The last 24 hours has been a wake up call for Dr No. A natural sceptic when it comes to government statistics, he has nonetheless been lulled into a false sense of confidence over the availability of covid–19 data, by the widespread online publication of data. Crucially, he made the naive assumption that, if data was existed, then it would be published. This assumption — and we should recall that assumption is none other than the mother of all f*ck ups — was it seems badly wrong. Allegations are rife in the press that the government has wilfully held back crucial local authority level data on Pillar 2 covid–19 testing, hampering local attempts to manage spikes. This discovery has led to an orgy of data mining and sharing, led by the FT, and tarted up using deeper red data gloss by the Guardian. The inevitable caring and sharing so much it hurts explosion on twitter is now in full swing.
Now that Boris the Builder has failed in his attempts to achieve greatness, first as the New Churchill, and then as the Noo Roosevelt, one hardly dare contemplate who is next in line for emulation. Perhaps there will be clues – denied reports of the summary execution in the Rose Garden of the first minister to stop clapping in cabinet? Or maybe the BBC’s melodious Lorna Squawksberg will report that sources close to Number Ten have confirmed the Prame Miniature will soon make a progress announcement on tractor production? Or, Heaven forbid, that we hear leaks of alleged Cummings’ mutterings, that a single death is a tragedy, fifty thousand is a statistic? Only time will tell which hapless figure from history will next be reduced to one whackamoled dimension, but of one thing we can be sure, the Minister for Metaphors and Clichés will bear down at warp speed to double up on levelling down.
While Nick Robinson was chuffing empty news on the Today program this morning, like a tank engine chuffing smoke rings in a siding, Dr No was grappling with the elephant in the newsroom: the NHS contact tracing app. Present, but no longer spoken of, since the Secretary of State for Health used Hancock’s Half Hour to deep six the NHSX version somewhere off the Isle of White just over ten days ago, pending reincarnation as Dido’s Cherry. For a while, Dr No felt like one of the blind men trying to conceptualise an elephant. He had a sense of parts of it, but not the whole picture. It had a trunk, for hoovering up data, and a vast body to process and store the data, if not for ever, then for 20 years. It had tusks, the better to prod into action, and big ears for listening. And then Bingo! It suddenly came into focus, not as a pachyderm, but a panopticon!
Is Dr No the Pope? Probably not. Is Dr No’s twitter account being censored? Very possibly. Impressions — twitter jargon for the number of times a tweet has been served up by twitter — by tweet (see chart) since Dr No re-started posting and tweeting in late March 2020 have over the for the last five tweets flat-lined below 100, between 63 and 86, with a mean of 77.6 impressions (median 81). The preceding 28 tweets all gained over 100 impressions (two tweets gained over 1,000 impressions), with an overall mean of 481.2 impressions (median 424.5). With only 33 tweets in all, the numbers are small, but nonetheless, there is a substantial difference between the average number of impressions gained by tweets 1 to 28 (481), and tweets 29 to 33 (78). Goldfinger’s Rule — happenstance (tweet 29), coincidence (tweet 30), enemy action (tweet 31, and for that matter tweets 32 and 33) — is more than met. Something is going on.
‘I’m from Newmarket,’ said the man from Cheshire. What the man from Cheshire meant, of course, was that he was the honourable member for West Suffolk. Quite how being the MP for a constituency that was home to a renown racecourse came to explain the SoS for Health’s decision to ‘back both horses’ — that is, back both the failed NHSX and proprietary Apple/Google covid–19 contact tracing apps — escaped Dr No. But this was another episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, where anything goes. The very same episode, co-starring Test and Trace supremo and Bake-Off hopeful Baroness Dido Harding, and broadcast live in lieu of Thursday’s Downing Street covid–19 briefing, contained an enigmatic pledge to ‘put the cherry on Dido’s cake’. For a brief moment Dr No was magically transported back to the infamy of an Up Pompeii! aside, until he crashed back to June 2020 and the realisation that he was instead witnessing yet another official litany of covid-19 failings delivered in tractor production is up packaging.
No doubt Solitaire would have read it in the cards. There are at least three occasions when it has seemed that the unofficial British Establishment response to the covid–19 epidemic has been Live and Let Die. The first was the consideration given to herd immunity, to be gained by letting the epidemic rip through the country. Proponents of herd immunity eschewed back of the envelope sums in favour of numerology and modelling, but others did the sums, noting that if around two thirds of the population got infected, then, even with a low infection fatality rate of say 0.1%, then getting on for half a million people would die — so, better drop that one fast. The second occasion was the abandonment of care homes, and then, to pile Pelion upon Ossa, to seed the care homes with SARS-CoV-2 carried by dumped hospital bed-blocking patients. The third, and still very current, occasion was and is the disproportionate numbers of covid-19 deaths among BAME people in general, and NHS staff in particular.
The Big Question about covid–19, of immense historical and future importance, is whether hard lockdowns work. No one of sound mind can be in any doubt that soft, or voluntary, lockdown makes sense. Hard, or legally enforced, lockdown, with its far more stringent measures, is entirely another matter, chiefly because it comes at a very significant cost. These costs are not only highly significant, they are also wide-ranging, and include social, ethical, economic and health costs. Put bluntly, because of these costs, hard lockdown can only ever be justified if it can be shown that its benefits, measured in deaths deferred, because that is all it can ever achieve, outweigh its inevitable and catastrophic harms.
At the risk of banging on like a Duracell bunny, Dr No returns once more to covid–19 testing. He does so because BloJo’s goons have told him that test–track–trace, or whatever the current iteration of the tricolon is, is the only way out of lockdown. WHO have a similar, but even less imaginative, version, test–test–test. So high are the hopes for testing that it has become the new TOWIE for covid–19, TOWIT. Hancock regularly uses his half hour to plug TOWIT and from time to time spin the government’s meteoric rise in the number of tests carried out. And yet, the testing dance is also the dance of Damocles beneath the sword. If the test fails, the thread breaks, and the sword plunges down to impale the dancing minister below.
Shall I compare thee to a turnip? Dr No has been dreaming up Odes to Nick Robinson ever since the interviewer with a voice like a squeaking balloon and a brain full of compressed air interviewed the former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption. Sumpers was in arm chair mode (very Sumpers, very Sanderson), while Robinson gadded about like a hot rabbit in the May sunshine. Eschewing evidence in favour of philosophy, and substance in favour of trivia, Robinson repeatedly filled the pregnant minute with sixty seconds of broken arrows. Oh how one longed for an old guard interviewer! Robin Day, or David Frost perhaps, or better still Ludovic Kennedy. Ludo, a leading advocate of ‘cut the crap’, would have got straight to the point. Is the contrarian, libertarian former judge correct in his view that hard lockdown is a colossal blunder?
In the 1961 Walt Disney film 101 Dalmatians, Cruella de Vil locks down 99 dalmatian pups (the 101 includes the parents of the original litter). In a roundabout way, this got Dr No wondering if there might be 101 lockdown damnations. There surely are, but after fifty items, Dr No felt the point was sufficiently made. Already the mother of all dossiers of despair, reining in another fifty items risked permanent damage to Dr No’s sense and sensibilities.