COVID-19 and the Dunkirk spirit

My recent post suggesting that the government may have some reasonable thinking behind their go-slow-but-not-too-slow strategy had two underlying errors:

  1. I assumed they knew what the NHS capacity is, and were trying not to linger too long in the period where there is plenty of spare capacity. In fact, resources already appear to be overstretched, particularly protective equipment (PPE), even though the epidemic has barely started, and there are just a few thousand cases in total so far.
  2. I neglected to reckon with — what was otherwise obvious to me — Johnson’s Churchill complex. Johnson doesn’t have all that much in common with Churchill, but one thing the two do share is a mania for all manner of harebrained wheezes rather than careful dependable planning. Keynes famously said “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better to fail with the crowd than to succeed unconventionally”. Johnson is one of those rare individuals who would rather fail unconventionally — or, at least, is willing to hazard a strong risk of failure for the compensation of being seen as brilliantly unconventional.

Now the government says they miscalculated, after a paper from Imperial College’s Covid-19 Response Team found that the previous strategy would exceed available ICU capacity by a factor of 8! Did they misplace a decimal point? So suddenly the schools, gyms, and everything else that was announcing plans to cope with staying open through the epidemic is shutting down.

I find it genuinely shocking that the UK does not have a strategic reserve of PPE and ventilators, particularly the latter, as the shortage of ventilators was widely discussed in the press in 2009, in the context of the H1N1 pandemic.

Anyway, I’m glad I’m not in the US…

Californians panic-buying guns

What is the UK government trying to do with COVID-19?

It would be a drastic understatement to say that people are confused by the official advice coming with respect to social-distancing measures to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Some are angry. Some are appalled. And that includes some very smart people who understand the relevant science better than I do, and probably at least as well as the experts who are advising the government. Why are they not closing schools and restaurants, or banning sporting events — until the Football Association decided to ban themselves — while at the same time signalling that they will be taking such measures in the future? I’m inclined to start from the presumption that there’s a coherent and sensible — though possibly ultimately misguided (or well guided but to-be-proved-retrospectively wrong) — strategy, and I find it hard to piece together what they’re talking about with “herd immunity” and “nudge theory”.

Why, in particular, are they talking about holding the extreme social-distancing measures in reserve until later? Intuitively you would think that slowing the progress of the epidemic can be done at any stage, and the sooner you start the more effective it will be.

Here’s my best guess about what’s behind it, which has the advantage of also providing an explanation why the government’s communication has been so ineffective: Unlike most other countries, which are taking the general approach that the goal is to slow the spread of the virus as much as possible (though they may disagree about what is possible), the UK government wants to slow the virus, but not too much.

The simplest model for the evolution of the number of infected individuals (x) is a differential equation

Here A is the fraction immune at which R0 (the number that each infected person infects) reaches 1, so growth enters a slower phase. The solution is

Basically, if you control the level of social interaction, you change k, slowing the growth of the cumulative rate parameter K(t). There’s a path that you can run through, at varying rates, until you reach the target level A. So, assuming the government can steer k as they like, they can stretch out the process as they like, but they can’t change the ultimate destination. The corresponding rate of new infections — the key thing that they need to hold down, to prevent collapse of the NHS — is kx(Ax). (It’s more complicated because of the time delay between infection, symptoms, and recovery, raising the question of whether such a strategy based on determining the timing of epidemic spread is feasible in practice. A more careful analysis would use the three-variable SIR model.)

Suppose now you think that you can reduce k by a certain amount for a certain amount of time. You want to concentrate your effort in the time period where x is around A/2. But you don’t want to push k too far down, because that slows the whole process down, and uses up the influence. The basic idea is, there’s nothing we can do to change the endpoint (x=A); all you can do is steer the rate so that

  1. The maximum rate of new infections (or rather, of total cases in need of hospitalisation) is as low as possible;
  2. The peak is not happening next winter, when the NHS is in its annual flu-season near-collapse;
  3. The fraction A of the population that is ultimately infected — generally taken to be about 60% in most renditions — includes as few as possible of the most at-risk members of the public. That also requires that k not be too small, because keeping the old and the infirm segregated from the young and the healthy can only be done for a limited time. (This isn’t Florida!)

Hence the messaging problem: It’s hard to say, we want to reduce the rate of spread of the infection, but not too much, without it sounding like “We want some people to die.”

There’s no politic way to say, we’re intentionally letting some people get sick, because only their immunity will stop the infection. Imagine the strategy were: Rather than close the schools, we will send the children off to a fun camp where they will be encouraged to practice bad hygiene for a few weeks until they’ve all had CoViD-19. A crude version of school-based vaccination. If it were presented that way, parents would pull their children out in horror.

It’s hard enough getting across the message that people need to take efforts to remain healthy to protect others. You can appeal to their sense of solidarity. Telling people they need to get sick so that other people can remain healthy is another order of bewildering, and people are going to rebel against being instrumentalised.

Of course, if this virus doesn’t produce long-term immunity — and there’s no reason necessarily to expect that it will — then this strategy will fail. As will every other strategy.

Who’s behind Brexit?

One of the newspaper covers promoting pro-Brexit celebration:

It’s hard to miss that the jubilant lady draped in the Union Jack has a US flag right behind her. A message to those who still suppose Brexit will bring “independence”. (In case they didn’t get the message when the Prime Minister stood up in parliament and pretended to take Jared Kushner’s Middle East “peace plan” seriously.)

And in case any Jews or Muslims might have thought they would be part of this “glorious new Britain”, they have a fucking CRUSADER in their masthead!

Pointing the finger at finger-pointers

Boris Johnson obviously considers himself a master rhetorician. His fascination with striking words and images, combined with his inability to structure a sentence — perhaps out of indiscipline, perhaps attention deficit, perhaps just out of a general mismatch between high education and mediocre intelligence — makes his speeches read like something out of one of William S. Burroughs’s less successful cut-up compositions.

The clash of tone and images can be jarring, as in the quote on the cover of yesterday’s Daily Telegraph:

Given the leanings of the Telegraph, I’m assuming this was intended to flatter Johnson, not to mock him. And yet… Illustrating an accusation of finger-pointing with a photo of the accuser pointing his finger? And that’s before we even get to the hoary Labour is Stalinist accusation. In 2019? Really? So Johnson has to show that it’s not just a tired slogan by bringing some historical detail into it. With foreign words. So they’re persecuting kulaks. British kulaks should tremble! Before the horror of Jeremy Corbyn, who would be just like Stalin: a notorious scold!

Betting on Brexit

A popular approach to defining subjective probabilities is to ask, under what terms would you be willing to bet on this outcome. “I’d be willing to bet” is a common way of expressing confidence. Presumably that’s what Michael Gove is appealing to here:

Gove insisted the UK would still definitely leave on 31 October, saying he had even made a bet with Matt Hancock, the health secretary, that it would happen.

Sounds pretty convincing. Except… It’s another member of the cabinet that is taking the other side of the bet. And not just any other member, but the health secretary, whose preparations are kind of important.

So, we are left with the following options:

  1. The cabinet has no idea what’s going to happen next week. And instead of spending their time earnestly trying to figure it out, they’re gambling on the outcome.
  2. Insiders are entirely confident that Brexit will happen on 31 October, but the health secretary is clueless. And the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lanchester (that is genuinely his cabinet job title), instead of trying to bring him up to speed, is taking advantage of his cluelessness to make some money with a bet whose outcome he has covert information about.
  3. This is just another ridiculous story made up by what are supposed to be responsible public servants.

I suppose he didn’t say what odds he’d given Hancock…

May God bless and keep the tsar far away from us…

I’m happy to see the UK government interested in attacking antisemitism — even if they do tend to see the main contribution of Jews to UK society as being to shield the Conservative Party against accusations of racism (as demonstrated most recently by Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions) — but I can’t help feeling it shows at the very least some level of insensitivity to historical context for the government to appoint an antisemitism tsar.

I find it jarring in the same way I did this reference to both the “Mecca of the kibbutz movement” and “a huge garage in southern Tel Aviv turned into the new mecca of dance, drugs, and casual encounters.

I suppose we should be grateful the government has not decided to launch a Crusade against Antisemitism.

Everything I needed to know about British politics I learned in kindergarten

The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. Whether or not that ever well described the preparation of the British military I cannot say, but I feel like to understand British politics you need to go back earlier, to the playground of whatever toff kindergarten prepares the English elite for Eton. How else to explain Boris Johnson thinking he can pressure the Labour Party into agreeing to an election on Dominic Cummings’s preferred schedule by calling Jeremy Corbyn “frit”, a “chlorinated chicken”, or “a great big girl’s blouse“.

This last expression struck me as so bizarre — not only is it much too ungainly a phrase to function effectively as an insult, but I can’t think of another term of abuse that compares the target to an item of clothing — but various explainers have revealed that it is indeed a slang expression from the period of Johnson’s childhood, and that Johnson has been known to use it in the past.

It never ceases to astonish me, not just that someone in a position of influence would publicly speak this way, but that his co-partisans seem to find it normal, acceptable, not at all embarrassing, even powerful.

None of this can compare to early-twentieth-century British playground politics. One of the most horrifying details of Christopher Clarke’s meticulous analysis of the march to war in 1914 The Sleepwalkers was his adumbration of the temperamental state of mind prevailing in the British foreign-policy establishment in the decade before the war, illustrated by the comment of UK Ambassador to France Sir Francis ‘the Bull’ Bertie that the Germans wanted “to push us into the water and steal our clothes.”

Brexit planning in a mysterious tribal dialect

Among the many recurring farcical features of the Brexit morass has been the British government’s willingness (as I discussed two years ago) to proclaim, that its Brexit plans and negotiating position needs to be kept secret from the UK public because, in its favoured gambling vernacular, its ability to bluff would be fatally undermined by showing its cards. In recent weeks we have learned that no-deal Brexit is easily managed, nothing to be frightened of; and yet, the EU will truckle at the whiff of grapeshot, once it is clear that Parliament cannot rescue them from this terrifying fate. That proroguing Parliament changes nothing, and yet will persuade the EU that the UK has thrown its steering wheel out of the car in its game of diplomatic chicken.

What is odd is not that the government might have a public posture (e.g. no-deal Brexit is easily manageable) at odds with its private beliefs (e.g. no-deal Brexit will be hugely destructive). It is that they openly and persistently proclaim these contradictions, using poker metaphors to justify their contradictions. As though their diplomatic counterparties in Brussels would not also read their allusions to bluffing and draw the appropriate conclusions.

I am reminded of an anecdote in David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day. Sedaris, an American writer who lived many years in France, describes the conversation of two American tourists who were crammed in close to him in the Paris Metro:

“Peeew, can you smell that? That is pure French, baby.” He removed one of his hands from the pole and waved it back and forth in front of his face. “Yes indeed,” he said. “This little foggy is ripe.”

It took a moment to realize he was talking about me.

The woman wrinkled her nose. “Golly Pete!” she said, “Do they all smell this bad?”

“It’s pretty typical,” the man said. “I’m willing to bet that our little friend here hasn’t had a bath in a good two weeks. I mean, Jesus Christ, someone should hang a deodorizer around this guy’s neck.”

It’s a common mistake for vacationing Americans to assume that everyone around them is French and therefore speaks no English whatsoever… An experienced traveler could have told by looking at my shoes that I wasn’t French. And even if I were French, it’s not as if English is some mysterious tribal dialect spoken only by anthropologists and a small population of cannibals. They happen to teach English in schools all over the world. There are no eligibility requirements. Anyone can learn it. Even people who reportedly smell bad…