Dear President Tweet

Dear President Tweet,

The news from America seems to get worse daily. Protests and looting in several major cities, while you cower in the White House bunker, blurting out scattergun thoughts and ad hoc policies like a five-year-old with the TV remote. One minute you tell us China is wonderfully transparent, the next you are practically lining up coordinates for the missiles. Your amnesia is breathtaking – coronavirus has gone from something that will miraculously disappear to the cause of death for more than a hundred thousand in the US. And in the parallel reality that you, President Tweet, seem to occupy, this is somehow portrayed as validating evidence of your vision and foresight, rather than, in what others call reality, the terminal indictment of a man whose response was that of a rabbit in the headlights. On the other hand, how can you be held responsible for your actions when there were none. Your ratings mattered more to you than the death toll from this very obviously not disappearing virus.

But pandemics don’t magically disappear. Nor is it the case that “nobody knew that”. Actually the CDC and the pandemic planning office did know that. And you would have known that if you had not abolished the office shortly after becoming president. “The cupboard was bare”, you whine endlessly. If it was, then you should have done something about it. You have been the president for more than three years. That’s what presidents do. Well, real presidents I mean. The buck stops with you.

So what is your response to this? How do you make sure that America is best prepared for the pandemic. Unbelievably, you withdraw support from the World Health Organisation, an action that beggars belief in the middle of a pandemic. It is hard to believe, at a time when the world is sharing its experiences of dealing coronavirus through the WHO, that the US should deny itself access to that information through an act of presidential petulance.

And yet, while America burns, you threaten protesters with big dogs and sharp teeth. Or sometimes just bullets. These are the reactions of school yard bullies not leaders of the free world. You are oblivious to the issues and consequently have no hand to play, being unable to comprehend that.

Still, your performances in press sessions are positively Shakespearean in their combination of the tragic, comic and pitiful. Rambling and incoherent, the words tumble out, like Kerouac on amphetamines. Nothing is connected to anything else, each response the sound of an engine revving in neutral. And when a reporter penetrates the outer reaches of what passes for reality in your mind, you plead that it is a ‘nasty question’. Well mummy is not listening. You have to do this one all by yourself. You are the president, remember.

Not everything is “fake news”. Pandemics are real. Looting is real. The fires are real. The injustices are real. While you fan the flames of civil disobedience with one inflammatory tweet after another, understand that this is not fake news. This is reality. You are the fake, Mr President. You are a stain on the office you hold.

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.

Lockdown or countdown?

We stand at a rather interesting crossroads in our response to the coronavirus outbreak. On the one hand, most scientific opinion suggests that coronavirus will be with us from here on in some form or another. On the other hand, our political representatives are, not surprisingly, painting a less bleak picture, hinting that we may have passed the peak and, shortly, be thinking in terms of alleviation of social distancing measures.

You can see the reasoning – they are under pressure from economists fully aware that a lockdown extending beyond the summer will inevitably see the permanent closure of those businesses that are currently surviving by hibernating or rethinking their business models. Politicians feel the need to offer hope. That after all is their stock in trade. And politicians, especially Tory politicians if we are honest, have never done much more than pay lip service to scientific minds. Who can forget Michael Gove’s off-the-cuff “well I think we’ve had enough of experts”. What an utterly fatuous remark.

I don’t envy the politicians. Most of the political nous, obtained on the hustings, has to do with trivia. And let’s face it, in the context of coronavirus everything is trivial. Whereas normally I might have been outraged at the closure of a local library or the restriction of transgender counselling services, these issues barely raise their heads above the parapet of my consciousness. Sorry chaps, but I really can’t get worked up about this at the moment.

Like I said, the politicians are having to balance the public’s patience against the scientific data. To appease the public, the lockdown must end soon. To keep the scientists engaged, the lockdown will be in place until the end of the year.

High streets will never be the same again either way. Some shops are gone for good already. And if I’m honest, it will not be the greatest tragedy in the world for me to see the back of Starbucks. Or any of the coffee shops. Do we really need double espressos at £4 per thimbleful or whatever it is. And would a world without Pizza Hut or Dominoes really be that bad. And as for those designer sandwich shops, don’t get me started.

That last paragraph probably came out harsher than I intended but you get my point. And these are the kind of decisions our political representatives are weighing every day. Do we save businesses or save lives? It really comes down to that. And on the one hand we have the scientists (Chris Whitty in the UK and Anthony Fauci in the USA), peddling harsh statistics and uncomfortable truths. On the other hand, we have Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, pragmatists masquerading as idealists, each with a penchant for political spin over persuasive science.

I imagine that you, like me, felt a shiver down your spine just now reading that. But the choice ultimately is as stark as that. If we take the scientists line completely, we will not open up again until 2021 at the earliest. By then there would be no business left to revive. Seriously. Nothing. Already the spectre of unemployment and isolation is meting out terrible consequences to the mental health of the isolated, to say nothing of the mortality induced by hospitals ‘clearing the decks’ of cancer patients and others to make room for the ongoing influx.

On the other hand, opening up for business again in May will potentially revive businesses (briefly) but at the expense of a second infection tsunami that will make the first look like a ripple in a bird bath. The truth is that we are going to have to live with coronavirus for a long time – years not weeks. We are going to have to find a way to keep isolated but at same time to keep business alive.

In the end, we cannot protect everybody. It is a simple biological fact that the older are more vulnerable. Their immune systems are lethargic, their circulation impaired. Naturally the deaths will be disproportionately distributed to all the elderly. And our current restrictive measures are seen by some to favour the elderly who are naturally used to isolation at the expense of the more gregarious young.

Already there are mutterings and murmurings of unrest. Some, especially the young, are asking whether the socio-economic price is worth paying to preserve granny and grandad. I have even seen one protest reported with individuals carrying placards of “Sacrifice the Old”, as though it were a simple trade-off and we could appease the gods by sacrificing the elderly. This is wrong thinking of the most egregious kind. This is the kind of thinking popular in the beginning of the First World War where bottles of Moselle were publicly poured down drains and where dachshunds were stoned in the streets. Really, this happened. I don’t want to see the country where we demonise the elderly, holding them responsible for wider ills. We need the elderly and their wisdom more now than ever.

But above all, and whichever position one espouses, whether pro-survival or pro-economy, we need to think about this. We are going to have to make a choice at some point and the sooner we start to have a frank and open discussion about this the better.

When numbers become names

Close inspection of coronavirus infection rates and numbers of deaths, whilst on the face of it quite easy to understand are actually much harder to truly comprehend. It was quite easy to understand the numbers during the early phases of the pandemic. Dozens. A football team in essence. Then it was a hundred. That’s like two American football teams. Still the kind of number that one can visualise. Not long after that hundred had become a thousand. But at this point I begin to detach. What does a thousand people look like? Well, I guess it’s a theatre full. But I can’t now see the faces so the number is already becoming abstract. Ten thousand? Simply beyond my visual comprehension. Let me put those kind of numbers in context.

At Pearl Harbor, 2403 Americans and allied personnel died. On 911, 3000 died. During the whole of the US War of Independence, 6800 American soldiers were killed. The invasion of Normandy accounted for 4413 lives on D-Day. At Gettysburg 7058 Federal and Confederate soldiers lost their lives. History has taught us to accept these as huge numbers. Yet they pale into insignificance compared with the casualties from coronavirus. At time of writing (20 April 2020) the number of UK lives lost to coronavirus is 16,509. At the current rate of rise the number of American dead (41,356 today) will exceed the 58,000 US military deaths in the Vietnam war within 10 days. Coronavirus is rampaging through the record books.

You might expect loss of life at this level to render the dead anonymous, with makeshift mortuaries hurriedly erected in parks and mass burials even being shown on the news. Yet, paradoxically, the sheer scale of the mortality has personalised the illness. No longer is the person with coronavirus “that old chap who lives on the corner two streets away but I don’t really know him”. Now it’s “Mrs Brown, three doors along, used to take the kids to school when I was busy”. Coronavirus has given names to the dead. We all know somebody now. Beforehand, we all knew somebody who knew somebody. It’s getting closer.

For a brief moment, we will know the names. We will know they are or who they were. We will have shared conversations, touched each other’s lives, walked beside each other. And then perhaps, as swiftly as their names emerged, they will be lost again in death’s daily deluge, numbers once more.

It doesn’t have to be like this. We can still change things. But let’s hear no more of that “it’s a bit like flu”. Nor is it “a cough and chills”. You don’t build field hospitals and mortuaries for that. Let’s be under no illusion about this virus. It’s very nasty indeed. We have no treatments. We have no vaccine. We have nothing we can do except prevent the spread of it. So stay isolated and wash your hands. A lot.

The propaganda battle

In any war, truth is usually the first casualty as information and misinformation, news and fake news, battle it out for our attention. But at the same time, accurate information on the battlefield is essential in any fight whether it be against human or viral opposition.

Around a week ago, just as we are beginning to make sense of the UK numbers of deaths, one of the daily talking heads (I think it was Sir Patrick Vallance on this occasion) let slip that the daily numbers were relatively inaccurate since there was no time limit on reporting by individual hospitals. In other words Hospital A, up-to-date with its paperwork, might be reporting casualties from the previous 24 hours whereas Hospital B, overwhelmed with workload, might only catch up once a week. Sir Patrick counselled against reading too much into the daily figures because of this.

This makes me angry. Much of the government’s decision-making on when/if to lift the lockdown is based on the much vaunted “flattening of the curve”. If, by their own admission, these numbers cannot be relied upon, how do they expect to make a decision with any accuracy. If the numbers are meaningless, why publish them?

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the government went on to say, a couple of days later, that of course the numbers were an underestimate of mortality since they only reflected deaths in hospital and not those outside. There were no figures for these.

So in other words the data that is published is an inaccurate record of total mortality since it only reflects death in one particular context. And that data itself is inaccurate. We are publishing data that we know to be inaccurate and only partial.

Well why are we bothering?

No, seriously, why are we bothering? Publishing misleading data is a brilliant way of alienating all the people who have self isolated over the last several weeks and who fervently believe that their privations will be reflected in that flattening of the curve. In other words, pretty much everybody. 15,000 deaths. But it could be 10,000. Or maybe 20,000. Who knows.

And then, guess what?

In the last couple of days comes the admission that deaths in care homes have not been recorded at all. The National Care Foundation estimates that some 4000 deaths in care homes have gone unrecorded. And of course care homes are not hospitals, so the data is unrecorded.

I just throw my hands up in despair when I read this kind of information. The truth is that we have no idea how many coronavirus -related deaths there are in the UK. It could be 10,000. It could be double that. But how on earth are we meant to put together any kind of rational strategy to deal with the illness or timeframe to manage the social dimensions without accurate information.

And that’s just the mortality statistics. Don’t get me started on the issue of testing where we are lamentably slow and unfocused. Are we testing the frontline workers to ensure that they are safe and cared for? Are we testing the population of the country to get an idea of overall virus prevalence? Are we testing for antigens or antibodies? What exactly are we doing? Apart from nothing that is.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again because the analogy serves us well. This is a war. In any war you need accurate intelligence on your enemy. That intelligence, on strengths, weaknesses, numbers and disposition is essential to the development of any strategy for attack. Without intelligence we are fighting blind. And we cannot even work out if we are winning or not. Hard to believe but we are losing the propaganda war to some miserable little strand of RNA.

Can somebody go and dig Boris out of Chequers and remind him that there is a war on.