Tuesday, 26 May 2020

A good enough smokescreen?

I have hesitated about saying anything about the Dominic Cummings affair, but I did have to spend a half an hour on the radio yesterday filling dead air while I was waiting for him to appear.

My conclusion afterwards, in the measured tones necessary for a BBC station, was that I did not find his account 'convincing'. I had been expecting some kind of apology on the lines of 'I made poor decisions under pressure which I now regret.'

But he has probably bought some time at least.  Unnamed 'senior cabinet ministers' are gunning for him, however.

I don't want to get into the detail too much because I sense that the spin strategy is to load lots of details on so that everyone talks about that and avoids the big picture.   However, a few points follow. 

On the childcare issue, none of the questioning journalists seems to have latched on to the point that he does have relatives in London, and surely he must have some friends who could help in an emergency.

On the issue of harassment by protesters, could he not have had panic buttons installed or asked the police to investigate and perhaps provide regular patrols?  The Cabinet Office could surely have arranged that.
His wife is deputy editor of the Spectator.  I read her article when it was published and gained the clear impression that they had been in London.  Indeed, there is a specific reference in it to a 'London lockdown'.   I used the word 'smokescreen' to describe this yesterday.

Why couldn't a family member have collected his wife and child from the local hospital?  Were there really no taxis?

The account of the trip to Barnard Castle, despite Boris Johnson flourishing his newly acquired spectacles at last night's briefing, lacks conviction - particularly given the coincidence with his wife's birthday.

Boris did say that he would not give unconditional support to anyone which suggests that Cummins may go later.  As one writer in The Times points out today, they need each other because they both have contempt for conventional notions of accountability.   Rules to them are a bourgeois hindrance.

Having said that, I don't find the spectacle of the British public and media having one of its periodical fits of morality all that edifying, particularly when it takes the form of a self righteous Twitterstorm.

The media has been bigging up the dissident Conservative MPs who hardly amount to a major revolt.  Many of them are professional trouble makers or publicity seekers.   The sound of Sir Roger Gale taking the high moral ground on Radio 5 is not that inspiring.

Boris did seem to be floundering in response to the questions last night, although I would not like to have to deal with 'Death' Rigby whose question could be paraphrased as 'Are you an incompetent charlatan'?  The circumlocutions of Robert Peston can easily be brushed aside given the time it takes him to put his question.

Of course, the real issue here is the one rule for us, another for them.   My expectation is that elites tend to behave badly if they can.  Tax evasion anyone?  Gaming the bankruptcy rules?

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

What I learnt from cattle diseases about epidemiology

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.   Everyone is now an instant expert on viruses and I have kept my peace.  

However, I have been reflecting on what I learnt from participating in a Research Councils project (Governance of Livestock Diseases) on cattle diseases.   I had the privilege of working with Graham Medley, now at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, an epidemiologist who is often quoted in the media on the pandemic and is involved in giving advice to government.   Any views that follow are, of course, mine alone.

Graham has agreed with me on twitter that there was value in the interdisciplinary approach we followed in the project which involved an epidemiologist, a veterinary specialist, a lawyer, an economist and political scientists.

One lesson I learnt is how difficult it is to eradicate a disease - in medicine smallpox is the only one to disappear entirely.   Civil servants in Britain thought they had eliminated bovine tuberculosis and even had a sherry party to celebrate.  Then it reappeared again in badgers in Gloucestershire.

The handling of bovine TB has in my view (and that of others) been characterised by a series of  policy failures by government about which I have written quite extensively in the literature.  It doesn't bode well for the ability of government to deal with a human pandemic.

That doesn't mean that all policy interventions fail.  The bovine diarrhoea virus may sound like nothing more than a case of cows with the runs, but not only does it affect production, it can also lead to the fatal mucosal disease.

The Scottish Government decided they wanted to eradicate BDV north of the border and consulted extensively.   I attended a very well run meeting in Edinburgh.  The policy has proceeded successfully and I was pleased to read in Farmers Weekly this week that it is entering the next stage of development.

It seems to me that the coronavirus will become endemic and as the WHO states is likely to be with us for four or five years.   Even if a vaccine can be found, I am sceptical about whether it will be available before eighteen months.   Policy needs to take these considerations into account and citizens need to reflect on them as well.

The Governance of Livestock diseases website is here: https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/gld