in space, no-one can hear you scream

UK’s Rival to Galileo: A Brexit Farce
Alex Andreou, Byline Times, Jun 30 2020

The sorry tale of Britain’s as-yet-unnamed rival to the EU’s Galileo programme took another unexpected, miserable and hugely expensive turn in the past few days. It is widely reported that the Government has committed £500m to a consortium seeking to bail out the global communications firm OneWeb in exchange for a 20% stake in the ailing company. The biggest player in this “British” consortium is, in fact, Indian giant Bharti Enterprises, which is controlled by billionaire, and fan of Brexit: Sunil Mittal. Bharti is already one of the largest investors in OneWeb. So, it is in effect investing to save its own investment and getting help from a sizable chunk of British tax money to do so. This is broadly seen as a last-ditch attempt to rescue the UK’s plan to avoid participating in the EU’s Galileo programme by launching its own rival Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings is reported to have been “instrumental” in this bid.

The OneWeb entity on which the UK is bidding is actually a joint venture with Airbus, itself owned to a significant extent by the German, French and Spanish. The UK is, in a sense, pumping money into a failed European project simply to avoid participating in a very successful one. That absurdity aside, the bid fails even on its own merits. Despite BBC News reporting that “the OneWeb service would be back-up for GPS in case it is attacked or fails,” most experts in the field are warning that it is no such thing. The satellites which form part of its network currently have no such technology and are too small to be retrofitted. Simply put, we’ve bought the wrong satellites. What is more likely is that the Government decided to sink this enormous amount of money for a non-controlling stake, in exchange for some jam-tomorrow promise that if the company survives and if it is technically doable, it will try to piggy-back this technology on its next generation of satellites. Experts doubt this is even feasible, due to technical considerations. Giles Thorne, a specialist researcher in the field who works at Jefferies International, says:

This situation looks like nationalism trumping solid industrial policy.

What is worrying is that, for anyone who understands the full story of how the UK dropped out of Galileo and decided to plough a lonely furrow, “nationalism trumping industrial policy” is absolutely par for the course. And it is a crucial story to understand, not just because it is emblematic of the Brexit sklerosis currently choking the nation’s economic lifeblood but because, despite being unsexy, it is of singular importance. Lack of access altogether to such a system would, according to the Government’s own commissioned research, cost the UK economy an estimated £1 billion a day or one-sixth of its GDP. Stick that on the side of a bus.

How it Started: The Rationalism of Galileo

Elements of Galileo, such as the timing and navigation signal (PRS) designed to be used by government agencies and emergency services, are already operational. Full capabilities will all come online this year and the project is due to be completed with the launch of ‘spare’ satellites in 2026. The UK had already invested £1.2b in Galileo and helped to define important aspects of the system’s encryption, including PRS, as well as helped build and operate the 28 satellites already in orbit. Importantly, unlike its Pindo, Russian and Chinese counterparts, Galileo will be the only such system under civilian, democratically accountable, transparent control (? – RB). Further, it is not an ‘exclusive’ system. Using it with another, such as GPS, hugely improves accuracy. In fact, Norway is in the process of negotiating PRS access to do precisely that. Contrary to misconceived headlines, the UK has not been ‘kicked off’ the project. It has simply been told that it no longer has automatic, unqualified access to it unless it negotiates such access and agrees to abide by the relevant rules. This is as near to a case of misunderstanding causing mass media hysteria as I have seen, which is unsurprising, given that the Defence Secretary at the time was Gavin Williamson.

In late Mar 2018 rumours began to circulate, based on an official’s interpretation of a letter from the European Commission which has been frequently reported, but not seen, that British companies may be excluded from bidding for particularly sensitive Galileo manufacturing contracts. Williamson, having probably only heard the first half-sentence of what an advisor told him, is reported to have “hit the roof.” By May 2018, Michel Barnier had entirely clarified the position on the record:

Third countries (and their companies) cannot participate in the development of security sensitive matters, such as the manufacturing of PRS-security modules. Those rules were adopted together by unanimity with the UK as a member, and they have not changed. Those rules do not prevent the UK, as a third country, from using the encrypted signal of Galileo, provided that the relevant agreements between the EU and the UK are in place.

It seems so clear in retrospect: participation in the end project was completely open to negotiation. The only exclusion was that third-country companies could no longer participate in the manufacture of security-sensitive components – a position with which Williamson could be expected to have some sympathy considering his position on Huawei. But by this point, nobody was listening. The then PM Theresa May was facing an open revolt from her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who labelled her negotiating stance “crazy.” Politically, she needed a phony war and this was as good as any.

How it Escalated: The Sleep of Reason

By mid-May 2018, in a naive attempt at vindictiveness, the UK Space Agency wrote to all companies involved in Galileo manufacturing, reminding them that they could not bid on future Galileo contracts without state authorisation. This effectively told them that, if those nasty Eurocrats were going to prevent them from bidding for contracts, their own government might as well jump the gun. It was at this point that it officially announced:

The UK Space Agency is leading the work to develop options for a British alternative to Galileo, to guarantee our satellite positioning, navigation and timing needs are met in the future.

BBC News reported this as: “UK ups the ante,” in the same way someone involved in a verbal altercation could “up the ante” by punching himself in the face. Certainly, it gives one’s opponent pause for thought. The conservative press was instantly enamoured by the idea, reporting the proposed £3b project, as if the UK had already started building it, complete with photographs of ministers pointing to the sky, when all that had happened was an announcement that the Government intended to bring together a task force to look into it. This turned into £3b to £5b, which turned into £5b. In Brussels, the move was largely dismissed as “completely pointless” since everyone knew and experts agreed that it would be a highly irrational move from the UK to spend four or five times the money it had already invested for a worse system decades down the line. Everyone concurred that it was “just not a believable option.” But, as has been the case on every occasion the EU has asked the UK to negotiate the rules of access to a thing it no longer has automatic access to (an uncontentious proposition in a sane world) the UK spat out its dummy, so violently it flew into space. Looking at that orbiting dummy the UK thought: how hard could it be? As it turns out, quite hard.

By Aug 2018, the Government had set aside £92m of its Brexit ‘readiness fund’ for feasibility studies to explore alternatives to Galileo. By Dec 2018, the £5b project was confirmed, with Johnson promising a “full launch” by 2030, despite its conspicuous absence from the Conservative Party manifesto and appended costing document. It is utterly incongruous to see the same newspapers, usually obsessed with relative pennies of taxpayer money spent on phantom benefit fraud and phantom health tourism, shake their pom-poms for a vanity triplicate £5 billion space programme, a better version of which Britain has already paid for and has been offered ready access to, simply by agreeing to the rules it co-drafted.

How It Fell Apart: Limited Bandwidth

Experts had been pointing out severe flaws in the UK’s plan for some time, calling it “deeply embarrassing for British Space.” The truly finite resource when it comes to satellite projects is the radio frequency spectrum. Launching a satellite may be relatively straightforward, but the question is whether it will be able to transmit information back and forth without affecting the thousands of systems already circling the planet. It took Eurostan & Pindostan more than two years of complex negotiations to agree how Galileo systems would mesh seamlessly, rather than interfere with, Pindostan’s GPS. This was 16 years before the project was operational, in 2004. The UK has made no such studies or inquiries that I can find. Having said that, the UK cannot actually launch satellites. It has no launch vehicles of its own, not since Black Arrow 50 years ago. It would have to either develop that technology and build them or rely on Pindostan, Eurostan or India to launch its satellites, as well as repair and replenish them.

Further, the cost of putting a satellite positioning system in place is only one element. Galileo has an estimated maintenance cost of €800m/yr. The UK could share that with another 27 countries or decide to go it alone. In which case, calling it a £5b project is misleading, when it could also entail a tripling of the UK’s entire current annual space programme budget, just for maintenance. Not to mention that supply capacity in the sector is very limited and most of the manufacturers involved are highly mobile; the result of international joint ventures who have facilities across the world. If either the UK or the EU tried to prevent them from bidding on contracts, they can simply relocate. Most damning of all is the charge that such a “triplicate system”, at huge cost, would add precisely nothing to the UK’s capabilities, but instead result in huge opportunity costs by siphoning talent and resources away from more useful projects. This matters. Deeply. A report commissioned by the Government warns that disruption to the UK’s access to a comprehensive GNSS could result in disruption to military and commercial applications, vulnerabilities in telecoms and compromise everything from power distribution across the national grid and rail signals to the stock market and access to ATMs. It could also render government infrastructure, including emergency services susceptible to hacking.

Galileo contracts are also worth billions to UK manufacturing. The decision to bow out of the project left “optimist by nature” Chris Skidmore, then Minister for Science, in the absurd position of accepting that the UK would no longer be in the programme, but hoping that it could continue being a leading components supplier for a project in which it no longer wished to participate. With wretched predictability, the project had run into trouble by early Mar 2020, with a six-month “pause” being briefed. By the beginning of May, it was reportedly close to being altogether scrapped. In early June, ministers were briefing that they were “exploring alternatives” to the alternatives they had been exploring at great cost for the past two years. On Jun 20, Lord Willets reassured the nation that what the Prime Minister had in store was actually going to be “better” than Galileo. It now seems that that ‘better’ alternative was, in fact, this bid for insolvent OneWeb. Let’s hope the Canadians do us all a favour and scupper the UK-led bid. After all, they want the satellites for what they actually do, rather than some promised bolt-on chimera. It’s horrid to think how much painting satellites in Union Jack colours will cost us. Bleddyn Bowen, lecturer in space policy at the University of Leicester, concluded:

This entire episode is overturning decades of quite prudent British space policy, which is to minimise public spending and maximise the capabilities gained from allies and partners on both sides of the Atlantic. There’s nothing preventing Britain now from saying we want to negotiate our way back into Galileo.

Only there is something preventing Britain from doing anything vaguely sensible. In every aspect of governance, affecting every area of our lives, we continue to be victims of a bankrupt politics that has, for some years now, rejected any rational, evidence-led, pragmatic solution, in favour of empty nationalism and jingoistic narratives. In space, as in so many policy areas, no one can hear you scream.

The Lost March: How the UK Government’s COVID-19 Strategy Fell Apart
Alex Andreou, Byline News, Jun 1 2020

We have taken the right steps at the right time based on the best scientific advice.

This is the standard ministerial response to any insinuation the UK may have been slow to act during the early stages of the Coronavirus outbreak. And since we’re not allowed to see that scientific advice in any detail, the argument is circular. The trouble is, even on the available evidence, the claim falls apart at the slightest interrogation. At each step of this process, the Government’s timing appears to have been anything but right. Rewatching those early COVID-19 briefings in late-February to early-March, one is instantly hit by a palpable sense of exceptionalism. The rhetoric was Trumpian. The PM insisted on Mar 3:

We have a fantastic NHS, fantastic testing, and fantastic surveillance of the spread of the disease. Our country remains extremely well prepared.

There was hubris, too. Johnson boasted that day:

I was at a hospital the other night, where I think there were actually a few Coronavirus patients, and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know.

On Mar 12, when asked what steps were taken to shield him from the virus and whether any plans were in place in case he became incapacitated, he chuckled at the suggestion and replied:

I’m just washing my hands.

This was two days after a minister had tested positive for COVID-19. The press briefing room was tightly packed with several dozen journalists on both occasions. The three lecterns were less than a metre from each other. A situation that persisted, incredibly, until Mar 22. This did not look like a group of people who fully understood the gravity of the situation. As Johnson left the Mar 12 briefing, with chief medical officer Chris Witty, chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance and health secretary Matt Hancock, they were huddled closely together. Within a fortnight, three of the four were isolating with COVID-19 symptoms. A few days after that, Boris Johnson was in intensive care. What could explain such casual disregard? The answer is simple. They thought they had a lot more time. There was universal agreement that timing was crucial in a pandemic setting. Vallance said on Mar 12:

The timing is critical and that is true across all of the interventions we have looked at.

Talking about their plan of action and how people may lose interest if asked to sustain measures too long, Whitty added:

We do need to do it at the last point it is reasonable.

It was also made clear that the Government was considering and had modelled most possible interventions. Johnson was explicit:

Whatever is happening in other countries, whatever measures are being urged upon us, be in no doubt we are considering absolutely all of them and, in due time, they may, of course, become necessary.

The most urgent question, therefore, became what might the UK curve look like and where we were along it. Vallance explained on Mar 9:

In terms of the things that could be done, we need to understand where we are in the epidemic.

Whitty added:

We’re expecting the numbers to increase, initially slowly, but really quite fast after a while and we have to catch it before the upswing begins.

Johnson said in the Mar 12 briefing:

The most dangerous period is not now, but some weeks away.

Cheltenham Festival was at that point on its second day. The Government had still not implemented any of its suite of measures announced on 3rd March, other than hand-washing. Vallance explained on Mar 3:

You can think of it as roughly two to three months from an outbreak of sustained person-to-person transmission up to the peak and two to three months for the peak to decline again.

Asked about his working assumption nine days later, he gave specifics:

We think that the peak may be something like ten to 14 weeks away. Could be a bit longer.

This seems a catastrophic miscalculation. Britain was, in fact, 3 to 6 weeks away from the peak. It is a matter of record that hospital admissions peaked in the first week of April and daily deaths in the third.

It is, of course, entirely reasonable to say that it was the measures that altered the timing of the peak. But the Government’s intervention only affected the decline of the numbers. What matters here is the beginning of the peak, the point at which the curve enters that much faster ascent, described by Vallance and Whitty as “the upswing” or “the inflection.” The SAGE meeting minutes of Mar 5 state:

If implemented in combination as modelled, this set of measures is understood to most effectively delay and modify the epidemic peak, and reduce mortality.

The Government’s action plan explicitly aimed to “delay the peak” and “stretch the peak,” according to Johnson. He was echoed by both scientists. Whitty explained how they aimed to “push the peak to late spring, early summer.” Vallance asserted that one of the reasons the delay phase was important was because “it pushes it out into summer months when the NHS is less busy.” On Mar 9, Johnson was still hopeful their actions would “delay the peak of the spread to the summer.” He was echoed by Vallance. This notion persisted, until at least the Mar 16 briefing, when the PM emphasised in his opening remarks:

Our objective is to delay and flatten the peak.

Talking about London, Vallance explained very clearly that by implementing measures just as you’re “reaching that inflection point,” you might be able to aim measures “to completely suppress it and therefore the peak goes much further out.” He even ventured that they were implementing measures “a little bit earlier than other countries,” given where he thought we were. It is clear in retrospect that we were tragically late. This is the slide that accompanied those early March briefings. It resulted in Johnson’s glib “squashing the sombrero” remark. It clearly reflects their rhetoric, at the time, of pushing the peak into the summer and their estimated timing. They expected to smooth the rise of the peak and push the start of it, with their “proposed action,” into late May.

We may not know the numbers on that slide’s “new cases” y-axis. But we do know the timing and shape of the curve that the Government predicted its “proposed action” would result in. And we know that what we got, looks nothing like it, neither in terms of shape nor timing. We got a steep sharp rise, not that dissimilar to Italy’s, a higher peak and a much longer plateau (note the upper limit in the Italian chart is 6k cases, while in the UK one, it’s 8k). The sharpest increase in cases is almost all within March. The Government’s delay strategy manifestly did not work.

Scientific objections as to the validity or prudence of such a delay strategy, or even whether it could have worked at a basic level, are important, but not the purview of this piece. This is merely an assessment of results against clearly stated aims. By Mar 20 the slide disappeared and all talk of pushing the peak into the summer ceased. The delay phase was instead repackaged as “delaying the spread” and pretty soon became “the mitigation phase.” More evidence from that period hints at the Government’s muddled thinking on how far along the curve of infection the UK was. Vallance said in the Mar 12 briefing:

We are maybe four weeks or so behind (Italy) in terms of the scale of the outbreak. You’d expect it to follow a similar trajectory, in terms of the numbers, not in terms of the response. That’s why the measures come into place today. To see if we can deflect that and get that into a different trajectory.

In fact, Vallance was being conservative. The SAGE minutes from two days earlier claim:

The UK is considered to be 4-5 weeks behind Italy but on a similar curve (6-8 weeks behind if interventions are applied).

By Mar 16, Vallance had begun to sound less sure:

The new numbers suggest maybe more like three weeks.

At the SAGE meeting two days later this had evolved into:

The UK is two to four weeks behind Italy in terms of the epidemic curve.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt questioned the timing in parliament on Mar 23:

A week ago, the Government said we were four weeks behind Italy. That then changed to three weeks behind Italy, and today our mortality rates are just two weeks behind Italy. Our hospitals, especially in London, are filling up.

Bizarrely, despite all evidence that the UK curve was speeding up exponentially, this notion that we were four weeks behind Italy and our results would not be as bad, persisted until as late as the Apr 7 briefing. Total deaths in Italy that day were 17k. Questioned about whether he expected to see those “sorts of numbers” in the UK, Vallance replied:

We are probably three or four weeks behind Italy, in terms of the outbreak, that doesn’t mean we end up with the same numbers.

At that moment, we weren’t “three or four weeks” behind those Italian numbers, in fact, but fewer than two weeks. Hospital only deaths exceeded 17k on Apr 20. We now know from ONS data, that by the week ending Apr 17, a total of 19,112 deaths involving COVID-19-19 were registered, and that was in England and Wales alone. By either figure, this is not a rounding error. It is a significant mistake. The second strong indication of how much more rapidly things were progressing, than the Government had initially thought, is in the speed of measure implementation. On Mar 9, Vallance explained in detail that there was a specific sequencing to the steps they could take. Social distancing measures, then stricter isolation, then protecting the elderly and vulnerable, somewhere in there possibly schools, then closing pubs or churches, which brought us closer to a full lockdown. He expanded three days later:

Even to cover the peak you’re talking about trying to make sure those sorts of measures are in place for 13 to 14 weeks or so.

Clearly envisaging a gradual process of restriction, then easing seven or so weeks before and after the peak. Whitty was also very specific on the Mar 9 when asked when vulnerable groups would be asked to isolate. He said:

That advice is going to be the next stage. At this point the thing we’re going to be moving on to in the next ten to 14 days is asking people who have got symptoms, however mild, to stay at home for seven days.

This sequencing is reflected in the table included with the Mar 10 SAGE minutes:

In fact, the Government asked people with mild symptoms to isolate, not ten to 14 days later, but three days later. They asked vulnerable groups to isolate four days after that, on the Mar 16, at which point they also advised people to avoid pubs, clubs, theatres etc. They closed such establishments on Mar 20. Finally, they put the country into lockdown on Mar 23. Several weeks of gradual measures had been compressed into eleven days. This was noticed and was described widely as a change of course. In his Mar 16 address there was some acknowledgement by the PM that all may not be quite right, especially in London. He said:

It’s now clear that the peak of the epidemic is coming faster in some parts of the country than in others.

In response to a journalist observing we seemed to be “shifting through the gears rapidly”, Vallance said:

Importantly, it looks like we’re on the fast upswing, or just about to get there, and that’s the reason to want to come in quite quickly with these measures.

The SAGE minutes of Mar 13 reflect this:

SAGE now believes there are more cases in the UK than SAGE previously expected at this point, and we may therefore be further ahead on the epidemic curve.

By Mar 20, the Government was being openly challenged. “What has changed?” was the very first question in that briefing. Johnson said:

It was becoming clear that in order to drive the curve down, they had to accelerate to have an impact.

SAGE minutes from that same day concur:

UK case accumulation to date suggests a higher reproduction number than previously anticipated.

Johnson later added:

It’s perfectly obvious when you look at the gradient of the disease that we have a real threat now to our country, to the ability of our NHS to manage it, and unless we get this right we are going to see thousands of lives lost.

Two factors compounded these devastating miscalculations. The first was the Government’s decision to throw a cloak of secrecy over the scientific advice it was receiving: the precise modelling, the assumptions underlying it, even the composition of the team of experts advising it were unknown until recently. It required a fundamental shift in thinking to accept that the close examination, peer review and criticism that politics is programmed to avoid, are actually necessary preconditions for good science. It was a shift that never happened. This move served to shield the Government from scrutiny, it was merely “following the science.” And the science could not be criticised, because it was secret. Many asked for the workings to be made public. As a team of experts wrote in The Lancet on Mar 17:

Different scientists can reach different conclusions based on the same evidence, and small differences in assumptions can lead to large differences in model predictions.

Professor Roberto Trotta warned:

The scientific basis for such decisions ought to be open to public scrutiny, both to check its soundness and for the sake of transparency and accountability.

Plenty expressed surprise, even without seeing the workings. Dr Milan Dagli wrote to the Guardian:

We are told that the peak number of infections may be three months away. This astounds me considering that in China, the centre of the infection, confirmed cases peaked well within this timeframe.

And when some of the advice was published, many wondered why the Government had focused on such a narrow selection. The New Scientist warned:

The guidance seems to lean heavily on a single model of the outbreak, which some scientists suggest contains systematic errors.

The second, and perhaps most significant, factor was the calamitous policy decision on Mar 12, as the WHO was advising “test, test, test,” to stop testing in the community and restrict it to people who presented symptoms in a hospital setting. Whitty said:

It is no longer needed for us to identify every case.

Edinburgh University’s Devi Sridhar remarked:

I think it is incredibly surprising that testing and contact tracing is overlooked. Outbreaks begin and end with testing.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus agreed. He said:

You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is. Find, isolate, test and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission. Every case we find and treat limits the expansion of the disease.

From that moment on the Government was flying blind. It had its erroneous assumptions, about how the curve was behaving and how far away the peak was, and no way to check against those assumptions so it could course-correct. Maybe this was down to testing capacity. But if Hancock could drive capacity from 10k to 100k within April, he could have done so in February or March, had the decision been made. The only indicators the Government now had were external: hospital admissions, hospital testing, deaths, numbers in Italy and other countries. But in a disease with such a large percentage of asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic carriers and a median incubation period of 5.1 days, such indicators can’t tell you what is happening in the community at any given point. You are merely looking at the recent past, through a keyhole. When the lockdown came on Mar 23, it seemed a rushed reversal of policy and went against the messaging which preceded it. Only days before, Downing Street was briefing that there was “zero prospect” of a lockdown that would limit people’s movement. One possible explanation, of course, could be that the public did not respond to the earlier measures. But we know the opposite to be true. Both the Government and its scientific advisors have consistently said that public response, our compliance with measures, was actually above what they had expected. A leading figure remarked:

We have seen even larger reductions in normal behaviour, contact, than we would have dared hope.

Three events stand out to explain this sudden change. On Mar 16 the Imperial College London’s model predicted significantly higher numbers. Although the model has been heavily criticised since it may in time come to be seen as the vital alarm bell that saved many lives. On Mar 20 the first hospital in London declared a “critical incident” because it had run out of intensive care beds. On Mar 21, Italy broke the 6k-new-case barrier. This would actually turn out to be its absolute peak of new cases. We may never know conclusively, but it’s a reasonable assumption that this was a decisive week for Government thinking. It seems around this time that it realised the assumptions it had made, about the UK curve, how it would behave, when it would peak, how far behind Italy it was, had been wholly wrong.

But it was, in many ways, already too late. The scientists had kept emphasising in the early briefings how crucial to their “delay stage” it was to catch this thing exactly right, “on the inflection,” as they put it. How often they repeated that the spread would go slow for ages and then suddenly very fast, and how crucial it was “to catch it before the upswing begins.” Rewatching all those early briefings sequentially, I was left in little doubt that in the days leading up to Mar 23, when lockdown was introduced, this was a Government in panic. It was behind its own schedule in implementing its own plan. It had missed that elusive point of the inflection before the upswing began.

Was this down to a wrong assumption, bad advice, miscommunication? Was it simply what Johnson’s former director of communications Guto Harri describes as his libertarian tendency “to set the bar quite high to justify the state getting involved in people’s everyday lives” that proved a critical drag on the timing of measures being adopted? We may never know. So many things hang from this mistiming. Everything from the lack of earlier mobilisation to acquire everything from ventilators to PPE, the delay in expanding testing capacity, the empty Nightingale hospitals which were still opening weeks after the peak even as others stood empty or were closing. And of course the awful death toll. Researchers now claim the death toll in the UK could have been similar to Germany’s if it had acted earlier. Everything was geared towards being optimal, at the wrong time.

As a former market investigator, specialising in pharmaceutical and medical markets, my job was to sit across the table from experts, employed to prove conclusively what suited their client and assess the internal consistency of their model and the assumptions that go into them. I know modelling is imprecise and pliable. I publish the results of my investigation not to attack the scientists, epidemiologists, mathematicians and modellers for making mistakes. The science of prediction, especially when it comes to something so novel, is inexact, full of pitfalls. It is building a house of cards on quicksand.

I publish this retrospective to shed light on the “system errors” former WHO official Anthony Costello speaks of that “led us to have probably the highest death rates in Europe.” To criticise the fact that the scientific process, in this case, has been infected by politics. Not only was the advisory body infiltrated by political appointees, who were more than mere observers, we now know. But the scientists were publicly co-opted by the politicians, from the start. They were put on podia, either side, given rope. They had to sound sure back then. It was conducive to public confidence. Little room for nuance or scientific doubt. Their function was to calm people, to look like they knew precisely what they were doing. This Government didn’t “follow the science.” It cornered the science and bullied it into sounding certain, on a subject with no certainty. We deserve the honesty of scientific doubt. And now they have no option but to repeat the PM’s mantra:

We have taken the right steps at the right time.

Plainly, that isn’t true. To insist so is either denial or deception. Neither helps to restore failing public trust. Meanwhile, the Government approach remains mired in the same problems now that beset it in March. The same cornered scientists are made to say with equal confidence what the R rate is,when the margin of error is huge. The same Government that failed to procure PPE for nurses is urging teachers to trust it. The SAGE processes and advice still lack transparency. Contact-tracer recruitment and training is at the very least problematic. We have seen no results from the tracing app trial on the Isle of Wight. We know it will be delayed until June, and rumours are the Government may even be preparing to ditch it. This is a time when confidence in the Government’s actions could not be more important. As we emerge from lockdown, we need to be able to trust the information we are given, trust what the science says unspun, trust that the necessary safety precautions are in place, trust that assumptions are not left unchecked and decisions unchallenged. The Government adopting ‘a delay strategy’ was neither orthodox nor uncontroversial and was noticed, even internationally. Fortune remarked:

One European nation has stood apart. PM Boris Johnson moved the country to phase two, in which measures are taken to try to delay the peak of the outbreak. His actions have divided health experts, with several prominent experts criticizing the Government for doing too little, too late.

Effectively, most other nations fell into one of two camps. Countries like China, Italy and to a lesser extent France, Spain and Belgium, that did not have much warning, had to go pretty much straight into mitigation measures. Then there are countries like South Korea, Slovakia or Greece that implemented draconian containment measures proactively, perhaps even precipitously, to pause the pandemic and give themselves time. Our Government was alone in having a distinct ‘delay stage,’ and so I think it is not unreasonable to ask whether it succeeded. Britain stood quite solitary in believing that it could be so precise in a swirl of unknowns, that it could intervene so surgically, manipulate the ascending curve and push the peak weeks or months to the future. Our Government was alone in believing it could be so clever as to allow just enough transmission, but not too much. The former Conservative leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson complained about the Scottish Government recently to Sky News:

If we can’t see the workings, it’s hard to assess if something is justified or not. You want to do things differently? Fine. But if that has consequences, then you have to answer for them.

I agree.

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