What kind of week starts with Gavin Williamson first thing on a Monday morning?

Here we go with another week yet the same old nonsense…

I woke to the headline that our droning wasp of an Education Secretary has said that “there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school”. It’s the kind of unequivocal statement that should raise suspicions before you even look at the science. It’s a bit like a high-wire walker claiming there’s little chance they’d fall to their death from that cable stretched between two skyscrapers. Yes, sure, there’s a chance he’s right but you’d need evidence of a high degree of competence before you’d buy ice creams for your children as they watch him “defy death” before their innocent eyes…

Today is clearly the day when the government wants to convince us that they know that they’re doing around schools. Selective science will be pimped out as Johnson inflates some word balloons for the lovely boys and girls of the media. Engage the alliteration machine, ruffle the hair, prepare some frothy quips that will instil a sense of intellectual veracity…

Accordingly, the science that Gavin Williamson cites is by Public Health England, a body that hasn’t exactly earned our trust in recent months. It also appears to fly in the face of other science, such as that published in The Lancet which has warned that school openings can only take place with robust test and trace.

But before we go further, it’s worth noting how there’s a lack of granularity in the way this subject is already being discussed. Research does suggest that there’s a vast difference between the situation for children under the age of ten, where the virus seems to act differently, and children over the age of ten where the virus acts as it does through the rest of the population. If we’re going to discuss schools, wouldn’t it make sense to have a discussion about primary schools and a different discussion about secondary schools?

Over in the US, a photo emerged in recent days of a packed hallway in a Georgia school. It showed teenagers crammed together in a tight indoor space, none of them wearing facemasks. The student who took the photo was suspended but wisely spent her time being interviewed for network news. Not only did she turn out to be a credit to her school, presenting an articulate response but one that was wiser than many adults (including the one in the White House), she has now been proved right. Today it’s reported that nine students have already tested positive for the virus.

We’re now at the point where it’s almost pointless repeating key facts, such as that schools aren’t places filled with “the young”. Teachers and other staff are now being talked about as though they understand the reality of COVID-19 and signed up for a role in a biologically hazardous working environment. We have politicians across governments in the US and UK who talk about sacrifice and teachers entering the classroom like troops landing on beaches. It’s shameful, as is the sanctimonious stupidity of reducing this crisis into jingoistic catchphrases, as though the only thing we have to care about is to “Bounce Back Britain”.

What’s remarkable is the degree to which politicians seem eager to convince themselves that we’ll be alright. They are already sounding quite dismissive about the “second wave” without entirely acknowledging that it was never expected in July and August and that preparations should be directed towards the “proper” flu season. We needed to use this lull to perfect our test and trace system, which we are failing to do. I notice the Independent SAGE group have just published a document in which they conclude that “We should have had an effective isolation policy in February, with better pandemic planning. Not to have one six months later is nothing short of public health malpractice.” Malpractice, indeed, but hardly surprising. This government still can’t convince the public about the reasonableness of marks. As we see in the US and here in the UK, the “culture war” persists in giving ignorant people a soapbox on which to spread their pseudo-science. I’m reminded of so many science-fiction stories and films where some “Great Event” descends on the Earth and the scientists fight against the lunatic ravings of a minority, except, I never expected the minority to be so large…

Perhaps most depressing of all is the degree to which the parallels between Johnson and Trump and their administrations are now becoming evident. Both behave as though a vaccine is imminent when there’s still so much work to do. Throughout this crisis, both governments have been characterised by the same malevolent urge to play with the numbers. The story of Rebekah Jones, in the US, is one that should be known by more people. She was in charge of health data for Florida when the virus struck, eventually fired for refusing to manipulate the data to justify the state’s reopening. We’ve seen similar happen in the UK, with arguments about which deaths should count (and then protracted arguments about reclassifying earlier deaths) when the simple statistic of excess deaths tells nearly the entire story.

Throughout this crisis, there has been the niggling feeling that the story of the government’s struggle to identify cases was actually a story about a government that didn’t want to recognise the scale of the epidemic. As I’ve repeated elsewhere, the maths of this aren’t exactly complicated. The WHO now give the virus a mortality rate of 0.6%. So, imagine we have a perfect country in terms of testing. Every person in the country with the virus is identified, as are all the people who die from the virus. Divide the latter by the former and multiply by 100 and you will get a number close to 0.6.

In other words, the better job a country does of identifying cases, the more the mortality rate tends to 0.6%. This is why numbers have tended to fall as more testing is conducted. The US figures now give a rate of 3.18%. Brazil is 3.3% with India (2%), Russia (1.68%) and Saudi Arabia (1.09%) giving a sense of where other nations are.

As it stands, the UK’s mortality rate is still 14.9%.

What does that tell us? It means our hospitals must be doing a particularly bad job at helping people recover (a ridiculous argument) or we’re simply not identifying enough cases to bring that number down. It also means, of course, that we can work out what the case number should be. If 0.6% of cases lead to death, then for 46,574 deaths, that means there must have been nearly eight million cases in the UK, rather than the reported 310,825. I can’t get my mind around that discrepancy, nor a government that can ignore it in the way this government has been doing.

If the government lost track of the epidemic to this degree, how much store should we put in the words of the education secretary who speaks as though this crisis is now under control? And, should we open schools and if the virus is shown to travel (like other coronaviruses in the past) through a particularly unhygienic population packed into tight spaces, will the education secretary be held accountable for words that even now appear to be monumentally cynical? Or will it be dismissed along with other mistakes of the past few months as part of the learning process; ignored because of the imminent “threat” posed by a few rubber dinghies in the English Channel?

10 thoughts on “What kind of week starts with Gavin Williamson first thing on a Monday morning?”

  1. For teachers, rock and hard place springs to mind. Problem for them is that in we are in an environment where many people have had to continue working in hazardous conditions for low pay. Many others have had significant cuts to their pay while not working. Teachers on the other hand have (I believe) continued on full pay whether working or not. Schools in Scotland are reopening from next week and every parent I have spoken to is desperate to get their kid back to school (limited sample size applies and not saying they’re right or wrong on that). It all adds up to public support for teachers evaporating if they don’t return in September and the potential is there for the unions to walk into an elephant trap if they aren’t careful. No way that full pay will continue if teachers refuse to return and that will probably settle the matter. The only chance I can see of schools not reopening fully is if cases continue to multiply at the current rate which may cause some pause for thought.

    1. I see your point but I think you state the problem in reverse: that it’s political rather than scientific. I agree that, ideally, schools should go back. It’s important if we want to get back to normal. At the moment, it seems (but see my points about indequate testing and the sense that the government is encouraging a willful ignorance about numbers) that the virus is at a low level and we should be able to contain it. All of that feeds into the political argument, along with the role of teachers, unions, wages, the importance of education, the mental health of everybody etc. etc.

      But I really only care about the science. Having followed the story largely through the lense of US news where the plague is worse, the politics more acute, I think we’re not seeing what’s coming down road. The science around children and infection seems to be hardening around the more cautious approaches. I don’t see any of that reflected in the UK dialogue. I’ve just read that 100,00 children tested positive in the last weeks of July in the US. The idea that putting those kids in close proximity won’t turn into a huge surge seems illogical.

      I suppose my frustration is really just surprise at the degree that Johnson is following the Trump playbook: pretend the virus is over, get back to normal, ignore what’s been and certainly don’t anicipate what might yet be coming. My sister grumbled something this morning about the way that Johnson keeps posing like Benny Hill and I thought it a good point. There’s a distinct lack of seriousness about how this government is treating everything at the moment. They’re so laid back I begin to wonder if it’s my sanity that’s gone awry.

      1. It’s not your sanity, it’s just that your perspective is not one that is widely shared in the corridors of power and I include the media and business in that. Not many people around now who only care about the science by the looks of it. The media have got behind this unpublished research in the same way they got behind that laughable Morgan Stanley survey of 700 odd office workers last week. It may be right or wrong, who knows, the fact that it is unpublished and unreviewed doesn’t seem to matter. You could say that going back to commuting is completely idiotic, especially at this juncture, but seemingly that becomes unimportant in the eyes of many out there when sandwich shops and pubs need to be saved.

        I said a while ago that the government regretted having locked down in the way that they did, everything now flows from that, that and the fact that they are running out of money. You yourself have said the mortality rate is likely to be 0.6%, that is 400,000 people, with nearly 50,000 already dead that leaves about 350,000 to go with a full infection rate (which is always unlikely). The mantra will be that if you are at risk it is your responsibility to self isolate, by doing that I think they will hope they can cut that 350,000 number substantially, a vaccine may cut it further. You are then left with perhaps 50-100,000 fatalities this winter which the government will think is a price worth paying for saving the economy. Of course they cannot and will not ever say this, therefore they will make all kinds of guff up to hide what they are up to.

        To be crystal clear, this isn’t an endorsement of this policy, it’s just my opinion on where I think the government are at. Likewise with the previous comment, just a summation of the state of play.

        1. I think that’s spot on. I am probably among a diminishing number of people interested in the science rather than the politics. You’re probably right. They’ve come to terms with the worse case scenario, think they can mitigate against much of that, and are quite happy with some lower figure (which will probably help the exchequer since deaths will still be in an older and less productive demographic).

          Will it work? There I suppose I stare blankly at the miserable state of our country and, probably, societies in any modern economy. People care about the self and those close to the self, rather than the “community”. So long as people aren’t affected themselves, they’ll be quite indifferent to the numbers stacking up. A good portion of the country think it’s all a hoax, with larger proportions still probably ameniable to arguments that the government overreacted. Add in the usual media spin and I suppose it’s easy to see why the government look so relaxed. Deaths are easier to explain to the British public in a year or two rather than long term economic damage. Put in the most crass way: dear old granny won’t be missed as much as the family holiday and cinema nights…

          1. Gotta love the covid hoaxers, even by normal conspiracy theory nutter standards they really do have a touching faith in the power of the illuminati to co-ordinate such a synchronous global response.

            What you say it absolutely right, I remember in June talking to someone who said, “I haven’t had it, don’t know anyone who has had it and don’t know anyone who knows anyone who’s had it”.
            Just to be clear, he wasn’t claiming it didn’t exist. What he said was in fact perfectly plausible as in our county council area of half a million people we have only had 1750 confirmed cases and a large number of them were in care homes. So yes, it becomes difficult in those circumstance to sell ongoing restrictions to people. As I said last week, people only care about the lives they see.

          2. I think the eight million figure I calculated/quoted is significant in that it’s both huge but also not so huge. Most people might not know anybody in their immediate family who has had it. Also, the map is going to be different across the country, with people more likely to be touched by it in cities than rural areas. The people I know who had it are quite removed from me and also based in London.

            The argument still remains that it’s not the lethality but the potential to cripple the health service. It’s something that skeptics don’t seem to be capable of understanding. Easy to dismiss it so long as there aren’t pictures on the nightly news of people dying in hospital corridors…

        2. As I say my phrasing was lazy. I honestly meant no disrespect. Its just that I dont see how you cant be biased. I’m certain I couldn’t be in your situation. I suppose I’m slightly surprised by your reticence to mention it here give that for me to know the you must have tweeted about it where you have nearly 3500 followers. Your choice of course and I respect that 100%. I agree with everything you say about the fetishising of ‘education’ and the hypocrisy around the whole discussion.

          1. Oh, no need to apologize. I didn’t think there was disrespect and I agree that some huge overt self-interest would be problematic except I do honestly think the science is so strong as to render anything like that meaningless. Johnson’s behaviour now feels akin to his behaviour at the beginning of March when experts were warning him to lockdown earlier than he did. If was even slightly marginal, I’d acknowledge my bias.

  2. I must say I’m surprised by how black or white you seem to view this David. ‘Its either about politics or science’ seems to be your approach. Covid has always been about both. As the politicians are the ones making the decisions (rightly or wrongly!), I would argue that politics is objectively more important. Which fishy I agree with rob. Schools need to be seem to (at least try to) reopen and teachers (or rather the unions) need to be very careful about being seen to stand in the way of that. It’s all about perception. Now on to a slight delicate point I feel the need to raise re teachers. You’re not even acknowledging (much less address) your bias here are you? Of course we all have bias. (mine here is probably that I dont buy into the desire to turn teachers along with Drs, nurses etc. into secular saints.) However if we’re trying to have an intellectually honest discussion then is it not important to acknowledge our bias’? Especially the most obvious ones.
    Ok I’m not worried that sounds harsh. Read it as charitably as you can please.

    1. Politics or science? You’re right. It’s not either/or. But the way this government abuses science forces it to be more binary than it should be. Williamson’s comments do not reflect the current reality of our understanding, so I don’t mind revealing my preference for the science and distrust in this particular set of politicians. Put it another way. Do I trust Williamson to do what’s best for the UK or what’s best of Williamson? The answer is obvious.

      As for bias: I’m sure I have lots of overt and not-so-overt bias but there’s hardly a requirement that we make every detail of our life public so people can test the veracity of what we say. I put onto the blog what I’m happy to put onto the blog and anything that isn’t here is absent because I choose not to have it here. If that makes me intellectually dishonest, then that’s just how it is. Myself, I try to address the fundamental arguments in an objective a way as possible. My bias for Liverpool certainly didn’t change my attitude in March when I thought the premiership season had to be suspended. I certainly don’t want restrictions lifted for the new season or agree with people gathering to celebrate our league win.

      Regarding schools, I’m honestly not as biased as you seem to think I am. I try to follow the science, but I also follow the US news cycle more closely where these arguments are slightly ahead of the UK. There the science appears to be mounting against widespread school reopenings, and even people like Fauci are clearly sucking their teeth when agreeing about reopening because they realise how deeply the topic has become politicised. Myself, based on what I’ve read, I just can’t see how this doesn’t end poorly. It just runs so counter to sense. Kids, low hygiene standards, crowded classrooms, winter coming, virus still abroad, no robust method of testing, hardly any tracking… How is that not perfect for asymptomatic spread through local communities? Let’s hope I’m wrong.

      More broadly about education: maybe if I had kids I wanted to get out of the house, I’d feel different but, then, that would also be another kind of bias. My attitude to education is really what is has always been. I dislike the earnest and often sanctimonious pleading of those that fetishize education (yes, even those that make saints of teachers), especially on the authoritarian right and left, where it’s little more than a means of indoctrinating youth with bad ideas rather than actually teaching them something important. There are good reasons to open schools – for example, keeping an eye on the welfare of children, especially those that might be subject to abuse – but the idea that we’ll end up with a generation of less-educated kids seems ridiculous to me based on a single year of disruption. If this is just about getting kids to school so parents can go to work, then politicians should be honest about it and stop pretending there’s some higher motive at work.

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