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.