Today’s Telegraph leads with the story that Boris is due to wind down lockdown restrictions on Sunday, although by the time you read this it will have officially been extended. Is this finally happening? Or will the announcement be postponed again? As Guido Fawkes points out, the Telegraph has predicted lockdown is about to be eased three times before on its front page, only for nothing to happen. But this is probably a case of fourth time lucky, according to Guido, because the story is “exclusive to all news outlets everywhere”, i.e. all the other papers have it too. The Telegraph‘s Camilla Tominey has more details.
One fly in the ointment – or, rather, two – is that the plan hasn’t been signed off yet by Nicola Sturgeon or Keir Starmer, who both think it’s too soon to start easing restrictions. According to the Mail, Sturgeon thinks any dialling back of stay-at-home measures would be “catastrophic”. “Our assessment of the evidence leads me to the conclusion that the lockdown must be extended at this stage,” she said at a briefing in Edinburgh this morning. (She must be looking at very different evidence to me.) Starmer, meanwhile, says the restrictions cannot be eased until testing has been ramped up further, highlighting the fact that the Government’s daily figure has dropped below the magic 100,000 number. And the Mail has a poll showing that Sturgeon and Starmer’s more cautious approach is supported by a majority of the public. The survey found that 62% of Britons are worried about the curbs being lifted too early, while only a minority – 38% – say their main concern is the havoc the lockdown is wreaking on the economy.
A couple of different readers have sent me a “leaked” document that purports to be a five-step exit plan that English local authorities have been sent in advance of Sunday’s announcement, starting with garden centres and ironmongers reopening on May 18th, along with outdoor workers returning to work, some outdoor sporting activities being permitted (limited to four participants), some tourist attractions reopening, and some mixing between households. The most alarming revelation is that schools won’t reopen until the beginning of the next academic year. However, a bit of cursory research on my part has revealed that this isn’t Boris’s plan, but the Irish Government’s. RTE has the details.
Several of the papers reveal that the NHS is having second thoughts about its contact-tracing app. The FT says NHSx, the health service’s digital innovation arm, has asked a team of software developers to “investigate” whether the app can be redesigned so it aligns with the Apple-Google solution being used in Germany and elsewhere. The firm tasked with redeveloping the app – and providing support once it’s been rolled out – is Zuhlke Engineering, a Swiss IT company. According to the FT, it’s been awarded a contract worth £3.8m.
One of my readers – the same cyber security expert who wrote the review of NHSX’s app that I published yesterday – thinks something fishy is going on.
£3.8m for six months work? Money no object here, clearly. That’s £30k per day. What the heck are they doing? Day rates per programmer for a London team are circa £450 per day. That implies a team of over 70 people on this. That’s a problem in itself. Big teams don’t write good software. By comparison Amazon use a “two pizza” model – you should be able to feed your team with two pizzas. Over 70 is madness and smacks of desperation. So even plan B is doomed to fail. I wish I could say I was surprised.
According to the FT, which is quoting from the invitation to tender, the contract includes a requirement to “investigate the complexity, performance and feasibility of implementing native Apple and Google contact tracing APIs [application programming interfaces] within the existing proximity mobile application and platform”.
One word jumps out there: “within”. It means the strategy is to gut the existing app and replace the internals with the Apple-Google version. Like Trigger’s broom in Only Fools and Horses – same brush, just an entirely new head and handle. So it will be the “same” app, just with a new code inside it. Most users won’t notice the app update on their phone, so it means NHSx and Matt Hancock can save face. Nothing to see here…
There’s a lot more detail on Neil Ferguson and his mistress in today’s papers. If you Google Antonia Staats it brings up her LinkedIn account, which describes her as a “senior activist/campaigner” with Avaaz, although her LinkedIn profile is no longer available. According to Wikipedia, Avaaz is a US-based charity that was launched in January 2007 and promotes global activism on issues such as climate change, human rights, animal rights, corruption, poverty and conflict. During the 2008 Canadian election campaign, the then environment minister John Baird called Avaaz a “shadowy foreign organisation” and said it was funded by George Soros.
This will be grist to the mill of those conspiracy theorists who believe that many of the scientific experts advising governments during this crisis – not just here, but around the world – are linked to activists and campaigning groups with a green agenda and are deliberately exaggerating the risks posed by the virus to persuade politicians to inflect needless acts of economic self-harm. Their object, according to this theory, is to destroy capitalism. And in case you’re wondering exactly what they’d like to see in its place, over 200 “artists and scientists”, including Madonna, Robert De Niro and several Nobel Prize winners, signed a letter to Le Monde this morning demanding that the world not “return to normal” and urging us all to stop “the pursuit of consumerism” and instead try and bring about “social equity”. Sounds a lot like socialism to me – and we all know how that ends.
My own view is that the public health experts advising governments around the world are acting in good faith. Yes, many of them have misgivings about free market capitalism, and it’s entirely possible that some of them are fully signed up to the Extinction Rebellion agenda. But I don’t think they’re deliberately trying to sabotage the global economy in order to further that agenda. As I explained yesterday, the advise being given to politicians during this crisis by left-leaning policy panjandrums is indeed catastrophically wrong and will undoubtedly do enormous damage to the economies of those countries that have listened to them, not least the UK. But that’s not because advisors like Neil Ferguson have a secret agenda. It’s because they’re wildly over-estimating the good that governments can do and not giving nearly enough thought to the unintended consequences of large-scale state interventions. We’ve been here before – many, many times, particularly in the area I know most about, which is public education. Nearly every ambitious, state-led attempt to raise educational achievement has been, at best, completely ineffective. More often than not, these ruinously expensive national programmes do more harm than good. The policy wonks who’ve designed them don’t deliberately set out to make schools worse. That’s just the inevitable result of their hubristic over-reach, which is often linked to their denial of human nature and the limits it imposes on what governments can achieve. They’re innocent saboteurs, as it were, hamstrung by their own idealism, and I suspect the same is true here. I distilled my argument in a piece for the Critic entitled ‘The fatal hubris of Professor Lockdown‘.
Some people will think that’s naive. Maybe so. Time will tell.
Not all my fellow hacks think Neil Ferguson is a villain – Paul Nuki, the Global Health Security Editor of the Telegraph, thinks his sagacious advice “saved thousands of lives“. However, lockdown scepticism continues to grow. The Mail has a story headlined ‘Was Britain’s lockdown a waste of time?‘ that’s based on some research by a group of academics at the University of East Anglia showing that draconian stay-at-home orders and shutting down all non-essential businesses has had little effect on suppressing infections. A couple of days ago, the Telegraph ran a piece by its Economics Editor Paul Lynch arguing that the economic price we’re paying for saving lives (which he thinks the lockdown is doing) is too high. And this morning, the BBC’s Nick Triggle, usually a pretty cautious customer, wrote a piece asking whether the public health costs of the lockdown are greater than the public health benefits. He links to this paper, produced by some academics in Edinburgh and London, arguing for a “segmenting and shielding” exit strategy – basically, we gradually come out of lockdown and ramp up protection of the most vulnerable groups as we go, eventually building up herd immunity. For the non-vulnerable population, i.e. the vast majority, coronavirus carries no more risk than a “nasty flu”, according to Professor Mark Woolhouse, an expert in infectious disease who led the research.
Yesterday, I published a review of the computer code used by Neil Ferguson and his team at Imperial – or, rather, a derivative version of that code – by someone I identified as “Sue Denim”. It’s hardly the only criticism the code has received from within the programming community – see this thread on Reddit, for instance – but it got more attention that I’d anticipated and at several points in the past 24 hours our server was overwhelmed. So today my webmaster has transferred the site to a new server.
Sue Denim is not the author’s real name, incidentally. It’s a byline derived from the word “pseudonym”, an old Private Eye gag. But plenty of people didn’t get the joke, with some sleuths on Twitter claiming they couldn’t find any evidence of a “Sue Denim” ever having worked at Google. I’m satisfied that the person in question did, in fact, work at Google. He/she has added a note at the bottom of the review explaining why they wish to remain anonymous:
Sue Denim isn’t a real person (read it out). I’ve chosen to remain anonymous partly because of the intense fighting that surrounds lockdown, but there’s also a deeper reason. This situation has come about due to rampant credentialism and I’m tired of it. As the widespread dismay by programmers demonstrates, if anyone in SAGE or the Government had shown the code to a working software engineer they happened to know, alarm bells would have been rung immediately. Instead, the Government is dominated by academics who apparently felt unable to question anything done by a fellow professor. Meanwhile, average citizens like myself are told we should never question “expertise”. Although I’ve proven my Google employment to Toby, this mentality is damaging and needs to end: please, evaluate the claims I’ve made for yourself, or ask a programmer you know and trust to evaluate them for you.
Some of the comments that have appeared beneath the review are excellent. I thought this one, posted today, was particularly good. The author, also anonymous, tells me he’s spent 20 years as a high-level consultant to various national and international institutions, overseeing advice and policy decisions based on economic, environmental and epidemiological modelling.
Unlike most of those who comment on the code for the Imperial College model, I can say that I have been there, done that and got the t-shirt, i.e. I have created models for academic work that have become the subject of intense political controversy. The comments by Sue Denim are based on a substantial amount of hindsight and expectations that are unrealistic for academic teams who do not have access to the resources necessary to meet the best coding standards and are often under extreme pressure to generate results quickly. I have little doubt that every model that I have produced could have been coded better, but that is really not the point with 99% of models. We should remember the aphorism that “all models are wrong, but some of them are useful”.
Nonetheless, there are strange features of the Imperial College model. No-one that I know would have coded a model of this kind in C++ at any point in the last three decades. Most academics would use Matlab, Python or a large variety of high level packages/languages – according to taste and age. Using C++ (or, for the older of us, Fortran) is an open invitation to bugs, memory leaks, buffer overwriting, etc. which lead to the “random” results highlighted by Sue Denim. Of course, the model may also have been deliberately stochastic – i.e. it may rely on random number generators to derive a distribution of outcomes – but there has been little attention paid to the stochastic features of the results and in any case there are much better ways of doing this than writing C++ code.
What this review highlights is the complete failure of bureaucrats and politicians to go through a reasonable system to test the results of such models when and if they rely on them. There are many other epidemiological models around and the big failure seems to have been to rely heavily on one set of results without trying, even in a short period of time, to develop a consensus about broad conclusions rather than detailed numbers. Errors are not especially important if there is broad agreement across modelling groups.
The real problem is that no such consensus exists; this decision was made on political grounds and in a panic. Personally, I think Neil Ferguson was foolish to allow himself to become the focus of the supposed “scientific” advice underlying a political decision. Intense media attention is both seductive and fickle. The lesson to learn now is that future policies must be based on a broader discussion of both epidemiology and policy options. There is, now, a huge amount of evidence from around the world that is largely being ignored by those who seem more concerned to defend what was done and rather less to work out reasonable trade-offs between health and economic outcomes.
And while we’re on the shortcoming of Professor Ferguson’s model, a reader flagged up this passage from the 2011 paper by Mansley et al about the UK Government’s heavily-criticised response to Food and Mouth Disease (FMD) in 2001 which, needless to say, was influenced by one of Ferguson’s computer simulations:
The mathematical models were, at best, crude estimations that could not differentiate risk between farms and, at worst, inaccurate representations of the epidemiology of FMD. Ultimately, the models neither correctly predicted the course and duration of the epidemic nor the effectiveness of the traditional control measures put in place nor the novel ones proposed. Thus, they failed the acid tests of refutedness, testedness and usefulness. The rush to embrace non-validated mathematical models in policy-making, presented without balancing their apparent numerical certainty against the degree of improbable biological assumptions they contained, resulted in traditional methods proven by generations of veterinarians being neglected. As Kitching et al put it [in the summary of their 2006 paper]: “The UK experience provides a salutary warning of how models can be abused in the interest of scientific opportunism.”
A couple of weeks ago I urged readers to sign a petition on the Government’s website calling for the lockdown to end, but it disappeared into the bureaucratic ether. However, Mary Waugh, granddaughter of Auberon Waugh, has started another one and this one has got past the gatekeepers. You can sign Mary’s petition here. 10,000 signatures and the Government will have to respond – 100,000 and it could be debated in Parliament. I’ve signed it, naturally. (Doh! The petition has already disappeared.)
A reader has asked whether Simon Dolan, the man threatening the Government with a judicial review of the lockdown unless restrictions imposed by the Coronavirus Regulations Act are lifted, will be pressing ahead with his lawsuit because the Government didn’t comply with his demand by 4pm today, the deadline mentioned in the original crowdfunder. However, the Government’s lawyers have asked for an extension until 4pm on May 14th and Dolan’s lawyers have responded, giving Boris until 4pm on May 12th to lift the restrictions. You can read the letter from the Government’s solicitors here and the response from Dolan’s solicitors here.
Last week, I asked some rogue epidemiologists I’m in touch with if they’d compile an Excel spreadsheet of all the testing surveys that have been done so far – both PRC and serological – showing what percentage of the populations-in-question have been infected and what the estimated infection fatality rate (IFR) is. I suggested they add to it whenever a new set of survey results is published and stick a median IFR figure at the bottom. They didn’t bite – too much work – but as luck would have it someone has posted precisely such a spreadsheet in the comments below one of the pages on this site. It’s here. I haven’t had a chance to check it yet, but it looks solid and all the surveys are linked to in the spreadsheet so it’s easy to check. The median IFR is 0.23%, a quarter of the estimate in Professor Ferguson’s infamous model.
Here is a round-up of all those interesting articles and papers I’ve spotted, or readers have flagged up, in the past 24 hours:
- ‘Delaying herd immunity is costing lives‘ – The case for herd immunity, as set out in Spiked by Martin Kulldorff, a Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School
- ‘Segmentation and shielding of the most vulnerable members of the population as elements of an exit strategy from COVID-19 lockdown‘ – An exit plan devised by a group of infectious diseases academics at Edinburgh University and University College London that’s a lot more attractive than the one likely to be unveiled by Boris on Sunday
- ‘Majority of new COVID-19 hospitalizations in New York are people who stayed at home‘ – Turns out, 66% of those currently being admitted to hospital in New York City followed the Governor’s ‘shelter-in-place’ order. 96% have underlying health issues
- ‘Charities on the brink after donors ignore appeals and back NHS‘ – Story in the Times about the financial collapse of the third sector
- ‘Churchill in reverse‘ – Good column by James Allan in the Australian Spectator, although, surprisingly, it’s about Scott Morrison’s handling of the crisis, not Boris’s
- ‘We know everything – and nothing – about Covid‘ – Matt Ridley summarises the state of our knowledge about the virus in the latest issue of the Spectator
- ‘The invisible pandemic‘ – In a letter in the Lancet, Sweden’s former epidemiologist-in-chief Johan Giesecke explains why Sweden’s deaths-per-million remain below those in the UK, Spain, Belgium and Italy, in spite of the fact the country hasn’t locked down
- ‘I told you so! 1,000 tests was a foolish targets‘ – Tom Chivers at his scathing best in UnHerd. A pic of Matt Hancock looking foolish accompanies the piece
- ‘Despite the Ferguson fiasco, No 10 is about to make its second major blunder‘ – The always-good Sherelle Jacobs sticks the boot in
More suggestions for theme tunes: ‘I Am the Virus‘ by Killing Joke, ‘F.E.A.R.‘ by Ian Brown and – in a nod to the weird hold Neil Ferguson has exercised over successive British Prime Ministers – ‘You Put a Spell on Me‘ by Nina Simone.
Thanks as always to those who made a donation yesterday to pay for the upkeep of the site. If you feel like donating, you can do so by clicking here. (Every little helps!) And if you want to flag up any stories or links I should include in tomorrow’s update, you can email me here. With the bump we got from the review of Ferguson’s computer code yesterday, we’re on track to pass half a million page views later today.