Back in the 1980s, John Naughton, The Listener’s TV critic at the time cracked Norwegian after hearing a recording in English being played backwards and forwards. Norwegian, he realised in an instant, is merely English spoken backwards. On forwards, clear English could be heard, but in reverse, the machine delivered perfect Norwegian. Recalling Naughton’s discovery 35 years later, Dr No realised that must also mean that English is merely Norwegian spoken backwards, and that this might be the way to get at the contents of a promising covid–19 report published in Norwegian by Norway’s official Public Health Institute. Alas, the Folkehelseinstituttet report spoken backwards doesn’t come out as English, but on another level it is ‘English spoken backwards’, insofar as it’s main conclusion is the reverse of English lockdown dogma. The Norwegians, after due analysis, have all but concluded that the science, to date (and that is an important caveat), does not back hard lockdowns.
Martha Kearney, the Today presenter distinguished by an intellect flatter than a flood plain, tried this morning to get her teeth into the Dominic Cummings childcare affair. The result was painful, like listening to a toothless hag chewing a margarine sandwich. The general drift so far as one could be discerned was towards one rule for the government and its advisors, another for the rest of us, messages undermined, etc. As time wore on, the interview slowed down; sounds interspersed with Kearney trademark pauses, like a washing machine on the wool cycle. Outside the window, the grass was growing faster in the May sunshine than the interview on the radio was proceeding, as it drifted away through time and space, like a distant barely perceptible meteor. Back on earth, the Today programme as usual completely missed the point. This story isn’t about the PM and his advisor and resignations, it is about SAGE, and credibility.
There is a new virus abroad as dangerous as SARS-CoV-2. It has already invaded all aspects of out lives, sparing no one. It gains access to its victims by posing as a force for good, but once inside it erodes the victim’s moral fibre, destroying resolve and resilience. Patients present with the stay safe syndrome, a constellation of symptoms and signs that includes an irrational fear of other human beings, associated with involuntary flinching when in close proximity to others, compulsive 24/7 face mask wearing, and the diagnostic stay home behaviours. All communications, both verbal and written, begin and end with characteristic exhortations to ‘stay safe’. It is in short the novel stay safe virus, believed to have originated in Whitehall, and first isolated and identified in the Westminster village, from where it disseminated first by mainstream media, and then social media. So insidious is the virus that it can freely mutate. Only last week Dr No received an email that opened with “I hope you are doing safe”, confirming the novel virus had mutated from adjective to noun. It can only be a matter of time before it mutates into a verb.
Naturally enough, the UK and devolved governments, and for that matter others who should know better, have attributed the recent declines in daily covid–19 new cases and deaths to the hard lockdown measures put in place in March. This is one of the oldest logical fallacies of them all, the post hoc fallacy. This says that because B followed A, it follows that A caused B. We might just as well say the clocks changed to BST on the 29th March, and soon after that covid started to decline, ergo moving to BST got covid under control. Such divinations are more at home on the ouija board than in the realm of natural science.
Professor Lockdown, Legover, Pantsdown, call him what you will, may have stepped down as a government adviser (Professor Stepdown), or even been fired (Professor Crackdown) and ordered to keep a low profile (Professor Heads Down), but his pernicious modelling persists (Professor Stayed On), with its tens to hundreds of thousands of deaths (Professor Mow Down) and an overwhelmed NHS (Professor Meltdown), while he himself remains in post on full pay (Professor Drawdown).
One of the unexpected consequences of the lockdown has been the extent to which we Brits have taken its central message — stay home, protect the NHS, save lives — to heart. The behavioural nudge experts got it wrong. Far from people getting lockdown fatigue, quite the opposite has happened. A majority of us have instead internalised the lockdown, as shown in two recent surveys, one covered by Dr No in his last post, and a second, commissioned by The Observer, and published over the weekend. Both consistently show that by and large people are afraid to go out. Stay home has stuck. #stayhome is now #stuckhome. If we are not careful, #stuckhome might just become #diehome.
Putting aside the leery banality of the Nick Robinson interview, the next greatest threat to public service reporting is the sense–of paradigm. Pioneered by the Welsh Windbag known for the time being in this parish as Hoo Wedwards, BBC news anchors no longer ask correspondents in the field, ‘what’s happening?’ Instead, they direct the correspondent to ‘give us your sense of what’s happening, as you see it.’ Intended to make the news sound more direct and personal, the effect is instead one of serial dilution, until there is nothing of substance left, as in a homeopathic remedy.
Happenstance, coincidence and enemy action, the doctrine of three developed by Dr No’s colleague Goldfinger, is as good a guard as any against the risk of over-reacting to chance events. The time to sit up take notice is when something exceptional has happened not once, but three times in a row. The ONS has now reported exceptional rises in the weekly number of all cause deaths in England and Wales for three weeks in a row. It is time to sit up, take notice, and ask, what is going on?
As an appendix to yesterdays post, Dr No is going to do a run through of another reason why high hopes of antibody testing being a game changer will most likely turn out to be false hopes. It is also an introduction or aide-mémoire to the more general question of how do you go about establishing the usefulness of a diagnostic or screening test, using screening for covid-19 antibodies as an example. As always, complex formulae and other numerological devices will be avoided in favour of plain words and simple numbers. You really can do these sums on the back of an envelope.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a population assailed by a pandemic, must be in want of a game-changer. More often than not, the game-changer for covid-19 involves antibodies. Antibodies tests will both allow us to know the true community rate of infection, and allow us to manage the safe return to work of those shown to be immune. Knowing the true community rate of infection in turn allows us to assess how close we are to achieving herd immunity, which in turn can be achieved not by letting the virus rip through the community, but by the benign stimulation of antibody production through vaccination. One way or another, a lot of high hopes rest on antibodies. Hope is a good thing in dark times, but like the stewardess in Moonraker who warns Mr Bond that if he goes any higher, her ears will pop, we too should remember that hopes that get too high can also pop. Instead of a speedy deliverance by Apollo from a modern pandemic, we may as time goes by find we have set our scientists a Sisyphean task.