Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Transparency isn't just a convenient word for a speech

President Trump isn’t the only world leader to have expressed doubt about the accuracy of the coronavirus figures which were reported by China, although he has, perhaps, been the most forthright in the words he’s used to describe the alleged under-reporting. Even if it’s true, whether it would have made a difference to his own response to the pandemic in America is another question open to considerable doubt. It looks more like finding a scapegoat than providing an honest explanation of his own inaction.
Personally, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Chinese figures were indeed understated, but whether that’s a result of deliberate action by the Chinese state, fear on the part of local officials who didn’t want to be blamed, or simple failings in the process of collating numbers in the face of a major epidemic is another open question. What is probably less arguable is that the ultimate response of the Chinese state to the handling of the epidemic was amongst the most effective we’ve seen anywhere. But the fact that a repressive authoritarian state can not only disguise the figures but take extreme action when required doesn’t give us much of a model to follow.
It isn’t only the Chinese figures which are misleading though. Whilst we might suspect that their figures are understated, we know with absolute certainty that the UK’s daily figures are hugely understated – the FT estimates that the true figure is more than twice the 20,000+ being quoted at the daily briefings. I don’t single out the UK government here, other than to the extent that its figures are more familiar to us; I merely note that the potential divergence between reported numbers and actual numbers should cause us to ask questions about the accuracy of figures elsewhere as well. It is surely the case that delays in reporting / registering deaths, difficulties in collating numbers from a large number of institutions and geographical jurisdictions, and even other errors like the one here in Wales which have yet to come to light elsewhere may be muddying the waters in other countries as well. The only certainty is that, if and when figures come to be revised, there is only one direction – upwards – in which those figures will move; in the meantime, there is at least room for doubt about the relative positions of different countries in the rather unfortunate league tables which are readily available.
When the English Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and the Medical Director for NHS England told us in March that a total of under 20,000 deaths would be a “very good result”, I wasn’t entirely sure whether they were setting a goal which they thought there was a chance of achieving or subtly setting expectations that they already thought that the final outcome would probably be much higher than that. Even if they were only talking about their own area of jurisdiction, England, rather than the UK as a whole, the lack of clarity about the meaning of that number (and the unwillingness to be more open about the outcome) means that the government has ended up being seen to have failed against its own predictions, and doing so by a very wide margin. Even with the numbers now falling (in hospitals at least – they still seem to be rising in care homes), we know from elsewhere that the downward trend is slower and takes longer than the upward trend. The final figure from this first wave currently looks very unlikely to be less than 55,000. And until there is a safe and effective vaccine available in sufficient numbers to immunise almost the whole population (and that’s at least 12 months away, with no certainty that there’ll ever be one) there is an inevitability of further deaths, and possibly further spikes in numbers of deaths, occurring in the interim.
In that context, the PM’s address to ‘the nation’ yesterday can be seen for what it is – absolute piffle from start to finish. There is no ‘success’ here (‘apparent’ or otherwise), no ‘wrestling the mugger to the floor’, and above all no honesty or transparency about the likely course of the disease. There is no plan beyond responding in piecemeal fashion to events as they unfold, no strategy beyond lying and misleading, and no attempt to treat us, the public, as adults who can be trusted. A man who has never knowingly told the truth when there is a better lie to hand expects us to trust him without giving us the facts and data on which he is making decisions. In times gone by, his own party would be taking quiet steps behind the scenes to remove him from a job to which he is so obviously unsuited (and many of them knew that long before he got the job), but he has purged most of the sensible opposition – and it’s hard to identify a credible replacement anyway.
Private Frazer starts to look like an optimist.

1 comment:

CapM said...

I've noticed that various scientific and medical advisors to Government are answering questions put to them by the media in a political fashion. Referring to "aim", "ramping up" etc. rather than providing data and analysis that might/would embarrass the Government or perhaps themselves.

Also it's difficult to see the figure of 20,000 deaths as an estimate generated by someone using science alone. Unless it was based on modeling "science" where garbage in = garbage out.