Category Archives: coronavirus

Lies, damn lies, and misinformation

What do you do if you’re the powers-that-be, you’ve bungled something badly, and you judge that trying to lie your way out of it will only make things worse?

Why of course, you muddy the waters: cast doubt on everything the public know about it.  That way you don’t have to tell any porkies, you just let your natural supporters infer it for themselves and argue the case for you.  Turn the whole subject into an argument noone can win in the court of public opinion – at least, not until you (or your successor) can say that things are different now.

Hence the abrupt change in England’s covid death count.  It serves to highlight the (true) fact that all statistical measures of that have problems – there are obvious issues with both the old and the new measures – and hence cast doubt on covid statistics in general.  Including the (also true) fact that the UK in general, and England in particular, has an exceptionally poor track record compared to our peers.  The most reliable measure – overall deaths in excess of average, encompassing both the disease itself and ill-considered responses to it – shows our track record as (to date) the worst of anywhere.  Turns out even Belgium’s higher headline count was no more than an artifact of different counting methodology.

But now we have doubt, and scope for argument, not just over the genuine shortcomings of our data, but equally over clear and stark facts.  And of course, people have a natural suspicion of statistics to reinforce the doubt.

Talking of which, I should clarify my prediction.  My end-of-August timescale was for death count, being much more reliable than case count, but which is of course a trailing statistic and subject to the artifacts we’ve seen highlighted by the change in methodology.

And on another troubling story in the news ….

The bizarre (and rather tragic) story of how our powers-that-be have awarded results to young people in A-level and other exams is surely a travesty on every level.   The statistical exercise used went to elaborate lengths to be more-or-less fair to schools (though even that is in some doubt), but is unquestionably monstrously unfair to individual students!  Those responsible – everywhere that’s done this – should be unceremoniously fired.

It’s been many years since I sat any such exams (and I expect I’d have got the same results either way) but I’d still have been mightily p***ed off to be lumped with such meaningless results[1]!  For those who have lost a university (or other) place they believe (rightly or wrongly) they deserve, and will now either lose a year of their young lives or go through life labelled as mediocre, it seems to me about as devastating as a wrongful criminal conviction!  My suggested solution: give every candidate an A-level, but ungraded.  All the legitimate inputs to an assessed grade – such as GCSE and mock exam results – are there to be assessed by whomsoever it may concern.

[1] To be honest, I was mightily p***ed off when I learned that top grades were devalued by being awarded for marks so low as to be utterly unthinkable!  Then as now, A-levels were hopelessly inadequate to distinguish the sheep from the goats.

Badge of the Leper

Shortly before government lockdown, I wrote a post here titled “unclean“, after the social exclusion of lepers in the distant past.  Now that covering our faces has become the headline law, perhaps it’s time to revisit that subject.

I can’t comment on treatment of people with a regular cough or sniffles, because I haven’t seen any.  Either we’ve rid ourselves of the common cold and had a particularly mild hay fever season, or sufferers have avoided going out.  Though it could also be down to my own loss of social life and narrowed horizons (my life feels like something from Iain Banks).  Only data point I have was when I myself went down with a mild lurgy just after that blog piece, and removed myself voluntarily from social life for … well, until government lockdown.

But we have come closer to a literal leper’s badge than even that post envisaged.  Badges for people with medical exemptions (whose definition seems unclear) from hiding their faces.  Seems my use of the analogy was indeed prophetic!

In that post, I wrote:

Latest advice is to self-isolate if you show even mild symptoms of a lurgy, and government moves to help avoid penalising people for doing the right thing.  Splendid: it seems they can at least do something right!

Seems I jumped the gun re: government help, and the Right Thing is more-or-less exactly what they didn’t do.  Specifically that was about sick pay for workers in the gig economy taking time to self-isolate when possibly unwell.  Yet despite the staggering levels of handouts to some in a cruel lottery, that hasn’t happened, and people of very limited means – some of them in the care sector – still can’t afford to take time off work for possible covid.

Regarding facemasks, I’m going to stick my neck out with another contrarian prediction.  As from late July they’re the law in shops.  By the end of August, this will have lead to a rise in the coronavirus spread rate.  The overall numbers may (or may not) still be declining, but the rate of decline will at least be reduced.

Why?  Well, here are a few reasons:

  • Make it harder to breathe, and people will breathe harder.  Including those with germs.  Not to mention breathing hard is the last thing I want to do if someone in the seat behind me has a lurgy and I can’t move!
  • The school tie problem.  As you reach your teens and rebel against some of the sillier rules imposed on you – like school uniforms – you also realise that a tie worn sufficiently badly is worse than no tie at all.  It becomes a protest!
  • I’ve already seen face masks discarded to ensure maximum spread of infection, like in a supermarket trolley in the row outside the shop.

Lockdown

People – most importantly the Chattering Classes – are getting restive.  The novelty of Lockdown has worn off somewhat, and there’s a growing clamour for change.   The subtly different nuances of Sturgeon’s[1] position have attracted favourable comment, even from the government’s own backbenchers and customary cheerleaders.

But now we have a timetable.  No, they haven’t announced it as such, but Stuttley is to return to work next week, and he is not a man to let such an occasion pass without some headline-grabbing flourish.  I think now we can be sure that within the next few days there will be an announcement to please the crowd and steal a march on Sturgeon and others.  Not of course an unlocking – that would not be welcomed – but there will be some slight easing (whether symbolic or material) and, more importantly, an update to refresh the carrot of our future prospects.

What easing?  I wouldn’t like to say.  Stuttley’s instinct will be to go further than anyone expects.  But he (and his nudge) will want to anticipate public and media reaction: how much pushback (vs welcome) from the media will they want, and will they have thought beyond an initial reaction?  Paradoxically being seen to go too far might provoke the most cautious behaviour, just as doing nothing would cause the current lockdown to fray.

[1] Head of Scottish government (in case she’s unknown to non-UK readers).

Et resurrexit quarto die

And on the fourth day, our Prime Minister rose from the deadintensive care.  How very seasonal that it should be Good Friday.

He’s a similar age to me.  He also looks, insofar as I can tell, physically similar to me.  Not in the sense that I could pass myself off as him even if I tried, rather that I’d imagine him a likely match for me medically speaking.  So insofar as any individual case is meaningful, his severe reaction to covid is not reassuring: I should be personally worried.  Unless of course my lurgy last month was indeed a mild case of it.

Blighty is now in lockdown to reduce the spread of Coronavirus.  Happily this is not such severe lockdown as many countries, but in terms of numbers of cases and the death rate, we’re now starting to pay the price of delaying lockdown.  We deliberately waited until the horse had bolted before closing that stable door.

That opens the floodgates to speculating on the counterfactual: where would we be if we’d locked down earlier?  A few days earlier, substantially fewer cases.  Weeks earlier, maybe we’d still be clear of it in the general population (c.f. rabies, before that had a vaccine).  Or managing it as in Korea with extensive tracing to avoid spread without a more general lockdown.

Except, we have to consider not just infection dynamics, but also public reaction.  I think they call it “nudge”.  If government had locked us down much earlier, there would have been a lot more resentment and resistance.  Perhaps they deliberately dragged their feet even after deciding to lockdown, because they wanted public opinion to be ahead of them.  With a buildup of why the **** aren’t they and a reaction of not before time they’ve got a willing population and a high level of compliance.

Except perhaps amongst the young, for whom the personal threat is low but the expected sacrifice is high, and who have already been sold a narrative of generational unfairness.  Combine that with the long-term damage of brexit, and today’s levels of support for older people will surely come under growing pressure.

And except perhaps for everyone, if the lockdown proves worse than useless in the longer term – perhaps because return to normality proves impossible without the Herd Immunity of most of the population catching it.  But if that happens we’re in good company, with much of the world likely to be in similar trouble.

What they’ve done to the economy is of course a whole nother story.  Free no-strings-attached handouts to so many together with closing down so much of the economy was bound to lead to the great fire of Ankh-Morpork[1] (and of course, like any welfare handout, it’s a cruel lottery).  A useful scapegoat for exiting the fairytale bubble.

One thing that still isn’t clear is the role of Stuttley’s Diabolical Bargain.  I was wrong when I first wrote about it, and again when I thought May’s appointing him Foreign Secretary would spare us him as PM by exposing him to everyone as bully and coward.  Now coronavirus has given him his dream Boys Own crisis, only to go off-script by denying him the regular hero’s role of casually brushing off the danger while others succumb[2]   On the other hand, maybe that’s another twist that’ll spare him some serious blame.  Diabolus movet arcano modo.

[1] A naïve foreigner sells insurance to a businessman, who naturally then makes a very thorough job of burning down his premises to collect his free money.

[2] His course through the lurgy should’ve been swapped with health secretary Hancock – diagnosed with covid at the same time as Stuttley but made a quick recovery.   Talking of which, am I the only one who can’t hear the health secretary’s name without my thoughts turning to his namesake Tony Hancock, the comedian whose persona was Village Idiot of Suburbia?

Yardsticks

Stay at home.  Keep your distance from anyone: the UK prescribed distance is two metres.  Actually (to be fair) UK lockdown restrictions – unlike the pork-barrel that’s gone full-blown Operation Bernhard – make quite a lot more sense than many other countries, or than the UK itself under Foot&Mouth in 2001.

How much protection does distance offer?  Your guess is as good as mine, which may or may not in turn be as good as TPTB’s.  But can we find any yardsticks from everyday life?

Intuitively, two metres is the kind of distance at which you won’t be knocked hard by smells like a fresh dog or horse mess, or indoors a baby that needs changing.  So far, so good.

But coronavirus is, we’re told, much more dangerous than such everyday bad smells.  We do have a yardstick for small volumes of something much nastier than excrement: the area blighted by a smoker.  Clearly there two metres is wholly inadequate.  Twenty metres might be more realistic in average weather conditions, but at times even two hundred can be insufficient.  And it’ll routinely invade the home from outside, through doors, windows, cracks, …  Whoops – that makes an altogether less-reassuring yardstick for dispersal of airborne hazards!

But it’s not just safe distances for which we might seek the reassurance (or otherwise) of familiar yardsticks.  We can look for yardsticks for prevalence and infectiousness.  I first contemplated this post several days ago and had in mind to play with some parametric studies of such issues (once upon a time I had “mathematician” in my job title and did such things professionally), but it seems the news is moving faster than me, and we’re now hearing from better-informed people like new superstar Neil Ferguson and regular media-favourite credible statistician David Spiegelhalter.  So I’ll defer there.

Ferguson was on t’wireless recently, when the official UK infection count was just over 20k confirmed cases, but suggesting the real figure might be as high as 2 million.  That’s an interesting contrast, and totally plausible.  One in thirty of the overall population is, after all, still lower than some known (albeit unrepresentative) samples we could take, like the Cabinet 😉   Two million would be not merely interesting but rather encouraging: it would indicate rapidly spreading population-immunity, and make an antibody test all the more interesting to, well, more-or-less anyone who’s had a lurgy this year.  Though it wouldn’t necessarily indicate a lower-than-expected death rate, ‘cos it’s also emerged that our figures count only deaths in hospital, not anyone outside unless a post-mortem is held.

Speaking as one of those who has indeed had a recent lurgy, I’d now really love to get that antibody test myself.  Was it a very mild case of the dreaded corona, or a mild-ish regular lurgy?  The latter is much more likely: today’s briefing told us that only one in six actual tests has proved positive (25k of 150k), and the sample of people tested is those with the symptoms rather than the general population.  But to have had it would turn me from a high-risk person advised to stay home (and, erm, get a coronary instead), to a person safe to resume social life and indeed volunteer to help out those who need it.

Short of that, proper population statistics would be highly informative and would enable us all to reevaluate our personal risks.  Sadly our super-bureaucratic powers-that-be seem to be quite a way behind leading countries in being able to test or produce meaningful statistics on the general population, and intent on reinventing wheels such as the tracking app that has apparently been so successful in South Korea.

Ho, hum.  Whatever I say here will soon be overtaken by events.

Rehearsal

This afternoon I took part in a rehearsal of full chorus and orchestra.

That’s for one of this spring’s cancelled (or postponed) concerts.  And sadly it wasn’t a normal rehearsal.  The orchestra and chorus came together from our respective homes, online via Zoom.  All credit to our enterprising and dynamic conductor Marcus for thinking of and organising it.

Naturally I thought the most likely thing to happen would be chaos: lots of players and singers couldn’t possibly keep together.  We could follow Marcus’s very clear beat and instructions, but the motley collection of devices and acoustics, not to mention the net’s various and random lags, would surely throw us.  In the event he’d thought of that, and used some cheats to substitute for chaotic music-making.  And rehearsing was interspersed with cheery chat, and only went on an hour.

More an exercise in morale than serious music, but a great idea anyway.  I understand we’ll be doing this regularly until we’re allowed to meet up again, so maybe we’ll evolve it into something yet more interesting.