Germans have always been wary of the spendthrift characteristics of most of their neighbours, especially those to the south. But this wrangle has wider implications. As Munchau notes, in the UK the courts operated under the assumption that conflicts between EU and UK law would always be settled on the basis that EU law is supreme.

Hmm. The supremacy of the EU courts was one of my main reasons for accepting Brexit, even though I voted remain. But don't worry Brexiteers, I expect it wasn't all in vain. The legal wrangle won't be resolved anytime soon but, in the limit, I expect the EU would just produce new directives and require member states to change their laws to clarify who is really the boss if it comes to that.

Wolfgang Munchau's always fascinating blog is called Eurointelligence. There's a public and paid for version. See Eurointelligence public, 6 May; 
The DW story is at www.dw.com/en/european-court-of-justice-slams-top-german-courts-ecb-ruling/a-53371145

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Bird brain

A sad moment for me in lockdown the other day. Let's keep a sense of perspective - we haven't lost anyone close (that we know of) to coronavirus. But I found a young female blackbird lying on the ground around the back of the house, probably a casualty of one of our neighbours' cats. We've owned five cats ourselves over time - all rescue animals. So we are cat people but they are more populous than ever and callous predators of wild life so I found it ironic when an operations director of the RSPB decided to double his household's cat inventory from two to four. But then I remembered one is very old indeed and he also explained that the two new cats came from a farm and were under sentence of being homed or put down.

I've written before about the joy of listening to blackbirds singing at this time of year and was slightly concerned when, in the course of doing some major clearing work last year, we damaged a nest which we identified as belonging to blackbirds from remnants of the readily identifiable green-blue eggs with brown freckles. But apparently they tend to build new nests each time so I wasn't surprised to see a female hopping around me when I was gardening this year. And a couple of weeks ago Mrs H yelped when she was buzzed by two young male blackbirds which flew out of our hedge at great speed, one in pursuit of the other, as young males of any species, including humans, are wont to do. So picking up what I took to be the mother was depressing.

But later in the day, tending the garden around the front where I'd seen the adult female previously, one fluttered down and hopped around me with a worm in her beak, which cheered me up. No, I can't identify individual birds, though individual blackbirds can be recognised by their singing, but like Mrs H is prone to do I've made up a happy story and decided "my" blackbird family wasn't disrupted by the cat.

So now I'm looking forward to seeing the swallows which should be arriving any time now and swooping low over the golf course in north Wales I used to play before the great lockdown. I realised a couple of years ago that I wasn't sure I could tell swallows and swifts apart by their appearance. The birds swooping around me at knee height clearly had a blue patch on their backs but were flying too fast for me to see their more deeply forked tails. But they were making a softer call than the swifts I was used to hearing when we lived in rural Oxfordshire, whose piercing screeches were clearly heard once it went quiet in the evening as they swooped around high above my head. So I'd never seen a swift from above as they don't land, only being able to see their black silhouettes against the sky. But then they are actually pretty much all black. The blue flashes were a sure giveaway of swallows, as you can see from the photo below which shows a swallow swooping down to take on water.

But the blue colour isn't the only difference between them and their other doppelgangers, the swift and the house martin, though they all look quite similar in flight, especially when you can't see any white flashes against the bright sky. Swallow to the right, with the deepest forked tail:

Swift to the left here, nearly all black, and house martin to the right, least forked tail and white rump:

Swifts generally nest under the eaves of old buildings, although sometimes in tall trees. Swallows like to nest in open fronted buildings such as barns and cowsheds, close to large domestic animals like cattle. It is likely that swallows were much rarer before humans practised animal husbandry. The decline in dairy farming in Britain in favour of arable farming has not suited them. Though a few European swallows over winter in southern Spain, most winter south of the Sahara. Curiously the British swallows go further than their continental neighbours, preferring Botswana and South Africa. I don't remember seeing swallows in Oxfordshire, even though our village was quite horsey, being on the edge of the Lambourn downs. Which doesn't mean they weren't there of course, I might well not have noticed being more preoccupied in those days with profit and loss accounts.

House martins are similar in appearance to swallows and swifts but have a white rump and a much less forked tail. We would also see them in Oxfordshire, but only when we moved from the village into the town as they prefer to nest in urban areas. They can be a bit of a pain if they nest in the eaves of your house, as they did on a neighbour's house, making quite a mess. A pair stays together for the season but, while nests get reused (provided sparrows haven't taken them over) it is rare for two to pair again the following year, even if both survive. So they are serial monogamists. They feed at higher altitude to the swallow and so don't compete for food.  House martins were just called martins until a couple of centuries ago. While some house martins stay in southern Spain and Portugal for the winter most migrate further south. It's not known exactly where - because martins don't share communal roosts it's harder for many of them to be ringed. The most prevalent theory is that martins go to the Congo basin rainforests, though I've read a theory that they may "aerial roost", in other words spend the night on the wing. They have been seen flying high at dusk and descending at dawn. And when ringed birds are caught early in the morning they appear chilled. Which may be why they have evolved with feathery legs like long johns:

Swifts roost in the air so why not martins?

Despite the fact that it's the swallow and swift that look the more similar, it is swallows and martins that are related, both from the hirundinidae family. Neither are even remotely related to swifts, whose closest genetic relations are humming birds. Also migratory, swifts spend only 3 months here a year, the shortest of any bird that reproduces here apart from the cuckoo. I remember stepping outside in Oxfordshire in August at dusk and feeling sad when I realised the screams had gone and the swifts had flown south as it was a signal for the coming end of summer. They feed at a higher elevation than either swallows or house martins, which is why it was often easier for me to hear them than see them.

Swifts also spend their winters south of the Sahara, with ringed birds from Britain having been found in the Congo Basin, Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. But the routes they use to get there still aren't known.

Swifts are evolved to be able to spend almost their entire life on the wing. They have tiny feet and almost no legs though, contrary to rumour, adults can take off from the ground, though they rarely need to and can require help. Juveniles would struggle though. So swifts pretty much never touch the ground once they have learned to fly. It's thought that once a swift flies the nest it remains airborne for two years until it is first ready to breed and so stops flying to nest.

So of course they sleep on the wing. As is now well known the way swifts - and quite a few other birds and animals - can do this is to enter a state known as unihemipheric slow wave sleep. Swifts can do this in soaring or flapping flight. So they literally have half a brain asleep and one eye open.

As you can tell I'm very fond of these birds, especially the swifts and swallows. I've discovered a smashing bite sized series of facts on them on a site called Tweetapedia....

And, while I can tell the difference between swifts, swallows and martins, chatting on our walk today I told Mrs H that I'd realised what the difference was between me and a swift. While the swift can shut down half its brain to sleep, I appear to usually only have half my brain working when I'm awake......