Politicians and statistics: a marriage made in Hell.

The political fate of one senior Tory aide does not, in the grand scheme of things, amount to a hill of beans. He may or may not resign – that’s a matter between him and the Prime Minister ultimately. Opinions have polarised, largely on the basis of whether or not they like him. He does have a capacity for rubbing people up the wrong way. For some, he did no more than most parents might under the same circumstances. For others, his behaviour was one of cavalier disregard for the principles and execution of his government’s lockdown legislation. At best it was oddly naive. He must surely have known that there were press photographers behind every lamppost in his vicinity. He is hardly low-profile in any understanding of the words.

He is not the first person around Whitehall to play fast and loose with lockdown legislation, interpreting it to meet their needs. He surely won’t be the last. My natural reaction to all this shenanigans would largely be one of ‘who cares’ were it not for the wider ramifications for the management of this viral outbreak. And those ramifications have been further undermined by the Prime Minister’s support of his aide. Once again, the Prime Minister finds himself at odds with the Tory grandees. And they have long memories as he will, in the fullness of time, find to his cost.

The tabloids have largely taken the line that Johnson’s authority as leader of the government’s response to the epidemic has been holed below the waterline by his continued endorsement of Cummings. I think that’s inaccurate, if only because it presumes that he had the intellectual authority in the first place. To see him at the press briefings in the early days of the outbreak bracketed by Prof Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance was like an inside-out sandwich with the bread in the middle. He was out of his depth and knew it. He answered questions with the usual flannel while the scientists dished out hard facts.

Gradually the tenor of these briefings has changed. Every cabinet member, one by one, has to face the music. Matt Hancock first, then Pritti Patel and so on has to answer uncomfortable questions as the death toll mounts. They can hardly look forward to their turn. I imagine them trying to hide under desks rather than face the media’s representatives as the tide of public opinion starts to swing away from the Prime Minister’s “we are all in this together” bluster masquerading as rational policy.

And the increasing replacement of scientists by ministers has a clear message – politicians make decisions. Not scientists. It’s no use saying that government decisions are driven by the science. It may or may not be. But either way, it is clear that the science underpinning government decisions will be presented to the public through the rose tinted spectacles of politicians rather than the all revealing microscope of scientists.

For me, there are few sights more ungainly than cabinet ministers attempting to interpret scientific data and graphs. It is like Samuel Johnson’s dog walking on its hind legs. It would be comical were it not for the fact that their decisions, if wrong, cost lives and thousands of them. They spout pseudoscientific babble backed up by GCSE level PowerPoint to try and persuade us that black is white and vice versa while the scientists are confined to the basement, tied to chairs, their mouths covered with gaffer tape.

Politicians secretly love statistics because they know that there is always a graph that fits their needs no matter how bleak the general picture. There will always be one graph showing improvements in one tiny sub cut of the data. “Here you can see a 50% reduction in new cases amongst vegetarians over 90, living with a cat, who have seen more than 20 episodes of Emmerdale”. Cause for rejoicing I’m sure you’ll agree. But it’s impossible to mask the fact that statistics in the hands of politicians is like an AK-47 in the hands of a chimpanzee.

The truth is that statistics, as we commonly use the term, are a dark art. The best statisticians I know are amongst the best scientists I know for statistics is the language of science. Statistics is as much about determination rather than dissemination, deduction rather than description.

In the current climate, the daily merry-go-round of politicians presenting the government’s spin on the death toll is becoming less credible by the day. Is the UK seriously doing well against coronavirus? Let’s just look at the statistics. No spin. Simple facts.

At time of writing, the UK is in 20th place in the charts with 3909 cases per million of the population, comparable with Italy (3813) and Sweden (3412). Germany has 2164. Conclusion? We’re not doing as well as Germany at controlling infection.

The UK has 37,048 deaths (second highest in the world behind the much larger USA) from 265,227 cases of infection. That’s a 14% fatality rate for those infected. Germany’s figures are 8498 dead from 181,298 infected. That’s a 4.7% fatality rate. Conclusion? We are not doing as well as Germany in saving lives of those infected.

The UK has 546 deaths per million population. That places them fifth behind San Marino, Belgium, Andorra and Spain. Ignoring San Marino and Andorra for the moment (tiny countries with sub- statistical populations) puts the UK into third place on the deathometer. Germany is on 25th place with 101 and New Zealand, perhaps the role model for all, is in 121st place with 4. That’s right, four.

At the beginning of this outbreak I recall the Home Secretary stating that the NHS would receive whatever it needed to manage this outbreak. They conveyed confidence and a clear mandate. Carry up to 3 months on, we have seen this conference laid bare. Inadequate personal protective equipment even to protect our own staff, a death toll that involves the frontline nurses and doctors, haphazard bit part testing and rampant disobedience of laws so impenetrably drawn up as to be uninterpretable.

There is a time when it’s no longer good enough to talk the talk. Eventually people notice that you are not walking the walk. The last months have been the time for strong leadership. So it would be nice if we had some. The arrogance and complacency of Boris Johnson’s government will be judged by posterity, by the survivors. It is unlikely that will be kindly.

And Dominic Cummings? Nobody will even remember him.

The voice of a generation

The truth is that 95% of you will not even read beyond this sentence once you realise that this piece is about Wagner and specifically a Wagner singer. So goodbye to 95% of you. And welcome to the remaining 5% prepared to lend me a few minutes of your time to read further. Thank you. It’s appreciated.

I can’t remember the date but I do know I was about 15, at boarding school, when I first began to appreciate classical music. There had been precious little opportunity for classical music appreciation in 1960s Doncaster. Professing a liking for anything classical was enough to get you beaten to a pulp in the playground. At Marlborough it was different. Open disdain gave way to polite tolerance by your peers. Shrugged shoulders instead of clenched fists. The school had a very strong musical tradition and most pupils played an instrument to some level at least.

I remember buying my first classical LP (Peer Gynt music by Grieg) largely on the strength of its use in the 1972 Summerfield house play of Orpheus and Euridice during which I fell in love with the gorgeous Jackie Vellacott. Nearly 50 years later, I still cannot listen to ‘Morning’ without thinking of her.

Other LPs followed, largely without making me think of Jackie and her raven tresses. I bought recordings of the Beethoven symphonies under Erich Kleiber, Vivaldi’s three seasons (autumn had a scratch and was unplayable), the Brandenburg concertos, Mendelssohn’s music for Midsummer nights dream and so on. A good solid grounding in the broad church that is classical music. It will probably come as no surprise to any of my readers that each LP was numbered and dated.

Disc 13 was a turning point. Up until then I had been exploring different styles of music and getting the sense of what I liked and what I didn’t. Disc 13 changed all of that. After an hour of aimless browsing through the racks – B for Brahms, E for Elgar and so on– I was almost out of ideas. W, almost the last rack. And there, at the special budget price of 89p was an LP of Wagner overtures played by the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Hans Knappertsbusch, the doyen – although I didn’t know it at the time – of post-war Wagner conductors.

I took the record up to the observatory where we kept a record player to entertain us during long nights observing distant galaxies. It was love at first hearing. The overture to Tannhauser with slow brass introduction was magnificent. I was hooked.

I won’t catalogue every purchase but it’s fair to say that I bought many more Wagner records, swiftly moving from bleeding chunks of orchestral passages to the entire operas. I learned to appreciate different singers, recognising their individual timbre. I began to have favourites – Hans Hotter, Gottlob Frick, Wolfgang Windgassen, Gustav Neidlinger and more.

But one singer stood out from this distinguished list. Born in 1918 in southern Sweden was a simple farm girl, who grew up to be the greatest Wagnerian soprano of her generation. I’m talking of course of Birgit Nilsson. She had a voice that was perfect for the great Wagner roles. Absolutely clear, precise and of awesome power. The high notes were hit with absolute accuracy. She eschewed the common practice among sopranos of sidling up to the high notes to cover failings in technique. Her technique was impeccable – she simply opened her mouth and hit the note head on.

She was the exact opposite of diva. Whereas other singers flounced in and out of the dressing room having hissy fits about the quality of mineral water or the colour of the curtains, Nilsson simply went to her dressing room, changed into her costume, went out and sang. No airs. No graces. Just a determination to show the public what she could do.

The singer may be gone (she died on Christmas Day in 2005) but the many recordings that remain are testament to this fabulous voice. I could go on but you’ve indulged me enough by reading this far. Just one more favour – listen to this recording. It will explain everything.

Birgit Nilsson sings the liebestod from Tristan und Isolde by Wagner, Stockholm 1964 .

Thank you.

Glad we cleared that up

By any standard, Boris Johnson’s performance yesterday evening was breathtaking. It was a performance worthy of his American counterpart. Positively Trump-esque in its incoherence, rambling and bizarre use of hand gestures. The lockdown was being relieved/not relieved. You can visit relatives but are advised not to visit relatives. If you can go to work, you must go to work unless you can work from home. And to get to work, you shouldn’t use public transport unless you have to in which case you should be working from home. The schools will not open yet but will open imminently. Some teachers will be available for some classes some of the time but will deliver online classes the rest of the time when they are not in school delivering real classes. Go to the parks now for exercise all day long but only if you maintain social distancing. You can play sport but only with your family assuming they all live under the same roof and are not members of the family who were shielding. If you are shielding, stay shielding. Eventually people will forget about you and we won’t need to offer further instruction. If you are a key worker, carry on working your key when you are not playing sport with your family, exercising in the park, delivering food for those who are shielding or collecting medicines. You may collect medicines as long as you do not use a park or public transport. If you need to use public transport to get to the park, try and find a different family with whom to play sport. If you wish to collect medicines as well as play sport, you should not go to the park unless shielding and on a Thursday. If you wish to use public transport have your excuse ready when inspected. Do not produce food or attempt to buy medicines when shielding schoolchildren who are taking part in a virtual online class before organised sport between the members of the family who are not shielding.

Glad we could clear that up

A textbook pandemic

Once again, not so subtle leaks to the press are being used to trail imminent governmental announcements. In this case, the newspapers have led with the idea that there will be significant lifting of the lockdown after the weekend. And Mr Johnson finally gets his opportunity to be the bearer of good news to his flock.

Closer scrutiny reveals an entirely different picture. The number of new admissions to hospital with coronavirus has not peaked. Even with the most optimistic look over the data, it is at best on a plateau, and a high plateau at that. Let’s be clear on this. Far from beating the coronavirus into submission, the lifting of significant parts of the lockdown is an economic decision.

Economic decisions taken in the face of opposing science rarely makes long-term sense. So, bowing to pressure from the economists and industry, the government will loosen the lockdown. Since we are not yet on the downward part of the graph, there will be a rapid acceleration in the number of cases. This will inevitably result in a further lockdown of more extreme nature simply because of the numbers involved. A couple of weekends of busy public transport, crowded parks and beaches and we should be well on our way to a massive surge in the number of cases.

It’s easy to control a trickle of cases (relatively speaking) with the health service just below capacity than it is to slow a deluge of cases extending way beyond capacity of the country’s intensive care resources. When people require intensive care treatment for coronavirus, the mortality is about 20%. That assumes the best of treatment and adequate facilities. The mortality amongst patients requiring intensive care but unable to receive it because of bed limitations will be nearer 100%. That’s why it’s important to stay below the NHS saturation level. We are close to it at present. The consequences of removing the lockdown too soon may trigger a deluge of new infections and send the death toll into the stratosphere.

No wonder the scientists are twitchy. They know full well that releasing the economic brakes too soon will result in a second infection wave of apocalyptic proportions. And this is too soon.

If we would only pay attention and look back to 1918 and sequence of events then, we would learn how to deal with this. But once again we are doomed to repeat the lessons of history rather than learn from them.

So, here is the chain of events. Government relaxes lockdown on Monday. Two weeks follow in which people use the parks and beaches for recreation not exercise. People visit relatives they haven’t seen for a while. By the end of the month, the number of new cases per day has doubled to around 10,000 day. Intensive care units are saturated and we are beginning to see a rise the death rate which will peak in mid to late June at around 2000 per day and continue at that rate until the autumn. Well on target, as I predicted a couple months ago to hit a UK death toll between 100,000 and 200,000. You read it here first.

This is a very textbook pandemic.

Tickling trout

It’s been nearly fifty years but I remember mostly the Saturdays from my first summer term at Marlborough. Woken by the hour bells, blinking with the sun on your face (there were no curtains in the dormitories). The smell of frying bacon from the refectory kitchen. Lessons in the morning and cricket in the afternoon for those so inclined. The smell of cut grass and the whirring of mowers on the square below the pavilion if the First XI were playing that day.

Most found their entertainment elsewhere. Some crossed the road to Kennedy’s for tea and buns. Others ventured further, weaving amongst the Saturday market stalls, past Hyde Lane, the Castle and Ball, and the White Horse bookshop with its racks of remaindered paperbacks outside and optimistic honesty box.

Further on, past the town hall and the Aylesbury Arms, a small bridge crossed the Kennett. Although sometimes fast moving in winter spate, the clear water of its summer meanders revealed fish hiding amongst the weed and grasses swaying like a girl’s long hair in the current. Shoals of sticklebacks darting from rock to rock. Then, turning west along the upper wooded bank, with firmer footing near the sluice and weir, to Preshute bridge where the channel narrowed and in the middle of the stream swam larger fish holding position against the current with lazy sweeps of their tailfins. Trout mainly. Mostly browns, some rainbows.

We would discard our shoes and socks, roll up our trousers and stand, shivering at first, then motionless in the stream no deeper than my schoolboy knees. And as we waited patiently, the trout would gradually investigate, their curiosity pricked by the bleached columns of our calves. Cautiously at first, in gentle feints and twitches, then longer lunges and feigned disinterest.

The slightest human movement spooked the fish. The knack was to persuade a trout to see your dipped hand as part of the riverbed, your gently moving fingers no more than weed undulating in the current. Then you waited. Minute after tense minute, sometimes hour after hour.

Usually you ran out of patience, digits chilled by the cold clear water until all feeling was lost. Some once every eternity a fish would swim within the reach of your fingers and with lightning speed you might grasp it or, more commonly, try to flick the fish up and out of the water. In a perfect world, the trout would land on the riverbank, stunned long enough for you, like Emperor Nero, to raise or lower your thumb in judgement, consigning the fish to the smokery or returning him to the stream whence he came.

This last was purely hypothetical. I never once landed a tickled trout. I never had to make that life or death decision for the fish. My own incompetence saw to that. And I can’t, with any certainty, vouch in which direction I might have chosen.

I’ve seen trout tickled by others. I know it can be done. But you have to be an outdooorsman, born and raised on the river, in tune with its mystical rhythms and flows. You have to understand the fish. That comes from experience. At the end of the day, I was just a town boy learning the ways of my country cousins. You can dress the part, even play the role but it’s not the same thing.

Only once was I ever challenged to present my fishing licence for that stretch of the river. With the overconfidence of youth, I argued that I had no rod and line and was just paddling in the water. “Don’t try to be smart with me” said the man “I know exactly what you are doing”. He paused and his face almost broke into a smile. “Done it myself when I was younger”.

I wanted to ask if he had any success but thought better of it. He seemed to want to tell me. We stood for a moment.

“Pick up your things lad and be on your way. We’ll say no more”.

The virus’s point of view

Try and see it from the coronavirus’s point of view. It’s the middle of December 2019, approaching Christmas. All that old grandpa coronavirus has to think about is a few late stocking fillers for the kids and trying to remember the names of his 75 billion grandchildren. An average Christmas.

Then, all of a sudden, some clown of a human orders the Vampire Bat Blue Plate Special in downtown Wuhan and one or two young hotheads in the virus community decide to jump ship from bat to human. “Come on in, the plasma is lovely” they call to their friends.

Word gets back to grandad coronavirus that some of the youngsters have been playing in a different gene pool. He sends them to bed without supper and tells them to stop messing about in humans. Stick to bats. “Next time I shall confiscate your PlayStations” says grandad “just make sure it doesn’t happen again”.

Grandad emits a sigh of relief. We dodged a bullet on that one, he thinks, sitting in his favourite armchair by the fireside. He dozes off, muttering about the impetuous nature of young viruses these days.

A couple of hours later he’s woken by one of his granddaughters, Abigail 327469. She looks anxious.

“What is it, Abigail 327469?” he asks.

“Well grandad” she says “there’s a little bit of a problem”. Grandad coronavirus has a bad feeling about this suddenly.

“I don’t know how to put this” says Abigail 327469 “but one or two of the humans have started… sort of… well … Dying”.

Grandad coronavirus is a sinking feeling.

“One or two?” He asks “well which is it – one or two?”

Abigail 327469 looks sheepish,

“Well sort of 233,000” she says. “Shall I start collecting up the PlayStations?”

“How do you mean 233,000? I thought I made myself perfectly clear last night to everyone”

The phone rings. It is grandpa coronavirus’s friend from the ministry.

“Yes I’ve just heard… No, I told them not to… I thought they had all come back… Yes I suppose it is pretty bad PR… Well, obviously the humans have to blame someone… Sorry, I didn’t catch that… Yes I suppose it is an omnifuck”.

He turns to Abigail 327469. “I want all your brothers and sisters here in an hour”.

An hour later…

“What I told you all about crossing species barriers? No, put your hand down Derek 752226. It was a rhetorical question.”

Derek 752226 raises his hand again. Grandad continues. “Rhetorical means I answer it. You’re really not the sharpest knife in the drawer are you Derek 752226”.

“Why is it that you youngsters are never satisfied. The bats have made us very welcome over the years. We had a deal – they provided accommodation for us and we left them alone to do their batty things. And I have to tell you that the bats are a bit miffed. They feel rejected.”

“And then as if that isn’t bad enough, you start killing the humans. Now call me old-fashioned but I think that’s rather a case of abusing hospitality. You turn up on the humans doorstep, sneaking through the back door and then start ordering pizza. Not good enough, young viruses.

“This host hopping has got to stop. Bats were good enough for your parents and their parents and so on. Nobody worried us and we didn’t worry anybody. This pandemic malarkey on the other hand is about the worst PR disaster we could possibly have. Suddenly we’re public enemy number one. Nobody wants to help us”

Grandad coronavirus pauses for a moment and takes a sip of water.

“Okay youngsters, you got us into this mess. You can get us out of it. Let’s hear your ideas”.

Brief chatter growing louder and turning to laughter.

“What is so funny?” Asks grandad.

“It was Derek 752226’s idea” said one “something to do with injecting Lysol”.

Grandad buries his head in his hands. “God help us” he mutters.