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The plan has been wrong for at least a couple of months. Shut the damn pubs.

I just want to put some of this down for posterity - i.e. to remind myself in future, of what was obvious at the time.

  • "Shut the damn pubs," I've been thinking to myself for weeks. Saying it to friends too. Back in August, I think, the scientific advisors Chris Whitty and Graham Medley floated the idea that the pubs should shut in September to allow the schools and universities to come back with some level of reassurance, some help to restrict the spread of the virus. The idea didn't seem to catch on. It wasn't debated much in the media. Now, with the benefit of hindsight it's clear that the start of term would have been the IDEAL moment to put the pubs (and some other similar parts of that sector) into an autumn furlough. It would clearly need a furlough or some other financial support.

    The public messaging would have been clear - a straightforward cutoff that we can all understand. "You've had your summer in the beer gardens, now let's get the kids back to school". Much much easier to manage publicly.

    (Update: we now find that the science advisers were indeed officially in September suggesting shutting bars and restaurants)

    The current 10pm shutting of pubs and restaurants struck me as a useless compromise. People will have already been boozing, hanging around with strangers indoors. It's looking, at the moment, like it actually may be doing more harm than good, with people gathering in streets, supermarkets, homes. That's more than I'd expected. I wonder if people are making the most of their time before the expected imposition of even tougher restrictions.

  • The second wave of covid was clearly blooming BEFORE the schools and universities went back into their term. Given the time-lag in detection, and the fact that the wave was picking up approx 2 weeks beforehand anyway, it must have kicked off about a month before. It seems likely that one cause is people coming back from foreign holidays: a fairly high chance of bringing novel infections in. But maybe it's also just the gradual relaxation - of rules and of attitudes - that did it.

  • The union, UCU, was right. They had more insight than I did - I wasn't particularly committed as to whether universities should be trying to restart their academic year on-campus.

    (And we could see the financial problem facing universities: if they didn't offer some kind of "on-campus teaching and socialising" promise, the students might not come at all, which puts the universities into a massive financial loss. That could be handled by the big well-endowed universities, but for many of the more normal universities - like the one I work at - there's no big money pot in the background giving them strategic flexibility, they live on the balance of incoming and outgoing, and a bank loan facility to allow strategic investment.)

    But the union UCU spoke forcefully, saying that the teaching term should not go back on campus until it was clear how to do it safely. I did not foresee this horrible situation of students in accommodation lockdown and big discussions about whether to let them leave for Christmas. The union's position was the right one.

  • Should students get some money back? They've paid "normal" fees and are not getting a normal education. Well: the first thing to say is that university staff have been moving heaven and earth this summer to create, very rapidly, a seismic shift in how they do their teaching, making it possible to do blended or online as necessary, often completely reworking their courses. It's not me that moved heaven and earth - it's the lecturers and support staff, especially those teaching the big first-year courses. They are knackered. So. The "cost of education" has definitely not decreased. Frankly, students this year have received, unknowingly, hundreds of hours of added free labour from university staff busting a gut to get things in place. If the outcome is thought to be not good enough - because as we all know, it's the social, group-learning and extra-curricular side the students will be missing out on - then yes, it's worth compensating. I'm afraid it should be government-backed compensation, since the cost of teaching hasn't decreased, it's more like a furlough of students' in-person experience. So how about a per-university scheme that pairs lockdowns/go-homes with student compensation.

  • It beggars belief that the government was saying, in late August, "Now is the time" to go back physically to work, in offices and workplaces. They were doing this, as was obvious, mere weeks before the schools went back. Why not wait and make sure the schools get back OK? Why not let individuals and businesses make up their own minds? Sure, there are economic costs to staying remote, staying in furlough, etc. But the most reasonable way to go seems to lay off the government messaging for a moment - allow our collective intelligence to work out how to work sensibly and safely in the new era. Not to coerce people back into unsafe conditions. Not to give some bosses (and I have a couple of my friends' bosses in mind) the backing to force people back into face-to-face work that they personally feel unsafe doing.

| Politics |

UK covid response: If they were following the science...

The UK's response to Covid-19 is a national tragedy. It's not just a case of "bad luck": we had approx 2 weeks extra time than Italy in coming up with our response, and yet we somehow managed to achieve a higher number of Covid deaths, and even, a higher number of Covid deaths-per-million.

For me, it's the deaths-per-million that is the number to care about, since it adjusts for the big differences in numbers you would get simply from a country being large or small. For a long time we were tracking along with the same rates as France and the Netherlands, both countries that "got the virus" at about the same time as us. Then our stats pulled away, now being twice the (normalised) fatality rate as those countries. Twice.

You can also measure "excess deaths" which helps account for deaths not necessarily labelled as "covid deaths". As of May 15th, the FT lists us as having 59,500 excess deaths (+65%), versus Italy's 46,700 (+47%) and Spain's 43,500 (+62%). (Update: the FT has an article on 28th May analysing our higher death rate in more detail.)

The minor differences in how each country reports their data are insignificant here. They can't possibly explain away this tragedy. We had two extra weeks to get our preparations in place. And there are plenty of reasons the UK should have been one of the best-prepared countries in the world. This BMJ editorial gives a good overview of the UK's public health failures in handling the coronavirus. There were (probably) mistakes in the scientific advice, and these are mentioned in the article. But don't let that misguide you - there were big, very big errors of judgment at the political level too. And it is the government which has the responsibility for getting us through crises like this. Our numbers should not have been anywhere near as bad as Italy's or Spain's.

Politicians are dedicated experts at pinning the blame on anyone but themselves, though. The UK government are already trumpeting loudly the defence that they're "following the science", and surely they will use that defence when the public inquiry comes.

So. Putting aside many of the other uncertainties - if they were indeed following the science, then:

  • Why did Boris Johnson not turn up to any of the early Cobra meetings about Covid, to find out what the science was? (January, February - he missed all 5 of the Cobra Covid meetings, finally turning up to chair one on March 2nd.)

  • Why did Boris Johnson give a speech on 3rd Feb in which he enthusiastically promoted an idea of the UK as a small plucky country that would refuse to close its borders, all in service of the ideal of free trade?

  • Why were Dominic Cummings and other political advisors, able to be present at some SAGE meetings despite the strong risk of affecting the political neutrality (real or perceived) of the scientific advice?

  • Why did the government, at any time between 2016 and 2020, not make preparations in response to the critical warnings from the 2016 Exercise Cygnus (pandemic preparedness exercise)?

  • Why, when scientists advised that the public should not shake hands, did Boris Johnson announce gleefully that he had been shaking hands with everyone when he visited a hospital ward with Covid patients (March 3rd)?

  • Why did the UK government advise the public not to go to pubs, while also not mandating that pubs should close? (March 16th) (Anecdotally: I walked past a couple of pubs, and saw them packed full with people, presumably grabbing a last chance before any potential closure. The closure eventually happened on March 20th.)

  • Why were incoming flights still broadly permitted, without testing, even from highly-infected parts of the world, as late as April 16th?

  • Why did the UK Government claim in May that they had "brought in the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown", when there was no lockdown in care homes until the general lockdown? (There was non-mandatory guidance, on 13th March.)

  • Why did the UK Government redefine its "covid tests completed" statistic to include tests posted out to people, even if not returned or processed - creating obscurity about the true number of tests completed and thus the covid incidence rates? (The Chair of the UK Statistics Authority sent a strongly-worded rebuke to the UK Government (2nd June) about its test data reporting.)

  • Why, when the government introduced its "alert levels", did it clearly state that alert level 4 would mean restrictions remain in place (May 11th), but then later (the first week of June) eased lockdown restrictions while also keeping the alert level at 4?

  • Why, instead of maintaining clear public messaging about the safety rules, did 10 Downing Street and many cabinet ministers choose to leap to the defence of special advisor Dominic Cummings when he was revealed to have broken the guidance and potentially the law? (The government could perfectly well have declined to comment, citing it as a personal matter. I find it deeply troubling that they instead chose to risk the public trust in their messaging by linking it to Cummings' chosen behaviour.)

None of these are "science led" actions, even considering the differences in advice from different scientific advisors. I'm nervous that the scientists involved, who are presumably much less experienced at media and spin than the politicians, may end up scapegoated for mistakes and ambiguities which we can see in retrospect. One of the scariest implications of that would be the big disincentive for scientists to get involved with giving their expert advice to the UK government in future.

If you are involved in science: beware of framing your conversations around flaws/gaps in the scientists' advice - even though that can be an interesting discussion (particularly because it's more concrete than discussing politicians' ideologies). As the list above shows, the people in charge made lots of concrete statements and decisions that deserve clear scrutiny. Similarly, there's no point blaming politicians nor scientists for innocent mistakes. Instead, focus on clear deliberate actions such as listed above. So much of the UK's response was shaped strongly by political ideology and political allegiances. We need to investigate these.

| politics |

Democracy versus efficiency: Universal basic income

Free markets? Democracy? High or low taxes? ... We're in an era when lots of commentators are in favour of "let the market decide". I was struck by this, funnily enough, when looking at the much-blogged and much-discussed opinions of Dominic Cummings. His writing has plenty of interesting detail, and a good understanding of technology, and of course there's plenty to agree with or disagree with. This is the quote that struck me:

"Economic theory, practice, and experiment have undermined the basis for Cartesian central planning: decentralised coordination via market prices is generally a better method for dealing with vast numbers of possibilities than Cartesian or Soviet planning, though obviously markets have problems particularly with monetary policy and financial regulation."

These aren't the problems that come to mind when I think of market mechanisms. The more fundamental are democracy, and equality of opportunity. You don't need to "pick a side" (not even the left side) in order to agree that market mechanisms have a "rich get richer" outcome baked into their core. "The rich get richer" is not an axiom, but it's an unavoidable consequence and inseparable from the processes that make markets "efficient".

By the way - "efficient", here, means that prices in the market reflect all available information about the values of the things in that market. Informally, it's the claim that markets are the best way of deciding what to do, once you've written down what value you attach to things and outcomes.

The claimed efficiency of markets has been a long-running debate. What we can see from recent history, though, is that the "free market" idea does generally seem to be effective in the sense that once you've set the rules of the market, all the different actors in that market (people, businesses, investors) play their part and it all adds up to produce something like the designed outcome. There's lots to criticise about markets, in particular "negative externalities" (bad things that aren't factored into the pricing - e.g. CO2 emissions), but let's not get into that right now. We should recognise the important core appeal: essentially, a market system is a way to loosely coordinate the brains of all concerned in finding an optimal outcome, and this is its key advantage over "central planning" in which we have to rely on the brains of whoever's in the central planning authority.

The fundamental democratic problem with free markets is as follows. They lead to an outcome that reflects value, but the actors involved don't all end up with the same treatment. Some get rich, some get poor. (See "Free market pros and cons".) They then have different amounts of leverage within that market: some have lots of power, some have very little. In some markets that's fine, but in anything that involves actual citizens, it's a recipe for inequality. We can tax profits, we can tax capital, and that's important so that at the very least, governments can provide essential services and a social safety net. But people on the economic right don't like such taxes, arguing that they reduce the incentives for market players and thus act as a drag on market efficiency.

Hence we arrive at the basic philosophical conflict between the economic right and the economic left. Market efficiency versus democratic fairness.


Now into that picture comes this other idea that has been in the ether for at least the past decade: universal basic income. Universal basic income (UBI) simply means giving a sum of money to every citizen, e.g. a lump of money every month or every year. It's unconditional - it doesn't matter if you're employed or not, for example.

There are various motivations for UBI, but one is that this is a much more efficient use of government money than the current alternative: a complex tangle of benefits, each with its own bureaucratic eligibility criteria, and the tangled benefits system leading to strange undesired outcomes. For example, unemployment benefits can often mean that some people end up losing money by accepting a low-paid job offer. In the world of UBI, there's no disincentive: accept the job if you want it, and you get extra income as well as your UBI.

UBI has been debated plenty during the 2010s. It has its advocates on the left and on the right. And its critics: critics on the right ask "but who's going to pay for it all?" and "wouldn't people just stop working and start freeloading?", while critics on the left ask "isn't this a right-wing excuse to slash the welfare state?"

Although there may be some well-reasoned criticism out there, I want to return to the fundamental issues. We have big debates and disagreements about how to organise our societies. We want the outcomes to be efficient as well as fair. We have many people passionately wedded to socialism, and many people passionately wedded to market mechanisms. The fundamental political question is, how do we get from here, to some better situation?

UBI seems to be one answer. Not just one answer - it's the only answer I know of that could appeal to people of many shades of the political spectrum, and is also something that can be tried, can be piloted within our existing countries without having to rewrite or dismantle decades of complex policy. The key is that UBI directly resolves the conflict between market mechanisms and fairness. It doesn't fix everything (negative externalities, for example), but it allows us to move to a situation where democrats and market fundamentalists can work together to produce efficient outcomes for all.

I know there are many implementation details of UBI to talk about, and I'm sure there are some imperfections in general. But can we afford to dither about the details, when we have so many problems to solve, and so many winners and losers from the current economic systems in place around the world?

| Politics |

Should we blame Boris, Theresa, or David?

It looks like the bigger consequences of the Brexit vote are about to hit. Everyone thought "no deal" was a laughable extreme back in 2016, and now our government seems to be sailing deliberately towards it.

Do we blame David Cameron, who naively called an ill-prepared vote? Theresa May who dogmatically stuck to extreme "red lines" in the negotiations, failed to get a majority in a General Election, failed to get the agreement voted through, and yet dogmatically refused to consider compromise positions, again and again? Or do we blame incompetent cartoon character Boris Johnson - whose main achievement as London Mayor was the foolish "garden bridge" plan that went nowhere after wasting tons of our money - now arrogantly pushing us to no-deal despite the danger for ordinary people, as well as the democratic deficit?

It's crucial to remember that none of these people is at the root of all this. The Conservative Party as a whole should carry the blame. (Or the credit, if no-deal is a success - sure, why not.) They are currently pushing a heck of a lot of effort into trying to blame the EU for any no-deal Brexit: pretending the EU is refusing to negotiate, when in fact the EU is refusing to reopen negotiations it's just spent two years on, or at least refusing to reopen them unless the UK government proposes a way forwards. The Conservative party have got us into this mess - not just the British public! There were many different routes the government could have taken from 2016 onwards, and this embarrassing mismanagement comes from the Conservative party, again and again. Their MPs and leaders, the government ministers, the membership. We can consider blaming Corbyn for not being an EU cheerleader, but frankly, his subdued triangulating is a minor footnote in this shambles of bad tactics.

I might be tempted to go deeper and say our First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system is on the hook, since that's the reason that the Conservative Party (and Labour) sticks together in the shape it does, and why they feel the need to pander to extremists. But that might be a little too indirect.

We're already suffering the consequences of the Brexit vote. (Personally: I've lost multiple colleagues who have gone overseas, lost opportunities, etc. Collectively, we've lost a lot of influence, and we've wasted a heck of a lot of time we could have been spending fixing the climate crisis.) I'm particularly concerned about what will happen next. In particular, a perverse incentive of a crisis such as no-deal: it gives the sitting government a rare opportunity to ram through emergency legislation which might reshape the British settlement more radically than is normally achievable. The Conservative Party has already shown simple-minded cruelty in voluntarily imposing a cost-slashing "austerity" agenda on the UK for a decade - an agenda wihch may have led to over a hundred thousand excess deaths. They have demonstrated that they don't worry about whether poorer people suffer the side-effects of their big ideas. What more would they like to do?

We see some hints of changes that Brexit might enable: today the food industry claimed it's going to need exemption from the laws of fair competition in order to keep everybody fed. That argument wouldn't get anywhere near the table in ordinary times.

I'm opposed to Brexit but I certainly think naively "cancelling" it would be as harmful as going forward. The right way to proceed, clearly, is to take more time to find a true compromise outcome (which may well turn out to be a soft-ish Brexit, although no-one on any side wants to admit that). The rush now is for selfish reasons. We don't yet have a plan. - And, for our current government, perhaps it's more than just a necessary evil, perhaps not-having-a-plan is an opportunity they are looking forward to?

| Politics |

Jeremy Corbyn has already won

I'm writing this on the morning of the day of voting for the 2015 election.

Opinion polls are notorious here in the UK for having a complex relationship with reality. What I expect will happen is that the Tories will win but with an embarrassingly modest lead. From the last election they had a working majority of 12 seats. The polls in April suggested a Labour wipe-out was on the cards, and unfortunately for Theresa May she grabbed that opportunity and took it on herself to throw it away: it's hard to see her doing anything but failing to make good on her potential.

Theresa May called this election for entirely selfish reasons. She wanted her own mandate, yes, but she'd previously said it wasn't needed. She called the election, as she said herself, taking advantage of the moment to get herself a lovely big majority. It's highly likely that this gambit will fail and that she'll be back in a position rather similar to the starting position, in which case she'll have wasted two months of all of our time - and, crucially, two months out of the two-year time limit when she was supposed to be negotiating Brexit.

So even if the Tories win, Theresa May is likely to have failed badly. Jeremy Corbyn, however, has defied the expectations of the pundits and built up organic support for Labour. I was sceptical about him and in particular about his election strategy, but it seems really to have worked, and he's shown himself to be a much better leader than many of us thought. Will his parliamentary party finally get behind him after the election? We shall see.

There's another thing we can thank May-vs-Corbyn for. Putting aside for the moment differences of policy, this election seems to me to be a victory for

  • talking principles, rather than soundbites;
  • going out and engaging with people, rather than hiding and stage-managing.

And it's been the first election in my adult life in which the two big parties have actually represented a meaningful choice of two options. In previous years, New Labour and the Tories may have come from different stock but their political visions were so close as to be redundant. Corbyn's Labour have offered not just a coherent vision, but a genuine alternative. I don't expect them to be able to win, but given that they're fighting uphill against a hell of an onslaught of negative media, it's been heartening to see their principled and engaged version of political campaigning to reap massive rewards, building themselves a massive swing from 25% up to almost 40% (that's according to voting-intention polls). I don't consider myself a Labour voter but Corbyn's made it plausible to consider that a possibility.

I had expected this election to be dispiriting but it has been heartening.

| politics |

The Economist shopping list for UK work

I don't always agree with The Economist magazine but it's interesting. It thinks bigger than many of the things you can buy on an average news stand. The current issue has an article about Britain and Marx, which happens to end with a clear and laudable shopping-list of things that our country needs to do to ensure the health of the economy and of worker's conditions. Let me quote:

"The genius of the British system has always been to reform in order to prevent social breakdown. This means doing more than just engaging in silly gestures such as as fixing energy prices, as the Conservatives proposed this week (silly because this will suppress investment and lead eventually to higher prices).

  • "It means preventing monopolies from forming: Britain's antitrust rules need to be updated for an age where information is the most valuable resource and network effects convey huge advantages.
  • "It means ending the CEO salary racket, not least by giving more power to shareholders.
  • "It means thinking seriously about the casualisation of work.
  • "And it means closing the revolving door between politics and business."
| politics |

Making eye contact with strangers

If you're looking for a New Year's resolution how about this one: make more eye contact with strangers.

I was reading this powerful little list of Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century by some Professor of History. One idea that struck me is a very simple one:

11: Make eye …

| politics |

Govt report on implications of leaving the EU for UK science and research

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has published its report into the implications of leaving the EU for UK science and research. The report is accompanied by a set of conclusions and recommendations.

By the way: the implications of Brexit (if indeed the UK ends up going through …

| politics |

Remembering the run-up to the Iraq War

The LRB has an excellent article by Philippe Sands about the Chilcot Report and the Iraq War.

The UK had a key role in the Iraq War, and even before it happened there were millions of us on the streets marching against it: we said in advance that it was …

| politics |

Brexit vs the science around me: the first month

Just before the Brexit referendum I was wondering how Brexit would affect the kind of people coming to work with us. That's a long-term effect and very hard to measure. But really, like most of the country I hadn't really thought deeply about the direct practical consequences of an Exit …

| politics |