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.  https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8878739/Britains-confirmed-coronavirus-case-cleaner-Essex-51.html

*** 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.