Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 1 June 2020

How Cummings continues to gaslight the nation

There is little sign of anything that can dislodge Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s adviser in chief, from his boss’s protection. Yet there is no doubt the episode has been costly in terms of the popularity of the Prime Minister and his government. It is dangerous for the gang who say they are on the side of the people against the elite to reveal themselves as an unaccountable elite who couldn’t care a damn about the sacrifices others have been making during a crisis whose severity is largely that gang’s fault.

The cost goes beyond popularity. The government is desperate, far too desperate, to end lockdown well before the experts think it is safe and before common sense says it is safe. The Cummings affair will only make that even more dangerous, as those so disposed flout the rules because if Cummings can do it, so can they. And remember how ministers have fallen over themselves to reinterpret the rules so that they become Cummings-safe, and thereby allow those rules to become open to interpretation (or even instinct).

To understand why this has happened, you have to stop thinking about how our democracy used to function. The old rules, like when an adviser becomes the story they go, just do not hold anymore, because this government has no respect for those rules. Suspending parliament in 2019 should have been warning enough of that. As Robert Saunders notes, the online version of parliament put together to cope with COVID-19 has just been curtailed, with no obvious alternative in place that allows every MP to vote.

We now have a populist government, in the specific sense that it has little respect for the trappings of a pluralist democracy (parliament, the civil service and so on), and instead pretends to speak for the people. The people in this case is a number big enough to keep them in power, and certainly does not reflect every voter. In reality their interest in the wishes of 'their people' is slight, and mainly involves ensuring they continue to win power.

Which is why Cummings is so valuable. Winning a referendum where you had to persuade a majority of voters that leaving the EU would not have an impact on their economic wellbeing was quite an achievement. He gaslighted half a nation into making them poorer because of an issue few of them had cared about before the referendum. To then convince enough people that Johnson accepting a deal which the EU originally proposed and the UK rejected was some kind of triumph was also impressive. Winning a large majority in the subsequent election sealed his reputation as a master manipulator of voters, although it has to be said that with all these things he had tremendous help from the collective media.

But Cummings is much more than a manipulator of voters. He has a personal mission as well, and intends to use his position to recast the UK state into something more to his liking. He didn’t ensure all ministerial advisers report to him because he wanted to ‘improve the coordination of government messaging’ (gaslighting of journalists), but because he wants a say in everything any minister does that might influence his mission.

In this he has found the perfect partner. Johnson famously wrote two articles about the EU before he chose to put all his eggs in the Brexit basket. That calculation was about his route to power rather than anything based on principles. Johnson’s skill is in charming voters, provided he is fed the right lines. He is happy to allow his partner in crime to pursue his own agenda, because Johnson does not have an extensive agenda of his own.

The combination of Cummings and Johnson have effectively purged the Conservatives of any vestiges of One Nation Conservatism. That was ruthlessly done when Johnson came to power. It is worth repeating the tweet from ex-Chancellor Phillip Hammond replying to Matt Hancock (HT Mark Thomas): “Sorry Matt, I’m afraid the Conservative Party has been taken over by unelected advisors, entryists and usurpers who are trying to turn it from a broad church into an extreme right-wing faction.”

There can be little doubt the key unelected advisor he had in mind was Cummings. When Johnson won the election and signalled an early reshuffle, many commentators thought that would be the time when Johnson reintroduced some of the remaining (in both senses) talent into the cabinet. Instead, again I suspect with a great deal of help from Cummings, he chose those who would do Cummings bidding. The previous Chancellor could not accept that, and Johnson was prepared to fire him for it, but it was Cummings making the demand.

The ultimate in Cummings gaslighting was his appearance in the Rose Garden of No.10. As Frances Coppola writes, it was a gigantic show, a show of personal power. Look what I can do, he was saying. I can lie about why I went to Barnard Castle, I can lie about how I foresaw how vulnerable the UK was to a pandemic, and there is nothing you can do about it, much like all the previous lies I have made in the past and got others to say. Cummings was saying in no uncertain terms that he is the power behind the throne. And later, when a BBC presenter tells the truth about what he did, his helpers get the BBC to give her a reprimand.

But Donald Trump got rid of Steve Bannon. Why didn’t Johnson do the same, knowing how weak trying to defend Cummings would make him look? I think the key difference is that Trump doesn’t understand his evident weaknesses whereas Johnson is acutely aware of them. He knows he cannot cope with the detail which any Prime Minister in a pluralistic democracy is required to know. It makes him impatient with that democracy, but it also makes him feel vulnerable. His revealing quote after his recent appearance in front of select committee chairs was about how much Sherpa time it took for him to appear as clueless as he did.

Above all else, coronavirus has shown him that his political instincts can lead him seriously astray. His handling of the pandemic has been diabolical, and he cannot use surprise as an excuse. He continues to make mistakes, almost certainly ending the lockdown earlier than he should, and thereby delaying a complete recovery. (Note the current Chancellor, who is winning over a style obsessed commentariat, is as responsible for this as anyone.) The UK’s “world beating” track and trace system, like so many schemes farmed out to private contractors, is turning into a fiasco.

All those decisions were made with Cummings at his side, so it is not as if Cummings necessarily improves Johnson’s decision making capacity. What Johnson desperately needs is someone with a proven record of gaslighting a nation to get voters to forget about it all as quickly as possible. For that reason Cummings survives, for now at least. The consequences of all this for the UK cannot be overstated. When Frances Coppola writes that “Britain will now be run by puppet politicians controlled by a ruthless, manipulative, unaccountable mastermind” she is essentially correct.

How could it be that just one unelected adviser can have so much power? The mechanics of how it happened are clear, but Johnson’s victory in 2019 indicates that too many in the media and the country have failed to understand what was going on. When a government behaves like populists, and talks like populists, and does things populists would do, why does most of the commentariat still think the threat in 2019 came from the left?

Populist governments have a leader who takes absolute power because they tell the people they embody their best interests and hopes, and that pluralist democracy is frustrating these interests and hopes. They can be individuals like Trump who gets rid of any adviser who annoys them, or they can be the frontman for one or more advisors who hold the real power. Either way the idea of any collective government disappears, particularly if the advisors despise the elements of a pluralistic democracy that normally keeps a government on the rails. We have paid the price with one in every thousand dying from COVID-19, most unnecessarily, and with hundreds of NHS staff and carers dying because of lack of physical or financial protection. It would be a big mistake to assume this is the only sacrifice we will have to make on the altar of one man’s vision.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

A government without common sense, and with class arrogance

Recently the Prime Minister urged workers and employers to use their ‘good solid British common sense’ to decide what was safe with the recent relaxation of the lockdown. Which prompts an obvious question (thanks @SuffolkJason). What has happened to the government’s common sense in dealing with coronavirus?

When you see a pandemic sweeping China and with every chance of it coming to the UK, isn’t it common sense to prepare for that possibility by

  1. Checking your PPE stockpile and ordering what is missing

  2. Exploring how you could ramp up testing capacity quickly if that was needed

When the first cases arrive in the UK, isn’t it common sense to do some things to help your test, trace and isolate (TTI) infrastructure by, for example, stopping flights coming from countries with many cases, or at least enforcing quarantine?

Once the number of cases begins to overwhelm your TTI operation (which you will be improving by hiring more people to do the tracing and increasing testing capability), you have a choice between a lockdown (the choice almost all other countries are taking) or letting the virus infect a majority of the population in a controlled way (what one country, Sweden, is doing). The latter will involve hundreds of thousands of deaths. Isn’t the common sense choice a lockdown in those circumstances, seeing that the basic duty of a government is to avoid its citizen’s dying.

Common sense is not always a reliable guide, and it should always defer to science if there is a conflict. But science means the consensus among scientists, and not the collective views of a few in a committee. The collective scientific view was that there was an alternative way of controlling the virus beyond total lockdown, and that is some form of partial lockdown combined with a TTI infrastructure that could take over from full lockdown once numbers of new infections had been brought down.

There will always be individual scientists who say that TTI cannot work, as in the case of Sweden. Was that the case in the UK, or were the scientists advising the government told that testing could not be expanded? That will be for an inquiry to sort out. But no politician with common sense allows hundreds of thousands of their citizens to die without trying those alternatives.

Finally (and I have missed a lot out here) isn’t it common sense to isolate as far as possible care homes by

  1. Ensuring carers can afford to take time off if they get sick

  2. Allowing residents and carers to get tested if they get sick, and on a regular basis otherwise

  3. Not transfer untested patients from hospitals who can then spread the virus through a care home!

Ironically we managed to give our potential policymakers a test for common sense a year before the pandemic hit. We set them two questions that would sort out the small minority that appeared to lack any common sense. The test involved just two questions.

  1. “Would you want to leave the largest and most developed trading bloc in the world?”

  2. "If the answer to the above is yes, would you be prepared to leave with no accompanying trade deal?”

Anyone answering yes to both questions clearly lacked any common sense. What could possibly be the sense in isolating yourself from your closest and largest trading partner, when you were prepared to do trade deals with other countries?

You know what happened next. We have a government with a cabinet where almost every member has been chosen because they answered yes to both questions. (We could have chosen to have a government whose leaders did not answer yes to both questions. However the powers that be, including parts of the Labour establishment, decided that was too great a price to pay, even if it meant leaving the EU and having a government without common sense. You could say that they, too, did not have common sense.)

You might retort that UK voters also failed to have common sense. But you cannot have common sense if you do not have the relevant information. Like, for example, that if you stop EU migrants coming by ending free movement that will just lead to more non-EU immigration (source).

It takes some skill to ensure that enough people hear fake stories such that they vote for decisions which violate common sense. Dominic Cummings has that skill set, which is why he is so essential to the Prime Minister, and why Johnson would burn so much of his own political capital to keep him. I also suspect that Johnson would flounder without him.


Lacking common sense does not come from stupidity, but from letting your judgement be clouded by an ideology that puts the economy and the freedom to do business above everything else, and where freedom is defined not in terms of the ability to do things (including avoiding catching a virus) but in terms of the absence of any kind of government intervention designed to protect workers or the environment. This hatred of state interference in the economy means you are inclined to do nothing when threatened with the biggest health crisis in a generation.

If you have the common sense to understand why you needed an economic and social lockdown to stop the pandemic getting out of control, you will also have the sense to realise that the lockdown can only be relaxed step by step, when an alternative control mechanism is in place. Yet even here the government has shown it lacks common sense. Sending many people back to work is a relaxation in the lockdown, and it was done with no mechanism in place to isolate the colleagues of workers who caught the virus as a result.

We had a functioning test, trace and isolate (TTI) regime in place when the virus first hit the UK, and it helped to keep numbers low for a while with little supporting measures from the government. It would seem obvious, therefore, to build a more effective TTI infrastructure by expanding the infrastructure that already works. But that would be common sense. Ideology dictates that the government farms the whole process out to some private companies with no experience at all. No doubt they told the government that their infrastructure would be “world-beating” and ministers liked the sound of that. We can but hope that it works.

In this short article for the Daily Mirror I set out how we get from today to a full economic recovery, applying common sense with a bit of macroeconomic knowledge. V-shaped recoveries are possible. Our government has already started out on a different path, easing lockdown before TTI is ready and when daily infections remain high, which raises the danger of delaying the point at which the economy can recover.

While ideology accounts for part of the reason why this government has failed so badly, and carries on failing, there is something else. That something is an attitude of being apart, or more accurately above, most other people. It is the attitude that some public schools seem to encourage. If you break the rules somebody else will sort things out, or literally clear up the mess if you go trashing after finishing your exams at Oxford. 

While in some that creates a kind of paternalism, and in a few revolutionaries, in many it creates contempt. The contempt of those that can so easily manipulate others. Cummings ignored the lockdown rules because he believes rules do not apply to people like him. Johnson has been breaking rules all his life, and he has never really suffered for it. With privilege you can break the rules. You can have contempt for those who obey rules, like Rees Mogg saying those who died in Grenfell Tower should have ignored instructions to stay in their flat. For those for whom breaking the rules is common sense. It is the arrogance to charge some of those in the NHS we helped save your life an extra fee to use the service they work in. 

Contrast that with anyone claiming universal credit who is late for an appointment at a job centre and has their money stopped, however good the reason they were late. They have no privileges at all. No press conference at No.10. When neoliberal ideology is mixed with the arrogance of the upper class and the contempt of those who manipulate the opinions of voters you get a lethal combination. A combination that leads to the second highest deaths from coronavirus in the world behind the US, and higher than the US when normalised by population size. About one in a thousand of UK citizens has died as a result of coronavirus, and that will be the enduring legacy of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings.  

Monday, 18 May 2020

On V shaped recoveries, and where the Treasury’s deficit obsession will matter

I should perhaps go through some of the thinking that lay behind my Guardian article about not repeating austerity, because I fear there is a danger of worrying about the wrong thing. I have always been reasonably confident that we would not get an exact repeat of 2010, where the Chancellor says at the low point of a recession (i.e. before a recovery has begun) that we have to start cutting back spending because the deficit is too high.

There are two reasons for that confidence. First, the circumstances that allowed 2010 were uniquely advantageous. We had just had a global financial crisis, so false claims about what financial markets might do seemed plausible. There was also a Euro crisis. Everyone was saving more (or borrowing less) as a result of the financial crisis, so you could easily persuade people the government should too. And finally we had had a period of strong growth in some public services under the Labour government.

None of that holds today. Most people have had enough of austerity, something our Prime Minister understands. He knows there are huge political dangers in worrying about debt just after a pandemic where the government’s decisions have been woeful. The media will obsess about the deficit, but I think the government at the moment is going to ignore them.

I wrote the Guardian piece because I realised that not only had the media not changed, but neither had the Treasury. The leaked document I discuss in that article showed that, but there was much stronger evidence of their concern, and that was the Chancellor channeling their pressure to ease the lockdown as soon as possible.

Austerity is a type of short term penny pinching by the government leading to much larger longer term costs. The only justification for relaxing the lockdown by forcing large sections of (typically working class) workers to go back to work is saving the Treasury money on furloughing, which is why the pressure to relax furloughing is coming from the Chancellor and the Treasury rather than No.10. The cost of this is to raise R (how many people someone who has coronavirus infects). The point I make here is that most of the economy will only recover once people are no longer fearful of catching the virus, which means the number of new infections nationally per day must be very low, maybe even single figures.

If R is currently something like 0.2, and if the recent relaxation raises it to 0.3, then the number of new infections is going to fall pretty rapidly anyway. But if R was 0.8, and it now becomes 0.9 as a result of more people at work, then it will take considerably longer to get infection numbers down. So pressure to save some money on furloughing may in the end cost much more by setting back the date of recovery by months.

There is a second sense in which Treasury penny pinching may end up costing a great deal, and it reflects what happened with austerity from 2013 onwards. There has been a great deal of discussion about the nature of the economic recovery from this pandemic, and how much long term damage it could do. When I suggested that in principle there was no reason for the economy not to bounce back, the general consensus on twitter was that there was no way that is going to happen.

The problem with the belief that the economic recovery will be neither quick or complete is that it can be self-fulfilling. It always amazes me how many economists were quite happy to believe that the sudden stop in UK productivity growth after 2010 was somehow caused by the financial crisis (or something else) and had nothing to do with a sustained period during which aggregate demand was being depressed. Once policymakers start believing that, you don’t get the stimulus measures you need to get a complete recovery. Once economic actors believe in it, then it becomes a self-fulfilling result.

Exactly the same could happen after the pandemic, particularly if it takes time before the number of daily infections becomes very low. Consumers may be cautious about embarking on forms of social consumption again, and so it appears as if the V shaped recovery is not going to materialise. What should happen at this point is that the government stimulates the economy in some way, to quickly mop up the additional unemployment created by the pandemic. Instead, I fear that inside the Treasury concerns about the deficit will override their responsibility to stabilise the economy when interest rates are at their lower bound. Indeed I have never been sure that this Treasury accepts that responsibility.

I have always thought that if the pandemic is handled properly, with good support during lockdown and appropriate stimulus subsequently, then a V shaped recovery will happen. There is no reason to have additional unemployment or permanently lost output once the virus is tightly controlled and consumers recognise their chance of getting it are minimal. We will see something close to a complete recovery in the countries that have handled the pandemic well, restrained only by what is happening in the countries with less capable governments. What will stop us having a V shaped recovery is government incompetence, both in handling the pandemic and in how macroeconomic policy supports the recovery.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

The government is responding to pressure and not thinking clearly about defeating coronavirus

In this article in the Guardian I lay out what the optimal strategy for handling COVID-19 should be for a country like the UK. How does the Prime Minister’s statement on Sunday evening compare to that strategy?

The key to relaxing a lockdown is having a test, trace and isolate infrastructure in place, and very low infection levels. We do not have either. So why was Johnson talking to the nation on Sunday?

He set out a general framework for relaxing the lockdown, all conditional on some function of infection levels and R. (He didn’t specify what the function was.) To set out an approach makes sense. To not tell anyone what exactly the conditions for relaxation are does not make sense, but it gives him flexibility to make it up as he goes along (or “follow the science” as he likes to call it).

In addition he relaxed some of the rules for what people can do outdoors. Those in holiday hotspots are not too happy, and just don’t try driving to Wales. What may prove to be more important, he changed the government’s mantra from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’. The problem was, apparently, that ‘stay at home’ was too effective. Everyone with any sense agrees that ‘stay alert’ is vacuous. Why was ‘stay at home’ too successful? The answer seems to be that some people who the government thinks should have been working were staying at home at the government’s expense.

Which leads us to the most controversial element in what he said. Those who couldn’t work at home should be working. They should try and maintain social distancing at work, and when getting to work, where possible. What happens when social distancing isn’t possible. We use “good solid British common sense”, according to Mr. Johnson. I guess those using some other country’s common sense might come to different conclusions.

This is an important easing of the lockdown, and one which is going to put some more workers in harm’s way. As Johnson said: “work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home “. There was no qualification to that instruction, no “but only if it is safe to do so” at the end. This chimes with talk from the Treasury of too many people being furloughed, and mooted plans to reduce how much furloughed workers are paid in the future.

It is not workers who choose to be furloughed, but firms who furlough them. Sunday’s message was encouraging them to go back to work, even though they cannot ensure social distancing at work. If you think I’m being alarmist, how about an industry where working has sometimes to break social distancing. Like removers (try moving a metre long chest of drawers staying two metres apart) where previously the governing body had advised its members it was not safe to do business. Here is what the British Association of Removers now say:
“It is clear from the change of emphasis in the PM’s message of Sunday 10th May, that many industries are being encouraged to return to work, but only on the basis of it being unviable for them to work from home AND now having the ability to comply with the stipulated social distancing measures. Following its meeting this morning, the position of the Board of Directors of the BAR is therefore to suggest that a cautious approach to returning to operational activity may now be possible, although it remains the case in our industry that we are unable to comply fully with the social distancing measures outlined by the Government, and our Members must therefore take all appropriate measures to mitigate any associated risks.”

In addition there is the issue of the safety of getting to work if you do not have a car.

Johnson’s “good solid British common sense” is about observing social distancing under all circumstances, unless you are at work. I would suggest this is not common sense at all. It is significantly increasing the risk of transmitting the virus, at a time when the test, trace and isolate infrastructure is not in place, and infection levels are still high. If you don’t believe me, read what most scientists think. It is moving too soon in order to save the Treasury some money in the short term.

I say short term because in the longer term this will cost HMT more. It will surely raise R, which will delay the time when virus numbers come down enough for most people to feel safe interacting with others. Only then can the economic recovery begin in earnest. As I said in the Guardian article, the quickest way to restart the economy is to get the virus under control so infection levels are very low. This is classic Treasury short term penny pinching with a longer term economic cost.

Starmer in his broadcast put this clearly:
"We needed to hear that nobody would be asked to go to work or send their children to school without it being safe to do so."

That clarity was absent from Johnson’s statement on Sunday, and I suspect deliberately so. Martin Fletcher describes the Prime Minister’s rationale well here:
“Caught between those cabinet hawks and party donors who want to reopen the economy as fast as possible, and the doves who stress the need to save lives, Johnson has produced a muddled compromise that has pleased neither camp.”

This is miles away from how a government should relax a lockdown.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Why the media in UK and US has moved beyond manufacturing consent, and why that has led to a war about reporting COVID-19

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (hereafter MC) was a book published by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in 1988. From my point of view the key idea behind MC was that media organisations select the news and opinion that they show to viewers in a way that supports the existing economic, social and political system. This could be summed up as saying the mainstream media (MSM) is not subversive.

The book talks about the “propaganda model for manufacturing consent” as involving various elements: the ownership structure and for profit goal, the importance of advertising, the importance of particular news sources, sensitivity to organised criticism, and organising filters like the cold war or terrorism. So, for example, in my idea of mediamacro you see the importance of City economists as a ready source of instant comment on market events, which in turn influences how macroeconomics is interpreted.

As Chomsky famously said to Andrew Marr in a well known 1996 interview, Marr does not himself filter news in the way described above. He is chosen so he does it without thinking. Chomsky said “... what I'm saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting.” I think from today’s perspective their use of the term propaganda to describe this and other mechanisms is unfortunate. With pure propaganda people report not what they see but what those in charge want them to write.

You can see manufacturing consent operating when particular politicians attempt to challenge the current system in some way, like Sanders and Corbyn for example. In the UK the broadcasters tended to see Corbyn as a (perhaps dangerous) outsider, and treated him a bit like you would treat any interloper. When the US MSM turned against Sanders, particularly when it looked like he was going to win, their reasoning may have been genuine (a classic ‘success comes from being in the middle’ model) but it was overwhelming.

I used to call the UK broadcasters, alongside papers like the Financial Times or Guardian, non-partisan but I now think that term is misleading. After all in both the US and UK papers and TV channels are often slanted to one side of the political divide. A better term to use, following the discussion above, is the manufacturing consent media (MC-media). 

The point I want to make here is that in the UK and US we have moved well beyond manufacturing consent. What is new is that they are now joined by what I will call the directed propaganda (DP) media, which includes Fox News in the US and most of the right wing press in the UK. DP-media provides biased and misleading information, or sometimes straight lies, that support a political viewpoint. 

Thus the MSM is made up of the MC-media and the DP-media. A directed propaganda (DP) organisation will choose to distort news such that it becomes pure propaganda for one particular party or viewpoint. A MC-news outlet will report what it sees as the truth, but with an emphasis that comes from its political position. A DP outlet will splash a story about a scientist's love life to avoid a front page about the UK having worst death toll from COVID-19 in Europe. These DP-media outlets started off as very slanted MC-media, but have in recent years shifted to contain a large proportion of propaganda.  

The distinction is not clear cut, but it is obvious from various examples. Consider the current COVID-19 pandemic. President Trump at one point decided that reporting of it in the MC-media was fake news, a hoax perpetrated by the Democrats. This was obviously complete nonsense and no reputable member of the MC-media pretended otherwise. Fox News (or strictly most of it) took up Trump’s theme. We have preliminary evidence that it influenced listeners at their own peril.

In the UK the Sun, Mail and Telegraph have treated Johnson’s illness with COVID and subsequent recovery, together with the birth of yet another Johnson child, in a manner that would not be out of place in North Korea. When the health minister fiddles the figures to achieve a target, the DP-media asks no questions. (As Alastair Campbell writes, it was very different for a Labour government, but he is wrong that this is down to luck.)

Perhaps I can put the distinction as follows. MC media is about filtering out news or opinion that challenges the system. DP outlets filter news that challenges a particular party or viewpoint within that system, and is happy to report lies that support its position.

Why do I call it directed-propaganda? Why not (when the favoured party is in power) state-media, or right wing media (there are no left wing DP outlets in the MSM)? The reason is that DP-media is a reliable supporter of the government of the right nearly all of the time, but not in all circumstances. It has a mind of its own, or rather the mind of the owner who directs it (hence directed propaganda). The most obvious example was Brexit, where the DP media in the UK effectively replaced one right wing administration with another that shared its own view on Brexit. For the Sun and Telegraph in particular, the current UK government is its government.

If that seems quite an achievement, it required help from the MC-media. In the UK the broadcast media had strict codes of balance, even if it meant balancing knowledge with lies. In the US during the election where Trump became president the MC-media had more stories about the mistakes of Clinton rather than Trump.

Both Brexit and the election of Trump were pivotal moments for both countries, because it showed us in no uncertain terms the power of the DP-media. It was, after all, a moment where anyone with a will to see understood that we were embarking on a path that would harm everyone except for a minuscule minority who would benefit. I think too many on the left miss this, partly because of internal divisions over Brexit on the left, but also because it is hard for those who have been blinded by the light to pick out shades of grey. (I’m writing this after arguing with a few on the left who cannot see why they should vote for Biden against Trump.)

Which brings us to a recent battle in the UK between these two media. Journalists who work for the DP-media are attacking some in the MC-media for not 'joining in the national effort to defeat COVID-19', by which they mean providing utterly uncritical support for actions that are in reality a national scandal. Their main target at one point was the Financial Times, which was subject to the ultimate insult in certain quarters as being as bad as the Guardian. 

In the middle of this is the BBC, which at times of crisis has often become the de-facto state broadcaster. More recently there are some signs of it being more independent. When Emily Maitlis attacked the idea that COVID-19 was a great leveler, she received some criticism, but not too much because Newsnight does not appear on the BBC's most popular channel. In contrast the Panorama programme does, and when it did a very good investigation into the failure to provide doctors, nurses and care home workers with sufficient protective equipment, this received extensive criticisism by the DP-media and the government.

The BBC is an important check on DP-media in the UK, because most people who read the right wing press also watch the BBC. This is why the current government, in place because of the efforts of the DP-media, initially proposed to attack the way the BBC was financed as a way of diminishing the organisation. Although many on the left are deeply unhappy about the BBC because of its MC-media type bias against Corbyn, it remains an important bulwark against the power of the DP-media.  

Amartya Sen notes that a free press meant less deaths during a famine, and as I argue here a critical media helps governments reverse obvious errors. The failure of the UK media to criticise the government’s initial herd immunity strategy indicates the limitations of a free press in the UK. However at least the MC-type media in the UK have begun to acknowledge the government's error in retrospect, which is the reason for the recent attacks against it by those in the DP-media. The foundation of this attack is that the public were losing trust in journalism because it was being critical. 

This was a classic DP-media made up story. Real fake news if you like. In this Reuters Institute study, broadcasters top a poll for the institutions that have done the best job during the pandemic, closely followed by the Guardian. In contrast the organisations that have been most uncritical towards the government, the Telegraph and Sun, get negative ratings. And even more interesting is this study, which suggests viewers want more critical coverage, not less.

There is a good reason for this attempt to make publishing data or criticism appear unhelpful or even unpatriotic. While the Financial Times maintains constant coverage of the number of deaths in major countries, the BBC does not. There is some evidence that most people think deaths have been higher in China and France than the UK. If knowledge about the UK’s relative death rate became widespread, coupled with the government’s failure to adequately protect NHS and care staff, the damage to this government - the DP-media’s government - would be for a time at least very large.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Did the scientists advising the government on COVID-19 make serious mistakes?

The government has now said it will begin to wind down the lockdown with an extensive test, trace and isolate (TTI) regime in place. Containment, having been abandoned on March 12th, is back but this time the UK government is serious about it. It has a much greater chance of success not just because there is more testing capability available, and there will be an app to help with tracing, but also because it will take place with a degree of social distancing.

We can only hope that this works, and that government actions match their words. But what seems very puzzling to me is why the scientists advising the government seem to have been preoccupied with moderated herd immunity as the only way to deal with this virus, and largely neglected the possibility that containment could be made to work.

Managed herd immunity plus behavioural worries

This is not just a UK issue. Herd immunity, together with limited and advisory social distancing, is the strategy that is being tried in Sweden, following the advice of their chief epidemiologist. It is controversial there too, with many other scientists arguing against this strategy, and with deaths in Sweden well above those in other Nordic countries.

The logic of the argument for herd immunity is set out in a very interesting debate on Channel 4 on 13th March. It was between John Edmunds, an epidemiologist and member of SAGE, and Tomas Pueyo. (Although I saw this at the time, thanks to @cubic_logic for reminding me of it.) Both seem to agree that a lockdown of some sort is required to avoid the health service being overwhelmed, with the disagreement being how quickly that is required, but at the end it seems both are in agreement about the principle of herd immunity.

Why not impose a lockdown until a vaccine is discovered. You can also achieve herd immunity with a vaccine, without hundreds of thousands of people dying. If there was no cost to a lockdown, and it could be successfully imposed for a year or more, the optimal strategy is clearly to impose the lockdown as quickly as possible and retain it until the vaccine arrives. Obviously a lockdown of that length would be very costly, but the reason Edmunds gives in this debate for not doing this is that people would stop observing it. This is the ‘behavioural’ element to the story that has been talked about.

The behavioural element is crucial for the following reason. Even if it is not successful, containment could allow the following strategy. You start with containment (as we did), switch to total lockdown when containment is obviously failing, and once that lockdown brings the number of cases right down abandon it and revert to containment. This on/off for the economy could get us to the point where a vaccine is produced in large quantities. Compared to herd immunity we would almost certainly cause far less deaths without too greater economic cost.

To reject this outcome requires a pretty firm belief that people would become so tired of lockdowns by the Autumn that whatever the government did there would be an uncontrolled epidemic in the winter with a worse outcome for the NHS than managed herd immunity could achieve. Where that belief comes from I don’t know, and neither will we know until after the pandemic ends because the government has refused to publish the scientific advice it received until then. You would think that this behavioural assumption would depend in part on the economic support individuals were receiving, but as far as I know no Treasury officials or other economists were involved. Equally no sociologists were involved.

It is here that politics and science interact. Speaking to reuters’ journalists, John Edmunds is reported to have said:
“We had milder interventions in place because no one thought it would be acceptable politically to shut the country down.” He added: “We didn’t model it because it didn’t seem to be on the agenda. And Imperial didn’t look at it either.”

This is dangerous territory for any scientist. In the blink of an eye a scientist believing something is not on the agenda can be a politician saying that no one told us about this alternative.

Once those advising the government believed that lockdowns were off the agenda or too fragile because of the behavioural response then the government’s strategy begins to make more sense. You try containment, because containment would be the best outcome, but you suspect that without some social distancing and other measures it is unlikely to work, but you don’t want to impose those for behavioural reasons. You then move to managed herd immunity, where you want to impose as little restrictions as you can get away with, again for behavioural reasons, such that the NHS stays above the water line.

The strategy in action

On 9th March, during the containment phase, according to reuters:
“Johnson held out against stringent measures, saying he was following the advice of the government’s scientists. He asserted on March 9: “We are doing everything we can to combat this outbreak, based on the very latest scientific and medical advice.” Indeed, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, SAGE, had recommended that day, with no dissension recorded in its summary, that the UK reject a China-style lockdown. SAGE decided that “implementing a subset of measures would be ideal,” according to a record of its conclusions. Tougher measures could create a “large second epidemic wave once the measures were lifted,” SAGE said.”

Whether this was a unanimous view is disputed by Lawrence Freedman, who says some members did favour something closer to a Wuhan lockdown.

Thus on 10-13th March the Cheltenham racing festival went ahead. There is now evidence of a concentration of COVID cases in the area of Cheltenham racecourse. Other sporting events were allowed to go ahead. While this seems negligent if your concern is reducing deaths, if you think herd immunity is the only option and you want to delay even a partial lockdown for as long as possible it makes sense. On 12th March containment ended, and in his first COVID press conference the PM said “many more families will lose loved ones before their time.” Testing is now limited to hospitals.

Yet at the same time the Imperial team produced a new analysis suggesting that further measures were needed to avoid overwhelming the NHS. This was ‘the science changing’ according to the BBC. In reality this was still the strategy of managed herd immunity. Freedman reports:
“Now, promoted by the Imperial study, the advice from the operations subgroup of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza group on Modelling (SPI-M-O) on 16 March was notably different in tone from a week earlier. The measures at first envisaged – case-by-case isolation, household isolation and social distancing of vulnerable groups – was now “unlikely to prevent critical care facilities being overwhelmed”. Everything now had to be tried, including “general social distancing and school closures”, which offered the best chance of disease control.”

But was this really just the science changing? The reuters article says:
“What allowed Britain to alter course, said Edmunds, was a lockdown in Italy that “opened up the policy space” coupled with new data. First came a paper by Edmunds’ own London School team that examined intermittent lockdowns, sent to the modelling committee on March 11 and validated by Edinburgh University. Ferguson’s revised Imperial research followed. Woolhouse, the Edinburgh professor, confirmed the sequence. Edmunds said these new studies together had demonstrated that if the British government imposed a lengthy period of tougher measures, perhaps relaxed periodically, then the size of the epidemic could be substantially reduced.”

What changed was the politics, which had “opened up” the alternative strategy of intermittent lockdowns that I described at the beginning of this post. It was inevitable that the politics would change. I noted before Chris Giles commenting that the herd immunity strategy was time inconsistent: once deaths started increasing and people saw the pandemic overwhelming other countries politicians were bound to change strategy. But Johnson remained very reluctant to do so. As an article in the New England Journal of Medicine says about the measures introduced on 16th March:
“People should work from home if possible, but that was largely up to employers to decide. Vague. Anyone over 70 was advised to avoid “nonessential social contact.” Vague again. The government was “moving emphatically away from” mass gatherings, but again these were still not (and are still not) banned. British understatement was in full swing — citizens, businesses, and nursing homes were asked to read between the lines and go beyond explicit government policy. The prime minister’s father announced that he would be going to the pub if he chose to, since they needed the customers.”

We had to wait until 23rd March for the current lockdown to be imposed, that replaced advice with something much stronger. The French President threatened to close its borders with the UK if this was not done. As I noted in last week’s blog post, the 10 days delay between the containment phase ending and full lockdown probably cost the majority of lives lost in the UK. I don’t think the difference between weak advice (16th March) and the currrent lockdown (23rd March) can be pinned on the scientists.

What mistakes did scientists make

How much of all this the fault of the scientists advising the government. They certainly made mistakes. Three stand out. The first was NERVTAG keeping the threat level at moderate in mid-February, with Edmunds the only one objecting. This failed to convey the urgency of the situation to the government. The second, mentioned above, was scientists sticking to an agenda that seemed to rule out a lockdown, or other scientists pretending they knew with any certainty that lockdowns could not be sustained for long. Cummings taking part in the meeting didn’t help here. People who say his presence had no impact on the other people in the room, when his actions could potentially hurt many of those people, have no imagination.

The third, and by far the most important, was the failure to realise that containment if taken seriously was an alternative to herd immunity or total lockdowns. East Asian countries like South Korea suggest that alternative, if done properly and with supporting measures, can work for some time. You test people who may have the virus, and if they do you trace their contacts over the period they have been infectious and isolate both them and their contacts. The South Korean experience suggests that you can even bring down very high numbers of cases using this strategy. Professor Ferguson now agrees this is the country to learn from.

As long as a vaccine comes along within two years, this is a strategy that can get you through the period with no vaccine with far less cases and deaths than with herd immunity. This option comes up in the Channel 4 discussion noted above, but Edmunds dismisses it as having been tried and failed in the UK. In the UK this phase failed to stop the number of daily cases increasing.

One of the lessons from the countries with successful TTI strategies is that you close down travel from infected areas very quickly, or impose compulsory isolation for incoming travellers. (One of those countries, Taiwan, has an epidemiologist as its deputy President, which just shows that not all epidemiologists, or even a majority? believe in herd immunity.) The UK failed to do this during our containment phase. In addition, having mobile phone based tracing apps is extremely helpful in tracing who people have been in contact with, and the UK did not have that during its containment phase. But more generally, mild forms of social distancing can be used to help TTI work. Stopping large gatherings like Cheltenham races is an obvious example. We can put the same point another way. The UK did nothing to help the containment phase work. Was this due to politics or the absence of advice from SAGE?

If TTI fails, as it has in Singapore for example, then governments quickly need to impose a lockdown. But this is not a reversion to a herd immunity strategy, but just a measure required to get cases back down to a level where TTI can work again. Even if TTI has to be accompanied by occasional lockdowns, it will still involve many less deaths than herd immunity or ‘running the NHS hot’ does, simply because of the mathematics.

Do these failures by scientists advising the government, if they were not politically influenced, get politicians off the hook? Absolutely not. Most politicians, on being advised that the only sure way of responding to a new virus was to let hundreds of thousands of people die (as they were told in the UK), would surely want to be absolutely sure that there really wasn’t any alternative. They would ask basic questions, like are other countries doing the same, or are there examples of countries that have chosen a different and less deadly approach. Scientists would not have kept what China and South Korea are doing from ministers, and they are unlikely to have said that these countries' experience was of zero relevance.

If our government had done that, I’m pretty sure we would have had containment with more support in terms of controlling international travel, banning large gatherings and so on. Herd immunity wouldn't have been on the agenda, and a lockdown would have been imposed earlier. Probably most of those who have died would still be with us. The reason we tried containment in a half hearted way without social distancing support or border controls were because politicians were too content with a strategy that would kill huge numbers of people.

We are where we are because our current Prime Minister and some in his cabinet, even in the face of predictions of hundreds of thousands of deaths, was too content to do nothing, take it on the chin, and too fearful of curtailing economic freedoms to interrogate the advice they were given. It was the same slowness to act, rather than anything coming from the scientists said, that led to inadequate PPE provision, or to waiting until mid-March to appeal for ventilators or make requests to labs for assistance with testing.

What happens next

There still seems to be divergent views within government about how quickly the lockdown should be relaxed, where by relaxed I mean allowing more people to get COVID-19. There shouldn't be any debate. The number of cases need to be brought down as quickly as possible to a level where the TTI regime can be pretty sure to work. The current lockdown has to continue until that point is reached, and in addition some sort of quarantine system has to operate on anyone coming into the country.

At that point the TTI system can begin to operate. (Earlier testing should iron out any teething problems.) Only when this system has been operating for enough time to see that it is clearly working can we begin to relax lockdown. But these relaxations in lockdown need to be done step by step, and in each case we need to ensure that TTI can still work successfully.