5 February 2022: Looking back on Covid; Gallego rising; Preston’s final words; A strange vote; & Other stuff.

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Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable
Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

Covid

The Great Retrospective and the Great Reckoning . . .  See the article below.

Cosas de España/Galiza

The government is said to be planning to extend the Covid certificate system until end June next year. On the other hand, it seems we won’t have to wear masks outdoors from next week. It’s a start.

Romanians have for some time been the largest foreign contingent in Spain but, in recent years, they’ve been leaving in droves. No idea why. But I guess it’ll leave Moroccans in pole position.

I get the impression that Gallego is featuring more and more in our local newspaper’s articles, at the expense of Spanish. Life in Spain makes you rather sceptical, so I naturally wonder if this is because the numerous ‘ghost subscriptions’ of the municipality give our Galician nationalist mayor considerable leverage.

The title of the last chapter of Paul Preston’s long book is The Triumph of Corruption and Incompetence 2004-2018. It’s essentially a litany of the many huge corruption cases of the last 20 years that I’ve read about and tried hard to understand the details of. Usually failing*. And it’s also about political incompetence. Most evidently in the counter-productive handling of the the Catalan problem by the hardline PP administration of the (very corrupt) Mariano Rajoy. Here is Preston’s final paragraph, which is hard to dispute. It was written in the light of a vote of no confidence in the Rajoy government and the ensuing general election which put the PSOE socialist party back in power but also saw the new far-right party, Vox, gain 11% of the votes and 24 seats – after campaigning on an extreme anti-Catalan, anti-immigration and anti-feminism line:

Much had changed since 1982. Juan Carlos de Borbón was no longer national hero. The Partido Popular had ceased to be the party which had alternated in power with the PSOE for nearly four decades. The PSOE was only precariously back in power. Both had been undone by a combination of corruption and arrogance. The lack of clear boundaries between the political elite and the judiciary – which had, of course, been most scandalously the case during the Franco years – had induced a sense of invulnerability and a sense that, after the institutionalised corruption of the Franco dictatorship, it was the turn of others to derive the profits of power. In that sense, the culture of greed was a reaction to the pillage enjoyed by the Francoist elite. After the transition, the prodigious economic growth under the PSOE, boosted by entry into the EEC, facilitated considerable inward investment. Vast sums were thus available to be used for speculation, which was further encouraged by financial deregulation measures consequent upon Spain’s entry into the European Community. Corruption was also a response to the sheer expense of democratic politics in the age of television and mass media. Some of the most notorious early corruption scandals were initially a response to the needs of political party electoral financing. Of course, once the money began to flow in, some of it was diverted into private pockets at every level of the political pyramid, from the throne down to the lowliest ayuntamiento[town hall]. With glacial slowness, the judiciary is dealing with corruption. Whether anyone can resolve endemic political incompetence remains to be seen. Until it is, the social consequences of both will continue to divide Spanish politics. 

Anyway, right on cue, something very odd happened in the parliament on Thursday and here’s one despairing take on it. While here’s Lenox Napier’s more amused perspective. In a nutshell, it seems like all the pre-vote success of the PP’s Dirty tricks Department was undone by one of their own sitting at home and pressing the wrong button. Cue screams of irregularity from the would-be cheats, whose taste of success was but fleeting, if joyfully greeted. God works in mysterious ways, the PSOE leader might well have said, as he gave the thumbs up sign so disliked but the author of this article from The Corner:- 

You should be able to see the Financial Times on this development here.

The video cited in LN’s article shows both sides of the political divide wildly applauding themselves for voting. Does this bizarre behaviour happen elsewhere?

* It’s interesting to see this line in Preston’s Acknowledgments: In particular I’d like to thank . . . Paul Heywood for help in understanding the mechanics of corruption. Confused as I regularly am, I’d like to get similar enlightenment from Mr Heywood. Who is undoubtedly this chap.

Portugal

The leader of Portugal’s surging far-right party – Chega – says he wants to make the system tremble. Oh, dear. Possibly a reflection of disgust at Spanish-style high-level political corruption there.

The UK/Quotes of the Day

Boris Johnson’s main contribution to public life has been to make almost everyone disbelieve everything he says: John Crace, The Guardian

Even when he tries to feign empathy – impossible for a shameless sociopath – he can’t even manage to mouth an insincere apology. He is the man that has never been able to say sorry: Ditto

Spanish

Un jamelgo: A nag. A horse, not a mother-in-law.

Finally . . .

 Something with the ring of truth . . .

For new reader(s): If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here

THE ARTICLE

The lockdown establishment will never accept that its disastrous policy failed. New research suggesting that shutdowns made little difference to mortality is likely to fall on deaf ears: Fraser Nelson, The Telegraph

We haven’t heard much from Sir Patrick Vallance recently. A few weeks ago he wrote an article extolling the reliability of Sage modellers. They speak “scientific truth to power,” he said. He angrily rejected rumours of any negativity bias. Dozens of scenarios had been calculated for omicron deaths, he said, with a huge range of variables. What I’d love to ask him is why, if there was no bias, did every single one of these scenarios end up overstating the threat? Why were they wrong, so wildly wrong? Again?

This isn’t about parading Sir Patrick around Trafalgar Square with a placard of incorrect Sage graphs around his neck. The important question is whether he even thinks there was a problem, whether Sage is capable of error correction – and what he thinks about the fact that the country was very nearly locked down on what turned out to be seriously duff advice. Given that it could happen again, and at any time, are lessons being learned? Or are our scientific advisers still in collective denial?

In an era where all our lives are decided by the quality of epidemic modelling, the ability to scrutinise advice is vital. But Sage models are compiled within a wall of secrecy, protected from scrutiny. Their full figures are never published, nor is the code for them released. This makes error correction far less likely and constitutes a massive flaw in our democracy. “The scary thing is that Vallance has had more power than any of us,” says one Cabinet member.

But what if the error goes far deeper? What if lockdown itself was also built on a premise that turns out to be false? At the time, it was a huge, untested experiment. And two years on, the results are in – from countries, states and regions all over the world. One of the leading universities in the United States, Johns Hopkins, in Maryland, has just collated the data and its conclusion is startling: “We find no evidence that lockdowns, school closures, border closures, and limiting gatherings have had a noticeable effect on Covid-19 mortality.” In other words: an abject failure.

If true, this would be devastating. It would suggest that much of the pain lockdowns caused – the children denied education, ruined businesses, mental health issues, the undiagnosed cancers – was avoidable. And for what? The Johns Hopkins study finds that overall, lockdowns reduced Covid mortality by just 0.2 per cent. “Lockdown policies are ill-founded,” it concluded, “and should be rejected as a pandemic policy instrument.”

This isn’t to say that people should (or would) have carried on as normal without lockdowns. The great flaw in the theory was the failure to realise that, even without stay-at-home orders, behaviour adjusts. People hunker down. Mobile phone data now shows that Brits were doing this, even more than Swedes, before the lockdown order was given. The big post-Covid question is whether, in a high-information democracy, lockdowns are needless because people can be trusted to judge the risk, see the news unfold and act independently.

Might this new study find its way to Sir Patrick’s inbox? And might there be a committee somewhere in Whitehall carefully looking at this evidence to see if it is right? You can bet not. This is about politics, not science, and that has been the case for some time. A government that imposed three lockdowns – with huge financial and human cost – will have no interest in studies saying it made a calamitous error. Nor will Labour be saying so, given that Sir Keir Starmer was even more keen on lockdowns than the Tories.

At some point, politicians become so wedded to policies that they can never allow themselves to believe they were errors. Tony Blair will never accept that the Iraq war was a mistake, just as Margaret Thatcher never disowned the poll tax. But both had strong opponents, providing robust democratic challenge. This time, lockdown – in spite of its lack of scientific evidence – was backed by Left and Right, Holyrood, Westminster, Cardiff Bay. It is precisely in such consensus that the biggest mistakes in politics are most likely because there is no challenge, no inquiry, no one to identify mistakes.

This matters because there will, soon, be a new Covid variant. Genomic sequencing means we’ll start to detect new pathogens that might have gone unnoticed even a decade ago. If so, we’ll face the same questions: what to do? Can the healthcare system cope? The risk is that, having cried wolf so many times, Sage would not be believed even if its models were right. Track record matters. A recent Swedish book about the country’s refusal to lock down uncovered emails from health officials saying – in effect – that since Imperial’s Professor Neil Ferguson and his team got swine flu so badly wrong, their figures for Sweden’s Covid deaths would probably be incorrect too. (So it was to prove.)

Given Ferguson’s record, it was never clear why so much store was placed on his original suggestion that lockdown could potentially reduce Covid deaths by up to 98 per cent. At the time, even Sir Patrick and Sir Chris Whitty didn’t buy it. Both rejected lockdown – then realised, to their horror, that they risked being accused of causing an extra 20,000 deaths by failing to do so a week earlier. Even this figure came from Ferguson, and has since been debunked.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that our liberty, collectively, depends on Sir Patrick (or his successor) putting together a team capable of providing better epidemiological modelling.

A new group should be created, senior to Sage, that would check everything given then add in economic and social effects, to judge the overall effect of lockdowns. And ask basic questions: do these models assume people would not change their behaviour anyway? If not, why miss out such a basic point?

Denmark’s models got omicron right because they did adjust for behaviour. One bank, JP Morgan, got Britain’s omicron forecasts right because it used South African data. Britain has plenty of scientists who could have done the same – but they don’t seem to be in the right place. Next time, they should be.

The lessons on how to handle the next pandemic are all there: we just need a government capable of learning them.

One comment

  1. “A new group should be created, senior to Sage, that would check everything given then add in economic and social effects, to judge the overall effect of lockdowns. And ask basic questions: do these models assume people would not change their behaviour anyway? If not, why miss out such a basic point?”
    This group already exists. It has been tasked – historically – with just those tasks. It failed as it has always failed and for ongoing historical reasons. The group is our elected parliamentarians and the reason (singular) is our inability to elect thoughtful, moral, intelligent human beings to that group. ‘Twas ever thus…

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