Dom and subs
Psychodrama city, don't need none today
Yesterday saw the latest performance of one of the longest-running dramas in town.appeared at the UK COVID Inquiry, and was questioned for hours. But I couldn't help feeling that we'd seen it all before. And in fact, we had.
In many ways, this felt very much like a slightly unnecessary reboot (Matrix Resurrections style) of Cummings' own appearance at the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee back in May 2021. We didn’t learn a lot yesterday that we didn’t know then, for all that the political correspondents tried to breathlessly repackage “revelations” about Boris Johnson not understanding life expectancy that we’d known about since July 2021.
But to me, Cummings’ appearance was actually a remake of an even earlier drama. The 2019 Channel 4 drama Brexit: The Uncivil War was bookended by exactly this scene. Here, Benedict Cumberbatch hauls out his best Cummings mannerisms, and is grilled about his perceived misdemeanours around Facebook advertising at a fictitious Public Inquiry into Brexit. I couldn’t help feeling that this part of the film represented some kind of wish fulfilment from Remainers, longing for this scene to happen in real life.
And so perhaps yesterday’s appearance is best viewed through the lens of our still-ongoing national Brexit drama, as a kind of second-order wish fulfilment, making up for the fact that we never got to see the Cumberbatch scene for real. Perhaps I’m the one being conspiratorial now, but it’s hard not to notice that Independent SAGE was set up as a campaigning body only four months after we left the EU, by the same Carole Cadwalladr whose framing of the referendum as a story about misuse of data science helped shape Brexit: The Uncivil War.
But actually there’s a problem with the popular narrative about this. Aswrote perceptively as far back as May 2020, the story of Cummings and COVID doesn’t work the way that people want it to. People who regard him as a villain for his role in the 2016 referendum assume by default that he must be playing the same part here too: that SAGE and scientists were crying out for lockdown from the start of March, while Cummings used his Machiavellian genius to thwart them so that he could pursue his dreams of herd immunity.
But here’s the issue. I know that Cummings is good at manipulating the media, and making sure his own side of the story gets across. But it seems very clear to me from all the evidence I’ve seen that he was as keen as anyone to take stricter measures in March 2020, and that if his thumb was on the scales it was pushing the Prime Minister towards, not away from, lockdown. While the ISAGE side of the argument foment theories about Cummings interfering in scientific decisions, it’s well documented that his role included bringing people like Fields Medallist Tim Gowers into the discussion, and promoting Gowers’ calculations as a means to encourage politicians and civil servants to take the crisis seriously. If he was meddling, he was meddling in the direction that these people wanted.
And for all that members of Independent SAGE want to spin it another way, this email from Cummings doesn’t read to me like a power grab for nefarious means: it looks to me like someone in a very senior role frustrated by subversions of the decision-making process and inefficiencies in the system, and coming up with a way to improve it. In other words, he was doing his job.
In fact, I’m pretty frustrated by the COVID Inquiry as a whole, and yesterday’s grilling of Cummings in particular. Because of the fact that the whole thing doesn’t seem able to keep to time (witnesses keep getting bumped later in the schedule), most of the discussion yesterday involved February and March 2020, a period of time at which we had little data and there was great uncertainty. In that sense, some of the mistakes we made at that stage were perhaps unavoidable. Whereas it feels to me like many of the unforced errors in our COVID response came later in autumn and winter and, despite the fact that the winter wave saw a larger death toll than the spring, these issues were hardly discussed yesterday for lack of time.
For example, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether the Prime Minister should have spent his February half term working on COVID: but the SPI-M-O statement of February 17th hardly indicates a consensus from the scientists themselves that there was great urgency at this stage (“a realistic possibility” is SAGE code for “just under a 50% chance”, they are talking about things starting to go wrong “in the coming weeks” not right now).
It’s extremely obvious with hindsight that this was too optimistic, but it’s not clear to me that it would have been reasonable and proportionate based on this paperwork for the Prime Minister to be clearing his desk to work on this problem at this stage. And it’s not like Boris was elected for his own data science skills and his ability to code up an SIR model to kick the tyres on the assumptions.
Whereas as I described here, along with other suggestions for the Inquiry to tackle, a much more reasonable question is why the Prime Minister (and the COVID response as a whole) was geared for so long to the idea of five-day doubling when it’s likely that the figure was closer to three. That to me is the killer difference. Over the course of that month (from February half term to Imperial Report 9 in March), if you think there are six doublings when there are actually ten then the pandemic will be sixteen times bigger than you expected. Given that the strategy seemed to be to gain some immunity without overwhelming the NHS, this is a vast difference in the scale of the problem.
In the same way, there are interesting questions about lateral flow tests and their speed of deployment that were raised in Cummings’ witness statement that have hardly been discussed at all in the media. This an example of an intervention that could have been a game-changer if it were available in September 2020, as Cummings had hoped. It feels to me a far better use of the time of the Inquiry and the media to understand why it never happened, rather than imagining that if only the endless tweaks to the tier system could only have been applied slightly differently then we could have avoided autumn and winter lockdowns altogether.
But to me, that’s still one of the frustrations about the whole story. Some specialist health and science correspondents are still doing a great job of reporting the Inquiry (for example the BBC’s Jim Reed is doing excellent work). But as at the time so much of the framing comes through the UK’s political correspondents, keen to present it all as the latest instalment of Westminster psychodrama. Who swore at whom in a WhatsApp? Who tried to get someone else fired? Who fell out with their old friends?
Instead of treating COVID like an episode of Love Island: Aftersun, this could have been a chance to learn from the kinds of systems failures that Cummings loves to discuss, to understand exactly how we could have done better, in the ways that I describe and others. Perhaps this will happen in the end, but at the moment it all feels like a pretty funny way to get there.
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