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

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Moth beaten?

Democracy Man suggested my last post, identifying some moths I'd found around the house with, it turned out, predictable names, implied I was getting a bit moth eaten. Actually that was the point - this whole identifying moths thing started last year when Mrs H asked if any of the moths we were finding around the house were the type that eat your clothes. So I checked. So far, they're not. These are the ones you don't want to find: firstly the case-bearing clothes moth, tinea pellionella:

and secondly the common clothes moth, tineola bisselliella:

Both are small, with a wingspan of 9-16mm and they are among the moth varieties that don't feed. All the damage is done by the caterpillars and the only purpose of the adult moths is to breed. The common clothes moth prefers scuttling to flying. Though generally associated with houses both types of moth can and do live in the "wild", sometimes being found in birds' or wasps' nests.

My first conclusion was that the attractive "butterfly-shaped" moths are a decoration rather than a problem: the ones you don't want are small and narrow, tucking their wings in at rest. The specimen I found that I was most suspicious of looked quite similar:

However I assuaged my nerves by identifying this small brown moth I found in the house as - surprise, surprise - a Brown House moth. Although superficially quite similar to the buggers above, it's quite a bit bigger, with wingspan 15 to 26mm. The caterpillars can live for up to two years (!) and they feed on detritus that accumulates behind skirting boards and other similar places. Charming - and all the skirtings only went on 3 years ago!

There have been some rather more attractive specimens, many still with predictable names. This one is called the Red Underwing:

Which might not seem appropriate until it flies:

As you can see you can't snap these guys very clearly in flight. For this reason I have identified many moths only after they have pegged it and they are decorating the floor. I let this one fly out, but this is what they look like if you can pin them down:

I know it's orange rather than red, but remember the word "orange" to describe colour only dates from the 16th century. There are also light and dark crimson underwing species.

I also found a common swift (though it wasn't very swift by the time I found it):

Mrs H found a Common Plume, which tucks it's wings away to look like a glider:

She got quite excited as she initially thought it was a stick insect. And, outside the house in the garden (though admittedly on the door of my car) I found a Garden Carpet:

Identifying moths with certainty isn't always easy. The size of some adult species can vary greatly and, while the patterns are a good guide they can vary subtly, while colours can vary a lot too. So I have been beaten by several species, including this handsome specimen, which had paler hind wings but flew too quickly to be photographed:

However, we haven't seen a moth in Wales as bright as those we saw while walking along the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire, like the Five Spot Burnet, often found on such chalk downlands. Guess how many spots it has on each wing?

We were, of course, convinced it was a butterfly until we got back home and checked our wildlife guides. These days I would refer first to my new favourite webpage, the page titled "identify a moth". The site also answers that old question - what's the difference between a butterfly and a moth? No, nothing to do with colour, hairiness or time of day. Indeed their expert says:

"Unfortunately, there isn’t a straightforward answer – at least not one that most people find acceptable."

noting some subtle differences before going on to say:

"The real answer to the question and the answer that people find so troubling is that there isn’t really much of a difference at all. The fact that in English at least, society has different words and, indeed, very different attitudes to them is largely a cultural concept rather than a scientific one. All moths and butterflies belong to the group Lepidoptera, which is one of the great, mega-diverse insect Orders on the planet, comprising some 165,000 species worldwide of which only c.18,000 are butterflies. A similar situation exists in Britain where we have only about 60 butterfly species but over 2,500 recorded moths. So, clearly if we want to apply a common, English name to the Order Lepidoptera ‘moths’ is much more appropriate than ‘butterflies’."

I accept my current preoccupation is very sad. But maybe sadder still the new football season started today, which may change my focus for a while. Though it may not improve my humour.....

* The photos of the moths I didn't snap, including the clothes moths, are from

Saturday, 22 August 2020

More unsurprising names

 I've written occasionally about how the common - and sometimes proper - names for flora and fauna sometimes fairly obviously stem from their appearance. For example, sticky weed and cotton grass. We always get quite a few moths in the house summer and autumn months and recently these have included this beauty, which looks just like mother of pearl, along with its photo in Collins Complete British Wildlife:

Turns out it is, of course, known as the mother of pearl moth. It's cmmon and widespread throughout much of Britain and Ireland and is found in meadows, wasteground and overgrown hedgerows (tick for all of those nearby).

Then I found this one, which has an unusual marking like a letter "y" on each wing:

Of course, it's called the silver Y and is Britain's most common immigrant moth. I'm not sure where it migrated from but there are plenty of other immigrants around here in north Wales, including ourselves. As Collins notes, each forewing has a conspicuous unbroken metallic silver y marking (it looked more gold to me, so I checked it wasn't another species called the scarce silver Y, but it's definitely not that).

I also found this one on the floor in our dining room:

This absolutely beautiful species is called the striped twin spot carpet moth. The description is "light to dark grey with many faint cross lines, a slightly darker central cross band, with small dark central spots always present" (tick to all those). This medium sized moth prefers moorland with exposed rocks (yep, got those) but can also be found on sand dunes and open woodland (also tick). It is reasonably widespread in north and west Wales, even if I hadn't noticed one before. My only problem is that, although a lot of British moths have "carpet" in their name, it wasn't actually on the carpet.

The latter two weren't in the Collins book that I had considered a bible - after all it's got "complete" in the title. But then we've had it a while and there has been a lot of immigration. So I found a super website which has a page "identify a moth":

Isn't retirement wonderful?

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

An A grade mess

The government decided to stop digging an even bigger hole by backtracking on A level results rather than carrying on and applying the now infamous algorithm to GCSEs and making the hole deeper. Nevertheless, this remains a fiasco that will probably generate more headlines yet, with universities now presumably swamped with successful candidates and wondering how to accommodate the extra students while still heeding social distancing. Though no doubt those same universities are relieved to have the maximum possible home grown candidates to replace some of the revenue lost by the decline in more lucrative overseas students. Predictably some universities are saying they will need more money to take the extra students, as their budgets will still be out of balance without fewer Chinese students in particular. Nine UK universities were reliant on Chinese students for more than 20% of their tuition income, led by Glasgow (31%) and Liverpool (29%). Watch out for another self righteous storm of entitlement if Rishi doesn't cough up the cash and some students find they have to spend a gap year not seeing the world.

The remarkable grade inflation (38% more A and A* grades than 2019) means this year's cohort will forever have an asterisk by it, a bit like a super-charged athlete in a dope ridden Olympics, but as A levels are pretty much used solely for university entrance decisions that need not matter too much.

Boris Johnson described the process as "robust" and "dependable" only a few days before it was ditched. I can only assume he hadn't been briefed in any detail about what the outcome would look like. Once that was revealed I imagine he was nearly as unhappy with it as any hard done by student since the way the algorithm gave preference to schools with small class sizes and historically good results worked directly counter to his concept of "levelling up".

In the run up to the U-turn I read a bit of background to the story. This was partly to counter my knee-jerk prejudice that, once the teachers assessments were shown to be preposterously and unrealistically generous, there was probably no good answer to the problem.  But also because this felt to me like a train wreck occurring in slow motion from the time the exams were cancelled.

So I Googled "how much grade inflation in teacher assessments" to check the stat I believe I read that 40% of teacher assessed grades were adjusted downward through application of the Ofqual algorithm. And I found a remarkable plum: a blog post by someone called Dennis Sherwood from way back in May on the Higher Education Policy Institute's website. HEPI tasked Sherwood with tracking the state of this year's public exams. There was much controversy about the failure of Ofqual to publish full details of its algorithm but it did announce the 'key principles' to be used in ensuring GCSE and A level grades were "as fair as they can be". Those principles were:

  • schools submit their central estimates for each candidate and rank order of candidates for each exam
  • Ofqual apply a standardisation model comparing these estimates with the school's track record (over the last 3 years for A levels)
  • Ofqual adjust the grades to fit the model without changing the ranking order
  • Overall the national grade distributions would be broadly in line with previous years

As is clear from the title of his blog post, "Two and a half cheers for Ofqual's standardisation model...",(note 1) Sherwood was fairly complimentary about the basis for the algorithm. Indeed he said "To me this all makes good sense. The rules are simple. There are no behind-the scenes statistics and the process can be replicated at every school. So teachers can have confidence that their centre assessment grades, submitted in compliance with their historical averages, will have a high likelihood of being confirmed rather than over-ruled." Note the italics are my emphasis. And the rest of Sherwood's blog post title was " long as schools comply".

So the first obvious problem is what if schools don't comply? If teachers did not moderate their grades in accordance with previous distributions, which was standard practice when I was a lad, and lots of them give lots of their students the benefit of the doubt on grade boundaries, then there will be a lot of grade inflation. As Sherwood pointed out "Ofqual's key objective is to prevent grade inflation". So then the model will produce lots of changes and a high likelihood that many teacher assessments would be reduced rather than confirmed.

But the point that grabbed my attention came next, when Sherwood explained why he only gave two and a half cheers. He gave a detailed example for 6 imaginary schools, showing their grade performance over the previous three years. He assigned 60 pupils at each school grades from A to F, each school having an average of 10 candidates in each grade with a range of plus or minus two. If each school again has 60 candidates they would each school be expected to submit 10 A* grades. But what if schools feel they've had a good year with a strong cohort? Maybe 12 A*s would be pushing it but surely 11 ought to be ok. If they all put in 11 A*s there are 66 instead of the expected 66 and Ofqual's algorithm will throw a wobbly (Sherwood uses the phrase "the board must intervene"). If asked, every school will have a reason why they are a special case, which Sherwood felt would be difficult to judge fairly. If any of these reasons are accepted another school must reduce its number of A* grades to 9, which Sherwood felt "just won't happen". So he concluded "it's in everyone's interests to submit the average, 10". Now I don't have any evidence to support me on this but many schools presumably did not do this, they just pushed the boat out. So Ofqual would then inevitably moderate each of these imaginary schools down to 10 A*s by using the rank order of the school's candidates, downgrading the candidates ranking lower than 10th on the school's list.

However, that's not all. Sherwood said there was one "nasty problem". He even gave the person an imaginary name: Isaac: 

"But what about poor Isaac at school G? He is particularly gifted at Physics, and his school recommends him for an A*, even though the school has never achieved above grade B for years. The submission on behalf of Isaac will easily be identified as an outlier and so is quite likely to be disallowed. Isaac, however, will not be consulted; nor will his teacher. So Isaac will be awarded grade B, consistent with his place at the top of the rank order. He will be a victim, and his school too, for this year’s process traps all schools as prisoners of their pasts."

Wow! So the whole issue of high performing candidates at traditionally poor performing schools was staring everyone in the face 3 months ago! Interestingly, Sherwood didn't seem to think this was a great problem:

"But before we weep too much on Isaac’s behalf, let us remember that Isaac is just one of the huge number of people disadvantaged (to say the very least) by this most pernicious virus, and although this is a pity, many people have suffered far more gravely, and without recourse to the autumn exam at which Isaac can prove his A*++."

Hmm. Sherwood might be an education expert but he hasn't got any political antennae whatsoever. We've had more than a decade now of sound and fury about the dominance of private school candidates and low representation of ethnic minorities at Oxbridge and a whole area of activity has built up around inclusivity and diversity in university admissions. I recall a great hoo-ha about a female state school pupil called Laura Spence from North Tyneside who had straight A*s at GCSE, was predicted to get top grades in her 4 A levels and was the only one of 100 pupils in her school year to apply for Oxbridge. Laura was rejected by Magadalen College Oxford on the grounds that there were 22 candidates, all with similar qualifications, for 5 positions and she had not interviewed as well as others.  This was in the year 2000, Tony Blair ("education, education, education") was PM and it became known as the Laura Spence affair (Note 2).

Yes of course Isaac could miss a year, take his exam and prove his worth but this point as much as any other created the problem for the government. Yes there were strange examples of whacking great downgrades from C to U (fail) because the algorithm demanded that if a school was due to get a fail in a subject then its weakest candidate damned well had to fail. But the problem is that, once the results are published the Isaac's aren't imaginary, they are real teenagers with names and the media will find them within hours. This was the emerging story, running 180 degrees counter to the  "levelling up" agenda, that probably created the most discomfort for the government. Gavin Williamson's inability to ask enough questions to see it coming means that he must be a dead man walking. Johnson  presumably feels it better not to make a change before the schools go back in case they don't and to let him carry the can for any problems with that as well.  

Remember, Sherwood said all this 3 months ago, on 18 May. By 23 July he was warning of looming problems. In another HEPI blog (Note 3) he warned that hindsight shouldn't be cited as an excuse when something goes wrong if it was clear it was going wrong: it's better to use foresight. He noted the Education Select Committee had criticicised Ofqual for not publishing its algorithm and had expressed concern about how fairness was to be ensured for schools lacking three years of data or with small, variable cohorts. Ofqual did publish a slide pack from a symposium which contained some "good news" (small cohorts recognised as needing special treatment), some "bad news" (appeals process still very narrow and technical) and some "sad but unsurprising news" (the vast majority of schools had given optimistic GCSE and A level grade which would have meant an unprecedented rise in results).

Sherwood asked an obvious question - why were teacher assessed grades required at all if it was the intention to moderate them to previous profiles? He proposed two alternative strategies which could have been adopted. The first was for each school to be told exactly how to comply with the "no grade inflation" policy. The exam boards know the historical pattern for every school and subject and how many candidates were entered for 2020. They calculate how many grades are allowed in each subject at each school and send a form for them to fill in the names.They might also allow schools to exceed a grade allocation where there is robust evidence, depending on how much wiggle room for modest grade inflation Ofqual would allow. The second was to trust the teachers to behave with integrity by supplying a spreadsheet set up to calculate grades based on history and dealing with averaging, rounding and year on year variability but enabling them to make adjustments for exceptional individuals. Neighbouring schools would act as external examiners in vetting the judgements and bodies such as the Sixth Form College Association and unions could have been involved in reviewing to suppress "gaming".

I'm not sure either of these options would have worked out a lot better. The first option would still have produced some Isaac type stories ("why did my school suddenly give me a B when I'd been working at A?"). The second option might have stood a chance. However the point is that people saw these problems coming; the government didn't.

I don't know what the thought process was at schools, but it wouldn't stretch the imagination much to think that many thought that all the other schools would be doing the best for their pupils so they should do the same and give every last one of them the benefit of the doubt. And I wouldn't put it past their leaders to have figured out that gaming the system to extreme would break it. Which I'm sure they would regard as a win.

All that said, I'm not without some sympathy for the teachers doing the assessments. I heard one teacher on the radio plaintively saying that he knew some of his students would make a mess of the exam, he just couldn't predict which ones. I guess this is where the rough justice of the ranked list does it's job, perhaps to 80% effectiveness. 

Which is probably better than the accuracy obtained in any normal year. It's worth remembering that exams are a poor way of evaluating candidates. This is partly because of marking errors and valid marking judgements: research has shown two markers can mark a paper differently. Ofqual say

'it is possible for two examiners to give different but appropriate marks for the same answer'.

And there is always the arbitrariness of grade boundaries, to the extent that Ofqual also say

'more than one grade could well be a legitimate reflection of a student's performance'.

It is estimated that 40% of exam grades are incorrect. So there are always injustices, with an estimated (by Ofqual presumably!) 750,000 annual victims of incorrect grades annually in England. Nevertheless exams are the best method yet designed for assessment and are likely to remain so.

Personally would have been aghast at the prospect of teacher assessments for my school exam grades, particularly at GCSE. As a somewhat shy and quiet student (at least until a switch flicked and I became well and truly gobby) I often didn't contribute much in class particularly in subjects I was less fond of. Some teachers might have thought I wasn't interested. But as a swot who often understood things better second time round with a decent short term memory and fairly large appetite for revision my exam results generally eclipsed my report assessments. Mocks usually went well but I think some teachers would have thought that a fluke, whereas I tended to do better when it was for real.

Indeed I was horrified to discover what my headmaster actually thought of me over 50 years ago now when a university interviewer breached protocol and told me what his report said. The report was based on yes, teacher assessments and also a cosy chat in his study. One peer who, having heard what sort of stuff the head found commendable, waxed lyrical about films such as Dr Zhivago (said peer went on to the dizzy academic heights of a PE college). I said what I thought (quelle surprise....)  "The candidate appears only to be interested in football and what he calls 'progressive' rock" the lecturer read out. After a pause and possibly seeing my expression he smiled and said "you'll fit in just fine here".

Years later my older son was a victim of an erroneous assessment by a science teacher which affected his science option at GCSE until Mrs H and I intervened. His physics teacher could not explain why the lad had not been allowed to tackle the more challenging version and corrected the error, though only after a term had elapsed and test results meant we just had to ask a simple "can you explain why" question. The teacher whose assessment had been used, known to us as Mr Woodlouse (note 4), was also the assistant head and our older son had always felt "he just doesn't like me". Don't worry son, it was obviously genetic.

I guess my point here is that the extent of grade inflation indicating a tendency to gross over-marking by teachers with a smaller number of cases where they have allowed bias to make their assessments too low demonstrates that teacher assessments will always be flawed. Some might say so are exams, though I would argue less so, as they are less susceptible to personal bias in either direction.

So one conclusion is that no system is perfect, there are always some wrong grade assessments and always will be. Does it matter? At an individual level it can, though most people dust themselves off and get on with the next opportunity. Unless a good candidate with a very specific and realistic goal is thwarted it generally won't turn out to matter that much, people with talent will succeed.

In the end the real casualties here are firstly, faith in our politicians and our "system" but secondly the "gold" standard of A levels will be tarnished, perhaps irreparably. The really bad outcome from all this will come in the future when the precedent of using teacher assessments effectively unmoderated is used to press for more teacher driven results, as I'm sure it will be, leaving us with no basis for believing anyone's grades. It smacks of prizes for all, a philosophy I have always disliked: one that has been proven to be harmful as it builds a kind of self esteem which expects success to come easily and is so fragile that it collapses when faced with challenging assignments. 

Indeed when 38% of A level results are A or A* and a preposterous 79% of university degrees are first or upper second we've pretty well got there already. Matthew Syed argued in his Sunday Times column this weekend that we owed it to our young people to allow them to fail, rather than expect them to pass everything. I would go further and say it is helpful for them to learn what they are really good at rather than maybe just competent. If the bright ones get A* for everything how do they know which subjects are the ones in which they might go on to be one of the very best?

In a normal year of course this wouldn't matter a jot. I spoke to a recently retired university admissions tutor who told me he had routinely ignored teacher assessments of candidates and had relied entirely on GSCE results and the university's own interaction with candidates. In other words teacher assessments haven't been worth the paper they are written on for some time, if ever.

Even so I don't begrudge the individual students their opportunities, even if I still think far too many go to university these days. It looked like the impact of covid on overseas students might burst that particular bubble by bankrupting some unis. Not yet, it seems.

I've often been heard to say that, when I have voted Conservative it has been because, on balance the party has a broader and more appropriate "gene pool" for government and a better track record of sound administration. Johnson's government has so far proved not to have the intellectual or stamina bandwidth to cope with the enormous pressures it has faced. I have a lot of sympathy for Matt Hancock who I would argue has, on the whole, done a good job - and probably a better one than 95% of the MPs currently in parliament would have done. He has been let down by his officials and quangos (and yes, by "our" NHS at times, particularly its hubristic leader Sir Simon Stevens). But Hancock has failed to ask key questions at the right time. For example, back in February he might have asked:

"all this PPE - is it still there? Is it still in date? What if we need a lot more for covid than flu? Or different stuff? What if it's needed in places other than hospitals? How do we distribute it to where it's needed?"

Similarly Gavin Williamson, in saying he didn't know until last weekend what the A level results were going to look like, has presumably also been let down by his officials, who surely had a responsibility to warn that there would be lots of Isaacs and the government would look an ass. But if he wasn't being told he should have been asking that question weeks if not months ago.

Dennis Sherwood knew what was going to happen. Officials in the Dept for Education presumably also did. But Gavin Williamson waited for the train to hit the buffers before finding out. An F for homework and a U for foresight then, leading to a f*** u*.

Johnson needs to get his most competent people in the critical jobs before his government begins to look accident prone, John Major style, before it has really got started. Major's government went on to be competent and effective, but the damage was done: the electorate was set on change less than half way through its term. Johnson isn't there yet but he's heading firmly in that direction at the moment. 

Note 1. Dennis Sherwood, a scientist by background, was amongst other things an Executive Director of Goldman Sachs  and MD of SRI Consulting (SRI once being known as the Stanford Research Institute, Stanford being ranked in the top five in the world in "major education publications". His blog post is at

Note 2. See, for example, Wikipedia. Laura was awarded a $65,000 scholarship by Harvard.

Note 3

Note 4. It's not difficult to guess Mr Woodlouse's real name. Unlike my old grammar school head Mr Williams, he's probably still living. No, I'm not worried about a libel case. My son went on to study physics at Uni which Mr W's original decision, based on him supposedly not being able enough, would have precluded. Teacher assessments can prove to be under as well as over estimates. The majority of them do a good job without bias but I expect most of us have seen it or felt it at some time. Centrally set exam papers don't have it in for individual students.